Monday, May 21, 2012

More about the friendship of John Wyeth and Edmund Wilson

Edmund Wilson at Princeton
Several more bits of information regarding the friendship of John Allan Wyeth and Edmund Wilson can be gleaned from two sources, Wilson's A Prelude: Landscapes, Characters and Conversations from the Earlier Years of My Life, and Lewis M. Dabney's Edmund Wilson: A Life in Literature. (Thanks to Roger Allen for suggesting both of these sources).

Wilson was first introduced to Wyeth by his cousin and near-constant companion of his early years, Ruell "Sandy" Kimball. Wilson described Wyeth as "one of Sandy's New York friends". (1) This was before their time together at Princeton.

Wyeth was particularly fond of the music of Debussy, which on one occasion he played at such a late hour ("rapt in irridescent dreams", by Wilson's description), that several would-be slumberers shouted from their beds, "Cut out the god-damned noise!", and other similar requests. (2)

The Princeton "Charter Club"
Wilson and Wyeth were both members of the Charter Club, where Wyeth was frequently heard on the piano. The two young men often sat together at meals, conversing. According to Wyeth, Wilson would stick firmly to literary topics even when the general drift of table conversation tended to subjects of more immediate and less esoteric interest. (3)

Wilson describes Wyeth as a loner, "without a crowd of his own", and with little apparent interest in making friends. The one exception was medievalist "Bert" Friend, Wyeth's closest companion, who would later become a leading authority on Byzantine art and early manuscript illumination. (4)

Wyeth and Friend at one point in 1915 made plans to inhabit a cottage in the chateau district of France and "amuse themselves by playing Debussy!" (exclamation point Wilson's). (5)

According to Wilson, the only students at Princeton who had read Henry James seriously were Wyeth and himself, and he credits Wyeth with leading him to a sympathetic understanding of James' mannered period style and involuted dialogue. (6)

Wilson describes Wyeth lingering in Princeton after graduation (in 1916), and quotes him with amusement: "I'm really getting perfectly maudlin, you know. I feel as if I were sliding off a slippery precipice, over a yawning abyss-- just struggling to get a foothold!" (7)

That Wilson and Wyeth remained in contact after leaving Princeton is shown by a conversation referred to in Dabney's biography, which took place between the two men sometime in 1955. Wilson's book The Scrolls from the Dead Sea had recently been published in The New Yorker and Wilson saw his role as helping to put forth an historical view of Christianity, to compensate for the view of Jesus as miracle worker and redeemer, which was waning in those years. To Wyeth he spoke of following in the footsteps of Voltaire and Renan. (8) Wyeth's side of the conversation unfortunately has not been preserved.

Though none of these details is of particular significance as such, taken all together they suggest a long-term friendship between the two men of real intellectual substance and, again, make Wilson's silence towards-- or ignorance of-- Wyeth's poetry all the more inexplicable.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

1).   Edmund Wilson, A Prelude: Landscapes, Characters and Conversations from the Earlier Years of My Life  (NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1967), p 107.
2).  Wilson, A Prelude, p 107.
3).  Lewis M. Dabney, Edmund Wilson: A Life in Literature  (NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005),  p 45.
4).  Wilson, A Prelude,  pp 107-8.
5).  Wilson, A Prelude,  p 121.
6).  Wilson, A Prelude,  pp 108-9.  Also, Dabney, Edmund Wilson,  p 46.
7).  Wilson, A Prelude,  p 123.
8).  Dabney, Edmund Wilson,  p 413.

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