Writing for these shores

EDMUND Wilson spent a lifetime writing about the literary greats. Now he has become one himself. That ``official'' sophomore text, ``The Norton Anthology of American Literature,'' contains two essays from ``Upstate,'' his book about the people and the countryside on the western slope of the Adirondacks. When he speaks about his old stone house in Talcottville, he makes us want to live there. I think Wilson would be gratified by this posthumous accolade, for he was never very sure of his literary position. On finishing ``Patriotic Gore,'' his masterpiece on the period of the Civil War, he wrote, ``I got bored in the long run with my political and literary history and with the limited resources of my vocabulary in dealing with this sort of thing, at which I don't think I am really at my best.'' And he once told Mike Nichols that getting older did not seem to produce self-confidence, that sometimes he `` . . . got up at four o'clock in the morning to read old reviews of my books.''

He also worried about being out of touch. In ``The Author at Sixty,'' Wilson confessed that he didn't drive a car or listen to the radio or watch television and seldom went out to the movies. He concluded therefore that in some real sense he did not inhabit 20th-century America.

I suspect Wilson was wrong about not living here. I think he simply kept the country at arm's length in order to see it better. He studied us as closely as Tocqueville did.

And how American Wilson was! Regardless of his subject, he is always aware of its relevance for these shores: for American literature or politics, for American taxes or American dictionaries. And I know of no more carefully balanced, yet glowing portraits of Americans themselves than those in ``Upstate'': Otis and Fern Munn, the dairy farmers. Albert Grubel, who is interested in gruesome events; and Mrs. Pcolar, who taught Wilson Hungarian. He devotes most of a page to her diurnal accomplishments: raising three children, managing a farm, working at the local drugstore, gardening, carpentry, cosmetology and theatrical makeup, painting, poetry, and PTA. The effect is domestically epic and honorific, so that this otherwise unknown woman comes to represent all that's best in our daily life.

That was Edmund Wilson's gift. For despite his great erudition he founded no school, proposed no theory. His virtue as a writer was a sustained and hopeful curiosity about the ordinary. ``I am still expecting something exciting,'' he wrote in his 70s, `` . . . animated conversation, gaiety, brilliant writing, uninhibited exchange of ideas.'' Early in his career, he dutifully described the ennui of long stretches of detail in ``Ulysses'' but characteristically concluded that Joyce's novel was ``animated by complex inexhaustible life: we revisit it as we do a city, where we come more and more to recognize faces, to understand personalities, to grasp relations, currents, and interests.''

Wilson was of course talking about the way he revisited Joyce, the way he saw things. Self-regard was his ultimate stylistic device: The reader reads along with him and, for the length of the piece, sees with him. In my generation we all learned from him.

For though Wilson wrote about great literature as well as or better than anyone else, his preference was always for the undervalued author, the neglected landscape -- especially if they were American. In his pages therefore we first heard about Harold Frederic's ``The Damnation of Theron Ware'' and William Henry Herndon's ``Lincoln'' and Harriet Beecher Stowe's other novels. Wilson's portraits of minor American writers still haunt our imagination -- Grant and his Memoirs; or Alexander Stephens, once vice-president of the Confederacy, still justifying the South as a prisoner on George's Island in Boston Harbor.

Yet he also saw America in the more natural sense. Here is the beginning of the first essay in that college text. It is 1932 and he is going north to Talcottville in a train with dirty windows, stuck closed. Finally he gets one open: `` . . . there was nothing between me and the widening pastures, the great boulders, the black and white cattle, the rivers, stony and thin, the lone elms like feather-dusters, the high air which sharpens all outlines, makes all colors so breathtakingly vivid, in the clear light of late afternoon.''

A year ago I was up in Fort Kent, Maine, for my son's graduation from the local campus of the state university. Fort Kent is about as far north as you can get in this country. It looks like and is a frontier town, a succession of two-story clapboard fa,cades. But in one of the dresser drawers in the motel I found a paperback copy of Wilson's first volume of criticism, ``Axel's Castle.'' With my surprise came a feeling of ``Ah, of course. He's a classic now.'' And though I hadn't seen these pieces on the French Symbolists and their heirs since I was my son's age, I sat down immediately after commencement and reread them. Once again he made me want to study Mallarm'e and Val'ery and then go back to the American, Poe.

Edmund Wilson was our Addison, his literary criticism not only just but inspiring. He made us want to be as learned and as graceful as he was.

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