Tuesday, August 02, 2005

LIT: Edmund Wilson

Notes on London at the End of a War, by Edmund Wilson
Louis Menand, The New Yorker, Issue of 1946-06-02, Posted 2005-08-01

This week in the magazine and here online, Louis Menand writes about the career of Edmund Wilson. Wilson’s 1947 book, “Europe Without Baedeker,” was a collection of reports and reflections, many of which appeared first in The New Yorker. This report from London, published in 1945, was the first in that series.

The English way of getting things done is quite distinct from the American way. It is quieter, more orderly, politer. When my ship was about to dock in London, a British pilot came aboard to take us up the Thames. The deckhands had been cleaning the deck and draining the water out of a hole next to the ladder up which he was to climb, and one of the sailors now closed the hole. The pilot, as he came over the side, said to the sailor, "Good morning. Thanks for stopping the water," and went immediately about his business on the bridge. I was somehow impressed by this and tried to think what an American would have said. He would probably have said nothing at all or would have made some kind of wisecrack. And so, when the officials of the port came aboard, it seemed to me that one's dealings with officials in England were pleasanter and more expeditious than with those of any other country. Even when they are holding you up, there is no strain and no friction. The officials of other countries tend to behave as if they assumed you were a crook, but the British officials look up at you with a candid and friendly eye which seems to assume that you must be honest. I had the impression later, in London, when I saw people getting their ration books and complying with other wartime regulations, that the whole organization of life for the war had been handled in this same calm and careful way. Compared to England after more than five years of food rationing, fuel restrictions, and the rest, the United States, in its first throes of privation, seemed hysterical, uncertain, and confused.

There is about London today a certain flavor of Soviet Moscow. It surprises Londoners if you remark on this and does not particularly please them, but people told me at the American Embassy that several other visitors who had been in Russia had said the same thing. The regimentation and the tension imposed by the war have produced certain results very similar to those of the effort, during the twenties and thirties, to make the Soviet Union self-dependent. People look rather shabby, but almost everybody looks equally shabby. Many people are working for the government; everybody has something definite to do and each is intent on his particular job. There is the atmosphere of emergency and transition to which people have settled down; many things are left undone or unfinished—in London the repair of buildings, in Moscow the carrying out of civic projects—which would in normal times make intolerable eyesores. There is a great deal of getting oneself registered and of having to have passes in order to do things, and people are always having to line up and wait for hours in queues. There is also the democracy of manners—one of the striking changes in London—of people in the same boat who cannot afford to be rude to one another, all constrained by a common danger and dependent on coöperation.

The English have also, since the war, been somewhat shut in from the rest of the world, as the Soviet Russians are. Their newspapers today are as meagre, though not so misleading, as the Russian ones; their sense of what other countries are like and of what is going on outside England seems to have become rather dim. People who have been living in London through all or most of the years of the war—unable even to go to the seaside: a great privation, apparently, for Londoners—complain of a kind of claustrophobia, and young people in government offices who have had to give up to the war five years of that part of their life which is ordinarily more cheerfully employed show the same mixture of boredom and devotion as the young workers for the Soviet economy showed toward the end of the second Five Year Plan. And, as in Moscow, there are women in pants and the problem of neglected children. There is also the quietness of everybody. The submissiveness. The patience. The acceptance. The parks seem muted, like Russian parks. In the evening, people lie on the grass or stroll along the paths or go boating on the Serpentine or play a primitive form of baseball called rounders, and are almost as soundless as the rabbits munching grass in their wire enclosures. Even the American soldiers playing the American form of baseball are much less noisy than they would be at home.

