Sunday, October 14, 2007

"Vaudeville has alway been an American specialty," or, Edmund Wilson Week concludes

Earlier this week I gave Edmund Wilson the edge in moral standing over V. S. Naipaul, because Wilson's pointed critiques of the work of his friends Ring Lardner and Scott Fitzgerald were delivered when the men were alive and could respond--either with anger or, what was surely Wilson's hope, better writing--while Naipaul's dismissal of his friend Anthony Powell's work appeared only after Powell was safely dead. To be fair, therefore, I should write about another piece in the first Library of American volume of Wilson's critical work, "The All-Star Literary Vaudeville," which he published anonymously in a multi-authored collection called American Criticism (1926). In it, Wilson runs through seemingly every working writer of the period, totting up their many faults and their relatively few successes. His opening disclaimer, that
he feels a certain human sympathy with all [the American literary movement's] manifestations, even with those of which, artistically, he disapproves
and that he has,
for his own satisfaction, for the appeasement of his own conscience, made an attempt to draw up a balance-sheet of his opinions in regard to his contemporaries, not merely in disparagement of those whom he considers rather overrated but in justice to those he admires,
falls a little flat when cloaked in anonymity. Say what you will about the reviewing approach of Dale Peck, but he at least signs his name to his bloodbaths.

Wilson further compromises himself with the closing sentence of that initial paragraph:
If he succeeds in disturbing one editor or reviewer, in an atmosphere where now for some time politeness and complacency have reigned, he will feel that he has not written in vain.
That stated desire to provoke seems even more to require that Wilson be up-front about his identity; if he felt, as he apparently did, that the world of reviewing had grown too comfortable, then he ought to have been willing to accept some of that discomfort as the price of honesty. That he wasn't is understandable, but at this distance of years it's difficult to excuse, both on his part and on the part of his editor. (Alongside of all this is the question of just who Wilson would have fooled. I may have to pick up a biography to see how quickly he was outed--the piece certainly reads like Wilson's usual work.)

It's easy to see why the essay, properly attributed, would have made for uncomfortable cocktail parties. In a note to The Shores of Light, the collection in which it was reprinted in 1952, Wilson mentions that Maxwell Bodenheim described him as "a fatuous policeman, menacingly swinging his club," and it's hard to disagree--even though Wilson also notes that he "qualified or softened" some of his initial judgments for the reissue. To take a few:
Dos Passos is ridden by adolescent resentments and seems given to documenting life from the outside rather than knowing it by intimate experience.

Sinclair Lewis, with a vigorous satiric humor, has brought against certain aspects of American civilization an indictment that has its local importance, but, when one has been through Main Street and Babbitt, amusing though they certainly are, one is not left with any appetite to reader further novels by Lewis: they have beauty neither of style nor of form and they tell us nothing new about life.

To follow the moral disintegration of Hurstwood in Sister Carrie is to suffer all the agonies of being out of work without being rewarded by the aesthetic pleasure which art is supposed to supply.

Vachel Lindsay's best poems . . . are spoiled by the incurable cheapness and looseness which are rampant in the rest of his work.

[Eugene] O'Neill is hysterically embittered.

Robert Frost has a thin but authentic vein of poetic sensibility; but I find him excessively dull, and he certainly writes very poor verse.

H.D., like Carl Sandburg, writes well, but, like Sandburg, there is not much in her.

Even H. L. Mencken, whom Wilson claims is "underrated as a writer of English prose" and whom he calls "perhaps a prophet rather than a critic," comes under fire for his ideas, which are "neither many nor subtle."

Yet once we get over the shock of Wilson's baldly brutal phrases, his opinions hold up pretty well eighty years later. As an Illinoisan, I'm supposed to leap to the defense of Dreiser, Sandburg, and Lindsay, but the only one of the three I've ever found congenial is Sandburg, and even there I have to agree with Wilson, who locates Sandburg's appeal in his skill with language, while lamenting that "his ideas seem rather obvious, his emotions rather meager." I can't speak to his assessments of H. D. or Dos Passos, not having read them, but his take on Sinclair Lewis is dead-on, succinctly marking the difference between the satire of Lewis and the richer, more pointed, and better-written work of Evelyn Waugh. Moreover, two of the writers whom Wilson chooses to single out for unmitigated praise, Edith Wharton and Stephen Crane, have only seen their reputations grow since the '20s.

Wilson does make some mistakes, of course. Frost he misjudges--I could see how one might deem some of Frost's story-like poems as "poor verse," but I don't understand how he could be viewed as dull. Wilson undervalues Marianne Moore, seeming not to get her organic strangeness, while Edna St. Vincent Millay (with whom he'd conducted a disastrously passionate affair) he overrates slightly, calling her "perhaps one of the most important of our poets." Edward Arlington Robinson, meanwhile, whom he heralds as "one of the poets of our time most likely to survive as an American classic," has survived, but feels remarkably dated; in fact, it's hard to see how he wouldn't have already seemed a bit musty in the late '20s.

What I find most surprising in "The All-Star Literary Vaudeville," however, is just how many of the poets and writers of the period have survived. Very few of the artists Wilson notes are entirely unfamiliar, and the majority of them would be recognized by even a relatively casual fan of American literature. Wilson's individual assessments--correct or not--aren't as interesting in themselves as they are as a whole, the record of a period of impressive creative flowering as it appeared, in the moment, to a particularly astute reader whose general interests and tastes we already know. Quibble with Wilson as I will over his failure of nerve, I'm glad to have this record. And his dazzling closing paragraph, a perfect example of his way with brief, effective descriptions, is so good as to almost make me forgive him his anonymity:
When time shall have weeded out our less important writers, it is probably that those who remain will give the impression of a literary vaudeville: H. L. Mencken hoarse with preaching in his act making fun of preachers; Edna St. Vincent Millay, the soloist, a contralto with deep notes of pathos; Sherwood Anderson holding his audience with naive but disquieting bedtime stories; Theodore Dreiser with his newspaper narrative of commonplace scandals and crimes and obituaries of millionaire, in which the reporter astonishes the readers by being rash enough to try to tell the truth; T. S. Eliot patching from many cultures a dazzled and variegated disguise for the shrinking and scrupulous soul of a hero out of Henry James.
And if those writers are the vaudeville acts, Wilson places himself in the role of their emcee, or possibly their clown. I can't help but imagine him typing that last period, then wiping his brow and taking a tiny little bow.

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