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Most of his books were put together from pieces that had been written to meet journalistic occasions.
In 1920, he began his journalistic career, with a job at his sights the twin enemies of every Progressive intellectual: unregulated business and the genteel tradition. Wilson hated American chauvinism and gentility, and everything he associated with them—prudery, pedantry, commercialism, and militarism. He not only explained contemporary writing in “Axel’s Castle”; he knew and advised many contemporary writers, among them Fitzgerald (a Princeton classmate and close friend), Dos Passos (another close friend), Hemingway, Cummings, Bogan, Millay, Farrell, Nabokov. His other big book of this period, “To the Finland Station” (1940), explained the Marxist revolutionary tradition.
In the decade during which he worked on the book, Wilson reported on the condition of life in the Depression (his pieces were published as “The American Jitters,” in 1932); he engaged in political activities and drew up a radical manifesto; he guided the editorial direction of until the magazine’s loyalty to Stalin drove him away.
Despite Hemingway’s preoccupation with physical contests, his heroes are almost always defeated physically, nervously, practically: their stories are moral ones.
He himself, when he trained himself stubbornly in his unconventional unmarketable art in a Paris which had other fashions, gave the prime example of such a victory; and if he has sometimes, under the menace of the general panic, seemed on the point of going to pieces as an artist, he has always pulled himself together the next moment.
He liked to say that he was a man of the nineteenth century —he was born in 1895, in Red Bank, New Jersey—and to explain that his values and assumptions, his whole understanding of literary and intellectual life, were products of a particular moment.
Because “Axel’s Castle” has served many readers as a guide to the work of Yeats, Joyce, Eliot, Valéry, Proust, and Stein, the book’s six subjects, it is natural to associate Wilson with the literary modernism that flourished between 19. Wilson was not a modernist (a term he despised), as the conventional style of his own poetry and fiction makes plain.
He published two major collections, “The Triple Thinkers” (1938) and “The Wound and the Bow” (1941); a number of the essays in them—on Dickens, James, Wharton, Kipling, Pushkin, and Flaubert—changed the reputations of their subjects.
The books and essays of this phase have a special charge, given to them by Wilson’s notion of writing as an arena where there is the possibility of heroic performance—and by the hope, or the desire, that his own books and essays might be performances of this kind. Alfred Kazin, whose first book, “On Native Grounds,” was passionately indebted to Wilson’s prose, and his friend Richard Hofstadter used to read aloud to each other the famous ending of the chapter on Proust in “Axel’s Castle”:** ** Proust is perhaps the last great historian of the loves, the society, the intelligence, the diplomacy, the literature and the art of the Heartbreak House of capitalist culture; and the little man with the sad appealing voice, the metaphysician’s mind, the Saracen’s beak, the ill-fitting dress-shirt and the great eyes that seem to see all about him like the many-faceted eyes of a fly, dominates the scene and plays host in the mansion where he is not long to be master.
When he lost patience with a book, he skipped around, and what he ignored he ignored without shame.
“I have been bored by Hispanophiles,” he wrote in in 1965, “and I have also been bored by everything, with the exception of Spanish painting, that I have ever known about Spain.