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Edmund Wilson, the preeminent American literary critic of the first half of the twentieth century, often fretted that he was not taken seriously as a creative writer. In the course of a career that produced Axed Castle, To the Finland Station, and Patriotic Gore, among many other works of criticism and history, he published poems, plays, and two novels. Though he completed in draft this short novel, now entitled The Higher Jazz, it was never published.
In mid-career, in 1939, Wilson planned a novel in three parts that would carry a man through fifteen years as a stockbroker, a Russian diplomat, and a writer. When he started on the first section of this book, set in the 1920s, it carried him away from his original project. His hero was instead transformed into a German American businessman who, aspiring to become a composer, seeks the spirit of America in music that combined the contemporary popular and the modern classical, in what Wilson called elsewhere "the higher jazz".
This portrayal of the 1920s provides a sense of the illusive glories of the Boom Era. It is filled with characters based on people Wilson knew well or had observed, such as Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, and the Fitzgerald circle, and composers as varied as Cole Porter and Charles Ives. Written at a turning point in his career, before he left contemporary literature and radical politics to focus on history, travel, and his own past, this novel reveals Wilson's second thoughts about the 1920s and his recognition of the aspirations and dilemmas of the artist in American society.
Neale Reinitz has edited The Higher Jazz for the general reader. His introduction sets the novel in the historical context of Wilson'slife and writings, and his annotations explain the topical references and, more important, illustrate Wilson's method of composition.