Edmund Wilson 1895–1972
American critic, journalist, novelist, short story writer, poet, and editor.
Considered one of the most stimulating and prolific American writers of the twentieth century, Wilson shaped his work into a historical chronicle of American life and manners from the Jazz Age through the Cold War.
In Axel's Castle Wilson stated that literary criticism should be "a history of man's ideas and imaginings in the setting of the conditions which have shaped them." Consequently he wrote The Wound and the Bow, in which he proposed that creative ability results from the writer's psychological afflictions and personal crises. Patriotic Gore is Wilson's study of the literature of the Civil War, tracing the effects of the war on the writers of the time.
Many of Wilson's book reviews for The New Yorker and other essays have been published in Classics and Commercials, The Shores of Light, and The Bit between My Teeth, works which exemplify Wilson's characteristic style of popularizing critical concepts without alienating or patronizing his readers.
(See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 8; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed., Vols. 37-40, rev. ed. [obituary]; and Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 1.)
[Mr. Edmund Wilson's] achievement as a critic springs in a large measure from … his refusal to swallow any political faith or literary formula, his innate skepticism, his scientific temper. That is why no labels will fit him, why no party can command his allegiance; he cannot consent to a simple solution—a form of wish-fulfillment—for problems that are highly complex. (p. 467)
Axel's Castle [is] a strikingly original contribution to literary criticism. It is soundly reasoned; it explores new territory; it attempts to provide the ideological origins and foundations of modern literature. It seeks to correlate the ideas and intellectual influences operative at any given time with the conditions which have helped to shape them. The essays are written with grace and vigor. For each judgment passed there is given an abundance of examples and illustrations supported by acute reasoning. Mr. Wilson has no patience with mystification in criticism.
Axel's Castle justly won high praise as an exercise in criticism. Though it dealt with the influence of Symbolism on writers like Joyce and Proust and Yeats, its application to contemporary literature could not be overlooked. For in treating of Symbolism, Mr. Wilson was reaching down to fundamentals concerning art. These essays, moreover, are bound together by a unifying principle, a common source of ideas and influences. The problem that faced the Symbolists, the philosophy of composition they evolved and the solution they proposed—that was the problem confronting modern writers who must choose between Axel's castle and Rimbaud's way of life.
In contrast to critics like Valery and Max Eastman, for example, who anticipate that the sciences will dominate the future, Mr. Wilson does not take such a narrow and despairing view. Literature, he is convinced, will never grow outmoded, remote from life; it will not be replaced by mechanical utilities like the moving picture, the radio, the newspaper. Literature will not survive as a kind of refined exercise in the art of creating illusions, having little relevancy to the actual world and to the normal pursuits of the mind. Such a pessimistic outlook is a child sprung from the loins of Symbolism. The end of the war was succeeded by a period of nihilistic disenchantment with all values, particularly with politics and social reform. Sociological novelists, humanitarian fighters, prophets, and reformers fell into disrepute, while those writers like Yeats and Valery and Proust who had maintained an unflinching integrity of mind became for a time the acknowledged leaders.
Hence contemporary writers who are not interested in social problems and who refuse to study society scientifically must choose between Axel and Rimbaud. The way of Axel is one of fantasy, of escape to a private inaccessible world of the imagination. The way of Rimbaud represents a flight from the contemporary, from industrialism—a quest for the good life in some land not contaminated by the presence of machinery. As Mr. Wilson correctly points out, those who repudiate the modern world while remaining a part of it, necessarily fall a victim to curious obsessions. The time has therefore come, he announces, to dethrone those literary geniuses who can no longer serve as guides. Neither Axel's castle of the imagination nor Rimbaud's romantic quest can help us today. When we flee to Africa or Asia, we carry along with us our industrial civilization, our prevailing habits of mind, our conditioned habits and beliefs. Now that the American people have awakened from the drugged dream of material prosperity, they can ask themselves the question: "whether it is possible to make a practical success of human society, and whether, if we continue to fail, a few masterpieces, however profound or noble, will be able to make life worth living even for the few people in a position to enjoy them."
