Like most writers, the literary critic Edmund Wilson (1895–1972) was a diligent gossip. In his extensive diaries, he offers merciless evaluations of the writers, intellectuals, and public figures he encountered over his long career at the New Republic, the New Yorker, the New York Review of Books, and elsewhere. I have been a devoted reader of his criticism, and I especially prize Patriotic Gore, his book on the literature of the American Civil War. He was astonishingly prolific, writing on everything from Marxism to the Iroquois. His diaries chronicle each decade from the nineteen-twenties to the sixties, and the volume The Sixties contains a chapter titled “In and Out of The Think Tank,” which describes his year (1964–65) at the Center for Advanced Studies at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut.
Paul Horgan (1903–1995), the Catholic novelist and historian, was director of the center, an institution the university eventually folded up but which attracted an impressive roster of fellows during its heyday in the ’60s. During his time there, Wilson’s colleagues included the writer Jean Stafford, the philosopher Willard Van Orman Quine, the classics scholar Moses Hadas, and the Rev. Martin Cyril D’Arcy, SJ, the priest responsible for Evelyn Waugh’s instruction in Catholicism who later appeared, lightly disguised, as Fr. Rothschild, SJ, in Waugh’s Vile Bodies. D’Arcy, once provincial for the English Jesuits, was well known for moving in posh social circles and welcoming the wealthy and famous into the church. In her novel Girls of Slender Means, Muriel Spark writes amusingly of one character that he “could never make up his mind between suicide and an equally drastic course of action known as Father D’Arcy.”
Although he eventually warmed to D’Arcy, Wilson, who had no feeling or patience for religion, at first found him to be an anachronistic figure at best. The priest evidently didn’t know how to prepare his own breakfast, open a can, or cash a check. But a friendship developed and in 1968 Wilson was invited to a party at the Waldorf Astoria to celebrate D’Arcy’s seventh-fifth birthday. The Duke and Duchess of Windsor were among the honored guests, and Wilson describes the notorious couple as “looking rather moth-eaten.” Nor did he find his dinner companions engaging, dozing off twice in the middle of a conversation with Diana Vreeland, the editor of Vogue.
As his diaries suggest, and Horgan’s essay “Wilson at Wesleyan” makes clear, Edmund Wilson was a curmudgeon who put little stock in social niceties and who was seemingly oblivious to the feelings of others. When they first met, Horgan’s mission was to get a skeptical Wilson to accept the center’s generous offer of a fellowship. Wilson wanted to know if the other fellows were of equal intellectual stature and what social life would be like in Middletown. “You’d not be too happy with the restaurants,” Horgan told him. “But I should imagine faculty people would be dining and winning you.”
“You don’t know too much about university people, do you,” Wilson, who was spending the year at Harvard, responded.
Wilson then asked Horgan, the author of more than a dozen books and the winner of the 1955 Pulitzer and Bancroft Prizes for Great River: The Rio Grande in North American History, “Are you a writer?”
Horgan was awarded a second Pulitzer for Lamy of Santa Fe: His Life and Times, his 1975 biography of Jean-Baptiste Lamy, the first bishop of Santa Fe, and the inspiration for Bishop Jean Marie Latour in Willa Cather’s wonderful novel Death Comes for the Archbishop.
Wilson’s diary entrees about his time at Wesleyan are candid, blunt, malicious, and amusing. He describes Middletown’s Main St. as “the most primitive I have ever seen in New England—it is almost like a Western town, with a sordid movie house or two, dry-goods stores, old-fashioned saloons, now ‘bars.’” The inhabitants “seem quite degenerate.”