George Orwell and Edmund Wilson are emblematic names that have come down to us from the still ticking heart of the twentieth century—literary names that carry meaning. Speak of Orwell, and what reverberates is monitory: Animal Farm and 1984, each a forceful parable of totalitarian oppression. But Orwell was also renowned as a sonorous essayist, one who is nowadays not much read beyond the campus, where “Shooting an Elephant” is a mainstay of the college anthologies. Except for Animal Farm, his fiction fails to attract ongoing notice—least of all Keep the Aspidistra Flying, long ago interred among the forgotten social novels of the 1930s. And apart from Orwell specialists, who now reads The Road to Wigan Pier? Yet Big Brother and Newspeak and memory hole are so ingrained in the common idiom that for many it hardly seems necessary to trouble to turn the already familiar pages of 1984. None of this matters; what counts is the echo of Orwell’s name and the bleakness it evokes: dread; deception; injustice; anomie; soullessness. Orwell has become Orwellian.
Edmund Wilson germinates no parallel verbal progeny: Wilsonian, if it suggests anything, characterizes the policies of an American president. We have no single term—no summarizing atmospheric word—for America’s preeminent critic, who has no peer and may never be surpassed. He encompassed worlds: he wrote on the Iroquois, on an ancient Hebrew religious sect, on Russian philology, on the French Symbolists, on the evolution of radical political movements from Robespierre to the Bolsheviks, on the Civil War; he wrote on Canada and on Haiti, on citizenship and taxation, on movies and theater, on poets and novelists, on historical figures and on his contemporaries. He also wrote—critically—on literary criticism.
In 1928, in an acerbic and dismissive essay titled “The Critic Who Does Not Exist,” he complained of the lack of serious literary criticism in the United States. “A work of art,” he said, “is not a set of ideas or an exercise of technique, or even a combination of both. But I am strongly disposed to believe that our contemporary writing would benefit by a genuine literary criticism that should deal expertly with ideas and art… . In a sense, it can probably be said that no such creature exists as a full-time literary critic—that is, a writer who is at once first-rate and nothing but a literary critic.” Wilson, of course, was that creature, and today there are a number of first-rate writers of criticism who are at work full-time; but are there enough to make what can be called an expansive literary culture?
If we isolate only one decade of the many Wilson dominated—the 1920s, say—the extent and variety of his perceptions and preoccupations astonish. It is as if Wilson were not one critic but scores of critics, all working separately in their respective specialties. His “All-Star Literary Vaudeville” is an essay that ranges over dozens of writers, most of them durably familiar to their posterity—Dreiser, Mencken, Willa Cather, Sherwood Anderson—though some, like Carl Van Vechten and Joseph Hergesheimer, today seem no more visible than distant ghosts. Between 1924 and 1928 alone, Wilson rounded up his reflections on Houdini, Poe, dialect and slang, e. e. cummings, Woodrow Wilson’s years at Princeton, Ring Lardner, Eugene O’Neill, Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Byron’s mistresses, subjects such as “the humility of common sense” and “the trouble with American comedy,” John Dos Passos, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Henry James, Upton Sinclair, a Prohibition-era speakeasy; and much more, all in seamlessly lucid prose.
It should be understood—it should be trumpeted—that not one of these essays is dated. Not one is infected by staleness. Wilson’s achievement rises beyond reviewing, giving the news, assessing his time. Read him now and see the lineaments of a civilization; he reproduces nothing less. The critic has become a historian.
And here is the shock of it. Wilson stands as a kind of symbol—far more than a literary model to aspire to. He is what current lingo, falling into the tedium of overuse, terms an “icon,” the embodiment of an indissoluble fame. And like Orwell, whose repute—whose meaning—is similarly enduring, he is not read. Admired, honored, influential, legendary; rumored, but not read. Which brings us, alarmingly, to the Orwellian: the dying of the imagination through the invisibility of the past. As for the uses of criticism by the denizens of the present moment: envisioning society whole by way of the contemplation of its parts, the delicate along with the tumultuous, the weighty together with the trifling, is how a culture can learn to imagine its own face.
Without the critics, incoherence.