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Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

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Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

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Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

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Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Lewis Dabney on Edmund Wilson

Posted by Amardeep Singh on 09/06/05 at 06:11 AM

A&L Daily links to Jonathan Yardley’s review of a new biography of Edmund Wilson by Lewis M. Dabney.

After enumerating Wilson’s personal problems (including his many bad marriages, his alcoholism, and his generally spiky temperament), Yardley describes the tone of the biography:

All of which is to say that [Wilson] presents formidable difficulties for a biographer. On the one hand there is his immense life’s work, to be sorted out, evaluated and interpreted. On the other hand there is his frequently sordid private life, also to be sorted out, evaluated and interpreted. Lewis M. Dabney, a professor of English at the University of Wyoming who has dedicated much of the past four decades to tending Wilson’s flame, approaches both tasks methodically and dutifully, though one senses from time to time that he really does wish Wilson had been a nicer fellow.

Yardley’s a bit frustrated with Dabney’s tendency to dwell on some of the darker aspects of Wilson’s personal life, especially since the biographer is clearly not enthralled by what he sees.

Yardley’s conclusion is something along the lines of “why bother?”:

He tells [Wilson’s story] conscientiously and, as mentioned above, dutifully, but the net effect of Edmund Wilson: A Life in Literature is to leave one wondering why, precisely, books such as this are written. To be sure, one must marvel that Wilson could have done such an incredible amount of major work when so much of the time he was drunk, but that is merely another footnote to the long story of writers and booze. Our curiosity about the innermost sources of any writer’s work is understandable and legitimate, but page after page of drunken bouts and sexual conquests really tell us little except that this is a man we care to meet only in the words he wrote. As the fourth of his wives once said, “When I read his work I forgive him all his sins.” Wise words indeed, to which must be added: If the sins have been forgiven, why bother to chronicle them?

Yes, instead of chronicling sins, why not chronicle what interests us?

Then again, that is the nature of the genre these days: everyone expects something salacious, even if it gets tedious. A Rigorous and Serious Account of the Arguable Contemporary Relevance of Edmund Wilson’s Ideas About Literature is not going to sell many copies. (Maybe we should do something about the title...)

[Update: See Colm Toibin’s review of the same book in the New York Times]


Comments

I don’t see the point of a biography which would leave out a lifetime of alcoholism and four unsuccessful marriages.

Perhaps the Wilson biography will lead literate people to be more accepting of talented, unmarriageable alcoholics. Not everyone is as prissy as Dabney and Yardley apparently are.

By John Emerson on 09/06/05 at 09:47 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I don’t think Dabney is prissy.  If anything Toibin is, I think, closer to getting it right.  Dabney admires Wilson passionately and is constrained from hero worship mainly by the biographer’s scruples to present a full life.

Isn’t Yardley’s complaint itself a version of what, in reaction against the pathography, has become a familiar piety?  And taken seriously, wouldn’t it bring us back to the pre-Strachey biography?  A bio that didn’t tell us about what were after all central features of the writer’s life wouldn’t be much of a biography.  It’s especially strange in the light of Wilson himself, who was not one to be over careful about separating the writer from his work.

By on 09/06/05 at 02:55 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I don’t think that sex and drink are the two things that should drive Wilson’s biographer.  Rather it’s the disconnect between the “two-bit book reviewer” and the “great critic” (perhaps along with the drink) that is the puzzle. (That’s not to say that the biographer should ignore the sex:  one should always have something sensational to read on the train.)

Having an active, varied and complicated sex life, though, doesn’t appear to have ever done anyone any harm or prevented them from working if they wanted to.  But periodical reviewing has.  Cyril Connolly (the closest British equivalent to Wilson?) claimed it as one of the Enemies of Promise (as was drink).  Constant immersion in the trivial diurnal round of commercial publishing wears out the critical faculties.  And experience bears Connolly out:  Toibin is better than Yardley on Dabney on Wilson and (because?) Toibin only reviews occasionally.

Except for Wilson.  Neither periodical reviewing nor drink seem to have detracted from his capabilities.  Why?

By jim on 09/07/05 at 12:18 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Here is another article worth glossing:

http://www.dissentmagazine.org/menutest/articles/su05/wellington.htm

>Fighting at Cross-Purposes
Irving Howe vs. Ralph Ellison

>by Darryl Lorenzo Wellington

>In the early nineteen sixties, Irving Howe and Ralph Ellison crossed swords in an exchange of vehemently argued essays. Ellison’s half of the exchange remains handily available, “The World and the Jug,” reprinted in his now canonical essay collection Shadow and Act. Ellison is rarely a hot-tempered essayist, but “The World and the Jug” bristles. The essay to which Ellison is abrasively responding, Howe’s “Black Boys and Native Sons,” (Dissent, Autumn 1963) has gotten his dander up. He is defending his raison d’être. He is reclaiming his artistic value and independence from easy political categories (especially those imposed by Marxist-influenced white critics). His oratorical powers at full blast, with resounding indignation, he is asserting nothing less than the lasting significance of art.

