Wilson was the first writer who made the study of literature understandable to me as an activity. "Thoughts on Being Bibliographed" (in Classics and Commercials: A Literary Chronicle of the Forties) is his 1943 look back at a quarter century as a literary journalist engaged in that task.
The paragraphs underlined below seem useful, reflecting Wilson's approach to the vicissitudes of literary business for U.S. petty-bourgeois intellectuals in the period 1919-1943.
I have omitted the paragraphs on Marxist politics, where Wilson is no more clear-headed than he ever was. Like Hook, Eastman, Burnham, and a million other valuable allies of independent working class militancy, he dropped his pseudo-radical socialism in August 1939 and never looked back.
* * *
[....] somniferously [soporific]
[....] a kind of fancy-dress party of frantic self-advertisement.
[....] when the problems of historical action seemed to have been removed in Europe to a less intellectual plane, they could only take sanctuary in learned research. The scholarship of Marxism in some cases shaded easily into the scholarship of the English Department; and the inquest on literary culture from the social-economic point of view was contracted to a simple ambition to get the whole thing under glass.
[....] nauseating puerilia [boyish, youthful ; immature, childish]
[....] I have made my living mainly by writing in periodicals. There is a serious profession of journalism, and it involves its own special problems. To write what you are interested in writing and to succeed in getting editors to pay for it, is a feat that may require pretty close calculation and a good deal of ingenuity. You have to learn to load solid matter into notices of ephemeral happenings; you have to develop a resourcefulness at pursuing a line of thought through pieces on miscellaneous and more or less fortuitous subjects; and you have to acquire a technique of slipping over on the routine of editors the deeper independent work which their over-anxious intentness on the fashions of the month or the week have conditioned them automatically to reject, as the machines that make motor parts automatically reject outsizes.
[....] Poe in particular-though at the cost of an effort which was one of the pressures that shattered him -succeeded in selling almost all he wrote to the insipid periodicals of his day, studying the forms that were effective with the public, passing off his most anguished visions in the guise of mystery stories, and, be getting the editors, in some cases, to print pieces that had been published before but of which he had prepared new versions, scoring the triumph of thus making them pay him for the gratuitous labor of rewriting demanded by his artistic conscience. The masterpieces excreted like precious stones by the subterranean chemistry of his mind were sprinkled into a rapid stream of news letters and daily reviewing that was itself made to feed his interests and contribute to his higher aims.
[....] My own strategy – to make an anti-climax – has usually been, first to get books for review or reporting assignments to cover on subjects in which I happened to be interested; then, later, to use the scattered articles for writing general studies of these subjects; then, finally, to bring out a book in which groups of these essays were revised and combined.
[....] This method of working out in print one's treatment of something one is studying involves a certain amount of extra writing and consequently of energy wasted; but it does have the advantage of allowing one's ideas first to appear in a tentative form, so that they are exposed to correction and criticism. My non-critical and non-reportorial productions I have also to some extent smuggled in, and their forms may have been sometimes affected by the importunate consideration of the usefulness of detachable units of the right size for magazines.
[....] in the literary field, it does look as if the movements for which people have been fighting had, if not actually run their courses, at least completed certain phases of their development. Two of the tendencies that have stimulated most controversy, both vis-a-vis traditional methods and in conflict with one another: naturalism and symbolism-culminated and fused in the work of Joyce at the time that he wrote Ulysses. And there was also embodied in Ulysses an exploitation or a parallel exploration of the Freudian tendencies in psychology which had themselves had to fight for their lives and which could still seem sensational in fiction. The Waste Land came out the same year as Ulysses: 1922; and the result was one of those blood-heating crises that have been occurring periodically in literature since the first night of Hernani in 1830: howls of denunciation, defiant applause and defense, final vindication and triumph. But when the successor to Ulysses arrived, even more daring and equally great though it was, its reception was completely different; and the difference is significant and perhaps marks the drop of a trajectory in modern literature. Such occasions had never been deprived in the past either of evening clothes to hiss from the boxes or of young men to wear the red vest of Gautier; but the appearance of Finnegans Wake, instead of detonating a battle, was received with incurious calm. No exalted young journalists defended it; no old fogeys attacked it with fury. The reviewers spoke respectfully of Joyce while deprecating an aberration, and detoured around the book without giving it the smallest attention; and among the older writers who had been interested in Ulysses, now comfortably ensconced in their niches, a few read it, but most ignored. The only group of intellectuals that gave a serious hearing to this work turned out, by a curious reversal of the traditional situation, to be made up, precisely, of members of the profession which had become proverbial as the enemies of anything new. Finnegans Wake went straight from the hands of Joyce into the hands of the college professors, and is today not a literary issue but a subject of academic research. Nor is this, in my opinion, entirely due to the complex erudition of the book itself or to the abstruseness of some of its meanings: Finnegans Wake gives a scope to Joyce's lyric gift in a way that Ulysses did not, and it makes a new departure in the merging of the techniques of the novel and verse that ought to be of special interest to poets and fiction-writers both. The fate of Finnegans Wake is partly, I believe, the result of the process which I have mentioned above: the inevitable gravitation toward teaching jobs of able young literary men who can find no decent work outside them. In the twenties, Mr. Harry Levin, who has written so brilliantly on Joyce, would undoubtedly have been editing the Dial and going to bat for Ulysses in its pages: today he teaches English at Harvard, while an old-red-waistcoat-wearer like me who made a move to get the garment out of moth-balls at the time Finnegans Wake was published, is being treated to a quiet bibliography under the auspices of the Princeton Library, where, as I remember, in 1912, Ernest Dowson and Oscar Wilde were the latest sensational writers who had got in past the stained-glass windows.
[....] what, from the artistic point of view, have Kafka and his emulators done-though they reflect a different moral atmosphere-that had not already been done in the nightmares of Gogol and Melville and Poe?
* * *
Wilson is at pains above to note a change with long-range implications for the study of new literature: a shift from initial reception in popular journals and newspapers to college literature departments. The period after 1950 would speed this process exponentially.
28 November 2022