I had forgotten what a pleasant city London is. No doubt it comes to seem more attractive as New York be-comes consistently less so. From the moment a New Yorker is confronted with almost any large city of Europe, it is impossible for him to pretend to himself that his own city is anything other than an unscrupulous real-estate speculation, whereas a capital like London is a place where people are supposed to live and enjoy some recreation and comfort rather than merely pay landlords rent. The green parks and the squares that interlace the whole West End seem enchanting after the windowed, expressionless walls, the narrow, crowded streets of New York. The best that Mr. Moses has been able to do, admirable though it is, seems pathetic beside, say, Kensington Gardens, which provides a real escape into the country, not a mere space for benches and asphalt walks. The moist air, which softens form and deepens color, gives all these parks a special charm, as one sees them under pearly clouds in the pale-blue sky of an early spring evening or, later, fringed with purple lilacs and studded with white-blossoming chestnuts above turf that is soft and dense, like the air. And though a good deal of fun, at one time or another, has been made of the London statues by people like Osbert Sitwell and Max Beerbohm, it is cheering to a New Yorker, with a depressed recollection of the figure of Fitz-Greene Halleck in Central Park, to find, within a short walk, monuments to four English poets—Chaucer, Milton, Shakespeare, and Byron—and even statues of the conventional public kind which have a certain authentic life: the bronze Victory driving her horses into the sky and the Saint George of World War I killing a dragon with mustaches like the Kaiser's. You realize that the English, through these symbols, quite as much perhaps as the French, have managed to keep in the air the admiration for humble excellence and the imaginative vision of history. There is, however, one mechanical monument which stands out among these human ones as a bleak, unassimilable block—a statue to the Royal Artillery in the shape of a huge howitzer. This suggests that the war just ended may eventually bring, for its memorials, bronze bombers, marble tanks, and granite anti-aircraft batteries. In fact, you have something of the kind already in the great war monument in Edinburgh Castle, where there are yards and yards of bas-reliefs of men with machine guns, trench helmets, and gas masks and all the other equipment of the last war. You feel here a definite break in the tradition of human heroism: the armored knights with their plumes and beaks were still at least caricatures of the human animal, but the big age of engineering has reached the point, in England as elsewhere, of getting this animal out of sight. A monument for the next World War might be simply an enormous rocket which had never been touched by human hands from the moment it was shot out of its stand.

Being attacked from the air by flying bombs and rockets must be something quite new in sensations. While my ship was lying in the Thames on a mild and quiet April day, a rocket went off somewhere not far away among the streets of little London houses on which we were looking out; the pilot said to someone the next morning that a second one had just passed overhead. When I got off the boat, I was told that the tram line was now blocked, because of the blowing-up two days before of the bridge at the end of the street. It would hardly be correct to use, in connection with these automatic explosives, the word "nightmarish." A nightmare involves apprehension; the terror must always be expected. The Londoners say that in the case of the blitz you were dealing with other human beings, could see them coming, and could at least try to do something about them: relationship between combatants was established, so the thing seemed to make some sense. But the "doodlebugs," or flying bombs, and even more the rockets, came as a disruption completely irrelevant to even an emergency pattern of life. With the rockets there was nothing you could do: you could not either hear them or see them coming, and you might just as well not think of them at all. Though when you walked through one of those pleasant parks or squares that you were in the habit of passing every day, it would be a shock to come upon a great ulcer, the crater of a V-2. On some other occasion, you might be knocked flat and stunned and have to be carried in out of the street, or you might be sitting at home and have all your clothes blown off and your skin peppered with masonry and plaster, or you might be annihilated. Nothing, of course, was further from the attitude of London during the days of the V-2 rockets than the atmosphere of abject panic described by German propaganda. At the time the V-ls were falling, there was an exhibition on Oxford Street which showed a diagram and model of the rocket and photographs of some of the damage, and people were dropping in curiously, as they would on the fortunetelling machines and the waxworks. But those who know what the Germans were preparing believe that if they had been given time to intensify the attack, they could have made London uninhabitable. A commission which visited the Pas-de-Calais, after that part of the coast had been abandoned by the Germans, found a whole hillside planted with giant guns, fixed in their positions and aimed at London and capable of firing five or six projectiles a minute, and, in another place, a hilltop scooped out and equipped with rocket sites for some larger type of rocket than V-2s.

