Wilson, Edmund (Vol. 24)
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.)
Charles I. Glicksberg
[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...
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Edw Ard Fiess
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...
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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 art which everybody has to respect and which the normal man finds he needs."
Just this conception of the artist upsets the unnamed hero of I Thought of Daisy. (p. 360)
He does not draw a sharp distinction between literary people and literary works. He admires the literary people of his acquaintance—among them, the famous poetess and the famous novelist—and is willing to stand for a great deal from them. But they often disgust him: there is a gap between the nobility of their writing, and the stupidity, viciousness, weakness, and self-absorption of their lives. What good is literature, after all, he asks himself, if it must arise from such lives?… In the end, this emotion is transcended by a...
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Robert M. Adams
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 needed proving; the very conception of humanity en masse was alien to the queer inward energy and obscure allusive style of the authors whom he celebrated. But still less was he in Mr. More's rather hardbitten Greek Tradition. Where he stood was in fact a matter of some doubt.
An account of the Symbolist movement in France and England, Axel's Castle was devoted neither to polemic nor to apologetics. The author was often seriously critical of the Symbolist writers whom he expounded; he struck not an overt blow at Yale or Princeton, though some of his judgments glanced pretty close to Mr. More and Professor Babbitt. But he evidently stood before the world as the interpreter, if not the advocate, of heresies. It...
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Stanley Edgar Hyman
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 to work the most recondite material into simple and comprehensible English sentences. He has a wide reading, or at least a competent lay background, in a number of the primary fields that filter into literature, including history, philosophy, and psychology, particularly those two chief conditioners of the contemporary literary mind, Marxism and psychoanalysis. He has, for an American literary critic, an unusual command of languages, American literary critic, an unusual command of languages, including Latin and Greek, [French, German and Russian]…. (p. 21)
Another attribute of Wilson's, perhaps less admirable, that makes him an excellent interpreter of literature is his skillful use of other men's researches and...
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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 history. The simple fact is that whatever ideas Wilson may have about art, he is above all a man of sensibility, and it is his sensibility that lies at the center of all his criticism. (p. 106)
Despite his range of interests, however, Wilson's criticism has been built on his taste and his feeling for the spirit of an author and his work. Actually, he has always been more interested in the imaginative than in the purely theoretical side of art and of other intellectual disciplines he has touched on from time to time. His studies of the Marxist movement, for example, grasped the essence of its ideas and social effects, but they belong more to the field of literature than to social theory. Even his attitude to aesthetic questions...
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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 identified with the personal liberation of every chafed, suppressed, and rebellious human being under the American sky.
Reading these pieces thus involves us in a web of recollection—the usual Proustian setting that puts Wilson's criticism in motion. There are deeper critics, more modest critics, critics less hidebound by indifference to abstract thought; there is no other critic who so evenly and so hauntingly writes criticism as a work of art. Should anyone try to create criticism as an art? The answer is that Wilson cannot help it. The key words of fashionable criticism today are "form," "sensibility," "difficult," "proper," "tact"; his are "grasp," "solid," "vivid," "focus," "lens"; he is a writer among writers,...
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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 invention which undertakes, whenever possible, to deal equally with the man and the work. And all his books reveal that his sympathies are sooner engaged by a literature of ideas, the naturalistic novel, the political works of social idealists, than by the poetry and prose of the literary schools. (p. 100)
Yet one soon senses, in going through [The Shores of Light], that there are few contemporary American writers about whom Wilson is free to write without some extremely determining personal note. The result is not gossip but something close to it, something, at any rate, of special interest. Being fair at such times, as Wilson is especially constrained to be, is not the same as being dispassionate. The effort itself...
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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 than the reader. Whether or not one agrees with his judgments, an article by him is always informative.
This idea of the critic is not merely an old-fashioned one in general; it is also an old-fashioned American one. In the days when America was divided sharply into three strips—a cultured East, a raw and booming industrial Mid-West, and an uncharted frontier West—American literary critics and teachers appear to have accepted without question that their chief function was to instruct. They were there to act as intermediaries between their energetic countrymen and the artistic and intellectual nabobs of Europe. This ideal has now faded. When an ideal disappears, the reason generally is either that it has been fulfilled...
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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 story, but this remains unconvincing for the excellent reason that analogy is not proof. (p. 163)
[Wilson] does not rely on psychoanalysis—nor for that matter on sociology—for his criticism. Both have their place in his work, but Wilson is a critic, and his feet are always on literary ground. When dealing with Poe, his judgment is not primarily a psychological but a literary one. He notes the sexual aberrations but does not dwell on them, and he points out that Poe can be understood quite adequately as a participant in the romantic movement. The emphasis is upon literary analogues, not psychic ones; Wilson here is particularly interested in Poe as a precursor of Symbolism and not as a pre-Freudian instance of...
