From the Jazz Age through the Kennedy administration, Edmund Wilson (1895--1972) stood at the center of the American cultural scene. A champion of the young Ernest Hemingway, a loyal friend and mentor of F. Scott Fitzgerald, and an ally of John Dos Passos during the Depression, Wilson wrote classics of literary and intellectual history (including Axel's Castle, To the Finland Station, and Patriotic Gore), searching reportage, and insightful criticism. Though he documented his private life in openly erotic fiction and journals, he left the personal dramas at its center in shadow. Lewis M. Dabney, the first writer to integrate Wilson's life and work, vividly encompasses his formative love affair with Edna St. Vincent Millay, his tempestuous marriage to Mary McCarthy, and his lasting accord with Elena Mumm Thornton, as well as his volatile friendship with Vladimir Nabokov and enduring ties with W. H. Auden and Isaiah Berlin.
Steeped in knowledge of the era, this compelling narrative follows the critic's intellectual development, from son of small-town New Jersey gentry to America's last great renaissance man, a lucid commentator on everything from the Russian classics to Native American rituals to the Dead Sea Scrolls. Dabney shows why Wilson was and has remained -- in his cosmopolitanism and trenchant nonconformity -- a model for young writers and intellectuals, as well as the favorite critic of the general reader. Edmund Wilson has been widely recognized as the authoritative biography of a brilliant man whose life reflected the grand sweep of twentieth-century cultural, social, and human experience.
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Lewis M. Dabney edited Wilson's last journal, The Sixties, as well as Edmund Wilson: Centennial Reflections. He is a professor of English at the University of Wyoming.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Excerpted from Edmund Wilson: A Life in Literature by Lewis M. Dabney. Copyright © 2005 by Lewis M. Dabney. Published in August 2005 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.
On a brisk afternoon in September 1922, a conservatively dressed young man with red hair sat on the upper deck of a Fifth Avenue bus in Manhattan, engrossed in a manuscript. A friend at the literary magazine The Dial had put a long poem into his hands. The Dial was interested in publishing it, and the editors hoped that the young man Edmund Wilson would write an essay to elucidate the poem. By the time he reached Greenwich Village, Wilson had completed a first reading of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. Decades later he would recall being bowled over,” and his essay called the poem simply one triumph after another.” This recognition of Eliot followed Wilson’s account, in The New Republic, of Joyce’s Ulysses as a masterpiece fusing naturalism and symbolism, re-creating the mind straining always to perpetuate and perfect itself” and the body always laboring and throbbing to throw up some beauty from its darkness.” He believed the general reader could absorb these works that challenged existing literary forms and commandeered in new ways the powers of language. Both Eliot and Joyce, he thought, occasionally tried one’s patience, but he was committed to making them more accessible.
Edmund Wilson was twenty-seven. He was fortunate to come on the scene as a critic when he did, but he had trained for this moment. At fifteen he had been sure of his literary vocation, and he absorbed all that liberal education had to offer both at the Hill School and at Princeton, where extraordinary teachers encouraged his curiosity and enthusiasm for books and about ideas. He emerged from his parents’ uncongenial marriage with emotional scars, but his confidence in his abilities was strong, and he was seasoned by a year as a hospital orderly in France during World War I. Though he hated the suffering he saw, he liked being on a footing of relative equality with Americans of diverse backgrounds, and returned to his country skeptical of institutions and of rank and social privilege. He joined Vanity Fair as an editorial assistant, immediately became its managing editor, and began publishing criticism there as well as in other magazines.
The generation of the 1920s was brought up on the best of the Old World and hoped to equal it, applying the work habit even as they broke away from Victorian mores that Americans traditionally brought to commerce. Wilson was indebted to the men of letters of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century England and France as well as to Emerson, and at the beginning of his career owed much to H. L. Mencken and Van Wyck Brooks. While these critics shied away from the transformation of literature after the war, he became the spokesman of writers bringing this about. He found a podium at The New Republic in 1925, and for ten years his work appeared in almost every issue, often twice, a running account of books and of American culture, alternating with the studies of the new international literature that became Axel’s Castle. The Depression deepened the perspective on his class attained in the army, and he largely put aside criticism to be a reporter on the labor front. He absorbed Marxism while doing the studies reprinted in The American Earthquake and overcame his naiveté about the Soviet Union. As the 1930s ended, he came into full possession of his powers as the biographer-historian of revolutionaries in To the Finland Station and the post-Marxist, neo-Freudian critic of The Triple Thinkers and The Wound and the Bow.
