He arrives full of excitement and high expectations; eagerly he gets to know everybody who is writing, as he already knows everything they have written. He rushes about from one group to another. He attends all the literary teas, the publisher's luncheons, the theatrical openings, the miscellaneous drinking parties. And he brings to it all his shrewdness, his audacity, his humor, his extraordinary memory and his undiscourageable enthusiasm for literature. He makes us feel, as we read this record, that there is something really important in the air, that the work of all these people is interesting, that their opinions deserve attention.
"Maxwell Bodenheim [the Chicago, later New York poet] described me in some such phrase as 'a fatuous policeman, menacingly swinging his club.' In rereading this essay...I have sometimes been reminded of this."
"I have recommended lenience toward reviewers who use the books they are supposed to be reviewing as pretexts for expressing themselves; but only in cases where their articles--what happens comparatively rarely--are interesting in themselves. There is no excuse at all for an uninteresting review that tells nothing about the book. The reviewer, at the very least, should be expected to supply information. The retelling of the story of a novel, the summary of an historical or philosophical book, the selection of representative passages and the attempt to communicate the quality of a poet, is the most boring part of the reviewer's business, but it is an absolutely essential part."
And it left me with a bunch of new books I want to read. What more can a book about books do?
|Two literarily-engaged figures with large heads|
I got Lewis Dabney's Edmund Wilson: A Life in Literature (2005) from the library to go with this; I've only read it so far through the period in question, but I will finish it. That's where I got the skinny on Wilson and Millay. Dabney also edited the Wilson Library of America volumes.
The biography is pretty good, but editing, even, it seems, at a prestige publisher like Farrar, Strauss, is a lost art. The phrase 'shores of light' as Wilson tells us, comes from the Latin 'in luminis oras'. Wilson got it from Virgil, (Georgics, Bk II.47) though it appears a few other places as well. In Virgil, it's a comment about the heliotropism of plants; prosaically I might translate the line: "On their own plants grow toward light sources." Wilson romanticizes the line a bit in a poem he wrote (I'm quoting the end of his poem which appears in the essay on Millay):
My stubborn heart to-night
Divines the fate of souls who have not died,
Buried in sullen shadows underground--That reach for ever toward the shores of light.
The Shores of Light was the first book of the year for me, though it took me a week to write about. A good start! How's your reading year going?