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Edmund Wilson in the 1930s

How is one to speak of the plunge from the 1920s into the 1930s—the toboggan slide, as it seemed, from affluence to penury? The word used in common talk are “crash” and “slump” or “boom” and “bust” or simply “crisis” and “depression.” How can such words begin to suggest shabby gentlemen and women selling apples on the streets? or the shantytown that sprang up below Riverside Drive? or the millions of idle across a continent? New generations cannot begin to feel the strange nightmare moments as we turned into the 1930 decade, 50 years ago. A thick curtain seemed to fall between the moment of the Wall Street panic in 1929 and the beginning of World War II in 1939. Looking backward, Edmund Wilson wrote that it was difficult for books did not sell; his play failed. But he was in love with Margaret Canby, a friend of some years. She was a lively, laughing, unliterary, down-to-earth drinking companion, a woman of warmth and dignity. They married. Their domesticity would be erratic, tempestuous, passionate.


At the beginning of the decade Wilson completed Axel’s Castle, his book on the literary moderns, showing how they descended from the French symbolists. He dealt with Yeats, Joyce, Proust, Valery, Eliot, Gertrude Stein, anticipating the stature these writers now have. The book was praised, but, given the temper of the times, only modestly (it would have a wide success in the later decades). Even as he read the proofs Wilson asked himself whether it wasn’t obsolete. The “high aesthetic” in literature was yielding to the leftist insistence that novelists must concern themselves with the proletariat and poetry proclaim the clenched fist. Wilson understood the mood, even if he had other views. To his friends he jauntily remarked how invigorating it was “to find ourselves still carrying on while the bankers are taking a beating.” He liked this quip sufficiently to put it into a comedy about the Depression written in the early 1930s which mocked the discomfiture of the “prosperity decade.” But it was clear soon enough that the whole nation was “taking a beating” along with the bankers, and this was not a subject for comedy.

Aware of the national urgencies, Wilson issued an appeal to “progressives” in the columns of The New Republic. He wrote:

Moneymaking and the kind of advantages which a moneymaking society provides for money to buy are not enough to satisfy humanity—neither is a system like ours in which everyone is out for himself and the devil take the hindmost, with no common purpose and little common culture to give life stability and sense.

Old conceptions, he wrote, should be “dynamited” and new ones “as shocking as necessary, substituted.” If Edmund sounded ready for revolution, he felt also that Americans needed information. And so he traveled to Detroit, Chicago, the South, wherever there were shutdowns and unrest, to describe and explain and interpret. Of his writings at this time, Matthew Josephson, never an admirer of Wilson, asserted after Edmund’s death that they were “the most objective description of America in 1932 that we have.”

Wilson’s assertion that old conceptions should be dynamited was reshaped very early into a manifesto, issued in 1932 by a group of writers that included Lewis Mumford, Waldo Frank, Dos Passos, and others. Its text, and the circumstances surrounding it, can be read in Elena Wilson’s edition of her husband’s literary and political letters. It is a quiet, sober, rather dry statement, and in a low key. The writers were determined not to be inflammatory. There wasn’t a stick of dynamite in it. To read it after half a century is to be made suddenly aware how little the 1930 intellectuals knew what Hitler intended, and what Mussolini was doing: the nature of paternal, dictatorial, capitalistic fascism, or its proletarian form under Stalin, was still to be revealed. The manifesto seems now Utopian and curiously ingenuous. Free enterprise had proved bankrupt. New social forms, a new social order, new human values were needed. A society stripped of the profit motive and of competition would evolve a changed social philosophy. This was not possible so long as there was “the exploitation of the many for the profit of the few.” The manifesto’s solution: a “temporary dictatorship of the class-conscious workers.” Once nationalization was achieved, and the new society established (one presumed), there would be no further need for this dictatorship. And the manifesto called on writers, engineers, intellectuals, teachers to make common cause with the proletariat. Dos Passos promptly pointed out that the white-collar workers were left out and that certain communist formulas had been followed in spite of their efforts to keep clear of them. Dreiser, who declared for communism, issued his own statement.

Revolutions are not often created by manifestos, and the ferment among the intellectuals, their disregard of the “petty bourgeois”—as Dos Passos and Wilson recognized—and their use of a language unfamiliar to rank-and-file America did not carry the writers far: nor could there be real agreement among them. Wilson’s work as a reporter brought him much closer to the nation’s realities and he described these with his masterly concreteness. Those who remember him from this time recall the changes that came with middle age. He had ceased to be the slender Ivy League young man of his Greenwich Village days. He had become rotund and ruddy-cheeked. He no longer dressed in a collegiate way, as Scott Fitzgerald described him. He wore business suits, gray or dark blue; he sported a variety of hats, from the floppy to the Stetson. In manner he could be brusque and impatient; in speech he was incisive and he could be rude if foolishly pressed; occasionally he reached for words and a sentence would end in a splutter. His volubility masked shyness and withdrawal and depression, which led to hard drinking. But he could be generous and attentive when approached with directness and clarity. His humane sympathies were wide, and no passage in these journals testifies more to this than the record of his trip to the labor “barricades” in the Kentucky coal fields. Here he saw for himself the ruthlessness and cruelty of company officials, businessmen, and professionals, and their hatred of the locked-out and starving miners. This step in the education of his “social consciousness” was completed by his being ridden out of town by a bunch of pistol-swinging deputies.


