Monday, May 28, 2012

Edmund Wilson: wrong about everything

So, I was recently re-reading Edmund Wilson's piece on H. P. Lovecraft ("Tales of the Marvellous and the Ridiculous", 1945), and found I'd missed his ding of Lord Dunsany that occurs in this piece in passing. In his discussion of SUPERNATURAL HORROR IN LITERATURE ("a really able piece of work"), Wilson says that Lovecraft "writes about [his special field] with much intelligence". He then nonetheless uses Lovecraft's admiration for Dunsany as evidence of his innate second-rateness:

"He shows his lack of sound literary taste in his enthusiasm for Machen and Dunsany, whom he more or less acknowledged as models".

While I wasn't aware of this Dunsany reference in Wilson, it's thoroughly in keeping with what I wd have expected. The only fantasy author I know of whom Wilson approved was James Branch Cabell, whom he admired for the satirical and salacious parts.

However, it turns out this was not always the case. In an earlier piece on H. L. Mencken [1926], he had taken Mencken to task as someone who "is never tired of celebrating the elegances of such provincial fops as Lord Dunsany, Hergesheimer, and Cabell, who have announced -- it is, I think, Mr. Cabell's phrase -- that they aim to 'write beautifully about beautiful things'." Here Wilson lumps Dunsany and Cabell (and the unknown-to-me Hergesheimer) among the dilettantes unworthy of serious attention.*

The same Dunsany-&-Cabell-among-the-goats attitude holds in the only other reference to Dunsany I've found so far among Wilson's reviews: this time in a 1928 piece on Thornton Wilder. Here he praises Wilder by contrasting him to Dunsany and Cabell: "he [Wilder] has a hardness, a sharpness, that sets him quite apart from our Cabells, our Dunsanys, our Van Vechtens and our George Moores. He has an edge that is peculiar to himself".

So, that Wilson wd disparage Tolkien was entirely in keeping with his decades-long disparagement of fantasy, even as practiced by the greats, like Dunsany and Tolkien. Which makes his changing his mind on Cabell all the more interesting: having attacked him when he was popular, he began to champion him after he'd slipped into obscurity. Partly this was Wilson's contrariness, which grew on him towards the end of his life, and partly it was due to his seeing his role as one who puffed the unjustly neglected and took down a peg those who were being praised more than he felt they deserved.

More on this later.

--John R.

*Mencken was well-known for promoting Dunsany and played a large part in introducing him to an American audience.


David Bratman said...

You need to read Wilson's piece on Cabell (I think it's in his same "Fifties" collection that his Tolkien piece is to be found in). There he shows that his admiration for Cabell is minor and begrudging, the result of trying him again in the acknowledgment of others' enthusiasm, and very much in spite of the fantasy elements, which he still dislikes. Even his comment supposedly praising Cabell in his Tolkien essay, which he wrote soon after the Cabell piece, is really on the lines of "If you must go in for this kind of nonsense, Cabell is barely tolerable because he has something else to offer."

So there's really no need to single out Cabell as an exception to Wilson's dislike of fantasy. His admiration of Cabell was grudging and very much despite the fantasy elements, not because of them.

Rodolfo Mangosta Peferkorn said...

Good piece of information. Linked this.

John D. Rateliff said...

Hi David
My take is a little different from yours; I think Wilson really did come round so far as Cabell was concerned, though he remained primarily interested in him as a regionalist. Maybe I just placed more weight on Wilson's statement, near the opening of his late Cabell piece, that "The effect of the Cabell cult [of the 1920s] was . . . to leave the impression that its object was second-rate, and this is unjust to Mr. Cabell, whose distinction is real and of an uncommon kind."

In any case, we can all agree that E.W. knew little and cared less about fantasy, though he never let this lack of knowledge interfere with his willingness to express an opinion or deliver a judgment.

- - - - - - - -
re. Anubis: glad you liked it. Wish I cd read your own post, but German is not among the very small number of non-native languages which I can puzzle out.


Magister said...

Did you get my e-mail about Dunsany and the Nobel Prize?