Jeffrey Meyers has produced the first full-length portrait of the most prolific and preeminent literary critic in the United States in the twentieth century but, unfortunately, Meyers’ focus on Wilson’s troubled personal life may distract readers from the serious accomplishments of this important critic and scholar. More time seems spent here on Wilson’s four tempestuous marriages than on his four dozen books.
What is missing is any sense of what a barometer to American intellectual history Edmund Wilson’s career can be. The best introduction to any decade in the twentieth century may still be one of Wilson’s collections of literary journalism from the period—THE SHORES OF LIGHT: A LITERARY CHRONICLE OF THE TWENTIES AND THIRTIES, for example, or CLASSICS AND COMMERCIALS: A LITERARY CHRONICLE OF THE FORTIES. Two of Wilson’s most important books cap major intellectual movements: AXEL’S CASTLE (1931) summarizes the symbolist movement at the moment it was being swallowed by the Depression and the leftward drift of writers and intellectuals, and TO THE FINLAND STATION (1940) explains their attraction to Marxism in the 1930’s. No American critic had as deep a background or as broad an interest in human life and history, and whatever Wilson turned to became an intense study and usually a book, whether on the Dead Sea Scrolls, American Indians, Canada, or the Civil War.
Throughout his career, Wilson’s literary criticism was incisive precisely because, as he wrote in the dedication to AXEL’S CASTLE, he understood literary analysis as “a history of man’s ideas and imaginings in the setting of the conditions which have shaped them.” This ideal would guide Wilson throughout his literary career and helps to explain the depths of his insights. Like George Orwell in England, Wilson used the best of Marxism to deepen his own critical acumen. Jeffrey Meyers acknowledges Wilson’s prominence as a critic, but turns his focus elsewhere.
Sources for Further Study
The Christian Science Monitor. June 13, 1995, p. 14.
Commentary. C, October, 1995, p. 57.
The Nation. CCLX, June 12, 1995, p. 840.
The New York Review of Books. XLII, June 8, 1995, p. 4.
The New York Times Book Review. C, April 30, 1995, p. 6.
The New Yorker. LXXI, May 8, 1995, p. 85.
The Wall Street Journal. April 26, 1995, p. A12.