During his long career as a man of letters, Edmund Wilson produced hundreds of individual essays and several dozen published volumes of nonfiction prose. His broad interests included the Dead Sea Scrolls, the privations of Kentucky coalminers during the Depression, Iroquois and Zuni tribal culture, the development of the Soviet Union, and almost all aspects of European and American literature in the 19th century and the first half of the zoth. His work varies in length from brief book reviews to long scholarly books like Patriotic Gore (1962), his 800-page study of the literature of the American Civil War.
While his reportage, travel writing, and posthumously published diaries and notebooks have all been widely read and reviewed, his most prolific and important work is surely his literary criticism. This criticism was consistently and unfashionably a discussion “of literature in relation to life and of life in relation to history” (“Reexamining Dr. Johnson,” 1944), foregrounding biographical, moral, political, and historical contexts at a time when academic literary scholarship was largely dominated by New Critical formalism.
Since he never found academic employment congenial, Wilson earned his living as a journalist, beginning with a brief period on the staff of Vanity Fair in 1920. He placed significant work in the Dial, the Nation, Atlantic Monthly, and Partisan Review, but three other periodicals published the bulk of his work. From 1921 to 1941 he was associated with the New Republic, which published parts of To the Finland Station (1940), his literary history of the European Left from Michelet to Lenin; many of the long literary essays later collected in The Triple Thinkers (1938) and The Wound and the Bow (1941); and most of the book reviews that make up The Shores of Light (1952). In 1943 he joined the New Yorker, where he first published most of the book reviews later collected in Classics and Commercials (1950), The Bit Between My Teeth (1965), and the
posthumous The Devils and Canon Barham (1973). It was also in the New Yorker that he initially published much of Europe Without Baedeker (1947), his postwar tour of England, Italy, and Greece, The Scrolls from the Dead Sea (1955), and Apologies to the Iroquois (1960). In the last years of his life, he lent his prestige to the fledgling New York Review of Books, publishing there nine essays, including “The Fruits of the MLA” (1968), his influential indictment of American academic literary scholarship.
In his 1943 essay, “Thoughts on Being Bibliographed,” Wilson outlined the circuitous way his work developed. He first sought reporting assignments or books to review on subjects that interested him, then combined these short articles into longer essays, and finally grouped essays for publication as books. His “preliminary sketches” are, he says, “tentative,” and after being “exposed to criticism and correction,” may be “contradicted by my final conclusions.” His bibliographers are further tested by his habit of republishing revised, expanded, or recombined versions of his books whenever possible, sometimes with significantly revised titles, sometimes not. Given their complex publishing histories, Wilson’s books and essays sometimes seem too loosely structured, but his individual sentences and paragraphs are much more carefully worked out. The generally unsympathetic chapter on Wilson in Stanley Edgar Hyman’s The Armed Vision (1948) concedes his ability “to work the most recondite material into simple and comprehensible English.” His prose style shows an oldfashioned fondness for Latinate diction and formal sentence structure coupled with forceful declarative statements. He hated jargon and imprecision, avoiding them himself and attacking them in other authors, as in “A Postscript to Fowler: Current Cliches and Solecisms” (1963). His style has often been described as conversational, but the conversation is dominated by one highly opinionated voice; Wilson’s several attempts at dialogue (e.g. “The Delegate from Great Neck,” 1924) resulted in one character virtually smothering the other.
Though perhaps a rather domineering conversationalist, Wilson had a strong sense of what his reader needed to know and what that reader might find interesting. Indeed his major complaint about academic literary critics was their impoverished sense of audience: at best, they wrote for small groups of fellow specialists, at worst, simply to create scholarly credentials with no readers in mind whatsoever. Wilson, on the other hand, worked hard to make his considerable erudition accessible and interesting to the broad audience that read the New Yorker. While he was an accomplished linguist, who taught himself Hebrew, Russian, and Hungarian after learning several less exotic languages, he almost always translates quotations into English. He is also quite happy to provide plot summaries of books he is discussing whenever he thinks they might be helpful. So, for example, in “Dickens: The Two Scrooges” (1941), he summarizes Little Dorrit but not A Christmas Carol. He also quotes at length from his sources, in part at least to convey their style and flavor; this habit grew with time, and quotations in Patriotic Gore can be ten pages long.
