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Most of his books were put together from pieces that had been written to meet journalistic occasions.
(The articles did prepare the way for the Library of America, an enterprise that Wilson conceived.)In his last years, he turned to autobiography, and this marks the third phase of his career, much of which is posthumous.
Wilson completed two volumes of memoirs, “A Prelude” (1967), covering his life through the First World War, and “Upstate” (1971), about Talcottville, a remote New York town, where he spent part of the year alone in an old house that had belonged to his family.
Studies in Four Civilizations: Zuñi, Haiti, Soviet Russia, Israel” (1956); “Apologies to the Iroquois” (1960); the third of the major works, “Patriotic Gore” (1962), a study of the literature of the American Civil War, most of it by minor writers; a book on Canadian literature, “O Canada” (1965); and “A Window on Russia for the Use of Foreign Readers” (1972).
There are also two classic cases of late-life peevishness: “The Cold War and the Income Tax” (1963), which arose out of Wilson’s failure to file income-tax returns from 1946 to 1955, an act of carelessness to which he attempted to give the glow of principle; and “The Fruits of the MLA,” a two-part article for designed to vaporize a harmless and well-intentioned cottage industry, the publication of scholarly editions.
When he lost patience with a book, he skipped around, and what he ignored he ignored without shame.
“I have been bored by Hispanophiles,” he wrote in in 1965, “and I have also been bored by everything, with the exception of Spanish painting, that I have ever known about Spain.The principle of the Bourdon gauge, which is used to measure the pressure of liquids, is that a tube which has been curved into a coil will tend to straighten out in proportion as the liquid inside it is subjected to an increasing pressure.**It was an entire generation’s romance of Marxism in a sentence. Many of his literary friends had died or were, creatively, past it; possibly the chronic catfight that was his third marriage, to Mary Mc Carthy, wore him down.He published two major collections, “The Triple Thinkers” (1938) and “The Wound and the Bow” (1941); a number of the essays in them—on Dickens, James, Wharton, Kipling, Pushkin, and Flaubert—changed the reputations of their subjects.The books and essays of this phase have a special charge, given to them by Wilson’s notion of writing as an arena where there is the possibility of heroic performance—and by the hope, or the desire, that his own books and essays might be performances of this kind. Alfred Kazin, whose first book, “On Native Grounds,” was passionately indebted to Wilson’s prose, and his friend Richard Hofstadter used to read aloud to each other the famous ending of the chapter on Proust in “Axel’s Castle”:** ** Proust is perhaps the last great historian of the loves, the society, the intelligence, the diplomacy, the literature and the art of the Heartbreak House of capitalist culture; and the little man with the sad appealing voice, the metaphysician’s mind, the Saracen’s beak, the ill-fitting dress-shirt and the great eyes that seem to see all about him like the many-faceted eyes of a fly, dominates the scene and plays host in the mansion where he is not long to be master.He admired the writers he treated in “Axel’s Castle”— Joyce and Proust especially—but he believed that they were going down a path of introversion and art-for-art’s-sake, an honorable path but a wrong one, and his hope in writing about them was that the scope and sophistication of their achievement would be an inspiration for the more socially engaged American writing he envisioned for the decades to come.Wilson was not shaped by European modernism; he enlisted European modernism in a mission already mounted—the mission to deprovincialize American culture. His father was the New Jersey state attorney general under Governor Woodrow Wilson; before his career was wrecked by what was then called neurasthenia (meaning, essentially, male hysteria), he made a name for himself by cleaning up the rackets in Atlantic City.Writers had been corrupted, he believed, by “the two great enemies of literary talent in our time: Hollywood and Henry Luce.” It was not that the movement had died. Disaffection became Wilson’s customary response to contemporary life and literature. In his journalism, he turned to the old, the marginal, the neglected, and the obscure.He claimed, only a little hyperbolically, that the only American novelist whose work he followed was J. The period begins with his reporting for from the ruins of Europe, collected in “Europe Without Baedeker” (1947), and includes “The Scrolls from the Dead Sea” (1955); “Red, Black, Blond, and Olive.I have made a point of learning no Spanish, and I have never got through ‘Don Quixote.’ ” Though he wrote well-known essays on Dickens and on Henry James, he was uninterested in most Victorian fiction and didn’t bother to finish “Middlemarch.” He had a good knowledge of the theatre (he wrote a number of plays, and his first wife, Mary Blair, was in the Provincetown Players, Eugene O’Neill’s company); he had a selective knowledge of art, a very selective knowledge of classical music, and virtually no knowledge of the movies.He loathed the radio.“A history of man’s ideas and imaginings in the setting of the conditions which have shaped them”: this was the way Wilson described his ambition in his first major book, “Axel’s Castle,” in 1931 (the words appear in a dedication to his Princeton mentor Christian Gauss), and he was always keenly conscious of the conditions that had shaped his own ideas and imaginings.