Take It to the Limit

It’s a profound loss that our local Friends of the Library organization no longer conducts a monthly sale of used books. They still operate a small used bookstore off the lobby of the library itself,  but the operative word is “small.” One can no longer wander up and down among tables packed entirely at random with books, one’s eye being caught here or there by something unlikely and, just perhaps, very interesting indeed.

It can only have been at such a sale that I picked up a hardback published in 1952, the spine so worn as to be entirely illegible, entitled The Shores of Light. This is a collection of book reviews, nearly a hundred of them, written in the 1930s by Edmund Wilson and first published in the New Republic, the Atlantic, the Nation, and the New Yorker, among other magazines.

Until tonight, I had never opened the book. I don’t remember buying it, but there it was on my shelf. The first review, published in 1922, is of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise and The Beautiful and the Damned. At the time, Fitzgerald was still a young writer, his best work still ahead of him. Wilson admits in his introduction that in preparing the collection he freely revised the reviews, so we can’t be entirely sure what he said about Fitzgerald at the time. All we can be fairly certain of is that he was aware in 1922 both of Fitzgerald’s importance and of his youthful imperfections.

But that’s beside the point. What struck me most powerfully, in reading the first two pieces in the book, was a quote from Alfred North Whitehead. This was in a memoir  about and appreciation of a teacher at Princeton, apparently a teacher of literature, named Christian Gauss, who had died in 1951 and under whom Wilson had studied in and around 1916. It was Gauss, in Wilson’s recollection, who had quoted Whitehead:

“[W]hen you are criticizing the philosophy of an epoch, … [you should] not chiefly direct your attention to those intellectual positions which its exponents feel it necessary explicitly to defend. There will be some fundamental assumptions which adherents of all the variant systems within the epoch unconsciously presuppose. Such assumptions appear so obvious that people do not know what they are assuming because no other way of putting things has ever occurred to them.”

This, it seems to me, is an indictment of most, if not all, of the discussions I have read of popular genre fiction in its modern form. Certain things are unconsciously presupposed, either to be of vital importance to the novel or to be of so little importance that no mention ever need be made of them. In the former category we might include action and overt, often blood-soaked, conflict. In the latter, morality and thoughtful criticism of society.

The writer today is tasked, implicitly but incessantly, to entertain the reader. A thoughtful consideration of anything of actual importance would make the reader uncomfortable, and that would hurt sales. In the modern genre novel, morality is either strictly conventional or (in the case of vampire stories) mocked as irrelevant.

I have no idea what’s going on these days over in the literature aisle. Is there even such a thing as literature anymore? Or is that the wrong question? Today the novels of Charles Dickens are viewed as literature, however flawed; but in his own day, in his own culture, Dickens was writing pop fiction. The terms of discourse surrounding popular fiction have changed — and not, I think, for the better.

I’m going to read more of Wilson’s reviews. The fact that he takes the whole of literature, both of his time and of earlier times, as worthy of serious discussion is a breath, and more than a breath, of fresh air. And if certain of the sentences in this little bulletin are structured in a way that demands a bit more care of the reader than a 30-second television commercial, that is not only a reflection of Wilson’s style but also an indictment of an age whose habits of rhetoric are dominated by such commercials.

Sic transit gloria mundi.

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