Edmund Wilson (Magill's Literary Annual 1991-2005)
Jeffrey Meyers has produced the first full-length portrait of the most prolific and preeminent literary critic in the United States in the twentieth century. Unfortunately, however, Meyers’ focus on Edmund Wilson’s troubled personal life may distract readers from the serious accomplishments of this important critic and scholar. More time seems spent here on Wilson’s four tempestuous marriages than on his four dozen books.
Wilson was born in 1895 in Red Hook, New Jersey, into a life of privilege and privation. While his parents provided economic security, they stunted the emotional development of their only child, which partly explains the prickly personality and psychological problems Wilson carried throughout his life. After four years at the preparatory Hill School, Wilson went on to Princeton University and then to serve in Europe in World War I.
He returned to New York at the dawn of the revival of the arts, the “Second American Renaissance” of the 1920’s, and he played as crucial a role in that artistic flowering as any critic in America. First at Vanity Fair and then at the New Republic—he would produce 350 articles and reviews in this last journal in the next two decades—Wilson as a young critic was quick to recognize and promote the many talented writers who were emerging in the Jazz Age. While he struggled to make his own creative mark with fiction, poetry, and plays, he rarely failed to recognize...
(The entire section is 1918 words.)
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Edmund Wilson (Magill Book Reviews)
Jeffrey Meyers has produced the first full-length portrait of the most prolific and preeminent literary critic in the United States in the twentieth century but, unfortunately, Meyers’ focus on Wilson’s troubled personal life may distract readers from the serious accomplishments of this important critic and scholar. More time seems spent here on Wilson’s four tempestuous marriages than on his four dozen books.
What is missing is any sense of what a barometer to American intellectual history Edmund Wilson’s career can be. The best introduction to any decade in the twentieth century may still be one of Wilson’s collections of literary journalism from the period—THE SHORES OF LIGHT: A LITERARY CHRONICLE OF THE TWENTIES AND THIRTIES, for example, or CLASSICS AND COMMERCIALS: A LITERARY CHRONICLE OF THE FORTIES. Two of Wilson’s most important books cap major intellectual movements: AXEL’S CASTLE (1931) summarizes the symbolist movement at the moment it was being swallowed by the Depression and the leftward drift of writers and intellectuals, and TO THE FINLAND STATION (1940) explains their attraction to Marxism in the 1930’s. No American critic had as deep a background or as broad an interest in human life and history, and whatever Wilson turned to became an intense study and usually a book, whether on the Dead Sea Scrolls, American Indians, Canada, or the Civil War.
Throughout his career, Wilson’s literary criticism was...
(The entire section is 368 words.)