>“The World and the Jug,” then, looks like the definitive statement on artistic autonomy vs. liberal condescension. Or, at least, it looks that way until one reads the somewhat less well-known Howe essay. Ellison is so blisteringly, so persuasively indignant that the Howe essay is often unjustly summarized. For example, in 1991 Mark Busby Twayne states that “Howe charged Ellison with insufficient anger and called for more protest against racism in his work.” This is flat-out incorrect.

By on 09/08/05 at 12:55 AM | Permanent link to this comment

btw: apropos Edmund Wilson there is a wonderful collection of essays on the critic edited by
Lewis Dabney that everyone interested in his work should know about:

Edmund Wilson (Paperback)

http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0691016712/qid=1126155459/sr=1-2/ref=sr_1_2/103-9017499-7275060?v=glance&s=books

by Lewis M. Dabney (Editor) “A CENTENNIAL celebration provides the occasion to take a fresh look at a writer’s work, to pay tribute and examine the legacy...” (more)
CAPs: Patriotic Gore, Soviet Union, New Republic, World War, Dos Passos (more)

By on 09/08/05 at 01:00 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Except for Wilson.  Neither periodical reviewing nor drink seem to have detracted from his capabilities.

Better periodicals, presumably. Kenneth Burke also published a lot in periodicals.

By John Emerson on 09/08/05 at 09:19 AM | Permanent link to this comment

No.  Burke published in things like the Southern Review or the Sewanee Review.  Wilson in Vanity Fair, The New Republic, the New Yorker.

By jim on 09/08/05 at 05:17 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m pretty sure Burke published in TNR at least.

By John Emerson on 09/09/05 at 11:46 AM | Permanent link to this comment

More relevant to your prior posting on Nafisi, but EW does have a cameo ...

(I understand Dabney’s making an appearance at Gotham Bookmart next week. Alcohol-free? But me, I am an unrecovering bookaholic ...)

By on 09/09/05 at 08:31 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’d bet 50 franks that neither Yardley, nor Amardeep, nor the first poster, have closely read the biography, if at all, which is typical of the empty self promotion which tends to pass for deep thought in the US these days.  Dabney is certainly not prissy, nor does he fetishize the salacious, nor is the work hagiographic.  It is clearly one of the more serious biographies of one of the more difficult subjects to be produced of late, and is a monement to what remains solid in American scholarship today, as opposed to this two bit sniping from hatchet men and those drivin to sound off about opinions on works they have not themselves read and are not generally informed about. 

Toibin’s review is serious in a way Yardley’s is not.  Splicing Yardely’s bizarre treatment into a post here and calling it “Lewis Dabney on Edmund Wilson” is as dishonest as it is laughable

This sort of post inspires me to think of the Valve as an entirely different sort of literary organ.

By on 09/10/05 at 11:31 AM | Permanent link to this comment

You are correct that the first poster had not read the biography. He was responding to a blog post. The Valve management have no control over people who choose to post here.

I confess to having taken Yardley at his word about Dabney. I was disagreeing with anyone whose admirtion for Wilson was compromised by their knowledge of his personal life, as well as anyone who thought that a biographer should soft-pedal embarrassing data (as Yardley seems to think).

I am flattered to think that I am typical of anything whatsoever, however. How seldom do I hear those words!

By John Emerson, first poster on 09/10/05 at 02:36 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Oh, I’ve no doubt Burke published in TNR.  But that wasn’t typical.  Take down A Rhetoric of Motives.  Acknowledgements page:  “Portions of A Grammar of Motives have previously been published in Accent, Chimera, The Kenyon Review, The Sewanee Review, and View.” Take down The Philosophy of Literary Form.  From the Foreword:  “The publications in which the others appeared are listed herewith:” The Southern Review (4 times), The Kenyon Review, The Symposium, The American Journal of Sociology, Direction, Science & Society, The Nation, The New Age Weekly, Poetry.

Now take down The Triple Thinkers.  Acknowledgements page:  “the Atlantic Monthly, the Hound and Horn, the New Republic, the New Yorker, and Partisan Review, in whose pages . . .”

And Wilson was writing stuff for these periodicals all the time, not just, as with Burke, when he had something to say.

