WHEN THE GREAT AGE of avant-garde writing ended in the Depression, and when many British and American writers turned to political faiths, including Marxism, a new appetite for facts sometimes led them to the reporter's trade. Edmund Wilson was there beforehand. He had a kept a journal since college, reported on the New York scene, gone left after the Sacco-Vanzetti case, bade a formal farewell to lyric verse and ended his celebration of the great modernists in Axel's Castle with the call to make a practical success of human society." To Christian Gauss he wrote that he wanted "to become more and more objective instead of more and more personal."

The TWENTIES, the first large section of Wilson's posthumously published notebooks, is a young man's record, full of stylized word painting, preoccupied with the isolated self and with sexual liberation. The Thirties is more mature and sophisticated work, which shows his increased social ease as well as his social conscience. Like the Letters on Literature and Politics, it will nourish Wilson's growing reputation as a man of letters on the 18th- and 19th-century scale. With the continuity that Leon Edel skillfully supplies, it tells a good deal about his development, as well as about the decade when American society was apparently coming apart.

The ideas that animated To the Finland Station, The Triple Thinkers, and The Wound and the Bow, all published at the end of the decade, are not found here. But the strength of Wilson's criticism and histories is his mastery of concrete details, and the journals illustrate his ability to catch the essence of a time and situation. His subjects here are the doings, anecdotes and small talk of friends, his sex life and his dreams, the sufferings of less fortunate Americans, the ambiguities of the Soviet experiment. The writing varies from fragmentary jottings, stark encounters with reality, to completely realized moments and scenes. Missing are the ideological slant of Wilson's polished journalism of this period as well as the discursive allegorizing of his fiction. Without interpretation he takes us through the scenes pictured in The American Earthquake and the Russian part of Red, Black, Blond and Olive, and into the world of Memoirs of Hecate Country.

One sees why he tried to adapt Marxism to American conditions when he tells of the unemployed in Chicago, the lives of southern sharecroppers, the records of suicides in San Diego, "the jumping-off place." Included is a hitherto unpublished account of a foray by a few of the literary left into the Harlan County mining country, an early instance of protest and confrontation. Lacking television coverage, Wilson, Malcolm Cowley and their group were run of out of town, some of them beaten up. He disliked the role of the Communists in this affair, but to experience the corruption of law and justice accelerated his rejection of capitalism, at any rate until he also discovered the "Moscow tic," the compulsion to look over one's shoulder when discussing politics in Russia.

As Wilson surveys his own country, a counterpoint develops between the hardships of the majority and the not very satisfying pleasures of his acquaintances and himself. He describes Jane Addams and contrasts her extablishment to the squalor of the Chicago slums, then alludes to a casual sexual encounter with 'K' in Hull House. Like Dos Assos in U.s.a., he sees that the poor are not the only victims of economic collapse: ,t" -- death for the poor and dispossessed -- death for such culture and gaiety and health as the owning classes possessed -- the former ground down, exterminated, driven finally to fight -- the latter disintegrated, the future taken away from them, nothing to hope for, drinking and trying to stop drinking, but when you've stopped drinking not knowing what to do or plan, and getting tight again in a rush, the men killing time in their offices and getting more and more nervous and uneasy, the women not knowing what it's all about, bored and irritated by the gloominess and nervousness of their husbands, more on the loose than ever."

This is the context of Wilson's sex life in the half-dozen years between his second wife's death and his marriage to Mary Mc arthy, as explicityly described as is his liaison with the dance-hall girl of The Twenties and "The Princess with the Golden Hair." In the journals, as in the story, the narrator seems to be mentally taking notes. It is with "Anna," the dance-hall girl, with whom paradoxically Wilson is here less self-conscious, more humanly at ease. He is interested in her as he is not in the ever-ready "K" or the beautiful but narcissistic "D (a model for the princess, Imogen). That he genuinely cares for Anna makes his inability to intervene in the difficult life that he describes both affecting and disturbing to the reader.

Wilson himself only appears vulnerable in his response to the death of his wife Margeret Canby, after they had been married two years. She was killed in a fall while spending part of the year in California, and in the 30 pages of memory that Edel rightly calls the most intimate of all Wilson's writings about himself, grief and a self-doubt rare in the critic's work intensify his sense of loss. He reproaches himself for being impatient, patronizing, too occupied with his work, sometimes sexually indifferent or unloving. To express affection was difficult for Wilson, in whose childhood there had been little warmth. His grand passion for Edna Millay had been disappointed, and his first marriage, to the actress Mary Blair, was unhappy. Edel sees his boyhood blighted by a demanding but inaccessible mother, and, in Wilson's own metaphor of the wound and the bow, sees his literary gifts as compensation. However that may be, Margaret had touched him deeply, and in the diaries of the next years she haunts his dreams, dreams in which he futilely attempts to recover her, to persuade himself, or her, that she has not really died. The emptiness with which he is left -- "scorn of life," he calls it when thinking of Margaret with the survivor's guilt -- helps distance him from his other affairs. These years of introspection were ones of assimilating Freud. The results were the wounded heroes of his literary essays and the Marx of Finland Station who is divided "between a cold and anti-social egoism and the impulse of human solidarity."

The autobiographical material in The Thirties is limited, and Wilson seldom elaborates on what he thinks of the people and situations he describes. When he recounts the difficulties of John Peale Bishop and Stanley Dell one can deduce his disappointment with the careers of these college friends, as one deduces his response to the Fitzgeralds at La Paix, or to Scott's alternating truculence and grovelling to Hemingway and Wilson in a New York restaurant. The restaurant scene from 1932 begins amusingly enough -- "Hemingway took a victoria to the Aurora restaurant because he wanted to do something for the horse -- to make it up to them for bullfights -- Scott with his head down on the table between us like the dormouse at the Mad Tea Party" -- then becomes a companion piece to the revelation, in A Moveable Feast, of both Hemingway's and Fitzgerald's worries about their manhood. Wilson adds that "ideas of impotence were very much in people's minds at this period -- on account of the Depression, I think, the dfficulty of getting things going." Later in the decade he speaks of "the disintegration of society," and against the backdrop one reads the compressed notes of his Soviet pilgrimage in 1935, a search for a better society at the moment when Stalin's terror was about to descend. These Russian notes are neither interpreted nor masked -- all his acquaintances are now given their own names -- and they are a valuable complement to the account of his five-month tour published in 1936 and expanded 20 years later.

At the time he did not know what to make of Soviet Russia, but the Moscow trials soon surpassed his worst fears. By 1938 Wilson had been "cured for life of apocalyptic social illusions," as he writes of Justice Holmes in Patriotic Gore. The result was not demoralization but the same stiffening of the will to which he points in Holmes' case. He sustained Finland Station as an affirmation of revolutionary personalities and returned to criticism more loyal than ever to the humanistic tradition. Wilson too wanted "to create the uncreated conscience of my race," in the words of Stephen Dedalus at the close of Joyce's Portrait. As the end of the '30s the journal shrinks as he gives himself over to that "detached and limitless life of the mind" which he sees so strangely joined to man's animal instincts and capacities. In the '40s it expands again, and we may look forward to further installments of this unique document, the work of a 20th-century man rooted in the world of Pepys and the Goncourts rather than of the media. Like all Wilson's books, In Thirties renews one's sense of the possibilities of prose. It exemplifies the thoroughness and passion with which his generation set out, as he once said, "to make something of America, to make an American culture."