In Greenwich Village of the jazz age Wilson explored the new found freedoms of booze and sex. He was sexually innocent until twenty-five, then lost his virginity and his heart to one of the most desired women of the period, the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay. His private life became as chaotic as his professional life was discipline. Wilson was the only well-known literary alcoholic of his generation whose work was not compromised by his drinking, but alcohol undermined his marriages. In addition to four of these his third, to Mary McCarthy, providing fodder for gossip, attacks, and counterattacks, which survive in their writings he had many affairs and sexual encounters. As he aged, the once handsome man became physically unattractive, but still had no difficulty as a seducer. When asked how he got all those dames” into bed, he answered that he talked them into it” by discussing subjects in which they were interested. Jason Epstein described Wilson as by nature a pedagogue. He was always in search of promising student. And this, I believe, is what his love affairs were really all about.”
The early forties were his dark period, a midlife crisis not of identity but of morale, due not only to his failing marriage to McCarthy he was sexually faithful, she not but to the deaths of friends and the grim spectacle of a second world war. A resilient temperament, a new literary platform, and marriage to Elena Mumm Thornton enabled him to recover and achieve a second career. In The New Yorker he progressed from reviews to long essays and reportage, again trying out the materials of his books in magazine form. He brought a single-minded concentration to everything from nineteenth-century American writing and the Russian classics to Native Americans, Israel, and the ancient texts of the Dead Sea Scrolls. His contemporary Malcolm Cowley wrote that one followed The New Yorker to see what in God’s name he would be doing next.” He turned his literary journalism into chronicles, began editing his diaries, created The Twenties and The Sixties as well as his book about American character and culture in the Civil War, Patriotic Gore. Wilson’s experience as a free-living man of the twenties meant more to him as it became memory and history. In later life he came full circle, embracing the old provincial America” that the family home in Talcottville, New York, represented.
Wilson’s story in the words of Paul Horgan, who knew him in various settings is that of the artist searching for a rational design in the world through his own life and the act of writing.” This story is carried by his letters, verse, fiction, and memoirs, and reflected in his generation, the confession d’um enfant du siècle a child of the century that Christian Gauss suggested he write but Wilson himself could not see as a whole. His multi-volume journal, a record of American life from 1914 to 1972, looks out ward from the self to the world. Yet the glimpses of Wilson are accurate, though he sometimes gets a detail wrong when he retells the anecdotes of others. Just as he does not spare the women with whom his sexual experiences are eventually made public, he never tries to make himself look good. He describes an outburst in drunken quarrel with his second wife, Margaret Canby, in 1932 exactly as this was overheard and recalled by a neighbor in their building in a memoir published after Wilson’s death and before the appearance of his journal for these years.
The stories of others Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Dos Passos, Malraux, Nabokov, and Auden, along with Millay and McCarthy, Louise Bogan and Dawn Powell who helped define the literary and intellectual life of Europe and the United States over these fifty years are interwoven in this biography. Their voices in the correspondence complement Wilson’s, and so do those of non-authors Stanley Dell, an early friend, Margaret Canby, Mamaine Paget Koestler who have their own eloquence on paper, the mark of an era that, though culturally narrower than ours, was in many ways more literate. But it is Wilson whose voice is dominant.
It is tempting to explain Wilson’s powers in terms of the pain and psychic struggle of his life, which was his method in portraying writers and historical figures. He wished to have made better connections with his father, who died when Wilson was twenty-seven. His youthful affection for his mother faded as, impressed neither by her son’s career nor by what she saw of his private life, she doled out on her terms his share of the estate left by his father, while Wilson haggled with magazines and publishers for money. The critic, journalist, and portraitist never had the success he wanted as a fiction writer or playwright. His first three marriages were failures. One can see Wilson Edgar Johnson, the Dickens scholar, seems first to have suggested this as the wounded archer of his account of Sophocles’ Philoctetes, a play that offered him metaphors for the tension between the writer and society as well as the relationship of art and neurosis. Philoctetes has a suppurating ulcer and a magical bow, a gift of the gods on which the conquest of Troy depends. But if Wilson projects himself as Philoctetes, in his portaiture he is also young Neoptolemus, who, sent to acquire the weapon, realizes it will not work without the willing presence of the exiled, sick, irascible warrior.
Isaiah Berlin integrated these two figures in his view of his friend. Thinking Wilson by nature disharmonious,” Berlin linked this to his profound understanding of the artists and public figures he wrote about. He was always worried about whether he thought this or that was true of false,” Sir Isaiah said. He was an uncomfortable man, uncomfortable with himself; and that’s what caused the friction, and the friction caused the genius.” In proposing Wilson as the most important critic of their century, Berlin accounted for his staying power in terms attractive to a biographer: the other critics mostly wrote just intel...
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