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He dropped literary criticism as his main area of activity and instead employed his not inconsiderable skills as a writer to report political and historical events.Wilson joined the Solidarity Express to Harlan County during the great miners’ strike and attended the trial of the Scottsboro boys.
Wilson recorded the cutting of school budgets in Detroit, of wages in Flint, Michigan, rising suicides in San Diego, and working people starving everywhere.
His was a stylistic documentation, as if Balzac and Zola had become reporters.
At the height of the Depression, in (1933), Wilson remembered a vow he had made: “I swore to myself that when the War was over I should stand outside of society altogether, I should do without the comforts and amenities of the conventional world entirely, and I should devote myself to the great human interests which transcend standard of living and conventions: Literature, History, the Creation of Beauty, the Discovery of Truth.” Society meant the upper-middle class of Great Neck, New York, where Wilson was raised, the son of a distinguished lawyer, and Princeton, where he was educated among America’s elite, insulated from real life until the carnage of a World War he witnessed as a medical orderly forever changed him.
“Outside society” meant the open intellectual world of bohemia, joining avant-garde thought and writing from Paris, London to New York, or for that matter, Tokyo and Tashkent.
The young Wilson of these volumes is very different from a man of letters, the pose Wilson projected in old age. Mencken, his contemporary, Wilson found in magazines a means to engage and shape a following open to fresh directions in thought and literary expression, especially when delivered by a sleek, new type of publication employing stylish photography, attractive graphic design and an intimate style of address to readers.
He was in the twenties and the thirties the most engaged of intellectuals, more like Albert Camus than Samuel Johnson, a whirlwind of activity, a “journalist and writer,” as he liked to think of himself. In his early reviews, Edmund Wilson displayed a wonderful trust sorely lacking in contemporary criticism—trust in the intelligence and interest of his audience, and dislike of the literary pretensions and genteel ways of America’s patrician elite and the nouveau riches, “the boobocracy” as Mencken aptly named them.And that is still another reason why the publication of Wilson’s writing is most timely.Wilson’s engagement with literature was of such a completely different order at the beginning of his career from what it became at its end that these collections of his earliest writings, with some hitherto unpublished additions, also serve as a rare window to a very interesting and unsettled period from the postwar jazz age and triumph of modernism (Wilson preferred Symbolism), through the rise of American liberalism in its still-progressive period.In his sunset years, Wilson seduced age-appropriate women in the first ranks of literary and cultural life, and dwelt on obscure personal interests ranging from forgotten American Civil War literature and Canadian literature before there was much of it, to Iroquois land claims and the Dead Sea Scrolls.He was studying Hungarian at the end of his life to read Endre Ady in the original.Cutting wit and advanced tastes did not cut it any more.Like Washington Irving’s Ichabod Crane, Edmund Wilson, under the pressure of the times, got on his horse and rode off in all directions.This is the period when modernism in the arts flared before the war and turned into a conflagration after. This was the jazz age youngsters in high school study when they are assigned (1929).The Edmund Wilson who took up a post editing from its founding in 1920 was, like many of his contemporaries, a “man of 1914,” of “the lost generation,” the jazz age writers shaken out of the windy rhetoric and patrician certainties of their class by the imperialistic slaughter, turning toward bohemian enclaves for shelter, and the international avant-garde culture in its modernist phase for inspiration. Here was the right place and time for a writer inventing a new genre of book reviewing and literary criticism as journalism, more specifically magazine writing.As all about us has risen, in journals like associated with the early Wilson, a complacent and ugly liberalism which sanctions war crimes, torture and a collapsing of ancient civilizations under the boots of American marines, it would be good to see how it all began, and find out whether it could have ended differently.Edmund Wilson’s father, a prominent lawyer and supporter of progressive Democratic Party forces under Woodrow Wilson as New Jersey’s Governor, gained fame cleaning up the rackets in Atlantic City.