Chapter V  Edmund Wilson

 

“I find,” Edmund Wilson wrote in 1960, “that 1 am a man of the twenties. I am still expecting something exciting: drinks, animated conversation, gaiety, brilliant writing, uninhibited exchange of ideas.” 1 But Wilson did not always recall the decade that way. it had been “a squalid period,” he wrote in 1956, and some years before, in a tribute to Paul Rosenfeld, he wrote, “Among the few things that I really look back upon with anything like nostalgia in the confusion and waste of the twenties are such conversations as those with Paul when we would sit in his corner room...or walk back and forth at night between my place and his.” 2

In a few of the essays and sketches that he wrote in the Twenties, Wilson portrayed himself as a man almost comically out of place in the New York milieu of parties, nightclubs and speakeasies. In one, he describes himself sitting at a corner table in a speakeasy reading Persius while E. E. Cummings entertains a group of loudmouthed customers at the bar. 3 And while Wilson was quite capable of enjoying himself in such an atmosphere, and even of being the life of the party, party scenes in his 1929 novel, I Thought of Daisy, and in the later long story “The Princess With the Golden Hair,” which also takes place in the Twenties, are. almost always tense or stupid, and often end in disaster.

The narrator of I Thought of Daisy says of his old college teacher Dr. Grosbeake, modelled on Christian Gauss, Wilson’s teacher at Princeton, that upon one who had been living in New York “he produced a curious and gratifying impression: it was as if one were surprised and rejoiced, after seeing a horde of depersonalized masks, at finding someone who possessed a face,” a face that had the look of “having been carved by hand out of some very sound kind of wood by a woodcarver of the days before machinery.” 4 The satisfactoriness of such men as Dr. Grosbeake, Christian Gauss, Alfred Rolfe, Wilson’s Greek master at the Hill School, John Jay Chapman, and Paul Rosenfeld, to all of whom Wilson paid tribute, inhered in their old-fashioned characters, in their kindness, principled tolerance, curiosity, verve and innocence—not naivete, but a freedom from the cynicism and falseness which for Wilson, in certain of his moods at least, characterized the Twenties. 5

As a literary critic, Wilson was a man of the Twenties. He had undergone the complete course of the lost generation, including a more direct and lengthier experience of the butchery of the Western Front than most of his contemporaries. He was the first critic of his friends F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Dos Passos, E.E. Cummings and Ernest Hemingway, and perhaps the most exacting, comprehending, and fairest they would ever have. Yet Wilson’s cultural criticism reveals that there was a sense in which he stood somewhat apart from the decade, a fascinated and perceptive outsider. In his criticism of the popular arts, contained in the “Follies” section of The American Earthquake, Wilson’s angle of awareness is rather like that of a Frenchman or an Englishman long resident in the United States who sees and ponders the significance of things with which a native is so familiar that he is not conscious of them. Wilson brought the same seriousness to a review of the latest Ziegfield Follies production, or even the floorshow at Texas Guinan’s saloon, that he brought to a new volume of poetry or a novel. He was stimulated by these things, and often enough they won from him a provisional sympathy and even admiration, but there is also in his cultural criticism an undertone of melancholy, a sense of dislocation and loss too disciplined ever to be thought of as wistful, but poignant nevertheless. It was as if a younger and tougher Van Wyck Brooks had determined to give the new American scene a thorough look, to discover what was good there along with what was bad—what was good on its own terms, not necessarily his—and never to make the mistake of recoiling in priggish distaste, whatever his initial reaction might be.

Wilson turned his ambivalence toward the decade into a critical asset. Never satisfied to permit that ambivalence to exist at the emotional level as a welter of prejudices in fruitless conflict, Wilson patiently sorted out its elements, examined them with skill, and incorporated them into his cultural criticism in such a way as to give to it a kind of controlled intellectual tension that is not to be found in the work of any other critic of the period. To compare Wilson’s cultural criticism with a work like The Seven Lively Arts by his friend Gilbert Seldes is to see immediately the difference between discovery and the incoherence which discovery often provokes, and real critical penetration.

