Edmund Wilson: Combat and Comradeship
Isaac Bashevis Singer's article about meeting Edmund Wilson at a Harvard dinner, which originally appeared in the Forward under his pen name Isaac Warshawsky in 1962, has a fascinating story attached to it--as well as a larger significance for Wilson's readers. As the editors of the Wilson-Landau correspondence, we have unearthed the relevant documents and fleshed out the story which follows.
In June, 1962, Singer was invited to lecture at Brandeis and Harvard. After the Harvard lecture, Rabbi Ben Zion Gold, the associate director of the B'nai B'rith Hillel Foundation at Harvard, hosted a dinner for Singer. Present at the dinner were rabbis, professors of Jewish studies, Jewish professors in other disciplines, the non-Jewish dean of Harvard Divinity School, a non-Jewish poet, and Edmund Wilson. The universities represented included Harvard, Columbia, and M.I.T.
Singer was impressed by the academic luminaries gathered in his honor, for he names them one by one in his Forward article, identifying them by title and accomplishment. But he was most impressed of all with non-academician Edmund Wilson. The bulk of the article relates his conversation with Wilson in detail.
Yet Singer's admiration of Wilson, as expressed in the article, is not uncomplicated. There is a sharp edge to the piece, a tendency to accept Wilson's self-proclaimed mastery of so many subjects with skepticism. Singer's tone of almost abject awe and respect ("In conversation with this gentleman I could not but marvel at his tremendous and literary knowledge. No matter what the subject, Mr. Wilson had read and known about it. Conversely, on subjects he mentioned, I could hardly reply") is mixed with irony and sly needling. It's a reaction to Wilson the polymath performing with his peers.
How does Wilson have so much time to read and study? Singer ponders, as if that is all there is to Wilson's intellectual mastery. Does Wilson really know Yiddish and Hebrew as he claims he does? Singer wonders. That Singer found Wilson a little bit puffed up with hot air and in need of pricking is evidenced by his gesture of sending the article in Yiddish to Wilson. Singer must have felt pretty certain that Wilson would not be able to read it. One can sense him savoring his triumph over Wilson.
But Wilson, who lacked the ability to read the article, had the next best thing: a Yiddish translator, and one who seemed so completely out of Singer's circle that Singer would not hear of him.
Jacob Landau, as we described in our Forward article of November 6, 1992 (Jacob Landau: Edmund Wilson's "Jewish Ambassador"), was a Bogota, New Jersey, clockmaker and electrician, a sometime tavern owner, an amateur astronomer, an observant Jew, a Hebrew scholar, and a great fan of the writing of Edmund Wilson. Six years previously, in 1956, Landau had initiated a correspondence with Wilson, which was to last until Wilson's death in 1971. Contrary to his officially stated practice, Wilson did respond to Landau's letters. Very soon, Wilson began to refer his questions about Hebrew and Jewish learning to Landau, who was delighted to play the role of "Jewish ambassador" to the living American writer whom he most admired.
One year older than Wilson, Landau had been born in Europe, in a town near the Polish-Czech border. He had come to this country at the age of eight and grown up in Louisville, Kentucky. He was so thoroughly assimilated that no one would think he was not a native-born American. Yet he had learned Yiddish before he learned English, and so he was a natural choice for Wilson's Yiddish translator.
On June 19, 1962, Wilson wrote Landau: "Dear Jack, Do you know about Isaac Singer, the Yiddish novelist? If not, I recommend strongly his novel The Magician of Lublin. (His new one, The Slave, I haven't read yet.) I met him at Cambridge and heard him read, and he has sent me this account of his visit. I want to write him about it, but though I can recognize Harvard and Rabbi Gold and Rabbi Zigmond and my own name, I am not geared to reading Yiddish. I should be extremely grateful if you would write me the substance of what he says."
Landau responded to Wilson's request with enthusiasm and alacrity. In those bygone days of postal efficiency, the letter, postmarked from Wellfleet, Massachusetts, reached Landau in New Jersey the next day. On the 21st, he dashed off a note to Wilson: "Dear Mr. Wilson, I have read Singer's Family Moskat, a wonderful book. Better than Three Cities by Asch. Read it in Yiddish. Also read his recently published Spinoza of Market Street. It requires knowledge of European Judaism to fully appreciate it. Glad I can do that. Working on your clipping...It will follow in tomorrow's mail."
In translating Singer's article for Wilson, it seemed to Landau that he was participating, even in a modest way, in an intellectual exchange between two great writers whom he esteemed. His collection of Wilson's works was only approached by his collection of the works of Singer. This accounts for the exuberance of the letter he mailed to Wilson with the translation later that same day:
Your letter and clipping arrived yesterday morning just when our refrigerator broke down and the mechanic turned the job of repairing it over to me because it was too much work for him. So I had to waste 1_ hours on the repair instead of translating the clipping for you. In addition, my grandchildren, ages 11, 8, and 1, brought in for instant and immediate repairs one duck (wooden) used for ten years and almost indestructible, two wheelbarrows aged 4 and 5 for new wheels and new paint, and one old truck aged 5 years for the annual overhauling. They must have them at once. Since my wife, who, as I mentioned to you before, is totally blind and hard of hearing, cannot do the shopping, I had to attend to that, also to visit two sick neighbors, so you can see I had one very busy Wednesday. I also spent a few hours yesterday fixing some clocks as I must live and pay my taxes...
