Edmund Wilson

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2770

Article abstract: Combining an acute literary sensibility with both a social and a historical point of view, Wilson became an influential force in twentieth century literature and literary criticism.

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Early Life

Edmund Wilson was born May 8, 1895, an only child of well-to-do parents. His father had been attorney general under the Democratic administration of Woodrow Wilson, even though he had been a lifelong Republican. Edmund went to the Hill School in Pottsdown, Pennsylvania, where he distinguished himself by his precocious interest in, and knowledge of, literature. He continued his education at Princeton, where he formed enduring friendships with John Peale Bishop and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Wilson was never to be the poet Bishop was or the novelist Fitzgerald was, but he impressed both of them with his critical powers. Fitzgerald always referred to Wilson as “my literary conscience.” Wilson’s own “literary conscience” was a teacher he met at Princeton, Christian Gauss.

Christian Gauss was the one professor at Princeton who influenced Wilson. First, Gauss was not a dry academic but was passionately interested in the works he taught. Gauss’s specialty was European literature, and he helped Wilson with the new avant-garde works coming out of Europe. As Wilson later observed, Gauss’s teaching of Gustave Flaubert and Dante “admirably prepared us for Joyce and Proust.” In addition, Gauss introduced Wilson to the historical method of looking at literature. A specific work needed to be connected to its time, its milieu, and its race, in the famous formula of Hippolyte-Adolphe Taine. Gauss was to remain “a spiritual and intellectual force” throughout Wilson’s life.

After he was graduated from Princeton, Wilson joined the army, where he was exposed to people from different classes and backgrounds. It was at this time that he decided to reject his family’s class and social position: “It suddenly became very clear to me that I could never go back to the habits and standards of even the most cultivated elements of the world in which I had lived.” He became, instead, a reporter for the New York Evening Sun and a book reviewer for the politically radical The New Republic, and he also at this time became a Socialist. Although Wilson rejected the way of life of his family, some influences remained. Later in life, he settled into the family house in Talcottville, and he retained his father’s detached attitude even when he wrote on subjects in which he was deeply involved. One can see this quality in Wilson’s treatment of those figures whom he admired the most, Karl Marx and Abraham Lincoln. Wilson always managed to retain a critical reserve.

Life’s Work

In 1920, having been discharged from the army the year before, Wilson joined the staff of Vanity Fair. The next year, he joined the staff of The New Republic, with which he would be associated for nineteen years. During this period, Wilson married actress Mary Blair, and they had a daughter, Rosalind. He divorced Blair in 1928. Wilson published I Thought of Daisy (1929) and Poets, Farewell! (1929). Two years later, he published the work which established his reputation as a literary critic, Axel’s Castle (1931).

In the 1930’s, Wilson traveled around the United States, studying the effects of the Depression on the American people. Also during this period, Wilson married Margaret Canby, who died in 1932. Wilson’s interest in socialism attracted him to study in the Soviet Union in 1935, under a Guggenheim Fellowship. Travels in Two Democracies (1936), in which he contrasted the Soviet and the American environments, was a result of that journey. In 1938, Wilson married Mary McCarthy, with whom he had a son, Reuel.

In the 1940’s, his relationship with The New Republic having ended, Wilson became literary editor of The New Yorker. In 1946, Wilson divorced McCarthy and was married for the last time, to Elena Mumm Thornton, with whom he had a daughter, Helen Miranda. During this period, Wilson continued with his writing, producing several important works during the 1950’s and the 1960’s.

In 1963, Wilson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor given by the United States government. The next year, he received the Edward MacDowell Medal for his “outstanding contribution to literature.” In 1966, he was awarded the National Medal for Literature and the Emerson-Thoreau Medal. Having returned to the family home in Talcottville, Edmund Wilson died there on June 12, 1972, and was buried in Wellfleet, Massachusetts, on June 15, 1972.

Edmund Wilson was a “man of letters” in the tradition of Samuel Johnson, Matthew Arnold, and William Dean Howells. The range of a man of letters is not limited to one type of writing. Wilson, for example, wrote poetry, plays, and fiction, as well as occasional book reviews and major studies of Symbolism, Marxism, Freudianism, and the literature of the American Civil War. His literary works are of less importance than his literary criticism, but they are worth discussion.

Wilson published three collections of poetry: Poets, Farewell!, Notebooks of Night (1942), and Night Thoughts (1961). While he was a technically proficient poet, he could not escape the poetic models he celebrated in his criticism. As one critic said, “Wilson was the master of every poetic aspect except originality.” The one exception to this difficulty is his satires or parodies. With these, originality was not to be desired, and “The Omelet of A. MacLeish,” with its Eliotic parody, remains fresh and amusing while his evocative lyrics seem hopelessly dated.

