- The Forties: From Notebooks and Diaries of the Period, and: Edmund Wilson's America
To one who, like this reviewer, knew him as an upstate New York "neighbor" in the 1960s when he was in his seventies, a reading of the notebooks and diaries of Edmund Wilson as he entered middle age is a curious experience. Such a reading reveals how accurate was Mary McCarthy's phrase—"unreconstructed isolationist"—for the political Edmund Wilson of the 1940s but how remote the adjectival portion of that term was for the man. Even as the nation he loved (though with the ambivalence of a passionately concerned observer) endured World War Two, Wilson was reversing his lifelong propensity for a destructive domesticity and beginning a thirty-year reconstruction era of his own.
On all Wilsonian Fronts these two volumes supplement one another: the Leon Edel-edited notebooks (The Forties) as testimony to an Edmund Wilson starting to come to terms with an America in whose war for survival he chose to take no part; a critical study (George H. Douglas' Edmund Wilson's America) that lavishly, even lovingly, confirms Wilson's coming to terms at last not only with his country but with himself.
Actually Wilson's odd silence on the war tells more about his attitudes than a tome on the conflict would. It was during this time that he made the statement (not entered in either notebooks or diaries) that he considered war a cause he didn't consider worth devoting himself to but that literature was one he did. In [End Page 751] "Thoughts, 1943-44," he records his sense that the United States is "already involved with the Germans and Japs in contests of killing and hatred, and at the moment that is all there is going on." While he reveals some outrage at reports of Japanese atrocities to American prisoners, he remains chauvinistically nationalistic on the war. "We were sucked in," he declares, viewing Hitler as a threat only to the nations of the European continent. He even acknowledges having felt a "vicarious thrill" when the Germans were bombing London. "It is the thrill of liberation of some impulse to wreck and to kill on a gigantic scale without caring and while remaining invulnerable oneself. Boy with a slingshot shooting birds—can't help trying it out." This is a strange digest for one war by the author of Patriotic Gore, one of the imperishable literary monuments of an earlier conflict.
It is ironic that The New Yorker dispatched its literary critic, who had refused to lend his pen to the American war effort, to Italy during the waning months of World War Two. But that assignment provided "Visit to Santayana," one of the best things in The Forties.
The early death of F. Scott Fitzgerald, the Princeton classmate who called Wilson his literary conscience; the devastating erosion of his third marriage—to Mary McCarthy; his growing isolationism that was undermining his stature as America's best culture critic after Mencken—all these factors, documented in the notebooks, can be seen with perfect hindsight as presaging for Wilson the fate of many of his contemporaries—writers without a second act.
Sensing the chaos of his life and work, Wilson was fortunate, even before his divorce from Mary McCarthy was final, to meet in 1946 the woman who put his life—personal and professional—together again. Leon Edel credits Elena Mumm Thornton's European-ness—she was of German and Russian parentage—as the main factor in their rapport. Elena, Edel notes, was more conscious of her husband's needs than her three American predecessors. In the years this reviewer knew him, Edmund always stressed that it was Elena who made it possible for him for the first time to straighten out his relations with his three children and with his friends. Thus it is an injustice to the partner of his last—and only successful...