My fans sometimes ask me whether I have learned from other writers, and if so, what and from whom. This does not elicit easy answers for more reasons than one. The first probable influence is that of Homer Nearing, my English teacher at Perkiomen High School, who solicited my input into an epistolary novel he and his far-away girlfriend were collaborating on. My senior year at the superior Horace Mann School, did not contribute any such influence.
At Harvard, I was a student of Harry Levin, and always admired, on a sympathetic rather than systematic basis, the scope of his erudition, his insight, his acuity and wit. But admiration is not necessarily learning. On a friendly basis in conversation, I probably learned a thing or two from Wilfrid Sheed, whose writing I also admired, though his novel “Max Jamison,” as he often persuasively maintained, had nothing to do with me, however often some thought otherwise. But I may have derived my sense of irony in part from him.
Some will mention Dwight Macdonald as a presumptive teacher. He surely was an admired friend, and wrote the somewhat cool introduction to my first critical collection, “Acid Test.” He did question some of my puns, as I may now the more labored ones, but not such good ones as his comment on Hollywood epics about Christ, in which “Romans were always the fall goys.”
Withal I cannot point to any specific lessons to have learned from him, admiration not being synonymous with influence. If Dwight was a model, neither in his writings nor in our many conversations, could one point to specific lessons. We usually agreed on things, as on a shallow lecture by Alberto Moravia we walked away from.
I actually recall most our one major disagreement, on Fellini’s “8 ½.” which he loved, but I found inferior to some of the earlier masterpieces. (I have since come to espouse several of his points.) In any case, an admirer is not necessarily a disciple.
Regrettably, much as I bought his books and respected his criticism, I cannot lay claim—more’s the pity—to any serious emulation of Edmund Wilson, except to a somewhat similar, though much less extensive, intellectual voracity. I never met him except as an unintroduced bystander while walking with Renato Poggioli, with whom, at an accidental street-corner meeting, he stopped for a briefest of conversations. I was rather envious of friends who got to sit with him at a late-night Cambridge joint, and somehow mentioned my knowledge of Hungarian, which he, in connection with recent readings in translation, remarked on envying.
In English, I favored a number of poet critics such as Ransom, Jarrell, Charles Simic and Robert Graves, whom I enjoyed, along with such non-poets as Leslie Fiedler, Benjamin De Mott, William Pritchard, and the already mentioned Harry Levin. And a novelist-critic such as Vladimir Nabokov.
But I also read a number of German/Austrians, Frenchmen and women, Italians, Spaniards, Scandinavians, and Hungarians, though for some reason no Yugoslavs or Latin Americans. Yet little of it, and that mostly subconsciously, qualifies as teaching. As an occasional writer of verse (I dare not say poet), I learned from a whole bunch of poets, of whom I only mention Graves, Cummings, Ransom, MacNeice and Wilbur, as well as Erich Kaestner, whom I translated, and Jacques Prevert.
I must however look at one possible teacher more particularly: Kenneth Tynan, from whom I hope to have learned irony (just short of sarcasm) and, in so far as this is possible, wit, which, after all is mostly innate and automatic. I cannot resist quoting some of his boutades—here the French imposes itself, with the English sallies, witticisms, epigrams largely subsumed.
“When you have seen all of Ionesco’s plays . . . you have seen one of them.” “Whenever [Chekhov’s] Platonov deceives his wife, he is stung by an attack of remorse so savage that it can be alleviated only by deceiving her with someone else.” “As Lavinia, Vivien Leigh receives the news that she is about to be ravished on her husband’s corpse with little more than the mild annoyance of one who would have preferred foam rubber.” “The true objection to [Genet’s “The Balcony”] is that nobody but M. Genet could have written the first half at all, while almost anyone else could have written the second half better.”
Or this: “Synge is often praised for his mastery of cadence, and for the splendor of his dying falls, Dying they may well be, but they take an unconscionable time doing it. Synge seldom lets a simple, declarative sentence alone. To its tail there must be pinned some such trailing tin can of verbiage as—to improvise an example—‘the way you’d be roaring and moiling in the hug of a Kilkenny ditch, and she with a shift on her would destroy a man entirely. I’m thinking, and him staring till the eyes would be lepping surely from the holes in his head.’” These are all negatives, but Ken could also be positive, about which some other time.
I am sorry that I didn’t get to know him better. At my one visit, when I asked him what he thought about my praise in an essay, he responded that it was merely to use him as a cudgel to clobber. George Steiner in the same essay.
Altogether, the question of from whom I may have derived demonstrable teaching is a thorny one, hardly ever fully provable, and except in the cases of full-blown discipleship perhaps not all that important. So much more characteristic and interesting is the innate and perfected independent talent, whatever it may be, and largely derived, however indirectly, from one’s living.
It is as with travel writing. One may get quite a bit from reading other travel writers, but you can truly learn only from your own experience, from your own travels. Even the best teachers are essentially road signs; the true discoveries are based on your own experiences.