Edmund Wilson’s The Triple Thinkers

Edmund Wilson has fallen into relative obscurity at the moment, but for much of the 20th century he was America’s preeminent literary critic – and that at a time when literary criticism still had some purchase on the cultural mainstream. He survives, however, in our appreciation for his fellow Princeton alumnus F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose works he championed and later edited for publication, as well as a clutch of other American writers now considered giants, but whose literary reputations Wilson helped to create: John Dos Passos, Ernest Hemingway, and William Faulkner. The Triple Thinkers, a collection of his literary criticism, appeared in 1938, but the brunt of its focus was on writers already well established in their reputations: John Jay Chapman, A. E. Housman, Pushkin, Flaubert, Ben Jonson, Bernard Shaw and Henry James.

One of the earliest essays in this collection – “Is Verse a Dying Technique?” – offers a representative glimpse into Wilson’s literary knowledge and the confidence born thereof to make strong claims and sweeping connections. The essay argues for a broader understanding of “verse” in the age of the novel since the late 19th century, an understanding that would dampen our fears of poetry’s demise and help us to better appreciate the stunning innovations of novelists since Flaubert. He quotes approvingly from a letter Flaubert wrote Louise Colet: “To desire to give verse-rhythm to prose, yet to leave it prose and very much prose […] and to write about ordinary life as histories and epics are written, yet without falsifying the subject, is perhaps an absurd idea. Sometimes I almost think it is. But it may also be a great experiment and very original.” If Flaubert was the originator of this experiment in the novel, Wilson argues, Joyce was to perfect it – after all, how could you describe Finnegans Wake without recourse to the words “verse” and “poetry”? Even formerly maligned poets like Pope and Whitman, Wilson argues, would benefit from the destruction of the restrictive standards of rigid categories, allowing for an enlarged appreciation of their art:

If, then, we take literature as a whole for our field, we put an end to many futile controversies – the controversies, for example, as to whether or not Pope is a poet, as to whether or not Whitman is a poet. If you are prepared to admit that Pope is one of the great English writers, it is less interesting to compare him with Shakespeare – which will tell you something about the development of English verse but not bring out Pope’s peculiar excellence – than to compare him with Thackeray, say, with whom he has his principal theme – the vanity of the world – in common and who throws into relief the more passionate pulse and the solider art of Pope. And so the effort to apply to Whitman the ordinary standards of verse has hindered the appreciation of his careful and exquisite art.

Joyce, Nabokov, even John Updike owe something to this artistic fusion of poetry and prose inaugurated in the novel by Flaubert, and much of the mixed reaction to the early works of Joyce becomes understandable in light of the rigidity of the categories and expectations employed by these readers.

The essays on Housman and Ben Jonson impress with their familiarity with these writers’ lives, as well as their works. Housman was a classical scholar of some renown, and Wilson can draw on an array of classical scholars to calibrate his judgments of Housman’s work, as well as his own knowledge of ancient Greek. He detects a stark contrast in tone between Housman’s poetry, which is somber without being bitter, and his classical scholarship, which Wilson describes as “indecently” bitter. In the poetry,

[…] we find only the realization of man’s smallness on his turning globe among the other revolving planets and of his own base wrongness to himself, his own inescapable anguish. No one, it seems, can do anything about the universe which ‘ails from its prime foundation’: we can only, like Mithridates, render ourselves immune to its poisons by compelling ourselves to absorb them in small quantities in order that we may not succumb to the larger doses reserved for us by our fellows, or face the world with the hard mask of stoicism, ‘manful like the man of stone.’

But in the rather rarefied field of classical scholarship, Housman, it seems, unleashed himself. “In a prose, old-fashioned and elaborate, which somewhat resembles Pope’s, he will attack the German professors who have committed the unpardonable sin of editing the Latin authors inadequately with sentences that coil and strike like rattlesnakes, or that wrap themselves around their victims and squeeze them to death like boa constrictors.” Chiding one writer for what he regarded as a lazy translation, Housman wrote, “How the world is managed, and why it was created, I cannot tell; but it is no feather-bed for the repose of sluggards.” Admirers of Housman’s poetry will enjoy Wilson’s insights into the man and his writing, but even the uninitiated might not fail to notice the manner in which Wilson makes these connections: the imagery of Mithridates, poisoning himself in small doses, or of the sentences coiled like snakes, are characteristic of the erudite and imaginative mind on display in Wilson’s work.

For all the dazzling insights these essays provide, into some of literature’s most famous writers, the collection’s most affecting essay is more prosaic in subject matter. “Mr. Rolfe” is a profile of Wilson’s boarding school teacher of ancient Greek, a man both eccentric and exacting, whose devotion to literature was infectious enough to captivate a young Edmund Wilson, and launch him on a lifetime of literary appreciation as well. Those of us lucky enough to have had such teachers carry their memories, and a deep gratitude for what they imparted, all our lives, and Wilson’s deft portrayal of his own particular instructor doubles as an ode to the entire profession. This essay was a welcome addition, helpfully humanizing Wilson for his readers and immortalizing the contributions – even if second-hand – of his teacher to the tradition of literary appreciation. I also came to learn, while researching Wilson’s life, that his own contributions to the appreciation of literature extend beyond his writings. Notwithstanding the cover image I have selected for this review, I hold in my hand the Library of America edition of Wilson’s collected criticism – a nonprofit publication series aimed at collecting, preserving and disseminating the best American writing. And though it did not come into being until shortly after Wilson’s death, it was nonetheless his brainchild, a gift beyond the grave to readers yet unborn.