Edmund Wilson's diaries from the '30s; The Thirties: From Notebooks and Diaries of the Period, by Edmund Wilson. Edited and with an introduction by Leon Edel. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $17.50.
Tempting as it often is in this instance, no chunky new volume of Edmund Wilson's writings can be ignored. Nor would a serious reader want to ignore the passages in these 700-plus pages from Wilson's notebooks and diaries that sharply evoke a depression decade of hardship, valor, frivolity, and political challenge instructive for today. Taken with another New Republic alumnus's recent memoir of the period -- Malcolm Cowley's "The Dream of the Golden Mountains" -- these jottings freshen the historical record with a literary eye.
Yet "The Thirties" and Wilson's "The Twenties" of five years ago do invite dismissal in relation to the finished, pungent, magisterial criticism that is his best legacy. They are not really books but the raw -- sometimes very raw -- materials of books. And, aside from listing the contents, there is not much to say about "The Thirties" beyond what was said about "The Twenties," except that the earlier volume offered more of the wry perspective provided by Wilson's added latter-day comments and explanations, since he had more of them completed before his passing.
Also in "The Thirties" Wilson's tortured reaction to the sudden loss of his second wife, Margaret Canby, brings him to the reader in an unusually personal way, though his skilled editor, Leon Edel, notes that Wilson often wrote down experience in order to depersonalizem it. There are glints of almost Woody Allen humor in Wilson's recollection of a dream in which William Randolph Hearst was gradually talking him into doing a regular newspaper feature when he woke up -- not mention an out-and-out nightmare when "I dreamed I was a chapter of a Malraux novel."
But in "The Thirties," as in "The Twenties," Wilson keeps on turning a major man of letters, concerned with moral distinctions in literature and society, into a lesser individual seemingly immune to simple ordinary standards of sexual morality. He has what Professor Edel calls a "delight in keeping Casanovaesque records of his adventures." And Wilson's favorite among his own works is the fictional "Memoirs of Hecate County" based on these explicitly described adventures to the point of being banned by court order back in the 1940s.
Boston publisher David R. Godine's new paperback edition of "Hecate County" arrives with comments as if, of course, it presents no problem anymore in this "liberated age." Yet there remains a problem -- maybe even more so in this age when rights and respect are for women as well as men. The relations of the sexes are demeaned.
A resistant reader is placed a little in the position of the playwright in "The Thirties" who was asked by a movie mogul what he thought of a certain picture.
"I think it's appalling," he said.
"But, aside from that, what do you think of it?" asked the mogul.
Wilson had the range to respond to Hollywood humor as well as New York wits, Southern sharecroppers, symbolist poets, historical thinkers. It serves no purpose to overlook his flaws or make a virtue of them just because he did. In the preface he drafted for "The Twenties" he modestly asked readers to make allowances for the possibility that he was unfairly harder on others than on himself. Perhaps he suspected that, in regard to himself and his work, he was not always among those he once praised as "the people who can distinguish Grade A and who prefer it to other grades."