Wilson, all of this is to say, was both more and less than a member in good standing of the lost generation. It is instructive that while Lewis Mumford saw Wilson as a member of that band of cultural shirkers, Matthew Josephson, from his diametrically opposed perspective, thought of Wilson as a member of the “Uplift School,” among whom he included Van Wyck Brooks, Waldo Frank and Paul Rosenfeld. 6 In fact, Wilson maintained friendships with members of both camps but stood somewhat apart from each. He was therefore well situated, and well suited in temperament, to gauge the strengths and weaknesses, the sense and folly, of both, as he did in two masterful imaginary dialogues or “discordant encounters” in 1924. In one, he confronted Brooks with Fitzgerald, and the results were ambiguous. Each was gently chided, Fitzgerald for his gushing naïveté and unconscious condescension, and Brooks for his withdrawing shyness, at once apologetic and stubborn. In the other encounter, however, there was no mistaking where Wilson’s sympathies lay. The reasonable but demurringly dubious Paul Rosenfeld was pitted against a militant and scornful Matthew Josephson, who was full of bluster and all for “vulgar life, unrestrained, taut-nerved, hurtling out with its howling trombones in its great gaudy circus parade toward the unknown mechanical future.” 7

Wilson had indicated his own skepticism toward such celebrations of the machine age in an essay two years before. 8 Dada, Wilson explained, was a “violent, rather sophomoric movement” that had recently captured the imaginations of some of the more able young French writers. Disillusioned with their own culture, they had succumbed to uncritical admiration for America. This French fascination with things modern and American was understandable, but it was also, to an American, wearying. “In the country where you live”, an American was tempted to say to them, “

 

[A] dynamo is still a novelty; in your eyes, accustomed to low-built cities—‘made to the measure of man,’ to outlines, precise and gentle, that never obtrude themselves... the harsh and bulky forms of New York, with their giant angles and edges, seem to satisfy your sense with a violence which your own country cannot supply...

 

This American directness and eagerness for the new must appear very attractive to the Parisian, Wilson conceded, but he would warn the Parisian that in America

 

many souls have gone starving on that very belle simplicité that you admire so much in the skyscraper. And if the Parisian were to rejoin that the skyscraper was at least an authentic expression of the age, not a slavish imitation of the eighteenth century past as everything in France seemed to be, the American might reply “I am not quite so sure...

 

The eighteenth century imitation meant at least that the French remembered and respected the eighteenth century, whereas in America it had been quite forgotten. That century of America’s birth

 

founded our literature, invented our social ideals, produced the political philosophers who gave strength and dignity to the Republic; but among us to-day you can find no-one to imitate either its architecture or its ideals. The buildings are flattening us out; the machines are tearing us to pieces; our ideals are formed by, the movies and our taste by the posters and the jazz...

 

All of these things an American might say, and they would be true enough. But they would not represent the entirety of his feelings.

As much as the narrator of I Thought of Daisy admires Dr. Grosbeake, for example, and as attractive as he finds the domestic felicity of the Grosbeake home to be, he is unable to imagine himself leading such a life. While he often detests New York, he suspects that his detestation of it, and of the way of life of his friends there, is really “tiresome.” At one point, in a mood of wilful gloom, he even permits himself to feel a certain scorn for Grosbeake and the “domesticity in which he seemed buried,” and wonders whether the professor’s aptitude for metaphysics is not compensation for a “certain ineptitude at dealing with the affairs of the practical world.” 9 The same faint scorn for the contemplative life is to be found in Wilson’s portrayal of Van Wyck Brooks in the Brooks-Fitzgerald encounter. To be a literary journalist in the city, in daily touch with all developments in the arts, was as necessary to one side of Wilson’s personality as it was at times distasteful to the other. Then, too, there were the city’s pleasures--those parties that he depicted so negatively but attended anyway, the Winter Garden burlesque, to which he had been introduced by E. E. Cummings, and, of course, women.

Wilson felt the bleakness and squalor of the industrial landscape with an intensity that only one other writer of his generation, John Dos Passos, seems to have shared. The nightmarishness of industrialism is vividly conveyed in the long satirical poem—really a straightforward satire set down in poetical form—entitled “The Death of an Efficiency Expert.” 10 The poem concerns the career of one Edgar, a business-class idealist and fool, who upon graduation from college becomes an efficiency expert in the Hutchins and Blotto Candy Kitchens, an immense factory overlooking the New Jersey marshes. At the outset of the poem, Edgar is exalted by “the thought of Industry,/ So swollen and rapid a tide,/ Sweeping the country along to Prosperity/ On its mighty flood of Production.” Fatuously devoted to what he conceives to be a selfless ideal of “service,” Edgar is caught up in a corrupt and hypocritical system of welfare capitalism that debases and exhausts its managers as well as its worker-victims. His world is shattered when one day a visiting devil permits him to peer into the soul of a factory girl he supervises. Edgar is dismayed to find that the girl’s soul has no color in it and no light; it is like a tank at the aquarium, a grey pool containing curious dark shapes “not unlike fish and sea-weed.” The great buildings and factories, which Edgar had thought “monuments to heroic enterprise,” now fill him with horror. He sees for the first time a country forever tarnished with “a dingy haze of dampness and smoke.” The images of industrial squalor now crowd upon one another:

