Grumpy Good Samaritan

My Debt to Edmund Wilson

The publication of Lewis M. Dabney’s Edmund Wilson: A Life in Literature (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) has once again brought the critical mind of Edmund Wilson to our attention. Wilson (1895-1972) was an important figure in American literary and intellectual culture, but the truth is that since his death he hasn’t proved to be considered as important as he should be. For those who admired his writing during his lifetime, it’s hard to believe how quickly he sank from sight after his death. Who knows when he will bob up again? So I’m enjoying this reemergence while it lasts.

I wrote my doctoral dissertation on Wilson nearly twenty years ago, and it’s still the rare week that I don’t think of him. No one with his grasp, clarity, and honesty-not to mention his impatience for what he considered “twaddle”-has taken his place in intellectual or literary America, and we are the worse for it. It’s not that Wilson was never wrong as a literary critic, cultural historian, or social observer-his declaration that with the advent of the Russian Revolution mankind had for the first time taken control of its destiny was pretty wide of the mark-but that he always held the highest expectations for those he wrote for or argued with.

Almost fifty years ago, when Wilson was sixty years of age, he wrote a passage I enjoy now more than I could have when I first read it. Born at the end of the nineteenth century, Wilson’s generation was that of the 1920s, the generation of the flapper and of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Wilson’s classmate at Princeton. A new freedom was theirs, and yet, Wilson wrote, looking back from the perspective of the 1950s:

...my own generation in America has not had so gay a journey as we expected when we first started out. In repudiating the materialism and priggishness of the period in which we were born, we thought we should have a free hand to refashion American life as well as to have more fun than our fathers. But we, too, have had our casualties. Too many of my friends are insane or dead or Roman Catholic converts-and some of these among the most gifted; two have committed suicide.

Among the dead by this time was Fitzgerald himself, and among the insane, Zelda Sayre, the girl they had all found so liberated and entrancing and whom Fitzgerald had married. The identities of the unfortunate converts do not leap so readily to mind. Wilson knew both Robert Lowell, whose conversion was only temporary anyway, and Thomas Merton, but they were of a younger generation. The joke is wonderful nevertheless, and perfectly told, the progression from insane to dead to Catholic convert speeded by the repeated “or.” And if converting to Catholicism wasn’t bad enough (the culmination of the series), these utter failures came from among the most gifted.

My own recent conversion to Catholicism no doubt deepens my appreciation of Wilson’s joke, but by no means do I think Wilson was only kidding. To the poet Allen Tate, the friend Wilson perhaps had most in mind, Wilson wrote,

I hope that becoming a Catholic will give you peace of mind; though swallowing the New Testament as factual and moral truth seems to me an awful price to pay for it. You are wrong, and always have been wrong, in thinking that I am in any sense a Christian. Christianity seems to me the worst imposture of any religion I know of. Even aside from the question of faith, the morality of the Gospels seems to me absurd.

What Wilson did believe in was the necessity for humanity to progress beyond the barbarism of its origins, and for individual men and women to work for that progress. His hostility to religious belief in general and to Catholicism in particular is best seen, then, not in the outburst that follows his wish for Tate’s peace of mind, but rather in the wish itself. Peace of mind was the last thing Wilson felt intelligent people need; in seeking it in belief, Wilson thought, Tate and others like him were abandoning the intellectual’s obligation to engage in the hard struggle against the world’s evils.

Wilson was born in an age when skepticism about religion was almost a requirement for participation in the intellectual world. The literary heroes of his youth were Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells, while Bertrand Russell, the model of the modern intellectual, argued strongly against any need for Christianity. Today, it is commonly assumed that it was the rise of science that engineered this pervasive skepticism. Yet few religious thinkers would insist now that the sun goes around the earth. It’s not simply that science stands in the way of modern belief as much as our pride: we take it for granted that our ancestors couldn’t possibly know as much as we do.

But what was there to be so proud of in the twentieth century? In one of his most telling essays, “Bees, Wasps, and Bombers,” Wilson himself observed at mid-century that “the present is not one of the great ages of the self-dramatization of man.” He had witnessed the devastation of two world wars, the deployment of poison gas that killed its victims like insects, and the unleashing of the atomic bomb. He had spent much of his life reporting on the poverty that the powerful create and then enforce by violence, often for the sake of creating a material and aesthetic culture Wilson termed “rubbish.” The fall of the Soviet Union not withstanding, it’s unlikely that he would see the world much differently today. If anything, things have gotten worse. Millions continue to spend their lives in conditions that limit their humanity, while a minority continue to live lives of extravagance and waste. Violence, ignorance, and disease permeate much of our world, where progress often means greater freedom for transnational corporations to accumulate wealth and to foul the earth.

When Wilson wrote of the “self-dramatization of man,” he was thinking about a world in which there has never been an active God, a world for which we alone are responsible. For him, the word “God” is an anthropomorphic anachronism that must be dropped if we are to have any chance of further progress. Yet today many believers have come to accept responsibility for society and for our relationship to the natural world. My own conversion to Catholicism has brought me to appreciate another actor in the world, the Holy Spirit. I don’t need Edmund Wilson to point out that it is difficult to see the work of the Holy Spirit in the events of our day. The collapse of Communist economic materialism in a world increasingly dominated by capitalist materialism can surely be explained by forces other than the divine. And the war in Iraq, a war intended to produce shock and awe, can scarcely be taken as a sign that the Holy Spirit is at work. Whatever the religious beliefs of those who fostered it, a war premised on an awe inspired by bombing campaigns is a pagan war.

Wilson’s skepticism notwithstanding, it isn’t difficult for me to attest to the Holy Spirit’s work in individual lives, and also in the larger world. Think of the nonviolence of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. and of the spirit of reconciliation fostered by Desmond Tutu and John Paul II. And there is that other twentieth-century manifestation of the Holy Spirit that ought to give us hope: Vatican II. (I find it gratifying to learn in Dabney’s biography that Wilson admired John XXIII, however vehement had been his dismissal of Pius XII.) The work of the Holy Spirit in the twenty-first century may well be nothing less than recovering the spirit of Vatican II, not just within Roman Catholicism but throughout the larger world-the recovery of the council’s spirit of tolerance and openness and mutual embrace.

Thus it is with hope that I read Pope Benedict XVI’s Deus caritas est. Though it begins, rather surprisingly, as a meditation on sexual love, at its core it is an acceptance of humanity and an embrace of the best tendency of the human being-the tendency to love-and a rejection of love’s debasement. This is the vocation of the church: to remind the world of the role of the Holy Spirit in the ongoing self-dramatization of man. The prophetic call to achieve social justice-so important to Wilson and his admirers-is the work of reason, Benedict declares, and thus the work of politics. But love, whether in the life of the church or in the program of so grumpy a Good Samaritan as Wilson, must purify reason lest it go badly astray. It went awry for Wilson when he looked to the Soviet Union for progress, a mistake he later acknowledged without disavowing the hopes that led him to make it. We mustn’t allow ourselves to go that way again. Or so I would say to Edmund Wilson, convert that I am, if I had the opportunity to argue with him.

Published in the 2006-10-20 issue: 

Paul K. Johnston teaches American literature at SUNY Plattsburgh.

Also by this author
Get Thee from the Nunnery

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads

Politics
Books