I was very happy to read the clipping and type it. I wrote it so that you may lay it along the clipping and follow my translation. If I were a professor marking papers I'd mark this job 90. I hope you will, too.
Landau's hope was an instance of the goodwill and reverence for knowledge that animated their relationship. Wilson, as is well known from his famous printed card ("EDMUND WILSON REGRETS THAT IT IS IMPOSSIBLE FOR HIM TO..."), was an unlikely writer to engage in an exchange with a total stranger. But Landau here and elsewhere tapped into Wilson's boundless enthusiasm for curious learning and correctness. Here was a man of his own generation who could help him prepare the evidence he needed to stand up to I.B. Singer. Ever the pugnacious figure, Wilson liked to use his vigorous interrogative style to cross-examine fellow writers and scholars about his favorite subjects, to call them up short for factual inaccuracies, and even to steal their thunder.
With Singer, we see Wilson the critic sparring and performing with a great storyteller. The 1962 exchange at Harvard bristles with the excitement and competition that Wilson always welcomed. The account of the polymath in his element--among scholars and away from a formal setting--is a defining moment in a career: Wilson is shown matching wits with--and indeed overwhelming--a European writer with roots in an ancient tradition. What better arena for a critic who had placed his reputation on the line in middle age by learning Hebrew and competing with the scholars! And what more understandable a preliminary bout for a critic who two years later would match wits with Vladimir Nabokov about that "sacred" Russian classic Eugene Onegin! In the Singer bout, his "opponent" slyly had to concede defeat; in the Nabokov match--conducted in The New York Review of Books--both contenders were badly bruised, Nabokov perhaps more severely since his translation was shown by a great critic to be all-but-unreadable and fairly ridiculous in its aims. As Jeffrey Meyers has noted in his 1995 biography of Wilson, the formidable critic loved to spar and was often a rough customer in an intellectual debate. Of Nabokov, Wilson wrote, "What we have are really intellectual romps, sometimes accompanied by a mauling."
The dynamic of Wilson's life in literature can be observed in the above encounters: the intense preparation, the public display of mastery, the vanquishing of a challenger--but, for all the aggression, the scoring of his points through logic, evidence, and honesty. The combat was often a bit brutal, but never mean-spirited or strictly self-serving. And the opponents were everywhere; the reader of Wilson's Letters on Literature and Politics can see a combat on almost every page. There's more than a touch of intellectual machismo as Wilson flattens an ill-informed book reviewer ("I think you ought to familiarize yourself...before sounding off"), corrects Alfred Kazin about Dos Passos (the novelist is not a midwesterner), and straightens out Allen Tate on the topic of Wilson's "religion" (the critic had no mystical tendencies). The Wilson campaigns against obfuscation in writing and politics were not conducted with any partisan backing. New York intellectuals tut-tutted as the old man gave his views on the Civil War and the income tax; academics dismissed him as an amateur; and even now people at the best universities dismiss him as hopelessly patriarchal, arrogant, and out of touch with the holy trinity of gender, race, and class.
The combative side of Wilson's nature was not, however, the complete picture of the man. The Jacob Landau friendship expressed one way in which Wilson accomplished his critical victories--through an open and frank attempt to further the cause of his kind of learning, at once rooted in the ancient classics and steeped in modern experiment. With a kinship established through love of Hebrew as a language, Wilson made friends with Landau, a twentieth-century bearer of a tradition. In a larger sense, Wilson always enjoyed sharing and furthering the interests of such like-minded people. From his earliest days at Hill School, he was a dispenser of good books, insights, detailed advice, and practical counsel. This man noted for his bluff manner took time to commiserate with people who were troubled about their careers, anxious about failure, and blocked in achieving goals. He tried to brace up writers in his own league as well as local friends from Talcottville; he was a great encourager--of Lionel Trilling when the young professor at Columbia was demoralized about his dissertation on Matthew Arnold, of Edna Millay when her writing became less popular, of Mary McCarthy the fiction writer in the years of their stormy marriage, of countless contributors to The New Republic who needed guidance and a friendly wake-up call. No easy mark as an evaluator--he never could be counted on to favor any political point of view or type of subject matter in an essay--he was nevertheless nothing of the jealous onlooker at others' work. He was a leader in a republic of letters: competing, mediating, judging, and generally attempting to improve the level of discourse. In his rough-and-tumble literary polity--so different from the Bosnia of letters we inhabit in contemporary America--he could be angry with Hemingway and disappointed in Nabokov without ever forgetting their greatness. He wanted the literature of his time to succeed according to the laws of its own being: because of his aggressive pursuit of high artistic standards and erudition he bruised some egos; but his life work and behavior in the literary marketplace show that he wanted to encourage a writer's best prose or poetry, a thinker's most cogent ideas--not gratify some private desire or process some grudge.
