Edmund Wilson: Nineteenth-Century Man
"Old age is a shipwreck." Like many a ground soldier, General de Gaulle was drawn to maritime metaphors. Of course shipwrecks are not like happy families. There is the Titanic-swift departure in the presence of a floating mountain of ice, as the orchestra plays the overture from Tales of Hoffmann. There is the slow settling to full fathom five as holds fill up with water, giving the soon-to-be-drowned sufficient time to collect his thoughts about eternity and wetness. It was Edmund Wilson's fate to sink slowly from 1960 to June 12, 1972, when he went full fathom five. The last entry in his journal is a bit of doggerel for his wife Elena: "Is that a bird or a leaf? / Good grief! / My eyes are old and dim, / And I am getting deaf, my dear, / Your words are no more clear / And I can hardly swim. / I find this rather grim."
"Rather grim" describes The Sixties, Wilson's journals covering his last decade. This volume's editor, Lewis M. Dabney, starts with an epigraph from Yeats's "Sailing to Byzantium," thus striking the valetudinarian note. New Year 1960 finds Wilson at Harvard as Lowell Professor of English. He suffers from angina, arthritis, gout, and hangovers. "At my age, I find that I alternate between spells of fatigue and indifference when I am almost ready to give up the struggle, and spells of expanding ambition, when I feel that I can do more than ever before." He is in his sixty-fifth year, a time more usually deciduous than mellowly fruitful. But then he is distracted by the people that he meets and the conversations that he holds, all the while drinking until the words start to come in sharp not always coherent barks; yet the mind is functioning with all its old energy. He is learning Hungarian, as he earlier learned Hebrew and before that Russian, a language whose finer points and arcane nuances he so generously and memorably shared with Vladimir Nabokov, unhinging their friendship in the process.
During his last decade, Wilson published Apologies to the Iroquois, a project that he had set himself as, more and more, he came to live in the stone house of his mother's York combination of Ulster and Dutch; and so, in a sense, he had come home to die. Also, to work prodigiously. He made his apologies to the Indian tribes that his family, among others, had displaced. In O, Canada, he paid belated attention to the large familiar remoteness to the north which he had visited in youth with his father. He wrote book reviews; spent time at Wellfleet where he had a house; visited New York; went abroad to Israel, Hungary.
The decade was made unpleasant by the fact that he had neglected to file an income tax return between the years 1946 and 1955. The Internal Revenue Service moved in. He was allowed a certain amount to live on. The rest went to the Treasury. He was also under a grotesque sort of surveillance. Agents would ask him why he had spent so much money for a dog's cushion. Wilson's response to this mess was a splendid, much ignored polemical book called The Cold War and the Income Tax, which he saw as the two sides to the same imperial coin. The American people were kept frightened and obedient by a fear of the Soviet Union, which their government told them was on the march everywhere, as well as by the punitive income tax, which was needed in order to pay for a military machine that alone stood between the cowed people and slavery. It was better, we were warned, to be dead than red--as opposed to just plain in the red.
Maximum income tax in those days was 90 percent. Wilson's anarchic response was later, more slyly, matched by the Reagan backlash; instead of raising money to fight the enemy through taxes, the money was raised through borrowing. The result is that, today, even though we have not only sailed to but made landfall in Byzantium, the economy remains militarized, as Wilson had so untactfully noted. At sixty-eight, his present reviewer's green age, he writes, "I have finally come to feel that this country, whether or not I live in it, is no longer any place for me." Not that he has any other country in view: "I find that I more and more feel a boredom with and scorn for the human race. We have such a long way to go. . . ." He, of course, was a professional signpost, a warning light.
Despite boredom and scorn Wilson soldiered on, reading and writing and thinking. He published his most original book, Patriotic Gore. He acknowledges a critical biography of him. The book has a preface by a hack of academe who refers to Patriotic Gore as a "shapeless hodgepodge." Since remedial reading courses do not exist for the tenured, Wilson can only note that his survey of why North and South fought in the Civil War
is actually very much organized. . . . I don't think that Moore understands that with such books I am always working with a plan and structure in mind. As a journalist, I sell the various sections to magazines as I can. . . . He is also incorrect in implying, as several other people have, that I studied Hebrew for the purpose of writing on the Dead Sea scrolls. It was the other way around: it was from studying Hebrew that I become curious to find out what was going on in connection with the scrolls.
He ends, nicely, with a list of errata, even "though I doubt whether your book will ever get into a second printing."
In the introduction to Patriotic Gore, Wilson broods on the self-aggrandizing nature of nation-states, one of which, he is sad to note, is the United States, in all its unexceptionalism. Apropos the wars,
Having myself lived through a couple of world wars, and having read a certain amount of history, I am no longer disposed to take very seriously the professions of "war aims" that nations make. . . .
