Women: The women and the sex were important to Wilson because everything else in his life was often a mess. He had three children, each from a different marriage. He moved a lot, usually from one shabby rented place to another, and, thanks to the divorces and, later, the negligence about taxes, money was a serious problem right up to the end. He was a functioning alcoholic but an angry drunk (one cause of the problems in the early marriages). His figure was not prepossessing. He was five-six and, by early middle age, stout and habitually short of breath. Isaiah Berlin was startled to meet him, in 1946, when Wilson was fifty-one: a “thick-set, red-faced, pot-bellied figure not unlike President Hoover.” His voice was described by contemporaries as a shrill boom, and he was uneasy in a classroom and a dreadful public speaker (as he was aware). When it came to most physical activities, he was inept. He did not, for instance, know how to drive a car. But he was an ardent lover. Sex seems to have been one place where he felt natural and in control, a zone of wholeness in a world that, for him, was characterized mostly by tension, rupture, and decay. The other place he must have felt that way, of course, was his writing.
Proust: ….: “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.”
The Civil War: … “There is in most of us an unreconstructed Southerner who will not accept domination as well as a benevolent despot who wants to mold others for their own good.”
Doesn’t Give a Fuck: He was often brusque and aloof with people, but he spoke his mind, sometimes imprudently and frequently in print; and in his diaries he does not seem to have censored much. Unlike, say, Bellow, he gave no time or consideration to the project of crafting a personality. Kazin once teased Wilson about wearing a dress shirt when he went to the beach in Wellfleet, which is where he spent the parts of the year that he was not in Talcottville. “I have only one way of dressing,” Wilson said.
Writing: Why shouldn’t there be errors and omissions? Wilson was opinionated and arbitrary about the subjects he covered because he was a writer, not an expert. He was not obliged, as professors are, to pick out a single furrow and plow it for life. His whole career was devoted to the opposite principle: that an educated, intelligent person can take on any subject that seems interesting and important, and, by doing the homework and taking care with the exposition, make it interesting and important to other people. There is no point in comparing Wilson—either unfavorably, as Hyman did, or favorably, as people contemptuous of English professors sometimes do today—with academic critics. He operated in an entirely different environment. “To write what you are interested in writing and to succeed in getting editors to pay for it, is a feat that may require pretty close calculation and a good deal of ingenuity,” he once explained. “You have to learn to load solid matter into notices of ephemeral happenings; you have to develop a resourcefulness at pursuing a line of thought through pieces on miscellaneous and more or less fortuitous subjects; and you have to acquire a technique of slipping over on the routine of editors the deeper independent work which their over-anxious intentness on the fashions of the month or the week have conditioned them automatically to reject.” He wrote in a world where print was still king, and literature was at the center of a nation’s culture—circumstances that gave glamour to literary journalism. He sensed that that world was coming to an end before most people did, and he declined to compromise with the future. In the last week of his life, he was taken to see two movies, “The Godfather” and “The French Connection.” As always, he recorded his observations in his journal. “Bang bang” was all he wrote. ♦
(Source: Missionary: Edmund Wilson and American Culture. By: Louis Menand. The New Yorker. Aug. 8, 2005)