America's best critic

<strong>Literary Essays and Reviews of the 1920s and 1930s</strong>

<strong>Literary Essays and R

In 20th-century America, while Clement Greenberg obsessed over what was and wasn't true art, and James Agee named the nickelodeon as the place where canonical wonders could be found, Edmund Wilson was their literary counterpart. He was a modern-day Theseus in the world of letters, the man who would lead you out of the labyrinth of what, exactly, to read next: not merely for your edification, but for the general good of your soul.

Wilson's later reputation - as a fusty majordomo in tweeds - unfairly hangs over these essay collections. F Scott Fitzgerald, for instance, regarded him as no less than his "intellectual conscience", even though Wilson described Fitzgerald as a master of poetic invention in prose with no discernible skill for theme or ideas.

These essays show that Wilson, despite his rigorous critical instincts, was surprisingly diverse in his enthusiasms. Houdini sits next to mid-century "business executive" sitcom-style theatre, scholarly lectures with economic treatises, Dorothy Parker and, most famously, the surrealists. As he aged, his judgements became less daring, despite their bluster, and his writing more prolix. In fact, considering the obvious issues of disentangling the older Wilson's thoughts from out of patches of overgrown sentences, cluttered with mixed metaphors, it's almost as though here was a critic setting himself up for another to come along and have at his words, the way he had with others before him, thus fostering a dialogue - or at least a generational tradition - of analysis and emendation. Which presumes that Wilson's writing at its clear-headed best couldn't do the same. And therein lies the lie.

The early writings from the 1920s, after Wilson had left Princeton, brim with the confidence and excitement of a man who raced about with three books under each arm, drunk on the possibilities of what truths they might offer, and coherent all the same. Wilson is wrong a lot, but he admits it, such as when he gets all worked up that Ezra Pound took half of his act from T S Eliot, only to grant later that it was Eliot who cribbed from Pound - not that this changed his view that Pound was more interested in gimmicks than poetics.

For about a decade, Wilson relished the role of court jester to the literary establishment, and it's tough not to laugh with him. H Mencken was the other great critical voice in American letters during Wilson's run, and, rather than fashion a critical rivalry, Wilson professed his admiration in his characteristically double-edged way. Mencken's "Notes on Democracy adds nothing that is new to his political philosophy", he wrote; the Baltimorean was up to his "same old melodrama, with the gentleman, the man of honour, pitted against the peasant and the boob", and yet the book was "one of [his] best written and most intensely felt".

His habit of denigrating something, then elevating it (or vice versa) and coming around to a balanced conclusion, is why, I believe, Wilson read as he did, seeking out writing that needed a devoted, perceptive reader to explain it. His best criticism deals with the modernist masters: Yeats, Proust, Joyce, Rimbaud and Valéry. Wilson labelled them "surrealists" in Axel's Castle: a Story of the Imaginative Literature of 1870-1930, a classic work that confirmed his status as one of America's finest literary critics.

This article first appeared in the 24 September 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Trouble ahead: the crises facing Gordon Brown