Culture Magazine

Edmund Wilson

By Erictheblue

Edmund Wilson was born in 1895 at Red Bank, New Jersey.  His father, a prominent lawyer, served New Jersey as its attorney general and was credited with cleaning up the rackets in Atlantic City; later, he was disabled by what was then called neurasthenia.  Wilson attended The Hill School, a college preparatory school in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, and then Princeton University, from which he was graduated in 1916.  His later tributes to Mr. Rolfe, his Greek instructor at Hill, and Christian Gauss, with whom he studied literature at Princeton, indicate that he valued his education more than most.  Upon graduating, he told his father that he meant to read up and "learn something about all the main departments of human thought"--an intention that probably seems quaint to the modern Ivy grad, who wants either to attend law school or get a job on Wall Street.  In any event, World War I intervened.  Feeling he could not participate in the killing, Wilson volunteered for a medical unit, and spent much of 1918 near the front dressing wounds, assisting in the treatment of mustard gas and flu victims, patrolling halls to prevent crazed and wounded soldiers from jumping out of windows or otherwise harming themselves.  He later said the experience knocked out whatever sense of privilege or entitlement he might once have felt.

After the war, he got work reviewing books for such literary magazines as Vanity Fair, The Dial, and The New Republic.  I suppose you might say he was therefore a journalist but in retrospect it appears that he was really improvising a career based on the intention he had announced to his father.  He was among the first to review Joyce's Ulysses and Eliot's The Waste Land, but he did not drop these subjects when the reviews were in print.  As Louis Menand has noted, once Wilson had started in on a writer, he tended to read the whole shelf.  His first major book, Axel's Castle, was published in 1931; its chapters on Yeats, Valery, Eliot, Proust, Joyce, and Stein are probably still the best companion for students of these writers. 

For most of the 41 years remaining to him, Wilson worked steadily as a book reviewer.  These mainly short essays were collected in such volumes as The Shores of Light: A Literary Chronicle of the Twenties and Thirties (793 pages in my Vintage paperback edition), Classics and Commercials: A Literary Chronicle of the Forties (406 pages in the Library of America), and The Bit Between My Teeth: A Literary Chronicle of 1950-65 (668 pages in my Noonday Press paperback).  Wilson, who hated academic criticism, sought in this work to inform interested subscribers about the author or work under consideration and to come to a conclusion about relative merit--whether or not the work is "first-rate," to use one of his favorite expressions.  He brought to the task his own formidable intelligence and a prose style that is a model of lucidity and unshowy elegance.  He spoke his own mind. One of the pieces in Classics and Commercials is "A Dissenting Opinion on Kafka." 

Meanwhile, he was engaged in other activities.  He married four times, carried on numerous affairs, travelled the country as an investigative journalist during the Depression (product: The American Jitters and The American Earthquake), developed some of his ideas on favorite writers (Dickens, Joyce, Flaubert, Shaw, Pushkin) into long essays that were collected in The Triple Thinkers and The Wound and the Bow, taught himself foreign languages (example: Russian, to pursue his interest in Pushkin, and ultimately the source of a famous feud with Nabokov over questions of translation), and wrote what are often considered his masterpieces, To the Finland Station (1940), on the literature of socialism, with long sections devoted to Marx and Engels, and Patriotic Gore (1962), on the literature of the American Civil War, an idiosyncratic work that largely skips authors you would expect to be represented (Whitman, Melville) and provides instead long and interesting chapters on Ulysses Grant and his memoirs, Alexander Stephens (Jefferson Davis's vice president), and a contrarion view of Lincoln that is indebted to the biography of his Springfield law partner, William Herndon.  Wilson was also an indefatigable diarist whose journals, published posthumously, are named for the decades they cover: The Twenties, The Thirties, The Forties, The Fifties and The Sixties, which extends two years to his death, in 1972.  These provide a vivid portrait of a man at work and play, his sexual conquests (and failures), his mostly chaotic marriages, his drinking (Menand calls him a functioning alcoholic), a thousand small portraits of his many friends and acquaintances, his likes (magic tricks) and dislikes, which include the movies, one of the very last entries reading, in its entirety: "Two movies: Godfather and French Connection, bang bang."

If all septuagenarians were as interesting as Wilson in his "golden years," gerontology would not be begging for practitioners.  A trip to Florida elicits the judgment that the town of Naples, far down the Gulf side, is "a sunlit hell."  He split his time between Wellfleet, on Cape Cod, and upstate New York, specifically Talcottville, where, wielding a Civil War weapon, he faced down some drunk juvenile delinquents on his porch.  The young wife of his dentist paid visits and was persuaded to disrobe, whereupon she and Wilson lounged together in bed, drinking Johnnie Walker and discussing the evolutionary significance of pubic hair.  The prevailing theme, however, is that of the Book of Ecclesiastes; for example:

Surrounded by the void of the universe, we agitate ourselves, one sometimes feels, to very dubious purpose.  Our little lives soon go out, and is it really at all surprising that in order to fulfill our immediate desires, we should put out other lives, send them off into the void?  Eventually, we shall go blank--what difference does it make if they do?

His youthful horror at the organized butchery of war now seems resigned, and his allusion to The Tempest seems perfectly apt.  He died, age 77, at Talcottville, on June 12, 1972. 


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