Wilson, Singer, and Landau, all men of the same generation, shared certain characteristics. They were tenacious, masculine men, proud and sensitive, who could be overbearing. They were energetic, iconoclastic, and fiercely independent. Although Landau was not part of the Jewish American intellectual establishment, he had ties to it, as he assured Wilson in that same letter of June 21st: "I have an idea that Rabbi Gold must have been acquainted with my father, who lived in Louisville until he died in 1959...or my brothers who are with the Courier Journal on the editorial staff. My brother Joe also taught American history at the University of Louisville."
Nor was Landau so completely outside of Singer's circle as Wilson might have supposed. Five months later, on November 19, 1962, Landau wrote Wilson after he met Singer just that afternoon at the Park Avenue Synagogue in New York City. "Mr. Singer asked me to remember him to you," wrote Landau to Wilson, cherishing the role of go-between.
Singer expressed an intense curiosity about Landau's correspondence with Wilson, which he asked to be allowed to read. It is typical of Landau's generosity that he loaned Wilson's letters--which were among his most cherished possessions--to Singer. (Privately, he did always wonder, however, why Singer returned the letters to him without their envelopes.)
Thus the mystery of Wilson's Yiddish translator was solved. What Landau translated is yet another account of a great American man of letters in action: sparring and sharing his wisdom.
From the translation by Jacob Landau (June 21, 1962) from Forward article on Edmund Wilson by Isaac Bashevis Singer, published under the pseudonym of Isaac Warshawsky, June, 1962.
[Note: Isaac Bashevis Singer wrote literary articles for the Forward under the pseudonym of "Isaac Warshawsky." These articles appeared nearly every week. Singer published his stories in the Forward under his own name. "He did not want to mix articles with art, and he regarded his stories as art." Source: Mr. Mlotek, Forward, telephone call: 8/29/91. -Ed.]
...I was seated between Edmund Wilson and his wife and had the opportunity to speak with both. I believe that I need not introduce Edmund Wilson to the readers. He is a famous author and critic in America, a pillar of the journal The New Yorker, an author of important works. A few years ago Edmund Wilson created a sensation by going to Israel and there began his studies of Hebrew. He wrote considerably of this in The New Yorker. At the time this was written about in the Forward. Edmund Wilson is no longer a young man and at his age to begin the study of a foreign and difficult language as Hebrew, especially for a non-Jew, requires tremendous will-power, character, and scientific curiosity. I told Mr. Wilson that they had written about him in the Forward and it was news to him.
From the conversation I gathered that he is attempting to read Yiddish.
In conversation with this gentleman I could not but marvel at his tremendous and literary knowledge. No matter what the subject, Mr. Wilson had read and known about it. Conversely, on subjects he mentioned, I could hardly reply. Whenever I meet persons such as he I am always newly confounded. Where do these persons get so much time? I was astounded and surprised when I heard that he had read my book, "the Magician of Lublin," a series of stories. He said to me, "I have not yet read your book about Sabbatai Zvi but am preparing to read it." [Note: Sabbatai Zvi (also known as Zevi) was a 17th-century false messiah who gained a large following among Eastern European Jews before he was denounced. -Ed.] Suddenly he speaks to me about a sketch from "In My Father's Court," which was published this month in English translation in Commentary. The sketch is called "The Will" and understandably printed some time ago in the Forward. Mr. Wilson said to me: "Your hero who changes his will often interested me."
And Mr. Wilson tells me about his own will.
From a will there is only one step to speak about the immortality of the soul. I expressed my opinion that the human soul is immortal, but Mr. Wilson argued, "Why immortal. I do not wish to be immortal. One life is enough."
"If God wills we should be immortal, he will not ask our consent. "
"Yes, but what is the purpose thereof?"
And Edmund Wilson seemed to say: Once to be Edmund Wilson is enough. I do not wish to remain the same forever.
He was soon in conversation with Professor Schwartz about Calvin and his attitude to the problem of free will. I regretfully know nothing about Calvin so I sat and listened. Mr. Wilson is a writer, but writers know a great deal, and have time to read everything.
His wife told me that she is an "ordinary housewife" But I immediately recognized that she is highly cultured and knows a number of European languages thoroughly. In the conversation Mrs. Wilson said she had seen a ghost. I wanted to ask her more abut it but there was no more time and I regret till now that I did not get more details. I hope to have another opportunity to meet her and hear her story.
[Landau's letter to Wilson of June 21, 2962 continues,] The above is a free translation up to the red line in the fourth column counting right to left.
The writer then states that after the lecture many questions were asked him and that he considered the whole thing a miracle.
After the questioning he was asked to read a story and he read the English transltion of the 'Tishewitz Story' which appeared in the Forward two years ago, and about which he received a great number of complaints from Jewish readers.
He intends to write an article about his visit to M.I.T. and the Culture Club.
Note: It is difficult to translate Yiddish into correctly- worded English especially when you do not use the language nor have a Yiddish-English dictionary.