Edmund Wilson’s politics during the 1930s have confused many of his readers and critics. The Marxist penitents, remembering his meetings with communist leaders, and the Utopian manifesto, have called him a “Red.” Others have used the word “leftist.” Still others have suggested he was either a dupe or politically naive. The breast-beaters and name-callers, involved in a constant dance of apology and rear-vision, overlook the simple fact that Wilson was an old-fashioned American individualist. He felt he could vote for “the party of his choice” in any election without carrying a permanent stigma. A passage in these journals written in Provincetown during the summer of 1932 tells us all we need to know. At the height of the Depression, Wilson felt that the helpless and inert Hoover administration had shown its impotence in calling out the army to drive the bonus marchers from the streets of Washington. Nor was he satisfied with Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s platform as the election approached; the time had not yet come for FDR to show his political flexibility and his gift for improvisation. Wilson would always distrust him and accuse him of political duplicities. As for the Norman Thomas socialists, they were like the British Fabians, caught in a dream of some remote welfare state (the term had not yet been invented). Wilson, in later years—or at least up to the time of Adlai Stevenson—voted the Thomas ticket, more in protest than in support. In 1932 he wanted a dynamic platform, “action now,” and for one who had seen firsthand the national misery, the Communists offered a program that made sense to him—they would cast out the Washington double-dealers and put the proletariat in the saddle.

Wilson took steps to inform himself. He talked with William Z. Foster, the Communist party leader. He invited him to his home and invited friends to meet him and ask questions. And he decided, as his journal tells us, to vote the communist ticket even though he disliked the rank-and-file party comrades. He followed his social and humane beliefs without making permanent party commitments. He was a freewheeling writer descended from the makers of the American Revolution who was not afraid to be revolutionary. He was never a “joiner,” and as he remarks, the Communists would never have considered him for the party even if he had pleaded to join. He had a distinct distaste for stereotyped party utterances; and in Kentucky was critical of their maneuvers. What Wilson came to feel was that the nation and the press tended to second-guess history—a common American failing. Wilson’s philosophy of history consisted of study and assessment of the past. He was not concerned with prophecy or the planning of national policy on paranoid assumptions of what other nations might do. He was and remained an independent. He would later denounce the tyranny in Russia as he had denounced the muddle in Washington. And he kept an open mind. He settled now to a close study of Marx—almost as if the Marxian text were written by Joyce or Dante. Later he admitted a bias. He had believed the Soviet Union would “put into practice its Leninist ideals” and “this was implied in my whole attitude toward what was going on at home.”

We may wonder why Wilson read so intensively in Marx and Engels, Trotsky and Lenin. More than his usual curiosity was involved. He was aware that Marx was too often invoked without much knowledge of what he had written. The Communist party itself had reduced Marx to a series of slogans and platitudes. Congress was unaware of history—few of its members possessed that kind of literacy. What had Marx really advocated? How were the Russians using him? How did social revolutions begin? Wilson began to see that what was happening in the 20th century needed to be traced back to Vico’s ideas in the I7th. But how explain history to a Congress which could only express moral indignation, and a simplifying American press which used only tags and labels? Most persons to whom Wilson talked possessed a derivative Marxism, exception made for philosophers and political scientists. In the fullness of time Wilson himself would sum up his readings. He recognized that Marx clearly understood how workers were exploited and that he had contributed immeasurably to the world’s philosophy of labor. But, observed Wilson, “why should we suppose that man’s brutal and selfish impulses will all evaporate with a socialist dictatorship?” The welfare state could harbor atrophies and ineptitudes as great as those of free enterprise.

