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Monday, June 28, 2004

A copy of "The Memoirs of Hecate County" that I'd found at The Strand a few years back recently resurfaced in my To Be Read pile, and I've been picking it up here and there. "The Man Who Shot Snapping Turtles" is pretty frequently anthologized, and I like Edmund Wilson, and I'd always heard that the book was something of a scandal in its day because of its sexual content, but I wasn't finding those bits. Now I have.

"Snapping Turtles" opens the book, which is a collection of six sort of connected stories, some longer than others. It is the only fiction of Wilson's that I'd read to this point, a nice piece of work about the nature of obsession, I suppose. Actually, that seems to be the theme of the work as a whole, but it suffers a little from the formlessness of its structure. "Ellen Terhune", the next story in the book is long, and kind of derivative-- it is sort of a ghost story, and reminded me of "The Turn of the Screw". I got bogged down there for a while-- Wilson always knew good writing, but he has a tendency here to be a little florid. "Glimpses of Wilbur Flick", the story following that, is Scott Fitgerald on an off day, but then we get to "The Princess With the Golden Hair", and there it is, a long, discursive ramble about a man in love with one woman and in a sexual relationship with another that is as frank about sex as can be. It rolls along, describing the narrators complicated feelings, and his elaborate views on the relationship between art and economics, and his straightforward sexual activities. It is the sex stuff that is the best written, actually-- it's quite blunt, in contrast to the rather over-heated prose that surrounds it, and it is easy to see why the audience in 1942 would have been shocked. A great deal of the rest of it is as florid as the title, but it is seriously intentioned, and carefully thought out. It also seems very personal to Wilson, and is a side of the tyrannical "Man in the iron necktie" that I hadn't imagined.

I have always imagined that Wilson was disappointed that he was unable to establish a name for himself as a fiction writer: that's the gold standard, after all, and who would know it better? "Hecate County" is both better and worse than I would have expected; I see that it is back in print, and that is a good thing, even though it is hard to imagine that it is a book that will ever have much of a following.

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