Axel's Castle thus represents another break with many of Mr. Wilson's past loyalties and enthusiasms. The split in his personality has deepened: the student of Symbolism has begun to grow conscious of his duties to society; he now proclaims that literature and life must be wedded, that the new writers cannot possibly escape from the concrete world of striving and suffering. This split sometimes interferes with his critical judgments. He wavers uncertainly because he has not altogether made up his mind. He loves and hates, he accepts and rejects, he praises and condemns. Only negatively does he seem to realize where he stands or whither he is tending. For his analytical spirit Humanism cannot provide a house of refuge; to join the Church would be an act of apostasy more fatal than adherence to the cult of pure art. Perhaps communism will point out the way and save society and therefore the artist from the sickness and insanity of modern civilization. (pp. 469-71)
Axel's Castle, like Mr. Cowley's Exile's Return, marks a definite and impressive farewell to the religion of art. After completing it, Mr. Wilson was caught up in that wave of social consciousness which swept the country during the years of mass unemployment. Away from Bohemia to Moscow; away from Mallarmé to Marx—that was the dominant trend. While this was going on, Mr. Wilson was one of the few critics who retained his equilibrium. He was no pseudo-religious convert to a new political faith. Warily he felt his way amid these changed social and ideological conditions, groping for a political philosophy which would correlate his aesthetic interests with his duty as a man. (p. 471)
He has, at last, fled from Axel's castle of the imagination. He has made his choice: the loyalty of writers should...
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Wilson's literary criticism, almost from the beginning, has been marked by a double attention to art (the techniques of the artist, the narrower implications of the material) and to ideas (the moral, economic, social aspects of the work and of the environment in which it was brought forth); and that double attention has not often been encountered in American criticism with the particular emphasis that he has put upon it or with the approach that he has used. While in a sense any literary critic of depth has had to deal with the world of "ideas," with history or philosophy or economics, there have been few that have clung persistently to a progressive or radical orientation who have not fallen by the wayside or else been at one time or another sidetracked into a single and exclusive attention to "art" or to "ideas." (p. 356)
Only Wilson and a few others, among critics of eminence, have steadfastly attempted to give balanced attention to both "art" and "ideas." And Wilson stands almost alone as one who has criticized both from a progressive point of view politically and aesthetically.
Furthermore, he has retained his readers through the years by the balance and discrimination he has shown in these two aspects of his work, for there have been readers of the persistent faith that political liberalism and literary criticism need not be severed. Wilson's critical activity during the last fifteen years or so is convincing evidence of that balance. But it is more than that; those fifteen years have provided discipline under fire for any critic who tried to be a political progressive. (pp. 356-57)
[Since] Axel's Castle was published first in 1931, we may assume wrongly that the work on it was done after Wilson's battle with the Humanists and after the publication in 1930 of A Critique of Humanism, to which he was a contributor. This, however, is not the case, for Wilson had been revolving the thesis of Axel's Castle in his mind as early as 1926, while he did not strike out boldly against Humanism until 1929.
It is not so often realized that the thesis of this fine book was suggested to Wilson by Whitehead's Science and the Modern World. In an article published in the New Republic in 1926, "Modern Literature: Between the Whirlpool and the Rock," Wilson, from the suggestion of Whitehead that the Romantic Movement was a reaction against the ideas of Newtonian science, developed the idea that literary history had again come full circle and that the contemporary Symbolists expressed a similar reaction against nineteenth-century science. Three years later he again recorded his indebtedness to the British thinker. Apparently he had been much struck, not only by Whitehead's suggestive historical analysis, but also by the latter's statement that the Romantic poet had discovered a new method of interpreting reality and had found that there was no essential duality between external nature and the human mind that perceived it.
Wilson was well aware of the limitations of scientific mechanism and yet not rebellious against science or contemptuous of its methods and results, as the Humanists … most definitely were. The creators and supporters of the Symbolist literature of the early '20's, the Valérys and the Joyces, had somewhat of an anti-scientific bias that drew its sustenance from an artistic anti-intellectualism at its absurd extreme exemplified in Dadaism. It would be too much to say that Wilson himself was not influenced by such views, but it is notable that the main effect they had on him was to temper his acceptance of scientific dominance. Significantly enough, he spoke approvingly of Whitehead and Russell as "writers in the scientific tradition." Of late years it has become fashionable to point out—and this is done not only by men of the stamp of Hutchins and Adler, but also by the defenders of the scientific tradition itself—that scientific methodology and materialism have their limits of application. (pp. 358-59)
The masterly skill in interpretation and analysis, the apt use of allusion and literary analogy, the ability to make the complexity and obscurity of Proust or Joyce appear clear and understandable—these are only a few of the many excellencies that have placed [Axel's Castle] in the forefront of modern critical productions.
But what is more important for our present purposes is one of the negative aspects of the book. It does not treat economic or political considerations at any length; the author's main interest is patently in the reaction between philosophic thought and literary creation; while he shows no essential blindness to the political or economic world, the whole temper of the work contrasts markedly with that of certain "Marxist" portions of his criticism during the "fellow-traveling" '30's. Pointing forward to those years and serving in a transitional capacity, for Wilson at least, was the New Humanist controversy, at its climax...