In addition to his very different sense of audience, Wilson was separated from most academic critics of his time by his emphasis on biographical and historical context and his corresponding failure to focus on textual analysis. Discussing Axel’s Castle (1931), Wilson’s study of literary Modernism and its roots in symbolism, Delmore Schwartz (1942) complains that when Wilson comes to the “technical working, the craftsmanship and the unique forms,” of literary works, he becomes “impatient and hurried,” so Axel’s Castle “is not a book for writers.”
Instead of form, Wilson looked at what led the author to produce the work and what the work has to say to us. He was very broadly a psychological critic: for example, the essays in The Wound and the Bow, drawing their theme from Sophocles’ play about the wounded archer Philoctetes, show how psychological wounds are inseparable from the achievements of writers like Kipling, Dickens, and Hemingway. His criticism is also historical, both because he re-creates for his readers the historical environments of the writers he discusses and because he seeks origins and traces developments. To the Finland Station, for example, seeks the origin of modern socialism in the bourgeois French Revolution, and Patriotic Gore shows, among other things, the evolution of New England Puritanism from the Calvinist orthodoxy of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s father to the agnosticism of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. He was also a rhetorical critic since the literature he studied included memoirs, diaries, speeches, letters, and histories at a time when most critics defined literature more narrowly as fiction, poetry, and drama.
Implicit or explicit in all Wilson’s criticism is a moral message for his reader, as in the conclusion to Axel’s Castle, where we are warned against literary Modernism’s tendency to retreat from the problems of society.
While Wilson himself always addressed society’s problems, his messages sometimes split between progressive and reactionary elements. In the 1920s he championed literary Modernism, and in the next decade he was a sympathetic student of Marx and Lenin. By the early 1960s he was attacking the U.S. government’s role in the Cold War, and he was an early opponent of the war in Vietnam. He often seemed at war with his own past: a descendant of Cotton Mather but consistently hostile to the Christian religion; a patrician WASP but also a rabid Anglophobe. Yet he never seemed at home in the 2.oth century either. He hated typewriters, radios, televisions, and movies; he never learned to drive an automobile. In 1956 he proclaimed, “I have lately been coming to feel that, as an American, I am more or less in the eighteenth century—or at any rate, not much later than the early nineteenth” (A Piece of My Mind, 1956). He had never had much sympathy for American popular culture and by the 1950s had lost interest in the younger writers; his later essays frequently lament the fact that some useful volume has gone out of print.
The last book he published during his lifetime was Upstate (1971), a series of elegiac meditations by a country gentleman who has retreated to his ancestral home in Talcottville, New York. For Alfred Kazin, who knew him well, Wilson was “the great anachronism.”
The biographical emphasis in his writing has led to predictable comparisons with Plutarch and Sainte-Beuve, but Wilson himself pointed to his discovery as a schoolboy of Hippolyte Taine as the origin of his method (“A Modest Self-Tribute,” 1952). He acknowledged a certain debt to both Marx and Freud in the development of his approach (“The Historical Interpretation of Literature,” 1940), but he followed them in only a very general way. His broad humanism has suggested parallels with Matthew Arnold, and he expressed admiration for Henry James and George Saintsbury. Another essayist he admired and resembled is Samuel Johnson. They reached nearly opposite conclusions on political and religious questions, but they were both guided by vigorous, skeptical common sense, both hated cant, and both delivered their opinions with great confidence and in clear but formal language. They both wrote on the lives of the poets and defined literature broadly to give full weight to nonfictional prose. Wilson’s focus on biography and history and his interest in nonfictional prose often made his criticism look oldfashioned during his lifetime, but today his work seems far more current than that of the New Critics. He still gets very modest attention in the universities, but the new interest in context and rhetorical analysis may well lead to a revival of interest in his impressive body of work.
Born 8 May 1895 in Red Bank, New Jersey. Studied at Princeton University, New Jersey (member of the editorial staff, 1913–15, and managing editor, 1915–16, Nassau Literary Magazine), 1912–16, A.B., 1916. Reporter, New York Evening Sun, 1916–17. Served in the U.S. army, 1917–19. Contributed to or edited Vanity Fair, New York, 1920–13, New Republic, 1921–41, and New Yorker, 1943–48, and frequently thereafter. Married 1) Mary Blair, 1923 (divorced, 1928): one daughter; 2) Margaret Canby, 1930 (died, 1932);
3) Mary McCarthy, 1938 (divorced, 1946): one son; 4) Elena Thornton, 1946: one daughter.
Awards: several, including the American Academy Gold Medal, for nonfiction, 1955; Presidential Medal of Freedom, 1963; MacDowell Medal, 1964; EmersonThoreau Medal, 1966; National Medal for Literature, 1966. Died in Talcottville, New York, 12 June 1972.
