A piece of my mind ; reflections at sixty

by Edmund Wilson

Paperback, 1958




Garden City, N.Y. : Doubleday, 1958.

User reviews

LibraryThing member librisissimo
Substance: Highly personal essays, tied to biographical events, of an almost archetypal "literary leftist liberal" from the early 20th century. Fascinating for the insight into the world-view of the species.
LibraryThing member bezoar44
Not one of Wilson's best. This book confirms, if one needs confirmation, that even an intelligent, incisive critic can think and write a great many foolish and parochial things. As always, Wilson writes with precision and verve. At one point, in an essay about education, he references "the great Trinity: Lucidity, Force, and Ease," [161], and those principles, along with an astounding self-assurance, characterize Wilson's own style. Take, for example, this analogy, deployed in an essay arguing that a standard liberal education should include "courses in the literature and history of the Jews": "One is offered certain opportunities for learning about Greece and Rome; but the approach to the Hebrew record...more or less is still diverted by religious bias. The supposed divinity of Jesus has caused a wrinkle in history not unlike Einstein's fold in space, which used to be compared to a hill that looks like flat earth from above: one cannot see the hill is there except by observing the fact that everybody goes around it." [151] The point is thoughtful - Christians have been blinded to major contributions of Jewish culture in part because Christian theology hasn't invited a genuinely historical appreciation of them - and the image of people avoiding a hill is clear. Would the reference to Einstein's fold in space have made any sense to most readers in 1956? Or is it just there as an offhand gesture - this author is so up-to-date, he can casually reference spacetime in an essay about curriculum? (Quibble: spacetime is distorted by gravity wells, not hills, so where did this analogy come from?) And, implicitly, it places the observer - Wilson and perhaps his audience - on high, surveying the subject from above.

Yet, in many of these essays, skilled writing carries small-minded judgments. Here's his take on Catholicism: "The Catholic, then, does not have to be honest in the sense that the term is ordinarily used - any more than the Communist does....he is free to think whatever he pleases if he makes a routine submission."[17]. Or, on sex: "The purpose of sexual intercourse, and hence of what we call love, is to secure the survival of the human race and, if possible, improve the breed." [197] He professes surprise that most people he knows disagree with this (at least with respect to love), as he launches into an essay that mostly examines sexual feelings in literature (rather than in life), describes homosexuality as a "cul-de-sac" because it can't (directly) result in offspring, and ends with a prediction of the inevitability of eugenics. Wilson's ruminations on the Russian national character combine genuine insights into Russian history, and a sympathetic appreciation of Russian literature, with dreadful chauvinism.

Ultimately, Wilson is at his best when he is closely examining writers and thinkers in their cultural contexts -- as in his works To the Finland Station, on Russian revolutionaries, or Patriotic Gore, on American writers before, during, and after the Civil War. There just isn't that much of that kind of analysis in this bunch of essays. What to some extent redeems the collection - and is especially worth reading for anyone interested in Wilson himself - is the last piece in the book, 'The Author at Sixty'. It's actually a memoir of his parents' marriage, and especially of his father. While it is clearly a constructed document - Wilson filters and interprets what he shares - it is deeply revealing about Wilson's own motivations, personality, and the roots of his sense of self.
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