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Final Run on the Edmund Wilson Tour Bus : THE SIXTIES: The Last Journal, 1960-1972, By Edmund Wilson / Edited and with an introduction by Lewis M. Dabney (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: $35; 882 pp.)

July 18, 1993|RICHARD EDER

"The moon has lost its personality," Edmund Wilson wrote in the fifth and final volume of his journals, when he was in his '70s. He felt lonely and used up; travel, discovery and insight had lost their edge. He drank a pint of whiskey a day, suffered from angina and feared death. He recounts a dream in his customary detail; historian and critic of his sleep as well as his wakefulness. He was, he tells us, a corpse on an ironing-board. It was not the indignity that troubled him but: "Now that I was dead I didn't know what to do with myself."

The world was Wilson's oyster. It was not that he possessed it; he was often irascibly ajar with his times, never more than in the present volume when he comes upon Elena, his wife, and his daughter, Helen, watching the Oscars on TV. He doesn't make a point of it, but it is as if Martians had pitched a tent in his yard.

In any event, you don't possess an oyster; you gobble it. His was an untamed voracity; he vacuumed up ideas, books, women, the events and personages of his era--with himself as a principal event and personage--and produced a range of writing that makes it impossible simply to call him a critic. He always was a critic, though, whether he wrote about literature, history or archeology, engaged in polemics or reportage, attempted poetry and fiction or filled his journals.

He tasted everything as it went down, and not only did he judge it, as critics do, but he fitted it into a sensible universe shaped just like Wilson himself. This is also what a few critics do; except that Wilson's world was enormous. So was his ego; so were the holes in it, which is why we get his three-page dreams and why they are outrageously interesting. All this tended to intimidate the fiction and poetry, but it is the marrow of his journals.

"The Sixties" begin in 1961 after a gap of a year and a half, and they end in 1972, a week before Wilson died of a stroke in his house in Talcottville, N.Y. They cover the period when he finished "Patriotic Gore," wrote "The Dead Sea Scrolls" and "Upstate" and a number of other works, taught at Harvard, and traveled to Canada, Europe and Jerusalem. They are edited by Lewis M. Dabney with useful footnotes, and biographical notes at the end for the more than 300 people mentioned. Dabney writes a cogent introduction setting out the context of Wilson's last years; to judge by it, the biography he is working on should be a good one.

Two main currents emerge from the hundreds of entries. One is the gradual dulling of appetite. Wilson senses it and rages against it, providing some of the journals' finest passages. "I sometimes lately had the impression that my appearance and personality have almost entirely disappeared, and that there is little but my books marching through me," he writes. And later: "I tend to think that human works are futile because the people who create them must die. Why go to so much trouble, expend so much energy and thought and taste when we are so perishable ourselves and even the things we construct to outlast us may in the end be perishable, too."

Often, though, the dulling of his passion to engage dulls the book. A long trip to Europe and another to Canada seem mostly dutiful. Wilson only catches fire when he writes about himself. For decades he incorporated the wide world into himself. Now he travels at a distance, a passenger behind a glass window on the Edmund Wilson Tour bus.

But for most of the time Wilson is at home, either in Upstate New York or on Cape Cod. And here, if the volcano is cooling, it is doing so very gradually. Over and over there are bursts of gleefully undampened fire.

He writes of an Auden poetry reading. The poet wore a hat, which he repeatedly doffed and replaced. Hat off signaled a stanza in italics; hat on, in regular type. There is an unflattering portrait of Arthur Schlesinger Jr. taking a little too much pleasure in his role as Kennedy's link to the intelligentsia. At one presidential reception, Wilson writes, Schlesinger rather fatuously asked Igor Stravinsky, who had had a few drinks, how it felt to be in the White House. "It feels . . . droonk!" Stravinsky replied.

He records a conversation with a visiting Russian writer who came with a closely attached minder. Boorishly, Wilson challenged him about literary censorship. With grace and point, the Russian suggested that Wilson imagine himself visiting Russia with his wife, and being asked in her presence what he thought of Russian women. He has an ear for a distinctive phrase, even when it bests him. He also has an ear for the gloriously absurd. He overhears a Montreal playgoer remark at Richard II: "Shakespeare is admirable, particularly in French."

He can, of course, deliver a stinging phrase himself. After Tom Wolfe wrote a celebrated attack on the New Yorker--it was a kind of club for Wilson--he called him "a smart-aleck jellybean." Nothing subtle there, except that jellybean does seem to capture Wolfe's sartorial turnout.

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