Mr. Wilson & the Cold War
Wilfrid Sheed January 21, 2011 - 11:30am
The following article first appeared in the January 10, 1964, issue of Commonweal.
If a writer hangs around long enough, he turns into a monument, and nobody will fight with him any more, except possibly another monument. In the case of Edmund Wilson, this has its gratifying side—no one has earned his plaster more honorably—but it also has its drawbacks.
For, as many grand-old-men from William Wordsworth to Bertrand Russell have, or have not, discovered, it is not always easy to take monuments seriously. A writer needs his normal quota of critical kicking, scratching and gouging to keep his survival instincts sharp: faced for the first time in his life with unfailing politeness, he is likely to lose his underdog snarl and his ferret-like cunning; he may start issuing pronouncements about affairs of the day, confident that no one will stab him with a real knife; he gets a secretary to correct his proofs; he thinks that his opinions matter. These and a hundred other small portents announce the death of an artist and the birth of a politician.
Well, Edmund Wilson is too pugnacious and alert, still a superb target for hostility, in fact, to become that kind of monument. But his recent work has undeniably lost some cutting edge. His prose (possibly the best non-fiction American prose since Thoreau) has become rather shapeless, possibly even careless. The tone is that of a man who doesn’t expect to be contradicted; he addresses his subject as if it had never been discussed before—and will never need to be discussed again. There is no suggestion here of failing powers, only of failing intensity and concentration, like a Yankee after his twelfth pennant.
With all this in view—and on the further principle, which Mr. Wilson has always abided by himself, that it is no favor to any first-rate writer to flatter his second-rate stuff—it should be said unequivocally that his latest effort, The Cold War & the Income Tax, is an extraordinarily disappointing book.
A polemic against the income tax can hardly go wrong, and this one certainly provides bits and pieces of satisfaction. But where one had hoped for majestic indignation, one finds mostly a narrow peevishness; and where the argument needs sustained tensile strength, it tends to go slack and vague. This is Mr. Wilson the country squire, brandishing his cane at the urchins and muttering to himself, like W. C. Fields, about his ineffable woes.
This is worth pointing out if only because Mr. Wilson may have hit on something too important to be left entirely to Mr. Wilson—at least to Old Colonel Wilson (Wilson at his best would be another matter). The Income Tax and its collection does indeed affect the quality of our life: simply to witness one of our most distinguished authors being chivied, as Wilson was, by uncomprehending bureaucrats is to be re-stunned by the impersonalness of modern life. (Incidentally, he does not, contrary to some reports, consider himself a special case. His minute account of his own affairs might seem at first to suggest that as Wilson goes so goes the nation: but fundamentally he is shocked that this could happen to anybody.)
But the question arises next, what should have been done with him? Mr. Wilson failed, for something like nine years, to file tax returns: not out of conscience but out of carelessness. His passive resistance to the law followed his breaking of it, so that it does not even come under the heading of civil disobedience, where it might be argued about. We can certainly complain that the bureaucrats should have known who he was and have treated him with civilized respect, and not like a menacing hooligan; we might complain about quite a lot of things while we’re at it. But can we really maintain that the tax-laws are so bizarre that failure to comply, even through negligence, should not be punished at all? Perhaps it wasn’t the author’s aim to answer this question, but this is the first of several omissions that keeps his protest at the level of splutter.
Instead he swings suddenly into the question of defense spending. He writes a gruelling section on germ warfare, a subject which can certainly use the publicity, and another rather less gruelling, on how the government ignores culture; so perhaps the next question should be: If the government were to spend his tax-money on culture, instead of on germs, would he then grant its right to coerce and, if necessary, punish him to get it?
One can only suppose that, since leaving the New Republic, Mr. Wilson has allowed his subscription there to lapse. No readers of that, or any reasonably sophisticated political journal, could suppose that the question of taxation and spending was entirely tied to the question of national defense. All modern countries are caught up in this tangle, whatever the size of their armies. We are all Keynesians now: even President Eisenhower and General de Gaulle are getting with it. To write about the income tax without mentioning this is to project a simplicity that Mr. Wilson simply has no right to. Surely he must know that ff he wants to argue with taxation he must take it up with Lord Keynes before he takes it up with the Pentagon.
In a curiously touching chapter, he attempts to explain how an old-line socialist happens to find himself railing like this against government spending. He seems to have expected that socialist taxation would be carried out in a spirit of continual fellowship and camaraderie. Even though he had already had some experience of Russian bureaucrats, he had supposed that ours would be different when the time came, better, wiser.
This is, of course, the perennial, though often unrecognized, question for the political left to answer, namely, what to do about the petty official. Assuredly heartlessness is not a bureaucratic invention; and again, you can have a perfectly splendid bureaucracy without a government attached to it at all. But the question remains: Can any government collect its money without resorting to the occasional Kafkaesque tactics described in this book? Can it, in other words, keep that fussy, inflexible little man from lodging, where he always lodges, halfway up the ladder of power, where he can madden the most people and travesty the most situations? Mr. Wilson’s implicit solution, that the government should just leave his money alone altogether, can hardly be endorsed by men of the left—although astoundingly, some of them have managed both to praise the book and dodge the question: accepting, I can only suppose, the logical connection between germ warfare and Mr. Wilson’s personal harassment, assuming, as he once did, that tax collecting for the right causes would be quite a different thing.
The small sadness connected with this book comes in seeing a man of Edmund Wilson’s stature lay himself open to the taunts of such as Newsweek (typical monument-taunts: poor Mr. Wilson, when he gets onto politics; poor Bertrand, poor Albert). His very considerable powers of political analysis have shrunk in this instance to grumpiness, so that it is easy to say that they were never there at all. To take the most serious instance: a very good case could be made against our defense establishment and the myths that surround it; but to ignore, among many other things, the fact that Russia’s post-war land-grab was rather greater than Hitler’s prewar one is to ignore one of the terms of the argument.
A greater source of sadness may seem at first glance to contradict what has been said above. It is quite in order for critics to rough-house with Mr. Wilson, but some respectfulness is still called for. As much as any author I can think of, he has served his country well. In a decent community, what a man is and what he has done should be recognized. Tax delinquency appears to be settled by a series of deals anyway, and perhaps one could complain that Mr. Wilson doesn’t seem to have been given a specially good one. But this isn’t quite the point. Mr. Wilson has been a credit to his country abroad and a source of ideas and confidence to its writers at home. The tax officials should have been told about that by someone; they should at least have called him “sir” and remembered who he was from one visit to the next.
And then, I suppose, things being as they are, they should have gone ahead and fined him. This book, at least, offers no plausible alternative.
About the Author
The late Wilfrid Sheed, formerly a Commonweal columnist, drama critic, and literary editor (1964–69), was a novelist and a critic. His last book was The House That George Built: With a Little Help from Irving, Cole, and a Crew of About Fifty (Random House).