Wednesday, January 30, 2008


In the surprisingly good Memoirs of Hecate County, Edmund Wilson puts into practice, in an artful if rather programmatic way, the theory of Modernism proposed in Axel's Castle, a theory that can be reduced to the problematic formula: Modernism=Naturalism+Symbolism. Leaving aside the problem of defining one ad hoc critical category in terms of two others, I can see now that for Wilson the formula was probably most important as a goad to writing fiction that would retroactively justify it. This he does in Memoirs, creating an original American fiction with deep American roots (reaching back to the tales of Poe and Hawthorne) and a consciousness of modern European fiction. It's not a great book, but it is a good one, and it's probably (for its time) the most daring novel ever written by an American intellectual. Further proof that Wilson was that very rare American bird, a non-academic intellectual polymath. Where are his successors?

Addendum, one day later:

Upon finishing the Balzacian-titled and obtrusively Proustian long central section, 'The Princess with the Golden Hair,' my estimation of Hecate County swerves downward. It's an uneven book, at best. The central story could have been 100 pages shorter. And it does seem ironic that when Wilson sets out to apply the lessons of Modernism to an American setting, he ends up writing Hawthornean 'romance.' I guess D.H. Lawrence was right: the old American writers were already modern.

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