 

The excoriation of rail-road tracks, bristling with cranes....

Yards cluttered with metallic refuse; exact piles of rusty pipe; congeries of iron octopus-trunks and nondescript lopped-off tentacles....

 

The one touch of color and life in this landscape is provided by the sign boards,’ with their advertisements for hotels and underclothes, bacon and ketchup, cigarettes and safety razors, all the paraphernalia of industrial life,

 

     and, not least, the Toothsome Chocolate Bars of Hutchins & Blotto, proclaimed with the face of an enormous girl, smiling like a shark.

 

As Edgar looks upon the city of Newark, on

 

the dirtiness of the streets, the dull colours of the city, the harshness of human works indifferent to cleanness and brightness, the overwhelming impression of life grown heavy and sordid and empty behind grudging dusty windows, in thousands of brick-walled rooms,

 

he feels, for the first time, “that Death/ Was blackening and rotting the city.” After being visited by a second devil, who tells him that all this injustice and dehumanization will probably end in revolution, Edgar throws himself into a Schlegemann-Applegate Electric Filler and Slicer, a wonderful new machine, and is made into candy bars with “an admirable precision.”

The vision of industrial bleakness in “The Death of an Efficiency Expert` suggests The Waste-Land, published in the same year, and it is possible that “dusty windows, in thousands of brick-walled rooms” is an unconscious imitation of a similar line in Eliot’s earlier “Preludes”. But Wilson’s central debt in the poem is indicated in the persistent marine imagery of fish, sea-weed, sharks, and octopus tentacles, suggesting an existence under industrialism that is sluggish and opaque, submerged in the troubled depths of the unconscious. (In the party scene in I Thought of Daisy, the drunken guests seem to the narrator to be like “drift-wood, dead fish, and seaweed left behind by the tide on the shore.”) 11

This debt was to Van Wyck Brooks, not only to his famous characterization of America as a “vast Sargasso Sea—a prodigious welter of unconscious life,” but more specifically to the city imagery at the outset of Letters and Leadership—the deserted crosstown thoroughfare like “a far-thrown tentacle,” and the tumbledown tenements “left like the sea-wrack at the ebb of the tide.” 12 The Brooksian note is sounded strongly in one of Wilson’s finest sketches, titled “On This Site Will Be Erected.” 13 The sketch illustrates the truth of Brooks’ observation that when things grow old in America they         become discards. But whereas Brooks insists that such things simply become “worn out,” Wilson suggests that some things, at least, preserve a kind of sad, doomed dignity. We are first presented with an image of St. John’s Chapel in Varick Street, an image by which, Wilson tells us, he is “sometimes haunted.” He recalls its fine proportions and the dignity of its brown facade, and then describes its careless, piecemeal destruction: the steps of the portico have been taken away “to make room for a new subway,” the window panes are smashed one by one, the old spire begins to lurch like the mast of a sinking ship, and finally the factories close over it, “imposing a monotony blank as the sea.”

Two more pictures follow. First there is a fine old brownstone mansion, now deserted, but still magnificent even in its decrepitude. From its blank, dirty windows, Wilson imagines “a family of nice children” looking down “into the rainy April yard.” Now the brownstone is boarded up; it too will soon disappear. Finally, Wilson describes a row of pleasant brick houses in a worthy old neighborhood of Brooklyn. An “eternal Sunday is on them now; they seem sunk in a final silence. “ In the streets one may catch a glimpse of a “solitary well-dressed old gentleman moving slowly a long way off.”

While this old New York of chapel, home, and neighborhood quietly dies, the assertive new Manhattan, as if voraciously feeding on corpses, grows to the skies. Everywhere one sees upthrusting rectangles, “perforated, as if by a perforating machine, with rows of rectangular windows.” In this New York nothing remains of community, of human connections. One’s daily routine at the office is constantly interrupted by harsh and sinister noises from the streets and back lots below. One does not care to find out what these noises mean: “One goes on with whatever one is doing, incurious and wholly indifferent.”

