One of the most interesting sections of Lewis Dabney’s biography of literary critic and cultural commentator Edmund Wilson comes near the very end of the book, when Dabney discusses Patriotic Gore (1962), Wilson’s study of the Civil War era. In this extended section, Dabney reveals just how interesting a thinker Wilson was. Rather than recycle conventional views on the evils of slavery and the heroism of U.S. president Abraham Lincoln, Wilson called Lincoln into question, expressing disquiet with how a large political unit (the North) imposed its will on a smaller and weaker one in a form of imperial expansion.
In a series of essays on various figures of the era, Wilson, according to Dabney’s account, showed the complexity of human existence by having the heroes of one essay show up as the villains of another, depending on whose eyes through which he was portraying events. Wilson also provided a controversial introduction in which he generalized from the example of the Civil War to condemn all wars, suggesting that in all such conflicts it is much too easy to claim moral superiority, to claim to be fighting for a just cause and liberation. “Whenever we engage in a war or move in on some other country,” Wilson wrote, “it is always to liberate somebody,” suggesting that, in reality, wars are never for liberation.
These are highly provocative views with which many will disagree, but they show Wilson to be a stimulating thinker whose work would be interesting to read for the intellectual challenge he provides. Elsewhere in his biography, Dabney says that one of Wilson’s main achievements was to bring various authors to the attention of the public, to popularize works and make people want to read them. In this section on Patriotic Gore, Dabney creates some of the same effect.
Unfortunately, this is one of the rare successful moments in Dabney’s study, and even in this section the reader often has to puzzle out what Dabney is actually saying. Is he really saying Wilson criticized Lincoln? To be certain, it is necessary to consult an earlier biography of Wilson, a 1995 work by Jeffrey Meyers titled Edmund Wilson: A Biography.
Meyers’s work is everything Dabney’s is not: clear, crisp, coherent. Where Dabney puts sentences next to each other that do not seem to belong together, Meyers constructs paragraphs that stick to their topics and carry the discussion along in a clear direction. Dabney seems unable to do this. It is as if he has taken his twenty years’ worth of notes on Wilson and just dumped them in the reader’s lap, as if saying, Here, you figure out how all this fits together.
Sometimes Dabney does not seem able to grasp the significance of his own material. For instance, he reports on how Wilson saw his former lover, the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, years after their love affair ended and found her looking “ruddy and overblown.” Somehow, from this Dabney concludes that Wilson still loved her, though the evidence he has just presented would suggest the very opposite.
Other times his paragraphs ride off in all directions. In one he begins by making the interesting remark that Wilson’s sober judgments in print on various authors and their works masked the disorder of his private life. An elaboration on this idea might have been quite illuminating; there does seem to have been a large gap between the public Wilson, the distinguished man of letters calmly presenting his views on a variety of topics, and the private Wilson, a difficult man with a drinking problem, a short temper, and a propensity for adultery.
Wilson married four times, and at times he seemed to be running away from his marriages, going off on assignments around the world, setting up a second house, having affairs. He seems in many ways to have been a lonely, isolated man. Dabney shows him to have been a shy boy, not taking part in sports, preferring the more solitary pursuits of magic tricks and, of course, reading.
(The entire section is 1645 words.)