Friday, October 12, 2007

"These luminosities are too low-burning and evanescent," or, Edmund Wilson Week Continues!

A the end of the week, I'm in the same spot where I began it: still reading through the first of the two new Library of America volumes of Edmund Wilson's literary essays. I'm enjoying reading Wilson as much for his style as for his insight. He writes long sentences that perpetually shift and redirect themselves, subordinate clause leading to subordinate clause—perhaps interrupted by an interjection—leading to another clause until, at the end, the reader emerges from the thicket of thought to see, just ahead, clear and shining and difficult to dispute, Wilson's point.

Here, for example, is his somewhat arch take on Hart Crane, from the May 11, 1927 issue of the New Republic:
Mr. Crane has a most remarkable style, a style that is strikingly original--almost something like a great style, if there could be such a thing as a great style which was, not merely not applied to a great subject, but not, so far as one can see, applied to any subject at all.
Not to appear to claim too much for myself, but if you've read much of this blog, I think you'll see why I find Wilson's prose congenial. It might even seem that I've used him as a model, but much as I enjoy his writing, I discovered it long after I'd discovered (and begun to abuse) the comma, semicolon, and all the glorious constructions they enable.

However, just as Wilson is sometimes wrong in his judgments, he is also sometimes guilty of an offense with which Stacey frequently charges me: he writes sentences that, however clear, are just too damned long. Take this monstrosity, from earlier in the piece quoted above:
Mr. E .A. Robinson's Tristram has been extravagantly admired in some quarters; but, though it is undoubtedly more easily readable than his other Arthurian poems, though it contains a better story more energetically told and though it is by no means poor in those flashes of moral vision that make the weaker poems of Robinson more interesting than the strongest of many of his contemporaries, it seems to me that these luminosities are too low-burning and evanescent to justify the whole of a long narrative that reads at its worst like a movie scenario and at its best like a novel of adultery of the nineties, full of long well-bred conversations of which the metaphysical archness sounds peculiarly incongruous in the moths of the heroes of medieval legend.
There really ought to be a break for cocktails in there somewhere around "moral vision"; otherwise, it seems cruel to ask anyone to endure the forced march that follows "low-burning and evanescent."

Those overstuffed nightmares are relatively rare, however, and more than made up for by lines like these further comments on Hart Crane, which benefit from Wilson’s habit of delaying the payoff:
His poetry is a disponible, as they say about French troops. We are eagerly waiting to see to which part of the front he will move it: just at present it is killing time in the cafes behind the lines.

None of this would matter, however, if Wilson weren’t an interesting and acute reader of literature. The conclusion of his “Poe at Home and Abroad,” for example, both situates Edgar Allan Poe and notes the sources of his power:
It was Poe who sent out the bridge from the romanticism of the early nineteenth century to the symbolism of the later; and symbolism, as M. Seylaz points out, though scarcely any of its original exponents survive, now permeates literature. We must not, however, expect that Poe should be admired or understood in his capacity of suspension across this chasm by critics who are hardly aware that either of its banks exist.

Earlier in that piece, which is from the December 8, 1926 issue of the New Republic, Wilson writes:
[T]he real significance of Poe’s short stories does not lie in what they purport to relate. Many are confessedly dreams; and, as with dreams, though they seem absurd, their effect on our emotions is serious. And even those that pretend to the logic and the exactitude of actual narratives are, nevertheless, also dreams.
Who knew that Wilson could write like Borges?

As interesting and thoughtful as Wilson’s piece on Poe is, it’s still not as pithy or unforgettable as this dual description of Poe and Twain by V. S. Pritchett, who these days may be my favorite critic:
Everything really American, really non-English, comes out of that pair of spiritual derelicts, those two scarecrow figures with their half-lynched minds.
Though "spiritual derelicts" is satisfyingly apt, I will admit to being a bit vague about what Pritchett means by “half-lynched minds.” But the phrase does possess a certain emotional power and rightness not unlike that achieved by the best of the aforementioned Symbolists, who, as Wilson explains:
contrive[d] to communicate emotions by images whose connection with the subject and whose relevance to one another we may not always understand.

Pritchett’s description stands in the shadow of Hemingway’s mannered, six-words-too-long assessment of Twain’s greatest book:
All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.
Hemingway's line is such a commonplace now as to have lost any force it might once have had, but Pritchett’s, eerie and sidelong, retains its power. With one sentence, he changed forever how I will approach both Twain and Poe. In my reading so far, Wilson hasn't delivered any judgment quite so stiletto-sharp, but he's opened up new ways for me to think about writers I enjoy. To a critic who can do that, I'll gladly raise my glass; it's what all of us who write about books aim for, and any day in which we succeed can surely be counted a good one.

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