The consequences of Wilson’s explorations and self-questionings were far-reaching. He embarked on a book that would parallel Axel’s Castle. That volume sought the origins of the “modern” movement in literature. Now he would begin to seek out the roots of modernism in politics and revolution. He would show how revolution, rising out of man’s misery, gave birth to ideas that flowed and grew within a historic stream, a stream that often became a torrent. He would show how persecutions and massacres and common sufferings, the revolutions in America and France, the years of ferment in Russia, the radicalism in Germany, led up to a singular moment in our time: one might call it the turning point in our century—that moment when Lenin arrived in the city that would bear his name: he came with all this history and theory in his head to take command of the floundering Russian Revolution. The title of Wilson’s book suddenly occurred to him as he was walking in the street: To the Finland Station. Only later would he realize that he had been influenced by Virginia Woolf’s title. To the Lighthouse. The Finland Station was the little shabby stucco building, “rubber-gray and tarnished pink” (Wilson would travel to Russia to look at it), in what was then St. Petersburg. Here Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, otherwise Lenin, arrived from his long exile following his wartime journey through Germany in a sealed train. Clutching a bouquet of roses handed him by his admirers, he had delivered one of his portentous slogans: “All power to the Soviets.” His book would show, Wilson believed, how history can determine human actions. It would be, as he subtitled it, “a study in the writing and acting of history.”

It was a splendid, a poetic conception and he carried out his plan in the hope that it would enlighten American political and social thought. To write this book, Wilson felt he should visit Russia and study the scenes of his drama and thoroughly steep himself in the relevant documents. He knew some German. He now began the study of Russian. A Guggenheim Fellowship provided him with travel funds. His predecessors in this pilgrimage had been fairly numerous—among them his friend Dos Passos, Theodore Dreiser, Max Eastman, and earlier Lincoln Steffens, who had come back saying the much-quoted words that he had seen the future “and it works.” They had gone largely as reporters curious about the new supposed utopia-in-the-making. Wilson went as a historian and with few preconceptions; he had certain unvoiced hopes that Steffens had been right, that some new form of society was emerging. His ostensible goal was the Marx-Engels-Lenin Institute in Moscow. His journals, however, do not tell US of his researches; they testify instead to his many encounters and interrogations. He had done sufficient “homework” by this time to be able to interpret what he heard—and also what could not be heard: the enigmatic reticences, the deep silences. He sought out his Fellow historian. Prince D. S. Mirsky, whose work he admired, and we have some notes of their meetings. Mirsky would be one of Stalin’s early victims, and Wilson later drew a finely sketched portrait of him, as he amplified his notes. He goes to picnics, night clubs, the Physkultur Parade, museums, monasteries; he is at the ballet, the theater, the opera, and has an easy familiarity from his readings in America with the plays, the players, the directors. His journey up the Volga, in its singular details, is like a Chekhov tale; and to climax his experiences he finds himself a captive student of socialized medicine in the USSR—for he comes down with scarlatina and for some weeks is quarantined in an old, dignified, dirty building in Odessa, a building that went back to the time of Pushkin. There are bedbugs everywhere. The orderlies urinate in the solitary sink near his room. Nurses and patients are cheerful; the patients are mostly children. He has many amusing conversations, is treated with the greatest respect, and at night is permitted to use the operating room as his study. All his bills—including telegrams and cables—are paid by the state. This ends his private adventure in Red Russia. He would continue his Russian studies in all the years to come.

In the year before his death, Wilson took a backward glance at To the Finland Station. He was writing a preface for a new edition and he recalled that he had gone to Russia with “a too hopeful bias.” “We did not foresee that the new Russia must contain a good deal of the old Russia. . . . I had no premonition that the Soviet Union was to become one of the most hideous tyrannies that the world had ever known, and Stalin the most cruel and unscrupulous of the merciless Russian tsars.” However, he believed that his book remained “a basically reliable account of what the revolutionists thought they were doing in the interests of ‘a better world.’” He also accepted criticism that he had given too amiable a picture of Lenin. Later documents and much more evidence had convinced him that, behind Lenin’s worshipped facade, one could find all the corruptions of power.