The London theatre, to a New Yorker, is amazing. It used to be very much less interesting than ours, but it is at present incomparably better. Our theatre has been demoralized by Hollywood; no one really takes it seriously any more. We have few directors or actors who even want to do a good job, and these rarely get a chance to do one. But the London theatre still exists, and the war has had the effect of stimulating it to special effort. With so much of tight routine in their lives, so little margin for vacation or luxury, and feeling somewhat helpless in their hemmed-in world, the Londoners, again rather like the Russians, have needed the theatre for gaiety, for color, and also—what is very important and what the American films can't supply—for the vicarious participation in the drama of personal emotions that are possible only in peacetime, when the individual is relative free. In the first place, they put on really good plays. During the month that I spent in London, you could see three plays of Shakespeare (as well as an English film of "Henry V"), John Webster's "The Duchess of Malfi," two plays of Ibsen, two of Bernard Shaw, one of Chekhov, one of Strindberg, and, on a lower but still respectable level, two plays by Noel Coward, as well as "The Circle," by Somerset Maugham.

Some of these plays were brilliantly done, and all that I saw were done with a kind of theatrical competence that is almost obsolete on Broadway. Not only do people want to see serious plays in London, but they are also intelligently interested in acting. I heard discussion everywhere of actors in their roles, of a sort that has not been heard at home since the early years of the twenties. I saw half a dozen actors in London—Ralph Richardson, Laurence Oliver, John Gielgud, Cecil Trouncer, Sybil Thorndike, and Peggy Ashcroft—who were certainly first-rate, performing in repertory companies in which they were as likely to do small parts as big ones and had none of the fantastic billing which has done so much to spoil our theatre. The two best performances I saw were "Richard III" and "The Duchess of Malfi." It is a great thing to hear Elizabethan blank verse read as verse and yet be distinct to the last syllable, and as comprehensible and effective as normal speech. With us this tradition has been lost from the time, I suppose, that John Barrymore was persuaded to read "Hamlet" like prose. And today an American Shakespearean production usually combines a variety of accents and a variety of metrical or non-metrical conceptions of the rhythm of the lines in a way that does the master little justice. Implausible though it may appear, the Elizabethan "Duchess of Malfi," not played anywhere since God knows when, is probably the most fascinating show to be seen in London. It seems to me, in fact, one of the best productions that I have ever seen of anything anywhere. You would think that this old tragedy of blood, with its grotesque horrors and highly wrought speeches, is the kind of thing of which a revival would be sure to turn out dreary or comic, but this production, by the poet George Rylands, is so immensely imaginative and skillful and the acting is at once so dynamic and so disciplined that it holds you from beginning to end. You might have thought that Webster's style was too precious for the stage, but every speech has its force and point.

The English somehow got the emotions of the war into both "Richard III" and "The Duchess of Malfi": the accelerating pace of horror, crime, injustice, grievance, revenge. No, "The Duchess of Malfi" was not funny. You understood what Gertrude Stein meant when she said that she had reread in France, during the war, Shakespeare's tragedies and historical plays and had realized for the first time that human life could be like that. One saw the fall of "Richard III" as Hitler was staggering to defeat; and one saw the scene of the released lunatics, in which the Duchess of Malfi is told her doom, just at the moment of the exposé of the German prison camps. The theatre was thus a little breathless, a little tense with and fatigue, like everything else in London. One felt its limitations more when one saw something that was supposed to be consoling. "The Wild of Heaven,” by Emlyn Williams, well done though it too was, was depressing in its attempt to exploit the need of the people for something to believe in, something to reassure them that there is a God behind the world, after all. Mr. Williams makes a Messiah appear in Wales at the time of the Crimean War: a saintly child who can heal the cholera and who brings the sound of celestial music. But alas, when you go out of the theatre there is no Messiah there.

