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 other artists who were emerging in this exciting period, such as his Princeton friend F. Scott Fitzgerald or the young Ernest Hemingway, whose talent Wilson noticed before any other critic did. Many of the writers who emerged in this period—John Dos Passos, John Peale Bishop, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Leonie Adams—became Wilson’s friends and lovers (and many are represented in this volume in photographs).
In 1931, Wilson produced a highly important study of the modernism of Marcel Proust, Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, and others: Axel’s Castle: A Study in the Imaginative Literature of 1870-1930. He was already himself immersed in the more social and political battles of the 1930’s. Like a good number of American writers during the Depression, Wilson became a Marxist, wrote some of his best criticism (such as The Triple Thinkers, 1938) under its influence, and increasingly turned out social reportage (The American Jitters, 1932) and history (To the Finland Station: A Study in the Writing and Acting of History, 1940). If in the 1920’s Wilson was busy discovering the new voices of the Jazz Age—Sherwood Anderson, Eugene O’Neill, Ring Lardner, Elinor Wylie—in the 1930’s he was writing pieces such as “The Literary Consequences of the Crash” and “Communists and Cops.” With a number of writers in the 1930’s—Anderson, Hemingway, Theodore Dreiser—Wilson became increasingly involved in labor struggles and socioeconomic problems, and he toured the country sending reports on living and working conditions to the readers of the New Republic (many of these pieces were later collected in The American Earthquake: A Documentary of the Twenties and Thirties, 1958).
In addition, as Meyers recognizes, “brilliant as an editor as well as a historian, biographer and critic, Wilson—like [D. H.] Lawrence—opened the field of American literature to serious study.” During World War II alone, Wilson edited the last two posthumous works of his friend F. Scott Fitzgerald (The Last Tycoon in 1941 and The Crack-Up in 1945), he produced a collection of important literary analyses in The Wound and the Bow (1941, including essays on Hemingway and Edith Wharton), and he wrote The Shock of Recognition: The Development of Literature in the United States Recorded by the Men Who Made It (1943).
After the war—and after twenty-five years of struggling to survive as an independent journalist and critic—Wilson was hired by The New Yorker and given not only more money but also greater latitude for his gifts, and this second half of Wilson’s career would be even more productive than the first. He reported on the postwar scene in Europe Without Baedeker (1947), produced his most popular and controversial fiction in Memoirs of Hecate County (1946), and continued to collect his literary journalism in Classics and Commercials: A Literary Chronicle of the Forties (1950) and The Shores of Light: A Literary Chronicle of the Twenties and Thirties (1952).
No American critic had as deep a background or as broad an interest in human life and history. Whatever Wilson turned...
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