Perhaps, though, the drudgery of constant reviewing did affect his criticism.  While I had The Triple Thinkers down, I took a look at his piece on A. E. Housman.  He gets him wrong.  Not entirely.  He does note the discrepancy between Housman’s emotion and its object.  But he goes off into a diatribe against Oxbridge:  “men of the monastery” (and he includes clear heterosexuals in his list, so it isn’t code for gay) who “fail to develop emotionally.” He’s interested in what Housman’s works can tell us about Housman.  But Housman was concerned to hide himself.

The big books still stand up:  Axel’s Castle, To The Finland Station, The Wound and the Bow.  But even there, Wilson seems most interested in what the text can tell us about the author (see the long and reworked pieces on Dickens and Kipling in the Wound and the Bow, for example), rather than what we can use of the author’s biography to understand his text.  This interest in the people rather than the books seems to me to be a journalistic deformation professionelle.

By jim on 09/10/05 at 03:50 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, I was thinking of “Permanence and Change”, and my copy is 1300 miles away at this moment, so I’ll concede.

By John Emerson, first poster on 09/10/05 at 08:14 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Toibin’s review is wonderful, and its presence in the Times Book Review is both welcome and a little unusual. And on that note: Jim is absolutely right to note that Burke and Wilson didn’t always address the same audiences. But let’s remember, also, that the magazines Wilson wrote for weren’t their modern selves either. Moreover, his acknowledgments in Triple Thinkers mention two little magazines, Hound and Horn and Partisan, as well as a New Republic and a New Yorker that had room for a different kind of writing than they can generally accommodate nowadays. One of the things that made Wilson special was his ability to write, for a long time, for both sorts of publication.

As to the details of Wilson’s sex life: he himself recorded these, in microscopic detail, in the diaries. In fact, they are in part a kind of protracted experiment in writing sex. I myself don’t find them engaging or attractive. But these passages clearly mattered to him, and formed part of his own participation in Modernism. I think the biographer--even a strongly literary biographer like Dabney--is pretty much stuck with this material.

By tony grafton on 09/12/05 at 05:29 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Second all Tony says, except the characterization of current TNYer and TNR.  I think they actually do quite serious stuff still and that these days are better for the TNYer than they were for a long time.  E.g., Menand’s superb essay about Wilson, which gives short shrift to Dabney but which takes Wilson seriously and captures the man well.

By on 09/12/05 at 06:40 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Sean’s right about TNR and the New Yorker; they often do an excellent job on literature and arts. But I don’t they they give any critic--even Acocella, Gopnik, Malcolm, Menand in the New Yorker or Perl and Rowland in TNR, all of whom I greatly esteem--the space that they gave Wilson to develop both a style, and a set of arguments that often concerned texts with no obvious connection to the moment.

Incidentlly, Perl’s review of the Dabney in Harper’s is splendid--don’t have a link.

By tony grafton on 09/12/05 at 07:31 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Hmmm . . . I dunno Tony.  But in any case just wanted to add one name to your list:  Terry Castle.  Like Rowland and Menand also an academic, but a great writer and critic too.

By on 09/12/05 at 02:35 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Earlier someone posted a reference that quotes me.  Below is a letter to the editor I sent to _Dissent_ about that quote.

In the Summer 2005 issue of _Dissent_, Darryl Lorenzo Wellington in “Fighting at Cross-Purposes: Irving Howe vs. Ralph Ellison” uses me as his whipping boy (misidentifying my name with my publisher in the online text).  He writes:  “Ellison is so blisteringly, so persuasively indignant that the Howe essay is often unjustly summarized. For example, in 1991 Mark Busby Twayne [sic] states that ‘Howe charged Ellison with insufficient anger and called for more protest against racism in his work.’ This is flat-out incorrect.”

My purpose was to analyze Ellison’s response to Howe, and Ellison clearly believed that Howe had done exactly what I said and responded with a searing attack.  Ellison wrote:  “In his effort to resuscitate Wright, Irving Howe would designate the role which Negro writers are to play more rigidly than any Southern politician--and for the best of reasoning.  We must express “black” anger and “clenched militancy”; most of all we should not be interested in the problems of the art of literature, even though it is through this that we seek our individual identities.  And between writing well and being ideologically militant, we must choose militancy.”

If I were so flat-out wrong, so was Ellison, and I found no real evidence in Wellington’s article that either is the case.

--
Mark Busby

By on 12/13/06 at 10:05 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Sean’s right about TNR and the New Yorker; they often do an excellent job on literature and arts. But I don’t they they give any critic--even Acocella, Gopnik, Malcolm, Menand in the New Yorker or Perl and Rowland in TNR, all of whom I greatly esteem--the space that they gave Wilson to develop both a style, and a set of arguments that often concerned texts with no obvious connection to the moment.

By ram on 08/01/08 at 08:49 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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