June 17, 2010
Edmund Wilson: Memoirs of Hecate County
I make no secret on this blog of my fetish for the NYRB Classics series. But with more or less every title in their range exuding varieties of temptation, the decision on which ones to buy is always difficult: I mean, you can’t get them all. (Actually, you can.) It was in the LRB Shop, where more or less everything on their fiction shelves pushes my buttons, where this title caught my eye. How could it not? The cover seemed to be one of the campest things I’d ever seen: it turns out to be an installation by Salvador Dali (“Dream of Venus“) at the 1939 World’s Fair. These are the seemingly random influences which determine the books we read.
1. Manhattan (New York, N.Y.)—Fiction. 2. Suburban life—Fiction. 3. Intellectuals—Fiction. 4. Middle class—Fiction. 5. Sex customs—Fiction.
My appetite for reading about the suburban life (and, well, sex customs) of middle-class New York intellectuals is not what it once was, though I retain a fair tolerance for it. In fact this offputting breakdown doesn’t really summarise the book’s most interesting aspects at all. It is a collection of six stories, linked by their narrator, a Wilson-like writer and critic who begins by reporting the idiosyncracies of his fellow Hecate County residents in a patrician manner, and ends up being the story himself.
The opening story, ‘The Man Who Shot Snapping Turtles’, is a little piece of perfection, from its sneaky title to its classical ending, which seems to have Wilson flexing his fictional muscle to show the objects of his literary criticism how it should be done. I will say no more about it because the assumptions which the reader brings to the story from knowing only the title are part of the quality of the experience. It seems to deserve a place among the best American short stories of the 20th century (and probably already has it, as it’s been widely anthologised).
Perfection is easy in the short form, however – easyish – and the remaining stories in Memoirs of Hecate County are longer. ‘Ellen Terhune’, about “the first woman composer who had ever contributed anything to music of authentic value,” brings in unexpected elements which may be an attempt by Wilson to show H.P. Lovecraft (whose writing he called ‘hackwork’) how it’s done. But what strikes the reader is not the clever conceit, but Wilson’s insistence on having the narrator explain the purpose of the story in the closing pages, as though this literary critic cannot bear to his own fiction second-guessed.
Throughout, the setting is not really ‘middle-class’ at all, but of the moneyed, of society’s movers and shakers. In ‘Ellen Terhune’, our narrator looks forward to “one of those gatherings where great quantities of tan-backed girls and scarlet-faced men, with highballs fizzing in their hands, lift laughing and strident voices among glass-topped cocktail tables and lamps that give indirect lighting.” In the third story, ‘Glimpses of Wilbur Flick’, the title character is the heir to “a big baking-powder fortune” who “had really no notion of the existence of anyone but himself.” The story describes the narrator’s occasional encounters with Wilbur, from school to later life as an arch-conservative and capitalist (“that’s the trouble with all you liberals: you think that people ought to be kept alive just because they happen to exist”). Naturally, it’s simple for Wilson to set Wilbur up as a straw man in order to defeat his snobbery with snobbery of his own, as when he describes his collection of ostentatious glassware:
I thought it was characteristic of Wilbur that, in aiming to become a connoisseur, he should have gone for a kind of rarity which is not easily distinguishable from rubbish.
Yet even among the cheap shots (Wilbur thinks fascism “perfectly sound”), the writing and detail are always lovely (“he looked very smooth and soft, as if he had been bathed in milk and always kept at the right temperature”) and there is something like backhanded sympathy toward the character. Wilbur’s father
was the son, as I afterwards learned, of a well-to-do Methodist minister; and poor Wilbur had behind him, I fear, no tradition of reckless adventure: his real heritage was a vague bourgeois feeling that he ought to be busy about something – an impulse which nobody had ever done anything to encourage or train him to satisfy.
This brings us to the central story (in fact, at 200 pages, a novel), ‘The Princess with the Golden Hair’, a story of erotic obsession. “I had found, in the course of the summer, that I was watching Imogen Loomis at parties.” I said above that Memoirs of Hecate County was published in 1946, but it was prosecuted shortly afterwards for obscenity because of the content of ‘The Princess’, and unavailable until Wilson reissued it himself in 1959. It’s easy to see why, when a central scene sees the narrator describe in exquisite detail his lover’s genitalia, and elsewhere the language is pretty frank for the times (“She is now so responsive to my kissing her breasts that I can make her have a climax in that way”). Louis Menand, in his introduction, tells us that the characters and lovers (our busy narrator has more than one) were based on real figures in Wilson’s life, and indeed that Wilson in his diaries recorded his own “amorous encounters in passages that no reader has ever thought insufficiently detailed”. Perhaps it is the story’s self-indulgence that led to disappointment for me, or its meandering length, or just the claims made for it on the back cover (“one of the great lost works of twentieth-century American literature”). It is filled with reliably fine writing, and even when describing post-crash 1930s New York, the prose is gluttonous and luxuriant. With its length, the story works like the tease the narrator himself experiences with his beloved, wanting her but not wanting to sully her (“I idealised her now as a wife; but she was actually the wife of Ralph Loomis; and if she had been unfaithful to Ralph, she would no longer have been the ideal wife”). The presence in the story of his other lover, Anna, enables the inclusion of a vivid portrait of immigrant America in the 1920s and 30s.
The difficulty for any collection with a major central story is how to follow it. (See David Vann’s Legend of a Suicide for a recent example.) This is an issue for the reader too; after reading a novel-length story within a collection, the most I want after that is a coda. But here we get another two stories totalling 140 pages. ‘The Princess with the Golden Hair’ seems to have softened Wilson up for making himself the centre of the remaining stories. They are set in the literary and publishing world, though with a devilish twist or two. One short passage describes a publisher being prosecuted for obscenity, which I took to be one of the ‘additions’ Wilson made to the book when he revised it for publication after its own legal wrangles. In ‘The Milhollands and their Damned Soul’, about a family hierarchy of publishers, we get an enticing glimpse at how things were, when our narrator suffers from the dumbing-down of mass culture:
when I proposed a new life of Thomas Eakins, they had asked me to do, instead, a short survey of American painting that could be disposed of more easily in the drug stores, the cigar stores and the railroad stations.
A short survey of American painting? Now, presumably, it would be a short survey of American Idol. Elsewhere, in the final story, ‘Mr and Mrs Blackburn at Home’, we are reminded of evergreen themes when one character speaks of “the iniquities of investment banking.” In this story, Wilson gives us twelve pages of untranslated French, which (albeit a sort of joke) at least made the process of getting through those last two stories a little briefer. One of ‘Wilson’s’ friends tells him:
The trouble is that in literature, just as in anything else that’s serious, nothing’s really any good at all that isn’t based on the recognition of the very best that’s ever been possible. … The most immoral and disgraceful and dangerous thing that anybody can do in the arts is knowingly to feed back to the public its own ignorance and cheap tastes.
Memoirs of Hecate County, erudite, scintillating, overlong and self-indulging, combines the best and worst of this advice.