Born in New Jersey in 1895, Wilson attended Princeton University, where he established a lasting friendship with F. Scott Fitzgerald, author of The Great Gatsby (1925) After his graduation in 1916, Wilson served in a hospital unit and later in the intelligence corps in World War I. On his return to the States, he began a lifelong career as an editor (for Vanity Fair and The New Republic), book reviewer (for The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books), novelist, poet, playwright, and independent scholar. Wilson died in 1972.
The “foremost American literary journalist of the twentieth century,” Wilson “turned to biography, psychology, economics, politics, and history at roughly the same moment when John Crowe Ransom, Cleanth Brooks, and the other New Critics were calling for an ‘intrinsic’ literary criticism based on close reading.” (Leitch et al, 1241)
Marxism and Literature
Published in 1938, two years before he published To the Finland Station, his study of the origins of socialism, “Marxism and Literature” celebrates Marxism’s ability to “throw a great deal of light on the origins and social significance of works of art,” but attacks the belief then advocated by “that good literature can be made from ideological formulas.” (1248, 1242)
“… Marxism by itself can tell us nothing whatever about the goodness or badness of a work of art. A man may be an excellent Marxist, but if he lacks imagination and taste he will be unable to make the choice between a good and an inferior book both of which are ideologically unacceptable.” (1248)
“… it is usually true in works of the highest order that the purport is not a simple message, but a complex vision of things, which itself is not explicit but implicit; and the reader who does not grasp them artistically, but is merely looking for simple social morals, is certain to be hopelessly confused. Especially will he be confused if the author does draw an explicit moral which is the opposite of or has nothing to do with his real purport.” (1248-1249)
“The Leftist critic with no literary competence is always trying measure works of literature by tests which have no validity in that field. And one of his favorite occupations is giving specific directions and working out diagrams for the construction of ideal Marxist books. Such formulas are of course perfectly futile. The rules observed in any given school of art become apparent not before, but after, the actual works of art have been produced.” (1250)
“The truth is that there is short-range and long-range literature. Long-range literature attempts to sum up wide areas and long periods of human experience, or to extract from them general laws; short-range literature preaches and pamphleteers with the view to an immediate effect. A good deal of the recent confusion of our writers in the Leftist camp has been due to their not understanding, or being unable to make up their minds, whether they are aiming at long-range or short-range writing.” (1252)
SUBMITTED BY: Steve Benton
Leitch, Vincent B, et al ed. Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. New York: Norton, 2001.