Upstate by Edmund Wilson
Everybody’s got a lot of reading time nowadays, and I find it’s an especially good time for me to make a decision about all these books I have kicking around. No more “Maybe I’ll read that someday.” It’s either read it now or out it goes.
One of the first books that came to hand was Upstate by Edmund Wilson, who as I’ve mentioned innumerable times, was my grandmother’s cousin who went to Princeton with my grandmother’s brother Sandy, who later went crazy, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Cousin Edmund, known to his friends as Bunny, always told Fitzgerald he was a third-rate novelist, but his own books never sold like Fitzgerald’s did. One time a woman told Cousin Bunny that she had bought a copy of his book I Thought of Daisy and he replied, “So it was you!” Funny guy.
But he wrote a number of books of literary criticism that sold well over the years, and his reviews in literary magazines helped a lot of writers make their reputations: Ernest Hemingway, Vladimir Nabokov, John Dos Passos, Anais Nin, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Wallace Stevens, e.e. cummings, and many, many others. Edmund knew everybody.
Upstate is a collection of his journal entries written at the Old Stone House in Talcottville which he inherited from his mother.
He gives a lot of background about the area — the earliest settlers, the religious communities that started up there, the Shakers with their orgiastic dancing, Joseph Smith and the Angel Macaroni and the gold tablets and, of course, the magic spectacles, and the intentional communities including the Oneida Community, where one guy decided who would mate with whom to get the best offspring. There are stories about people climbing through the transoms when they didn’t like their assigned partner.
Then there’s a long complicated history of the families that owned the Stone House over the years and who bequeathed it to whom and the feuds between different branches of the family.
Then he details his efforts over the years to maintain and improve the Stone House, which was in rough shape when he inherited it, because his mother hadn’t been up there in years.
At first these seem to be just the reminiscences of a grouchy old man who yells at kids to get off his lawn, but Edmund becomes acquainted with lots of his neighbors for several reasons.
For one thing, he never learned to drive, so he has to hire people to take him places. And he never learned to cook, so either he hired a neighbor lady or he wangled an invitation from friends, or he took someone out to dinner. (His charming Russian much-younger wife Elena can’t stand Talcottville for more than a week at a time and stays in their other house on Cape Cod.)
And he hires people for all kinds of other chores and improvement projects, so he has to do a lot of writing to pay for all this. That’s not easy. Plus he has the IRS on his back.
During the course of Upstate, he writes a book about modern Canadian writers, O Canada, and one about the Iriquois, Apologies to the Iriquois, and he meets a lot of interesting people doing that.
Meanwhile he’s keeping up his skills as an amateur magician and he’s learning to speak Hungarian.
All in all, reading Upstate is like checking in with a sardonic old friend. I have to say, though, that I prefer the last volume of his memoirs, called The Sixties, which covers much of the same ground. You meet all the same characters and there’s a lot more information and some racy stories that he didn’t include in Upstate.