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.
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.
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...
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