The influence of America on England had already gone pretty far when I was there in 1935, and a public reaction against it was expressed in the popular revues, which ridicule the United States at the same time that they were resorting to American methods and using American jokes. Today the influence is more pervasive and, though criticism on the stage and in the press is restrained by our relation as Allies, the rebellion against that influence is stronger. Everybody goes to the American films and the "lower order" now chews gum. Everybody under forty-five, of whatever social class, seems to say "O.K." and "That's right," and the American use of "fix," in the sense of "mend" or "arrange," seems to be universal. People also begin statements with "Look" instead of with "I say” (now becoming a little old-fashioned), which I believe was originally an Americanism, too; and it is queer to hear phrases like "het up" and "corked out" pronounced by English voices. There is some growling about this in print, and there has recently been a very sharp protest against the dominance of the American films, a protest with which an American may gloomily find himself in sympathy. The effect of the American movies, American journalism, and American radio on the British lower-middle class is, I fear, going to he rather awful. They will get much of the banality and cheapness with little of the excitement and snap. There is certainly a large market in England for the worst the United States has to offer. Our Hollywood stars are already their stars and our best-sellers will be their best-sellers.

The English, in fact, partially as a result of all this, have become fairly neurotic about America. They were swamped by the American Army, as wave after wave of it came in before D Day, and they now seem to look back on its sojourn as an ordeal of almost the same severity as the blitz and the bombs. It is, indeed, a dreadful nuisance to have the people of some other nation suddenly upon one, and the English have really had much to complain of in the way of soldier hillbillies and hoodlums who took advantage of the blackout in London to pester women and snatch purses. But now that the Army was mostly gone, I assumed that the resentment had subsided, and I was therefore surprised, in London, to hear a good deal of somewhat bitter criticism of practically everything connected to America. I had begun by being depreciatory about those products of United States—such as I have mentioned above—to which I object as much as they did. But I soon found this was not understood: the Englishman always stands up for his country where foreigners are concerned, and he thinks that if you criticize yours, it is an admission of inferiority. I first became aware of this attitude some years ago, when I met a visiting English physicist who said that he hesitated to tell Americans he enjoyed Sinclair Lewis's novels because he feared they might resent it. This seemed to me odd at the time, but I realized, when I came to England, that the English point of view in such matters is entirely different from ours. They do not publicly engage in self-criticism—Bernard Shaw, after all, is an Irishman—and they are always intent on keeping up face. I saw that, compared to England (or, in fact, any European country), the United States is not a nation at all—that is, an entity that maintains its breed and has to compete and defend itself among entities of other breeds—but a society in course of construction, composed of the most diverse elements, in which it is the way of life and not the national existence and essence with which people are occupied. Thus the admission of a weakness to a foreigner is, for an Englishman, an act of treason, whereas a satire on Babbitt, for us, is merely a comment on a social tendency. The "hundred-per-cent Americanism" of the period that followed the last war, and that took alarm at such satire as Lewis's, betrayed its falsity by its hysterical ravings and did not rage long.

But I eventually became rather irritated. If the people in London did not, as they often did, attack America and Americans directly, they would resort to the old, offhand methods which one reads of in books of the last century and for which it seemed to me, in 1945, a little late in the day. One man who had been in America pretended to think that Vermont was a town in Florida and that it was accented on the first syllable, and another, an Oxford man who had lectured in the United States, a scholar of enormous reading who quotes lyrics in Portuguese and has the Russian poets all at his fingertips, remarked that he had never read Walt Whitman, who, he understood, was considered a great writer in South America. When I said that "Leaves of Grass" was probably the greatest American book, he asked me whether I thought it even more important than the writings of Whyte-Melville. I did not actually talk with people who believed—though I heard that the legend was widely spread—that American women had exceptionally long legs because they all had Negro blood, but I did meet well-educated people who said they had heard there was no conversation in America, as the Americans only exchanged wisecracks, and who declared that the negotiation of various kinds which had been going on between English and Americans had been proving very unsuccessful because the English could not understand what the Americans said. With these people, I adopted a tougher line. I would retort that the American soldiers who had committed misdemeanors in England were our revenge for the obnoxious British propagandists who had been sent over to plague us in America from the moment England had realized she needed us to help her against Germany, and I cited examples, in this line, of British atrocities in the United States. The first rebuttal I got to this was the reply that when, for any reason, a British official did not come up to scratch he was always sent at once to America.