We Americans have not yet had to suffer from the worst of the calamities that have followed on the dictatorships in Germany and Russia, but we have been going for a long time now quite steadily in the same direction.
Why did North want to fight South? And why was South willing, so extravagantly, to die for what Seward had scornfully called their "mosquito republics"? Through an analysis of the fiction and rhetoric of the conflict, Wilson presents us with a new view of the matter while dispensing with received opinion. He also places his analysis in the full context of the cold war just as it was about to turn hot in Vietnam. Before anyone knew precisely what our national security state really was, Wilson, thirty years ago, got it right:
The Russians and we produced nuclear weapons to flourish at one another and played the game of calling bad names when there had been nothing at issue between us that need have prevented our living in the same world and when we were actually, for better or worse, becoming more and more alike--the Russians emulating America in their frantic industrialization and we imitating them in our persecution of non-conformist political opinion, while both, to achieve their ends, were building up huge governmental bureaucracies in the hands of which the people have seemed helpless.
Predictably, this set off alarm bells. At the Algonquin, May 15, 1962, Wilson meets Alfred Kazin. "I took Alfred back to a couch and talked to him about his review of Patriotic Gore. He showed a certain indignation over my Introduction: I and my people "had it made" and didn't sympathize with the Negroes and people like him, the son of immigrants, who had found in the United States freedom and opportunity. He is still full of romantic faith in American ideals and promises, and it is hard for him to see what we are really doing."
In Patriotic Gore, Wilson questioned the central myth of the American republic, which is also, paradoxically, the cornerstone of our subsequent empire--e pluribus unum--the ever tightening control from the center to the periphery. Wilson is pre-Lincolnian (or a Lincolnian of 1846). He sees virtue, freedom in a less perfect union. Today's centrifugal forces in the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia he anticipated in Patriotic Gore where, through his portraits of various leaders in our Civil War, he shows how people, in order to free themselves of an overcentralized state, are more than willing, and most tragically, to shed patriotic gore.
To be fair, Wilson set off alarm bells in less naive quarters. As one reads reviews of the book by such honorable establishment figures as Henry Steele Commager and Robert Penn Warren one is struck by their defensive misunderstanding not only of his text but of our common state. At times, they sound like apologists for an empire that wants to present itself as not only flawless but uniquely Good. Commager zeroes in on the Darwinian introduction. He notes, as other reviewers do, Justice Holmes's Realpolitik: "that it seems to me that every society rests on the death of men." But Commager is troubled that Wilson "does not see fit to quote" the peroration of "The Soldier's Faith," Holmes's memorial address, with its purple "snowy heights of honor" for the Civil War dead. Yet Wilson quotes the crux of Holmes's speech,
There is one thing that I do not doubt, no man who lives in the world with most of us can doubt, and that is that the faith is true and adorable which leads a soldier to throw away his life in obedience to a blindly accepted duty, in a cause which he little understands, in a plan of campaign of which he has no notion, under tactics of which he little understands.
Surely, that is quite enough patriotic tears for spilled gore.
In 1963, as pontifex maximus of the old American republic, Wilson is speaking out with a Roman hardness and clarity, and sadness at what has been lost since the Union's victory at Appomattox. Our eighteenth-century res publicus had been replaced by a hard-boiled soft-minded imperium, ever eager to use that terrible swift sword, presumably for ever, unless, of course, we are struck down by the current great Satan who threatens our lives and sacred honor in the high lands of Somalia. Wilson has no great sentimentality about the Indian-killing, slave-holding founders but he is concerned by the absolute loss of any moral idea other than Holmes's bleakly reductive "every society rests on the death of men." It is not this sad truth that Wilson is challenging, thus causing distress to the apologists of empire; rather it is their clumsy ongoing falsifications of motives, their misleading rhetoric all "snowy heights of honor" (try that one on a Vietnam veteran), their deep complicity in an empire that is now based not only on understandable greed but far worse on a mindless vanity to seem invincible abroad and in full control of all the folks at home. Just as the empire was about to play out its last act in Southeast Asia, Wilson's meditation on the Civil War and war and the nature of our state was published and: "There is shock after shock," as Penn Warren put it, "to our official versions and received opinions." But, surely, shock is what writers are meant to apply when the patient has lost touch with reality. Unhappily, many others are in place to act as shock-absorbers. They also shroud the martyred Lincoln with his disingenuous funeral address at Gettysburg in order to distract attention from the uncomfortable paradox that his dictatorship--forbidden word in a free country--preserved the Union by destroying its soul.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Last Empire by Gore Vidal. Copyright © 2001 by Gore Vidal. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.