Edmund Wilson's Citizen Reader
These remarks about an exemplary friendship between an illustrious critic and one of his readers would probably never have been made if it were not for my own short friendship with Jacob Landau, an energetic American reader. In writing about Edmund Wilson in 1985 I tried to bring the essential qualities of his life and work into focus: from my point of view one thing that could not be left out was Wilson's magnetic hold on average intelligent readers. Wilson's Letters on Literature and Politics 1912-72 contained an example of the reader-writer relationship that I was attempting to describe. There were 17 letters from the 1950s and 60s--enthusiastic and fact-filled, warm in tone and characteristically direct--to a tavern keeper and Hebrew scholar from Bogota, New Jersey, named Jacob Landau. My curiosity was piqued: this was not Vladimir Nabokov, John Dos Passos, or Waldo Frank. The letters suggested that Wilson wanted something beyond the familiar dialogue of a writer with his literary peers. In his responses to Mr. Landau, Wilson seemed to be answering someone who was generous, sharp, and well-informed. I singled out Mr. Landau as a charming man and the ideal type of the busy person who still has time for serious ideas, history and culture, and the pleasures of amateur scholarship. Although at the time I did not go into the implications of the letters, I couldn't help but recognize that this was the citizen-reader to whom Wilson was directing his work. Landau read about himself in my book and did me the honor of writing letters and letting me know what was on his mind. A resilient character in his early nineties by this time, he had firm opinions about Reaganomics, the best and worst presidents, John O'Hara, how to use time well, and the vitality of Nora Barnacle. [Along the way I met my collaborator on this volume, his grandniece Anne Whitehouse. After Mr. Landau's death in 1990, Anne and I decided to bracket off the entire surviving Wilson-Landau exchange, some 104 letters and notes, and offer our thoughts about the themes of the correspondence and the natures of two men who were so richly endowed with old-fashioned American character and fortitude.]
Both of them lived into old age with the force and determination that is so often eroded by illness, loss, disappointment, and the distractions of contending with American everydayness. Both seemed to express the Hebrew phrase that Wilson caused to be put on his tombstone: "Be strong, be strong, and thus we shall strengthen ourselves." Toward the end of his 1939 essay At Laurelwood, Wilson writes, "I knew now that the tides of society can give a new configuration to all but the strongest personalities, if they do not sweep them away." Both Wilson and Landau refused to be reconfigured by the forces of the post World War II era.
Wilson used to correct commentators who said he took up the study of Hebrew to read the Dead Sea Scrolls; he explained that his interest originated in a discovery about his family, in fact a coming upon his grandfather's Hebrew Testament. The grand procession of the Hebrew characters made him wonder about a language that an ancestor knew. The attraction was not a project but an idea of himself: why not accomplish in a lifetime what your grandfather did? Why not gather in, at the dark side of middle age, part of the accomplishment of a 19th century minister?
Wilson seemed to be setting out to combine a 20th century literary identity with the skills of another phase of American culture. His Presbyterian grandfather on his father's side was at once a strong contrast and a tempting model for a modern writer who had early classical training: the old-time Protestant rectitude, which Wilson recoiled from yet never ceased to be fascinated by, came together with the disinterested figure of the scholar. Spurred on by an ancestor who had pored over ancient words, Wilson set out to develop the family endowment: from 1950 onward, he explored a part of literature and language that was quite different from his studies of modern poetry and fiction leftist politics and their origins, psychoanalysis and art, and the issues of the American political and cultural scene between the wars. He became--in his immersion in Hebrew, the Old Testament, the Hebraic element in American Civil War literature, the Iroquois--a "very scholarly amateur" (as the Israel archaeologist General Yadin called him) and a man who wanted to catch up on what he had never quite understood about minority cultures that played crucial roles in Christian Europe and America.
When Jacob Landau--engineer, amateur scholar, barkeeper--contacted Wilson in 1956, Wilson was in the mood for a new kind of scholarly friendship. Mr. Landau came on the scene like a wondrous, accidental discovery--a clear, precise, and congenial sharer who was prepared to respond to Wilson's later concerns. Landau's traits were well fitted to the personality of an explorer disillusioned with the slack and self-indulgent Americans he saw around him, the pretentious academic snobs and the "infra-human" types represented in the mass circulation magazines. Landau had nothing of himself invested in academe or pop culture. No ideology, no hunger for popularity, no nonsense. The two of them, born a year apart, established a rapport based on a generational affinity, a disinterested involvement in learning, and a civic enthusiasm for accurate information. It's obvious enough that Landau--with his part-time scriptural studies, his 600 books, and his after-hours reading--was no match for the great scholars with whom Wilson corresponded. But writing to this tavern keeper from Bogota, New Jersey, put Wilson in contact with the actuality and vital intelligence that he sought all his life. It was akin to the liveliness celebrated in I Thought of Daisy, the uncalculating ideas and feelings of honest inquirers who once told Wilson the facts about the Depression and the deceptions of middle-class America. The letters and notes in this volume show the two men musing and wondering, asking scores of questions, injecting off-the-cuff remarks. the correspondence accumulates dignity and literary worth as Wilson and Landau offer their special blend of candor, pointed and rapid analysis, and good humor.
Looking in on the men's encounters, you seem to be in the midst of a short tale about destiny and friendship, maybe an I.B. Singer piece: a renegade Protestant meets an observant Jew who fits perfectly into his mood and pursuits. Mr. Landau becomes an emblem of what Wilson was trying to say in A Piece of My Mind, especially in the section called The Jews: that 2,000 years of Jewish culture have a special significance for Americans. A man born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, transplanted to a hard life in Louisville's Jewish community, conventional in his business life, couldn't be further removed from the goyishe proprieties of Wilson's Princetonian, Presbyterian heritage. And yet the relationship between the Jewish spirit and old-time Calvinist Americanism asserts itself: Wilson's fascination--in his recollections of his father and the paternal side of the family-is often with an American primary culture, Puritan and highly spiritualized, that is totally immersed in the Jewish ideas of dedication, separateness, permanence, and strength attained through resistance to the temptations of the world.