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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 missed quite a lot, and left employment for Mr. Wilson's successors. But his real achievement was to identify, even if he could not completely describe, the master-spirit of an age. He grasped the relation between Romantic and Symbolist, the ivory tower and the cork-lined bedroom; he understood the role of various substitutes for science, and the persistent anti-intellectualism of the whole tradition; he saw how the Romantic cult of personality was turned into its apparent opposite, a cult of impersonality; he understood why English seventeenth-century poetry took on a special importance in the age of Symbolism; and he perceived that the arts of post-Symbolism had a special survival problem. He was able to say new things of a period just...
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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 he retreated into a private world, into literature cut off from political actuality and observation cut off from the crucial scene to be observed. The notion that he is a great literary critic (as well as a social critic) who has substituted literature for life is widespread, and is, I believe, thoroughly mistaken; he is, on the contrary, a critic who for a very long time has not really criticized, a man who has substituted the superficies of literature for its real life and held that at bay.
These things are what The Bit Between My Teeth reestablishes throughout its nearly seven hundred pages. Similar in size and format to his collections of writings of the twenties, thirties and forties, Classics and...
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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 condiments alone. What needs to be appreciated, throughout the literary chronicles, is the steady work of reporting, judging, sorting out, encouraging, reproving and re-estimating. The three literary chronicles are, among other things, shattering reminders that many of the men we distinguish with the name of critic have never judged a piece of writing in their lives—just elaborated on judgements already formed by other men.
A certain demonstration of Wilson's integrity in this regard is his ability to assess minor and ancillary literature about which no general opinion has previously been built up: The Shock of Recognition and Patriotic Gore are natural culminations of Wilson's early drive towards mining and...
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Lewis M. Dabney
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 fantasy and lying. His consciously Western point of view is supported by the Russian writers. Thus Dostoevsky and Turgenev agree on lying as the national vice, and Tolstoy acknowledges the latter's exceptional truthfulness, which Wilson's essay on Turgenev stresses. (p. 24)
Comparative criticism is one of Wilson's specialties, for his was the old literary education, and he wears it easily. He uses Latin, French, English and American verse to show the qualities of Pushkin and Tyutchev, a poem of Edwin Arlington Robinson's to represent Chekhov's final views on human nature and progress. Gogol's visions, Wilson says, "make even Poe seem cerebral and such fancies of Hawthorne's as the Minister's Black Veil and the Black...
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Pearl K. Bell
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 preparing The Twenties for publication at the time of his death.
As a young man of letters, Wilson had been scornful of such indiscriminate sanctimony toward the scratch-pad detritus of great writers, whose notes, he wrote in his journal, "may have been merely mechanical and meaningless jottings, the products of an instinct to write in its most rudimentary habitual twitchings, like the instinctive defensive or predatory gestures of the lowest forms of life." If the future volumes of Edmund Wilson's journal prove to be as dull as A Prelude and The Twenties …, it will become more and more difficult to retain a just and accurate sense of Wilson's singular importance as a literary journalist and critical...
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Richard M. Cook
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 the battle.
Predictably, Wilson shows greatest confidence in the capacity of literature to penetrate and change the world in his early years, from the time of his service in the first World War until the early 1930s. During this period he looked increasingly to literature as a means for direct participation in the public affairs of the country. Without turning practical politics into a criterion for literary judgments Wilson nonetheless felt that literature had a responsibility to confront the immediate circumstances of life…. The writing of Axel's Castle, Wilson's study of the symbolist influence in recent European literature, clearly influenced his growing conviction that literature must be brought into closer...
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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 was the twenties. (p. 45)
The man of letters is the product of his times and his direct presence is not available to those who did not undergo the same shaping. The profoundest influence the twenties had, then, on Wilson as a critic of American writing was to fix in his mind the inescapable interdependence of a man and his generation, a reflexive relationship of equal power with that between a man and his physical surroundings. He rejected the notion of the isolated artist and looked always for his times and his associates in him. Van Wyck Brooks's studies of American literary history interested him because they provided writers with such contexts, and he himself early developed a sense that his good fortune in being a...
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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 profoundly the democrat, eager to share every pleasure of literary discovery.
His career took on a heroic shape, the curve of the writer who attains magisterial lucidity in middle age and then, in the years of decline, struggles ferociously to keep his powers. One doesn't customarily think of writers as heroes, nor are heroes always likable. But in Wilson's determination to live out the idea of the man of letters, in his glowing eagerness before the literatures of mankind, and in his stubborn insistence upon speaking his own mind, there is a trace of the heroic. He didn't trim, he didn't court, he remained the same writer in and out of popularity, and he fought hard for what he thought was true. (p. 221)
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