Life of literary critic Edmund Wilson is a feast for the reader

September 04, 2005|By Allen Barra | Allen Barra,Special to the Sun



By Lewis M. Dabney. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 604 pages.

To call Edmund Wilson (1895-1972) the greatest American critic or our most dynamic man of letters doesn't begin to hint at the scope of his achievement.

Wilson's passions ranged from modernist literature to politics, the American Civil War, the ancient Middle East, northeastern American Indians, and just about anything else that piqued his intellect. He wrote good fiction (I Thought Of Daisy and Memoirs of Hecate County), boring plays, scintillating memoirs and journals that now function as time capsules for the decades in which they were written. He translated classic Russian poetry, and filled several thick, rich volumes with reviews and essays on everything from his Princeton classmate F. Scott Fitzgerald to why he hated detective stories (the best known are probably The American Earthquake, The Shores of Light, and Classics and Commercials).

No other American writer has produced so many essential volumes, including Axel's Castle, To the Finland Station, The Wound and The Bow, Patriotic Gore, A Window on Russia, and perhaps a dozen others.

Edmund Wilson: A Life in Literature by Lewis M. Dabney (the foremost Wilson scholar and editor of The Edmund Wilson Reader) is by far the most comprehensive deep-dish study of both his life and work, and, at a whopping 600-plus pages, a grand feast for the intellectually hungry.

Born and raised in Red Bank, N.J., a handsome sleepy town with a Southern flavor, young Edmund was given an education grounded in both the Scriptures (his mother was proud to be a descendant of Cotton Mather) and the classics. Given his background, it was inevitable that Wilson would attend Princeton, where he received "a purely humanistic education in the tradition going back to Erasmus, though absorbed within a country club environment."

His complacent world was shaken by the piles of corpses he saw during World War I. Sobered, and with his horizons expanded, he returned home and became a top-flight journalist and critic for Vanity Fair, then The New Republic. He finally found a home at The New Yorker, where, in the words of one of his contemporaries, one picked up the magazine "to see what in God's name he would be doing next."

As early as the mid-1930s, he had surpassed his early idol H.L. Mencken in both scope and influence as the most acclaimed critic in the country.

There were prolonged bouts with alcohol that lasted through four tumultuous marriages, including one to the brilliant and acerbic novelist and critic Mary McCarthy. ("American letters," writes Dabney, "has not seen another alliance so flawed and distinguished.") There were dozens of celebrated affairs and friendships -- whether in pursuit of one or the other, in Dabney's sly phrasing, "he was always in search of a promising student."

His feuds, most notably his famous falling out with the Russian emigre novelist Vladimir Nabokov, dominated the pages of the leading literary periodicals.

A Life in Literature humanizes our greatest man of letters without ever trivializing him. The most American of the 20th century's great scholars, Wilson spoke "with a pronounced British accent" while bristling at British class snobbishness. The great interpreter of Joyce and Eliot liked to relax with Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra records.

Although Wilson was to some a model of urbanity and intellectual control, Anais Nin found him "irrational, lustful, violent." A Seneca Indian woman whom he befriended while writing Apologies to The Iroquois was so impressed by his sincerity she offered to make him a member of the tribe and named her son for him.

Indeed, at times in Dabney's enormously satisfying account there seem to be several Edmund Wilsons, all of them products of a time "culturally narrower than ours," but "in some respects more literate." A Life in Literature makes one nostalgic for such a time and such a man.

Allen Barra is a contributing writer for and the author of The Last Coach: A Life of Paul "Bear" Bryant.

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