Monday, September 20, 2010

Edmund Wilson’s The Twenties

A Tree

“The summer hung close and dull.” An entry out of Edmund Wilson’s The Twenties that clatters forth with the too early day. A weekend of travail in “obscure and meaty regions,” a trajectory belly’d up and out and haul’d back down. (The book rescue’d off the dollar shelf of some rapinous emporium in a mall: I love such seismic serendipity, f. Serendip, being a former name for Sri Lanka, the word serendipity being coin’d (1754) by Horace Walpole, after noting how the heroes of the fairy-tale “Three Princes of Serendip” “were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of . . .”) Somewhere Wilson calls an ex-Follies girl “pretty as green paint.” The Twenties being largely notebook and diary squibs. Lovely story’d one-liners record’d, off the cuff: “—Anecdote about Henry Ford getting smuggled into his factory in a basket, so that he could spy on his employees.” Or:
Djuna Barnes. When Mary [Blair: Provincetown Players actress and Wilson’s wife] admired a nightgown she had bought in Paris: “Yes: I spent all summer looking for a night to go with that nightgown.”
And odd lists (industry lingo study sheets):
Cook’s Linoleum Rugs
Mill and Factory Supplies
National Pneumatic Co.
Gatto and Cogno
Cut herringbone gears
Hobbed Worm Wheels
International Automobile Body Corporation
American Metal Moulding Co.
American Platinum Works
Federal Steel Tubing—Light steel gauge tubing
Rhoad’s Tannate Belt
H. W. Schrimpf: structural and ornamental ironwork
The Crucible Steel Company of America
Derricks and Pile-Drivers
Bab and Bidelow
Smelting and refining
Calendar-embossing machinery
The Aeroplane Ultimate Typewriter Ribbon
The Goerke-Kirche Co.
The American Steel Barrel Corporation
Automotive Parts
Hyatt Roller Bearing Company
Oschwald Brick Works
Simmons Pipe-Bending Works
Encaustic Tiling Co.
Mucilage and Asbestos
Manufacturers of doll voices (and condoms)
Veering, curious, wanton. Or into the philologick grunt-work:
Eleventh-century text of Homer. Brown ink against yellow, traced over darker where someone had tried to restore the effacements; greasy, worm-eaten and soiled; its λ’s, κ’s, and ξ’s like wormholes and conveying no more than wormholes to the monks in whose hands it was found—a formidable forest tangled and bristling with loops and dots and barbs; written in three different hands, with great holes and stains on the pages (of vellum, membranaceus); a caricature, as of a human heavy-jowled dog with huge paw; scrawled with schoolboy drawings and scribbled letters; glossed here and there in the margins,; thick heavy brown cover.
Oddly enough, rather how I think of Wilson himself (in later years)—“human heavy-jowled dog” (though rather wanly, daintily “pawed”). Poignant literary gossip retail’d unerringly. Here, Jean Cocteau’s assessment of Dada (precise, unendingly precise for any groupuscule whose “humor” is hitch’d to a program): how Cocteau “scoffed at the idea that their nonsense was perpetrated in a genuine spirit of fun: ‘Ils sont tous des petits Nietzsches!’” (Or reporting Djuna Barnes’s injunct to Pound: “Be simple, Ezra, be simple!”) (Or Dos Passos’s asserting that “painting was in a very bad way . . . in painting there were certain fundamental difficulties that had to be overcome—whereas anybody could go in for literature—you didn’t even have to be able to write, because you could dictate” (or, nowadays, “sample,” “write-through,” and “construct”). Wilson’s vacillatory cumber: the lyric delicacy of “June. The Chinese white of daisies” up against the obvious thrall of the grinding American underbelly, its speech (Myrtle, a New Orleans whore with a “rebellious, mulish, scornful look” hassling a drunk who “couldn’t do anything” and so want’d a “refund”—“Charity-ass, eh?” and “Want your ass again?—When you jazz last?”) And, too, in The Twenties, raw literary gobbets of the graphomane (even “about” such “rudimentary habitual twitchings” of the notebook-fillers):
      The great writer’s notes, carefully preserved and published after his death (Baudelaire, Chekhov, Butler), though they may have been merely mechanical and meaningless jottings, the products of an instinct to write in its most rudimentary habitual twitchings, like the instinctive defensive or predatory gestures of the lowest forms of life.

      How books carry the stamp of the barbarous ages which produced them: the gallows and the flogging block in Pope and in Swift.
Or the mechanical drone and the force-meat excesses of conglomerate binging: stamp of our own barbarity.

Edmund Wilson, 1895-1972