Issue 98, Winter 1985
“Nothing but deaths,” Edmund Wilson writes in his journals at the beginning of the fifties, when he was haunted by a fantasy that he too might die before his time. Edna Millay had just died —she had seemed dead when he visited her during the 1940s. Christian Gauss, his mentor at Princeton, had dropped dead in Pennsylvania Station while waiting for the Princeton train. His mother had died, recently, of old age, her life in a manner fulfilled. She at least had known “duration.” Edmund had been distanced from her early by her chronic deafness; but even without her poor hearing she had proved too prosaic for her over bright son. She would have liked him to be a quiet, ordinary boy who might go with her to the football games and do all the conventional things in their corner of New Jersey. She hadn’t approved of his being a writer and never read him. She was devoted to her gardens; she had her house, her car, her chauffeur, her loyal servant, and had lived into her eighties. Edna Millay had been Edmund’s troubled and troubling early love, and the ups and downs of their intermittent affair are reflected in his novel / Thought of Daisy and in the memoir he now wrote about her. Assembling his literary writings of the twenties and thirties, which he called The Shores of Light, he let the memoir stand as an epilogue, a kind of final shutting of the gate on his passionate past. At the beginning of the book—as a prologue—he placed his tribute to Gauss, who had made him feel the importance of human expression in literature, made him aware of continental writers and the power of language and symbol. In his epitaph for Gauss he quotes Dante’s lines to his teacher, Brunetto Latini, la cara e buona image paterna* — “the dear and kind paternal image”—thus naming Gauss as a kind of second father, the father of his intellect. The two memoirs enclose the “shores of light”—the precious decades that had forged Wilson’s critical power—as in a felt and permanent embrace.
With his mother’s death, Wilson inherited the family’s upstate house —the Old Stone House, as it was called. Situated in Talcottville, a village of some eighty persons, in the lower range of the Adirondacks, it had been begun in 1800, the year after George Washington’s death, and was completed in 1804. Its huge beams showed ravage; there were the inevitable accumulations of cobwebs and mildew; in places the plaster on the Sugar River limestone, from the ancestral quarry, was crumbling. But it was a splendid, solid house, with large rooms and chaste and elegant fite places; there were two stories of wide windows and a full-length verandah on each story. The house had survived, in its rural grandeur, from the childhood of the American Republic.
At certain periods in its history it had served, in the midst of being a dwelling, as a town hall, a post office, a social center. Outlying buildings had included a dairy, a quilting room, and a spinning room where three maids spun constantly. There had also been a large ballroom. In addition to their homespun clothes, the ancestors had produced their own nails and candles and other household necessities. They dealt in land, built a mill, sold grist from their harvests and produce from the farms. With his usual curiosity, Edmund started reading local history and talking to family relations in the neighborhood. Once he had put up work space in the house, he began to study deeds, genealogy, real estate records, wills. Everything about his mother’s family interested him. In one of his Christmas poems sent to his friends he told the family history:
The Talcotts, Tories at that date.
Resided here in feudal state . . .
Another role was Thomas Baker’s,
Who broke and sold the Talcott acres.
There had been disputes, squabbles, litigation. The Talcotts and the Bakets feuded like the Montagues and Capulets but without the Shakespearian mayhem and finally reconciled proprietory differences in various intermarriages.