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The view of the artist and of the genesis of literary works which has become a method for Wilson in The Wound and the Bow is stated [in his novel, I Thought of Daisy (1929)] in terms of personal experience….
The Wound and the Bow rests upon the thesis that the artist is strong and weak at the same time; his great virtue as an artist inseparable from his weakness; his weakness perhaps (Wilson is not too clear on this point) the cause or one of the causes of his strength; or, to use Wilson's sentence, the artist is "the victim of a malodorous disease which renders him abhorrent to society and periodically degrades him and makes him helpless; but is also the master of a superhuman...
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At the moment when Prosperity and the New Humanism were falling like twin meteors from portentous skies, Edmund Wilson published Axel's Castle. To all who could concern themselves with such matters, the arrival of a major new critic and a major literary idea was at once apparent…. Under the leadership of Paul Elmer More and Irving Babbitt, the New Humanists had been maintaining a tight little fort of well-defended doubt against the great American tide of good intentions, self-expression, and democratic sentiment. Axel's Castle, though it evidently derived many of its formulations from these battles, stood considerably apart from them. That Edmund Wilson was no disciple of the watery Whitman scarcely...
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Wilson is at his best as an "introductory critic," a term that John Macy defined as "one who by his own skill and charm summons strangers to make the acquaintance of a great man." The introductory critic suffers the handicap, however, that his value decreases in direct proportion to the literacy of his audience and its familiarity with the work he is discussing, until it becomes almost nil for the relatively informed reader. Wilson is fully aware of this, has always consciously slanted his writing at the uninformed reader, and has always thought of himself as primarily a "popularizer." (p. 20)
Wilson has many abilities that make him an excellent popularizer. He writes clearly and readably and is able...
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I suppose literary history will class Wilson as a social critic, and recently there has been a tendency, mostly on the part of the younger formalist critics, to brush him aside as an extra-literary critic, who has not done enough to illuminate immediate literary texts and problems. At bottom, this attitude represents a difference in critical approach, and while it is true that Wilson's inclination has not been toward the purely textual analysis of literature, I think the criticism of him on this score has been very unfair and represents a sectarian judgment. For, if Wilson, like Parrington and other social critics, has taken literature as part of history, unlike most of them he has not dissolved literature into...
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Edmund Wilson is not like any other critic: some critics are boring even when they are original; he fascinates even when he is wrong. [The Shores of Light] is unusual, to begin with, because not since Randolph Bourne and H. L. Mencken have we had another critic whose back pieces could so naturally and still so vibrantly bring forth a vanished age. (p. 93)
This is a book of many deaths, it seems; it is, in fact, its own retrospect. He brings us up to a period whose basic conviction is that no man is any longer his own master; it reaches back to those Vergilian shores of light—"in luminis oras"—to which every living form aspires, and which a remarkable generation of writers once...
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Edmund Wilson is that rare sort of American writer, a master of prose style. (p. 99)
Poe, De Quincy, Shaw, Balzac, France, Dickens, Joyce, and to some extent Huneker and Mencken, have been his chief models. They are all vigorous creative writers with acutely independent styles. Thus Wilson has learned not only that forthrightness is the best critical policy, but also that a personal code, a sensitive social conscience, and a willingness to go out on a limb are all aspects of intellectual courage without which a critic falls into academicism or Sunday-review philistinism. He has also admired the French for their lucidity, the sociological bent of their critics, and the dual enterprise of their...
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To be a Wilsonian critic, even at a junior level, calls for a lot of effort. You can imitate, say, Mr. Blackmur, simply by refusing to express yourself clearly. Even Professor Trilling, with all his fineness of insight and his swift clarity of mind, has an easily imitable style (itself largely imitated, of course, from Matthew Arnold) which makes it no difficult matter to set up in business as a Trillingite. But it would be useless to try to imitate Edmund Wilson unless one had something like his breadth of literary equipment. Unlike the 'New Critics', who proceed mainly by the elaboration of specialised skills, Wilson has kept alive the older notion of the critic as the man who, first and foremost, knows more...
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In Wilson's scheme …, psychoanalysis is a part of the historical method; its value in his criticism, presumably, lies not in what it is itself but in the contribution it can make to an understanding of the larger view.
The chief formulation of this portion of his theory occurs in "Philoctetes: The Wound and the Bow," an exposition of the idea that artistic ability is necessarily related to illness. (p. 162)
The fatal defect of this theory is that it does not explain what connection there is, if any, between artistic talent and emotional maladjustment. Wilson merely asserts in several places that such a connection exists. Other than his own word for it we have only the Philoctetes...