Essays and Related Prose
Axel’s Castle: A Study in the Imaginative Literature of 1870–1930, 1931
The American Jitters: A Year of the Slump, 1932; as Devil Take the Hindmost, 1932;
enlarged edition, as The American Earthquake: A Documentary of the Twenties and Thirties, 1958
Travels in Two Democracies, 1936
The Triple Thinkers: Ten Essays on Literature, 1938; enlarged edition, as The Triple Thinkers: Twelve Essays on Literary Subjects, 1948
To the Finland Station: A Study in the Writing and Acting of History, 1940
The Wound and the Bow: Seven Studies in Literature, 1941
The Boys in the Back Room: Notes on California Novelists, 1941
Europe Without Baedeker: Sketches Among the Ruins of Italy, Greece, and England, 1947
Classics and Commercials: A Literary Chronicle of the Forties, 1950
The Shores of Light: A Literary Chronicle of the Twenties and Thirties, 1952
Eight Essays, 1954
The Scrolls from the Dead Sea, 1955; revised edition, as The Dead Sea Scrolls, 1947–
1969, 1969; enlarged edition, as Israel and the Dead Sea Scrolls, 1978
A Literary Chronicle, 1920–1950, 1956
Red, Black, Blond and Olive: Studies in Four Civilizations, 1956
A Piece of My Mind: Reflections at Sixty, 1956
Apologies to the Iroquois, 1960
Patriotic Gore: Studies in the Literature of the American Civil War, 1962
The Cold War and the Income Tax: A Protest, 1963
O Canada: An American’s Notes on Canadian Culture, 1965
The Bit Between My Teeth: A Literary Chronicle of 1950–1965, 1965
A Prelude: Landscapes, Characters, and Conversations from the Earlier Years of My Life, 1967
Upstate: Records and Recollections of Northern New York, 1971
A Window on Russia, 1972
The Devils and Canon Barham: Ten Essays on Poets, Novelists, and Monsters, 1973
Letters on Literature and Politics, 1912–1972, edited by Elena Wilson, 1977
The Nabokov-Wilson Letters, 1940–1971, edited by Simon Karlinsky, 1979
The Portable Edmund Wilson, edited by Lewis M.Dabney, 1983 From the Uncollected
Edmund Wilson, edited by Janet Groth and David Castronovo, 1995
Other writings: the novel I Thought of Daisy (1929), the short stories Memoirs of Hecate County (1946), plays, poetry, and notebooks and diaries (collected in five books, four edited by Leon Edel, 1975–86, the last by Lewis M.Dabney, 1993). Also edited The Shock of Recognition: The Development of Literature in the United States Recorded by the Men Who Made It (1943).
Ramsey, Richard David, Edmund Wilson: A Bibliography, New York: Lewis, 1971
Aaron, Daniel, Introduction to Letters on Literature and Politics, 1912–1972 by Wilson, edited by Elena Wilson, New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1977: xv–xxix
Castronovo, David, Edmund Wilson, New York: Ungar, 1984
Dabney, Lewis M., “Edmund Wilson and The Sixties,” in The Sixties by Wilson, New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1993: xxi–lxvii
Edel, Leon, “A Portrait of Edmund Wilson,” in The Twenties by Wilson, New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, and London: Macmillan, 1975:xvii–xlvi
Epstein, Joseph, “Bye-Bye, Bunny,” Hudson Review 47, no. 2 (Summer 1994):235–48
Frank, Charles P., Edmund Wilson, New York: Twayne, 1970
Groth, Janet, Edmund Wilson: A Critic for Our Time, Athens: Ohio University Press, 1989
Hyman, Stanley Edgar, “Edmund Wilson and Translation in Criticism,” in his The Armed Vision: A Study in the Methods of Modern Literary Criticistn, New York: Knopf, 1948:19–48 (this chapter was deleted from later editions)
Levin, Harry, “Edmund Wilson: The Last American Man of Letters,” Times Literary Supplement, 11 October 1974:1128–30
Meyers, Jeffrey, Edmund Wilson: A Biography, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1995
Paul, Sherman, Edmund Wilson: A Study of Literary Vocation in Our Time, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1965
Schwartz, Delmore, “The Writing of Edmund Wilson,” Accent 2 (Spring 1942):177–86
Wain, John, editor, Edmund Wilson: The Man and His Work, New York: New York University Press, 1978; as An Edmund Wilson Celebration, Oxford: Phaidon, 1978
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