Wilson’s novel of the Twenties, I Thought of Daisy, is an allegory on the situation of the contemplative man who lives in a time when the life of reason finds no support in the surrounding culture. The narrator-protagonist of the novel is, like Wilson, a literary man whose only true allies are “the dead,” the poets and philosophers of past ages who stubbornly persisted in their dedication to the written word in equally unpromising times. The nameless protagonist is in a sort of limbo between two cultures, the popular culture of the industrial masses, and the bohemian culture of Greenwich Village. The latter is a distorted mirror-image of the former, just as frantic and specious, and even more given to fads that quickly consume themselves. Quixote-like, the narrator-protagonist makes forays in both directions. He meets and falls in love with a brilliant, currently famous and dedicatedly promiscuous poetess at a Greenwich Village party. The novel describes his brief affair with her, his demoralization at the end of it, his long period of emotional convalescence, and finally an afternoon and evening spent at Coney Island with the Daisy of the title, a former chorus girl. The evening ends with their making love back at his Manhattan apartment.

The novel is straightforward, almost diagrammatic, in structure: a series of a half-dozen significant episodes in the narrator’s life, all quite distinctly etched, separated by long passages of meditation on the meaning of those episodes and the incidents that compose them. While the novel proceeds at an almost leisurely pace, the life it describes is one of uneasy excitation and constant, half-involuntary movement. For all the careful descriptions of incident and the scrupulous recording of conversations, the environment through which the narrator moves is a blur, like a film on a projector set at too high a speed. It is this contrast between meditation and action, between interior mood and external event, that gives the novel its dignified pathos. The narrator ponders; life moves on, always ahead of him, Contemplation is defeated because the meanings of events “out there” inhere not in their content but in their swiftness. Once something has been satisfactorily understood it is already history.

Thus it is through memory rather than perception that experience is made coherent and bearable, memory—or more properly nostalgia—stirred by the sight or sound of old and familiar things. The Eden Musée at Coney Island, a photograph of Teddy Roosevelt, the sound of a recording of “The American Patrol” played on a xylophone, serve at crucial moments to restore the narrator’s confidence that life is not entirely composed of brief apparitions, of pop-up targets that are down before one is able to get any kind of fix on them. Songs especially serve this restorative function in the novel. The problem of coming to terms with the Twenties, of entering directly into contemporary experience, finally resolves itself into the task of accepting a specific song, a mindless but lively hit characteristic of the decade in its mixture of cynicism and enthusiasm. “Mamie Rose” celebrates the flapper:

 

She’s smart as Satan—

She’s aggravatin’—

But when 1 want a little lovin’

She don’t keep me waitin’....

 

On first hearing the song, the narrator finds it simply horrible. But near the story’s end he comes to some appreciation of its merits and decides that after all it is really “quite good.” By this time, however, the hit has had its day, and “but a few years old, seemed already to belong to the past, like ... The American Patrol, and the old musical comedy tune which the musicians had played on the boat.... 15 Reaching for the present, the narrator again finds himself in possession of the past.

It is the past, too, which finally gives him Daisy. At the outset of the novel, Daisy appears to us, as she does to the narrator, in the guise of a brittle, wise-cracking chorus girl, a sister to Mamie Rose. But as the novel progresses, it is gradually revealed to us that this girl possesses qualities that mark her as old-fashioned--frankness, simplicity, generosity--qualities celebrated in such old songs as “My Gal Sal.” When Daisy seems to reject this sentimental conception of her, the narrator is distressed: “I asked Daisy whether she remembered the time when Roosevelt had been a great hero. She said, ‘No’—and showed so little interest that for a time I relapsed into silence.” Moments later, however, the narrator, moved to reverie by a remembered tune, finally recalls the old song “Daisy,” with its refrain proclaiming simple marriages and bicycles built for two, “that old song of an earlier time to which Daisy’s name seemed to relate her.” He is at last assured that this Daisy is not a child of the Jazz Age, and thus a spiritual alien to him, but the desirable woman she is. Even her large hips, revealed to him for the first time in a bathing suit at Coney Island, hips of a kind “that had been admired at the time when the song had been new,” confirm that Daisy is indeed an old-fashioned girl. 16