Edmund Wilson’s wife Margaret Canby died two years after their marriage, in an accident while she was in California. She slipped on some steep Spanish-style steps at Santa Barbara and fractured her skull. Wilson boarded a propeller plane for the long trip to the coast; he was overwhelmed and distraught. He nursed anxious thoughts that she might have committed suicide, for he lacked details. His journal record of his stay in California, his visit to the funeral parlor, his talks with relatives are a kind of emptying of his grief, his memories, his guilt. The passage is perhaps the most “felt” and intimate of all his writings about himself. If there had been some strain in the marriage, there had also been the love he now expressed. The monologue provided catharsis, but it did not bring total relief. For years Wilson continued to dream about Margaret: she is alive again, they are coming together, he experiences a kind of sublime joy— and always something happens to keep them apart and he races through rooms and corridors but cannot find her. The dreams suggest profound and unresolved feelings, continuing grief and self-blame; he had a strange sense that in dying she had abandoned him; and then the opposite, he felt guilty, as if he had abandoned her. The monologue reminds one of passages in Proust, or the soliloquy of Molly Bloom in Ulysses. Some readers may be startled by the publication of this intimate record of a marriage. One gains the impression that Wilson wrote the entire passage at a single sitting for himself, without thought of publication, Thirty years later he had it typed up for inclusion in his journals. The candor may seem at times gratuitous; it is a piece of private history, but it is also a search for the truth of personal history. The monologue testifies to Wilson’s core difficulty—there were things he could not allow himself to feel. In my introduction to The Twenties (Wilson’s journal for that decade) I discussed his dissociation of emotion in certain situations. He defended himself against emotional hurt by a kind of curmudgeonly bluntness which sometimes alienated friends. His modes of verbal aggression were in counterpoint with his verbal amiability. One is prompted to say that this problem, which deprived him of certain empathies, made it difficult for him in criticism to deal with writers of our time, like Kafka, who explored man’s troubled dream-existence. It ran counter to Wilson’s concreteness, derived from his ability to look at reality without having to feel it. In To the Finland Station he tells us that Karl Marx’s “blinded and paralyzed side” was his “negation of personal relations, of the responsibility of man to man,” and there was something of this in Wilson. For he speaks in these journals, in a moment of insight, of  “the dead tissue in my soul—it could never grow back.” Perhaps he is thinking of the blocked sensibilities of his childhood. There had been, as we know, a deaf mother and a depressed and often apathetic father. The little boy Edmund had considerable difficulty communicating with those closest to him. In the process there was a short-circuiting of the common articulations and joys of childhood. The distancings were carried into adult life. Certain “social reflexes” were thwarted. We are given a glimpse of his insight into himself during a visit to an old friend:

I was awfully glad to see him, and it was very pleasant at first to talk to him again, with his intellectual range and his cultivation: his history, psychology, literature; but my visit got to be more and more eerie. He wanted to be amiable and hospitable; but he had to make a conscious effort—his solitary and self-centered life had practically deprived him of the social reflexes.

Wilson adds: “I have been that way myself, possibly always to some extent.”

There were these sealed corridors in his personal relations, “and it was strange to see it from the outside,” Wilson said. He added that it “at once depressed me and made me feel superior.” What he could do was to displace emotion from the human scene into his writing. At his desk, the world fell into place. He was free to grasp, explain, sympathize, understand Proust’s sensitive childhood, experience Dickens’s sufferings and Turgenev’s struggles with his mother. Wilson’s journals reflect a compulsive and meticulous man reaching out with words to himself and his fellow humans, but allowing masses of fact and detail, and intellectual musings, to defend him against full-face encounter. Perhaps in this way we can understand the use of the bold inquiring front, the value language had for him: there was nothing arbitrary about dictionaries, or the past. The past was safe and confrontable.

Why do some authors keep journals? Journals can be a way of shoring up life and siphoning off a surplus of creative energy. They become, on occasion, a device for dealing with parts of experience not readily useful; in effect, they can be a memory bank. We can see how, for Andre Gide or Thoreau or the copious Anais Nin—to take three disparate writers—journals became full-length mirrors of the self. In the case of Nin, they seem almost to have become a way of writing her life without having to live it. These are the journals of a profound narcissism. But there are other kinds. Kafka’s, as he told us, were a form of prayer. Henry James’s were used to solve artistic problems and allay anxiety about his immediate work. Virginia Woolf’s enabled her to maintain balance and use her mental iridescence to haul herself up, as it were, from chronic despondency.

Wilson was not creating on the scale of such writers, and his journals, we may judge, served largely the function of memory and self-discipline. They were the notebooks of a chronicler, a way of tidying the mind for his craft of criticism: no meditations, no prayers, no invocation to the muse, no polished mirrors. He tries rather to be a camera, for this is what he finds most comfortable. A camera, however, doesn’t think: and Wilson is using his intellectual powers. His sensitivity resides in his visuality. He has an ear for what (and how) people say things. In this way he also tries to be a tape recorder. The journals are his mental account books and a way of handling unachieved relationships. Even his record of his own copulations has this kind of objectivity—as if he were a naturalist at the zoo of himself, writing a chapter of natural history. Thomas Mann, in his highly intellectual way, justified such intimate revelations (when his wife complained) by saying “the most intimate is at the same time the most universal.” Erich Heller’s response to this seems to me penetrating. Culture is attained, he reminds us, “by a tactful disregard of much that is ‘natural.’” When we universalize intimacy, it ceases to be intimate. When we impersonalize the personal, we risk stripping it of its humanity. Wilson also wrote down experience often in order to depersonalize it. Once it was written down, he could detach himself from it. Yet he couldn’t part with it. When I said to him one day (we were talking of his journals) that he was after all quite free to revise and change what he had written and even to trim passages, he rebelled. They had acquired total objectivity; they seemed almost not to belong to him. “I don’t want to cut any corners,” was the way he answered me. “But they’re your own corners, Edmund, you can do what you like with them.” My rejoinder did not please him. The text had become impersonal. He wasn’t going to tamper with it. The text belonged, unchangeably, to literary history.