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Mr. Wilson is a very productive author; I don't know if he would call Axel's Castle his best book, though he might agree that it is his most influential. If one wanted to get a complete view of his work on the authors discussed in it, one would need to consider later essays as well; but it is more to the present purpose to see Axel's Castle as it stands, unrevised, a testimony to the author's flexibility and diagnostic power at a time when his subject as a whole was considerably more obscure than it is now. The first powerful impression one receives on re-reading the book is that it anticipates a whole era of literary discussion…. Naturally one soon rests in a more comfortable conviction that it also...
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In the years since [the publication of A Piece of My Mind], while his productivity has remained amazingly high and at least one book—Patriotic Gore—is a testament to sustained powers of scholarship and intellectual conviction, Wilson has become increasingly detached from the central life of culture in this country, a life he once helped shape and color. And yet it does not seem to me to be the comfortable detachment of old fogyism—nothing so placid, unremarkable and unembattled as that….
A number of writers have remarked on how Wilson is not temperamentally a man of our time, and he has confirmed it; and it has been said that after a crisis in his personal life and his beliefs...
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The literary chronicles, especially The Shores of Light, are commonly valued above Wilson's more integrated books, and although it seems likely that the people doing the valuing have not correctly judged the importance of the latter, the evaluation nevertheless seems just at first glance. As has often been pointed out, there is nothing in criticism to beat the thrill of hearing Wilson produce the first descriptions and definitions of the strong new American literature that was coming up in the 1920s—the first essays on Fitzgerald and Hemingway will always stand as the perfect objects for any literary journalist's envy and respect. But here again we must remember to avoid trying to nourish ourselves with...
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A Window on Russia uses the very language of the Russian classics as a mirror of the national character, one Wilson finds both attractive and impractical. He combines the assumptions of Michelet and Taine about national cultures with the role of gentleman-amateur guide. No master of Russian—as the Nabokov-Wilson controversy showed—he can make learning the verbs and intellectual pleasure, from the time sense involved in their irregularities to the weakness of the verbs for "get" to the expressions for the way Russian women narrow their eyes. In New York in the 'twenties Wilson collected words for the varieties of drunkenness. Now, with an aside on Soviet propaganda,—he discriminates among Russian words for...
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A sorry fate is overtaking the reputation of Edmund Wilson. Since his death … there has been an increasing tendency to portray Wilson as the Grand Cham of American letters, a venerable sage whose most impromptu and trivial scribbles must be embalmed in print and enshrined for all eternity. Ironically, Wilson had himself initiated this reverential salvage operation with the publication of A Prelude, in 1967; it began with the precocious diary, "My Trip Abroad," written when he was thirteen years old, and moved through the "landscapes, characters and conversations from the earlier years of my life" recorded in his day-to-day journal through the end of his military service in the First World War. He was...
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In his introduction to [Letters on Literature and Politics] Daniel Aaron states that Wilson "professed literature." It would be as accurate to say that he spent a lifetime defending literature, at least what he saw as its true practice, against the forces he saw threatening it, and all of civilization, in the twentieth century: the social irresponsibility of the symbolists and their followers, the political dogmatism of the Marxists, the phony professionalism of the academy and collective powers of the state. To be sure, in taking on so many different foes Wilson often had to shift his footing, and if one can fault him for some rather awkward alterations in his public stance, one can never accuse him of leaving...
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In common with other notable creators, Edmund Wilson possessed a sensibility that at its intensest achieved a fusion of time and place so that a particular period took on the architectures of an edifice—had corridors, chambers, and neglected corners—and a particular locale breathed forth a history, manifested itself temporally. At the end of his career he sought to embody the fusion in his life as well as in his writing. (p. 44)
The fusion that he acted out as well as rendered in prose at the close of his career informs the great body of Wilson's writings on American themes almost from the start. The crucial term of place that entered into it was, of course, America, and the crucial term of time...
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Almost everyone looked up to him. Writers and critics looked up to him, both those for whom he served as mentor and those ambitious enough to take him as model. So, too, did a company of cultivated readers who knew that regularly Edmund Wilson would come bearing gifts: Read Kipling, even if you detest his politics; read Ulysses Grant's memoirs, even though he was a brute of a general and a dolt of a President; read Agnon, read Dawn Powell, read Pushkin (hopeless as he sounds in English translation), read the Haitian novelist, Philippe Thoby-Marcelin. The whole sweep of world literature seemed in Wilson's grasp, to be sifted, judged, protected. He could sometimes be difficult, even haughty, but in his work he was...
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