The British, though impassive, are pugnacious: they have always stood square on their island with their fists clenched against the world. They understand giving blow for blow. When the provocation for rudeness was offered, I would engage in combative conversations that went, in substance, like this:

"The English are fantastically ignorant about the United States. A friend of mine in Scotland who knows America well was saying to me the other day that the English saw North America on a single page of their atlases represented as about the same size as England and so assumed that it was a small, homogeneous place."

"One of the things that keep the English from knowing about America is the fact that American books are almost invariably so badly written that we find it very difficult to read them.”

Or: "The social classes in England are practically different races of beings, who even speak different languages. Perhaps the jargon of the American movies may give them a common medium by which they can communicate."

"What about the American Negroes? They seem to be excluded from the privileges of citizenship as no group in England is. And, though I am used to talking to Americans, I find it hard to understand what they say."

This attitude of the English toward America is, of course, partly a wartime phenomenon—a symptom of exasperation, of the peculiar state of mind produced by being cooped up for five years in England, and by being in uncertainty, since 1940, about England's place in the world. This came out very clearly in connection with one of the principal conversational snags that I ran into in London. I always found, when I said that Europe would have to be governed by somebody or something, that I provoked an immediate resistance, and I saw presently that people were assuming that I meant that the United States ought to run it. I would explain to them that the difficulty would be rather, once Germany had been defeated, to induce the United States to take further interest in Europe. But then, whenever the problems of postwar Europe were raised, it seemed to me that the instinct of the English themselves was to shrink from becoming involved in any hampering and permanent way, for purposes of international control, with the other great western powers. They used to reproach us, with reason, for our failure to take our place in the League of Nations which Woodrow Wilson had initiated, but I got the impression on this visit that the average educated Englishman was still thinking of the future in terms of old-fashioned balance-of-power politics, in which nations are irreducible units that can associate in pacts and alliances like the combinations of molecules in chemistry but cannot cohere to produce a new structure in a process of crystallization. The great difference, I concluded, between England and the other English-speaking countries can be traced to the fact—of which, obvious though it is, I had never fully appreciated the importance—that the English are used to living on an island, whereas most of the rest of us are spread across whole continents and, with so much space about us, no longer constrained by our neighbors either at home or abroad, have acquired a certain nonchalance and freedom in the world, a readiness to get on with people, that make the non-English Anglo-Saxon something quite distinct from the Englishman.

I went to the House of Commons to hear Churchill pay his tribute to Roosevelt. His speech was held up by a curious and unexpected incident which turned out to be more interesting to an American visitor than the oration itself. A new M. P., a Dr. Robert McIntyre, who represented the Scottish Nationalist Party, presented himself to be seated without the customary Parliamentary sponsors. A new member, when he first enters the House, is supposed to come with two other members, who escort him on either side as he walks down the wide aisle between the benches, stopping at intervals to bow three times to the Speaker, who is presiding in a high chair and wearing a shoulder-length wig. Dr. McIntyre, the spokesman for an intransigent group, had decided to appear without these sponsors, in order to dissociate himself, as he said, from "the London party game," and the result was that he was challenged by the Speaker and, when he bowed and began to explain his position, was cut short with “You have no place to speak from. You cannot make a speech.” He was sent to sit behind the bar—that is, to a kind of limbo consisting of a cross-bench at the back of the room, and he retired, walking backward and making the Speaker two more bows. A spirited debate now took place. A Scottish member, Mr. Buchanan, urged, with a strong Scottish accent, that the old rule be suspended for a day. Dr. McIntyre, he said, had been “duly elected after fighting both party machines” and was certainly entitled to his seat. Other members objected that the rule had a very important purpose: if sponsors were not required, there would be nothing to prevent any vagabond off the streets from walking into the House of Commons and taking his seat as a member. It turned out that this regulation, in force since l 688, had come in question only once before—in 1875, when a certain Dr. Kenealy had proved to be so unpopular personally that he had found it impossible to get anyone to sponsor him, on which occasion the requirement had apparently been waived. But the supporters of Dr. McIntyre were unable to make any headway. A Conservative member, Lord Winterton, even inquired indignantly whether the House were obliged to tolerate having Dr. McIntyre in the room at all, and provoked from Mr. Buchanan a counter-question, addressed to the Speaker: "Could you not order Dr. McIntyre's execution just to satisfy Lord Winterton? " The issue was finally dealt with by the Prime Minister. "I could not," said Mr. Churchill, "advise the House on this occasion to depart from tradition and custom. On the contrary, when the British House of Commons is under the gaze of the whole world, and the admiring gaze of a large part of it, we should not in the least shrink from upholding the ancient traditions and customs which have added to our dignity and power."