The usual complements of nostalgia are a measure of discontent with the present and some apprehension about the future, both of which Wilson felt. When exultant celebrations of the machine age did not strike Wilson as manic and vulgar, they seemed to him forlorn, evidence that an artist had unknowingly succumbed to forces antithetical to art. Asked how the artist should adapt himself to the age of machines, Wilson grimly replied, “He will be adapted in spite of himself and without any effort on his part. Let the artist attend to his art and the age will attend to his adaptation.” 17 In 1927, Wilson gently, almost sadly, satirized Jane

Heap’s enthusiasm for the dynamic new world of machine forms. In the month after the appearance of the catalog for her Machine-Age Exposition, Wilson wrote a sketch, supposedly fictitious, in which he described a visit to “Jane Gooch,” an old friend in Greenwich Village, now debt-ridden and alone, who is trying to get the money together to bring out one more issue of Vortex, “the little magazine that she published herself.” 18 Jane tells him that she is planning “a big hydraulic number ... pipes and oil pumps and plumbing fixtures—and all those things.” The issue will include “some photographs of bathrooms by Leo Kleist that are the most marvellous things you ever saw.” one series, “of wash-basins at different angles,” looks “just like the tomb of the Medicis,” she adds brightly. Her visitor quickly changes the subject and some minutes later leaves her poor apartment in a somber mood, again the ally of Persius in retreat from an alien enthusiasm.

In a 1925 review of Chaplin’s Gold Rush, Wilson expressed doubts that the movie would be a popular success. Audiences nowadays, he said, seemed to prefer the relentlessly clever gags of the newer comedians like Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton. “Their films,” he wrote, “have more smartness and speed; they cultivate more frightening devices. With their motorcars, their motorcycles, their motorboats, their airplanes, their railroad trains ... they have progressed a long way beyond Chaplin, who has made no attempt to keep up with them, but continues with the cheap trappings and the relatively simple tricks of the old custard-pie comedy.” 19

Gold Rush, as it turned out, was a hit (and Wilson would quickly revise his opinion of Buster Keaton), but there was truth in his observation. The comparison of Chaplin’s technique, developed in London music halls, with the techniques of Keaton and Lloyd did, in its way, indicate the subtle but important ways in which industrial society had changed between 1914 and 1925. The film was a new medium of entertainment, a new industry, whose very existence had only been made possible by thousands of innovations and adaptations in chemistry, mechanics, metallurgy and electricity, innovations which in themselves demonstrated the technological maturity of the United States at the time when Chaplin, in 1914, was first featured in Mack Sennett’s one-reel comedies. Yet those comedies, astonishing in their day, had come to seem quaint by 1925, and Chaplin, still a young man, almost a figure of nostalgia.

The differences between the early comedies of Chaplin and the “smart” comedies of Keaton and Lloyd in the mid-Twenties provide a kind of measure of the distance between the writers of the Seven Arts group and the young members of the lost generation. Wilson, situated between the generations, possessed a good deal of the older men’s suspicion and even loathing of industrial culture, and something of the younger men’s openness to it. Less assured in his antipathy to that culture than the older men were, Wilson was therefore less inclined to state precepts and issue warnings, and more disposed to describe, with a firm resolve to avoid cliche, self-deception and cant, the ways in which living in that culture affected him. By proxy, in describing his own disquietude, Wilson described theirs as well.

He stood between the generations in another sense. Lionel Trilling once wrote that the New Republic of the mid-1920’s, with Wilson as literary editor, was unlike any periodical of a later time in that it served both politics and literature, and brought the two into a vital relation “on the assumption that politics and literature naturally live in a lively interconnection.” 20 But the assumption of an interconnection between politics and literature is quite different from the conviction of the Seven Arts men that letters and leadership ought to, and in the near future should, be inseparable. While Wilson carried on the honorable tradition of the socially engaged man of letters, of which Brooks was the earlier exemplar, and while Wilson was at one with the older writers in believing that the most important subject for the critic was not this or that branch of the arts but the life of the society around him, he could not possibly envision himself, in the changed circumstances of the Twenties, performing those “heroic measures” which Van Wyck Brooks had urged upon men of letters. Wilson more perfectly fulfilled the role of cultural witness than the older men did in part because by the 1920’s the man of letters could seemingly be little else but a witness.

 

NOTES

 

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