Wilson’s fiction has had a better critical reception than his poetry, but there are some problems. For example, Wilson later criticized his first novel, I Thought of Daisy, as “having been subjected to a preconceived scheme.” That scheme was the Proustian and symphonic form that he had noticed and admired in Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past (1913-1927) and pointed out in Axel’s Castle, Wilson’s first major book of literary criticism. In I Thought of Daisy, the form gets in the way of the action, although there are many good things in the book, such as the trip to Coney Island with Daisy. Memoirs of Hecate County (1946) is less structured—six short stories are brought together into one book—but is more successful. One of the major reasons for the success of the book is its social dimension. “The Man Who Shot Snapping Turtles,” for example, is an allegory of capitalist exploitation in which the pursuit of beauty represented by destroying the turtles (because the turtles are destroying the beautiful ducks in his pond) is abandoned for the profit those turtles will bring when sold. It also shows the impact made by advertising in the character of Clarence, who kills the old-fashioned capitalist and is left to spend his days in Southern California, filled with dread. The most important story is “Princess with the Golden Hair,” a much deeper version of the paired women characters of I Thought of Daisy. In “Princess with the Golden Hair,” Wilson contrasts the upper-class Imogen with the lower-class Anna. He is ironic in his descriptions of Imogen and her environment, but the main character is also ashamed of Anna and her poverty, so the easy contrast of I Thought of Daisy is avoided. The story is resolved when the main character suddenly sees beyond his social prejudices. “It was Anna who had made it possible for me to recreate the actuality; who had given me that life of the people which had before been but prices and wages. . . .” Yet this revelation is mixed with a sense of loss over the fact that “we should never make love again.”

Wilson’s later fiction can be impressive, but his real achievement was in literary and social criticism. In Axel’s Castle, he used a historical and comparative method, tracing Symbolism to its origins in Romanticism and describing it as being a “second flood of the same tide” with its roots “in the individual.” He saw Symbolism as a reaction against mechanistic views of the universe. Wilson was better at applying theories to specific works than he was in defining a movement, and he was much better with fiction than with poetry.

Wilson found much to praise in the poetry of Paul Valéry, William Butler Yeats, and T. S. Eliot. Yet, in his opinion, their works are not as connected to the real world as they should be; he preferred the “wide knowledge of human affairs” of Anatole France to the “introspection” of the Symbolist poets. He saw a similar problem in the poetic prose of Gertrude Stein and claimed that “she has gone so far she no longer even suggests.”

Wilson was a better critic when he dealt with the prose fiction of Proust and James Joyce. He traced both the “symphonic” structure of Remembrance of Things Past and the “mythic” structure of Ulysses (1922) and found in both novels the subjectivity of Symbolism and the objectivity of naturalism. He even suggested that Ulysses is a successful blending of the two. Wilson did have some reservations about both novels. He found Proust’s novel to be morbid and Joyce’s novel to suffer from an excessive use of technical devices.

Axel’s Castle ends with a chapter on “Axel and Rimbaud,” which is a warning to future writers. Here, Wilson not only traced the development of Symbolism but also evaluated it, warning his readers that to follow Villiers de l’Isle-Adam’s Axël (1890) is to be removed from “common life.” Yet if one follows Arthur Rimbaud, one ends up embracing primitivism. Wilson had many reservations about Symbolism, but he also found much of value; Wilson’s value to his readers was to make them aware of this new movement.

Wilson was also instrumental in making Sigmund Freud and Freudian literary criticism available in Great Britain and the United States with his essays and with The Wound and the Bow (1941). The thesis of The Wound and the Bow is that the artist receives a wound in childhood that later becomes a central part of his imaginative “bow.” What Wilson does not explain is how a great artist can make use of his wound while an ordinary person cannot. The book, however, is useful in showing how Charles Dickens and Rudyard Kipling were affected by their early experiences and how they incorporated them into their work.

Wilson was also deeply interested in Socialist and Marxist thought. In To the Finland Station (1940), he traced Marxist thought from its origins in Jules Michelet and Charles Fourier to its implementation by Vladimir Ilich Lenin in the Revolution of 1917. The method is historical and biographical, and the center of the book is the biographies of Karl Marx and Lenin.

Wilson’s portrait of Marx is balanced. Marx is portrayed not only as a rebel Prometheus who brought light to mankind but also as a Lucifer who treated his enemies with scorn and allowed his family to sink into poverty while he concentrated his energies on his work. According to Wilson, Marx was afflicted with disease and neglect, yet Marx made use of his “wounds.” Marx once said, “I hope the bourgeoisie as long as they live will have cause to remember my carbunkles.” Wilson did criticize Marx’s antidemocratic tendencies, and he was very dubious about Marx’s Hegelian dialectic. Yet all the faults and doubts are washed away by Marx’s creation of a “truly human world” in The Communist Manifesto (1848) and Das Kapital (1867).