I had been very much impressed that afternoon, amidst the carvings and the gilt of Westminster, by the spectacle of the opening of Parliament: the huge gold mace, the Speaker framed in his wig, the attendants with their necks rigid and their chins stuck out, all proceeding through the solemn portals while the crowd were told to stand at attention. I had never quite felt before—since we have nothing in the least like all this—how compelling these ceremonies still are that tend to appear to the outside world as anachronisms, how much the power and dignity of England of which the Prime Minister was speaking still resides in a mystic core of which such things as crown and mace and woolsack are the most conspicuous symbols but which is alive and compelling in almost every British subject. When my ship was docking at London, I was struck by the fact that a British stewardess, who had been born in India and had lived in the States and who had been but once in England, said, "There's something about getting to England that always gives you a special feeling. There's something worthy about it, don't you think so?" And yet now that the Prime Minister was appealing thus for the continuance of an obsolete custom on the ground merely that it would be a good thing for British prestige abroad—in a word, that it was better publicity—I felt that the power and the glory were perhaps ebbing out of these symbols, that the old virtue was no longer quite there.

I later read in the paper the program of the Scottish Nationalist Party, which included the following points: Breakup of large landlord estates among farmer owners responsible to the nation; Scottish government ownership responsible to the Scottish people alone; a central bank and control of private and municipal banks, customs, and excise; the curbing of combines by immediate legislation making it illegal for a Scottish firm to sell a majority of its capital stock to non-Scots, and by a differential tax on chain stores; national ownership of the coal reserves of Scotland; and, as war aims, "national freedom for Scotland and all other nations." To an American, these demands of the Scotsmen had a certain familiar ring. I do not know how important this party may be, or how legitimate its grievances are. The Englishmen I asked about it smilingly brushed it off, conceding sometimes that it might be a good thing if the Scotsmen had a parliament of their own, which would be, they said, a sort of "glorified borough council." But the more open-minded kind of Englishmen, toward the end of the eighteenth century, must have smiled about the demands of the American colonies in very much the same way. At any rate, the oration for Roosevelt was held up while a division took place. The members went out to vote; Mr. Churchill had to withdraw, with his speech in his hand. The decision went overwhelmingly for the Government, against the seating of the Nationalist member—273 to 74.

When I was leaving England, to fly to Italy, the officials were as polite as they had been when I arrived, but it turned out that, from the British point of view, my papers were not in order. I was not allowed to fly that morning and had to go back from my airport to London to get a missing and necessary document. The American authorities, when I returned to them, insisted that I did not need this document, that my papers had been in order, and a certain amount of fairly animated argument was carried on with the British over the telephone. In the course of all this, and of some further complication, I had a glimpse of the difference between the British and the American way of doing things. The British handle their formalities without fuss, but they are very exact about them. They were quite correct in telling me, as they did, that the document they insisted on my having would be asked for when I arrived in Italy. On the other hand, if I had not had it, the Americans in Italy would certainly have let me through. The point was that a new kind of credential had just gone into use with the Americans without the British having had notification. And the American officials thought that the fact that they sent a man to an airport provided only with this credential ought to be enough for the British. The Americans like to act for themselves and do things with a freer hand. They do not always take their paperwork quite so seriously as the British do. To the latter, they doubtless seem hit-or-miss, and they probably make annoying mistakes of a kind that is rare with the British. It is the result of having more space to move in, more margin of resources to dispose of. With the British every penny counts and every link in the chain must be tight. They do not understand the effectiveness of a loose association of men working with a minimum of formality to put through some undertaking and then eat a good dinner—which is what the Americans in Europe sometimes seem to be.