Some literary figures put up with all kinds of guff from fans, publishers, fellow authors. Still others didn't hesitate to suffer fools gladly or anyone else for that matter. One such character was Edmund Wilson, a snobby Ivy Leaguer notorious for his snottiness, even onto his ex-wife Mary McCarthy, whose physical characteristics he described gleefully in one of his stories after they divorced.
Wilson was the fellow who described the style of his fellow snob Evelyn Waugh's "literary style as the desperate jauntiness of an orchestra fiddling away for dear life on a sinking ship." When poet Carl Sandburg won the Pulitzer for his biography of Lincoln, Wilson commented "The cruelest thing that has happened to Lincoln since he was shot has been to fall in the hands of Carl Sandburg."
Pretty nasty, right? But celebrities like Waugh and Sandburg were accustomed to such insults. And no one escaped his wrath. In 1965, Wilson had printed a card which he sent to all correspondents, whatever their station in life:
"EDMUND WILSON REGRETS THAT IT IS IMPOSSIBLE FOR HIM TO:
Write articles or books to order.
Write forewords or introductions.
Make statements for publicity purposes.
Do any kind of editorial work.
Judge literary contests.
Conduct educational courses.
Give talks or make speeches.
Broadcast or appear on television.
Take part in writers' conferences.
Contribute to or take part in symposiums or panels of any kind.
Contribute manuscripts for sale.
Donate copies of his books to libraries.
Autograph books for strangers.
Allow his name to be used on letterheads.
Supply personal information about himself.
Supply photographs of himself.
Supply opinions on literary or other subjects."
Whew! That about covers the life of a literary person. Like Edmund Wilson, I too am a literary person. Like Wilson, I studied literature at Wisconsin State College-Eau Claire just as Wilson at Yale University-New Haven, Conn. And like Wilson, I have been a critic for 40 years, I've written books, and sometimes people ask me to do them favors and express an opinion. But I have never achieved the grandeur that Wilson enjoyed for most of his life.
So you might say that I'm a few notches below Wilson on the celebrity scale.
Thus I'm more than happy to write introductions to the books of others, appear on panels, supply photographs of myself (though I've never been asked for even the smallest glossy.)
To illustrate, I was recently asked to become a judge at a national literary contest. I was happy to oblige when Julie Ingebretsen asked if I would be willing to judge the entries of a contest sponsored by her Scandinavian gift store and meat market, the store I recently wrote about on these pages.
Was it going to be the Pulitzer? The National Book Award? The British Booker Prize? Maybe the big one in Scandinavia, The Nobel?
Well, not quite, but I'm looking forward to it anyway. At least it's Scandinavian. For Ingebretsen's Market is sponsoring a national contest to discover the best Haikus written in the U.S. A Haiku is a Japanese art form, specifically a poem that contains 17 syllables. But there's a twist: Ingebretsen's version is called a Haikuffda.
So now I can take my place with the Edmund Wilsons, the Elizabeth Hardwicks, the T.S. Eliots, the R. P. Blackmurs and the Robert Penn Warrens of the world. Unfortunately the award won't be given in Copenhagen or even New York, but right on Lake Street in south Minneapolis.