Wilson’s chapters on Lenin emphasize the practical steps that Lenin took to bring about change; Lenin was not a theoretician such as Marx. Nor did Lenin possess Marx’s reverence for culture. Lenin loved Ludwig van Beethoven’s Appassionata Sonata but refused to listen to it because he feared that it might weaken him. Wilson seemed to be less skeptical about Lenin than about Marx; he excused Lenin’s undemocratic and autocratic ways and suggested that they were necessary at the time. Lenin is, for Wilson, the instrument that is used to complete the process begun by Michelet; Wilson stated that Lenin uses “the weapons that had been hung up by Marx and Engels.”

Wilson’s last major work, Patriotic Gore (1962), is an analysis of some major and less-important figures of the American Civil War. In the introduction, Wilson justified the rebellion of the Confederacy and debunked the moral claims of the North, calling them disguises for power politics. Wilson, at the time of the book’s publication, was troubled by the growth of the central government in the United States and elsewhere. Thus, the book is both a tracing of the origins of modern centralized government and a warning against such growth.

One of the most important portraits in Patriotic Gore is that of Abraham Lincoln. Wilson saw Lincoln as a convert to the cause of the Union. In that conversion, according to Wilson, lies the growth of centralized government. For example, Wilson saw a marked change in Lincoln’s views on slavery and religion from his early skeptical days to the mystical views he held as president. Wilson praised Lincoln’s moral authority even though that authority was used to further what Wilson saw as an illegitimate growth of government.

Two other important chapters deal with the opposing views of Alexander Stephens, the vice president of the Confederacy, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, the famous justice of the Supreme Court. Wilson praised Stephens’ attack upon the central government and saw his usefulness in his raising “certain fundamental issues.” Holmes was the opposite of Stephens; he was skeptical of all absolute views and remained aloof from all sects and parties. His skepticism seems very similar to that of Edmund Wilson.


Edmund Wilson was a very influential figure. He introduced the ideas of Symbolism, of Freud, and of Marx to American and British audiences and then made Americans take another look at their history in Patriotic Gore. In addition, he did important work on Russian literature and the Dead Sea Scrolls. No one has written so cogently on so many diverse topics in the twentieth century. Furthermore, Wilson was often the first one to notice the importance of these movements or writers.

Wilson’s later work is marred by an increasing irascibility. He referred to himself in those years as an “old curmudgeon,” and that role came to replace the earlier pioneering one. One can see this irascibility in his attacks upon the Internal Revenue Service and the Modern Language Association (MLA). The attack upon the MLA is especially important because, at that time, the universities were turning out specialists in the fields in which Wilson had been a pioneer. He hated the specialization and narrowness that he saw coming, but he could not prevent it. There is no “first man of American letters” with whom to replace Edmund Wilson. His role has been usurped by university specialists, but his influence remains.


Castronovo, David. Edmund Wilson. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1984. A full-length study of all of Wilson’s major works. Especially good on the fiction and social criticism.

Frank, Charles P. Edmund Wilson. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1970. Frank is critical about the limitations in Wilson’s literary criticism, but he barely touches on the social criticism.

Hyman, Stanley Edgar. The Armed Vision. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1948. Hyman devotes a chapter of his book to Wilson’s literary criticism, and he finds little to praise in that criticism. He sees Wilson as only a “translator” of others’ work.

Kriegel, Leonard. Edmund Wilson. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1971. A complete if somewhat uncritical discussion of the major works.

Paul, Sherman. Edmund Wilson: A Study of the Literary Vocation in Our Time. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1965. The first full-length study of Wilson remains a useful introduction to his works.

Wain, John. Edmund Wilson: The Man and His Work. New York: New York University Press, 1978. The best essays in this collection are on Wilson’s fiction and poetry and the memoirs of his life; the essays on the criticism are less useful.

Wilson, Edmund. Axel’s Castle: A Study in the Imaginative Literature of 1870-1930. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1931. The book that introduced Symbolism to American and English readers.

Wilson, Edmund. Patriotic Gore: Studies in the Literature of the American Civil War. New York: Oxford University Press, 1962. An analysis of some important figures of the Civil War.

Wilson, Edmund. To the Finland Station. New York: Harcourt Brace and Co., 1940. An analysis of Socialist thought from its beginnings to the triumph of Lenin.

Wilson, Edmund. The Wound and the Bow: Seven Studies in Literature. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1941. An application of Freudian criticism to writers such as Dickens and Kipling.

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