Thanks to fellow USIH blogger Pete Kuryla, I spent the last two days in Nashville talking about Marx in America. Pete organizes an annual seminar on U.S. intellectual history. He invites one outside scholar to spend two days at Belmont University talking books and ideas with him and his engaging colleagues from the history, English, and philosophy departments. One day is dedicated to discussing the visitor’s work—we discussed my preliminary work on “Karl Marx in America,” which was so incredibly helpful not to mention fun. Another day is dedicated to discussing a classic text in the same orbit, and for this Pete wisely chose for us to read Edmund Wilson’s remarkable 1940 book, To the Finland Station: A Study in the Writing and Acting of History. I thought I’d share some of my thoughts about To the Finland Station here.
To the Finland Station is beautifully written, imaginatively constructed, sweeping in scope, and smart in many of its judgments—though it gets some important things wildly wrong. I put it in the category of other Marx-inspired masterpieces of that era when Marx came to be seen as a prophet for capitalism’s demise, including W.E.B. Du Dubois’s Black Reconstruction and C.L.R. James’s Black Jacobins, which I have written about here. Like the Du Bois and James books, To the Finland Station did not achieve a large readership immediately upon publication. By 1947 it had sold only 4,527 copies, a disappointing number for a book written by a well-known critic and published by a trade press (Harcourt, Brace & Co) at a time when people still bought and read books. But whereas the Du Bois and James books needed the later civil rights movement to bring readers into being, Wilson’s bad timing was the result of different political levers. Continue reading