Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2185
Wilson, Edmund 1895–1972
Essayist, critic, novelist, short story writer, poet, and playwright, Wilson, whose writing spans nearly a half century, was one of the foremost American men of letters of the twentieth century. Most of his later works, for which he will probably be best remembered, are discussions and histories of literature. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed., obituary, Vols. 37-40, rev. ed.)
Young Wilson [once said, "What] I want to do is to try to get to know something about all the main departments of human thought." This ambition remained his for a lifetime, and in it he succeeded to a degree that makes nearly all other contemporary intellectuals seem parochial. (p. 386)
Wilson was explicit both about the values of literature and about his own designs on it. He wrote, in The Shores of Light, of gaining from his Princeton mentor Christian Gauss "the vision of language and literature as something representing the continuous and never-ending flow of man's struggle to think the thoughts which, when put into action, constitute in the aggregate the advance of civilization." In The Triple Thinkers he told us that "my purpose [in discussing literature] has always been to try to contribute something new…." And in The Bit Between My Teeth he wrote that, as a critic, "My function … has been to make an effort to concentrate synoptically, as they say of the Gospels, to bring into one system, the literatures of several cultures which have not always been in close communication, which in some cases have hardly been aware of one another."
In executing this function Wilson was always able to move among languages, literatures and disciplines with an authority that is rare enough for anyone these days, and nearly unheard of for an American. He learned Greek, Latin, French, Italian, and German early in life; Russian, when he was in his forties; Hebrew, when he was nearly sixty; and Hungarian, when he was past sixty…. [His] remarks on English and American novels and poems arose from an uncommonly catholic sensibility. Furthermore, his evaluations of literature were sharpened by his wide reading in such other disciplines as history, politics and psychology.
He wrote, I believe, three first-rate works of literary criticism and one of an order still higher. In The Wound and the Bow and The Triple Thinkers,… Wilson discusses—always thoughtfully and sometimes dazzlingly—writers as diverse as Hemingway, Casanova and Housman. A third book, Patriotic Gore (a study of the literature of the American Civil War) was initially planned as a single volume and is an exemplary literary history. It is with a fourth book alone, however, Axel's Castle, his study of the French Symbolist poets and their influence on Yeats, Joyce and Eliot, that Wilson can be said to have made a seminal contribution to the study of literature. As much as later critics may have extended and refined Wilson's ideas in Axel's Castle, it is that rare work that can never really be dated or superseded. Despite its narrower chronological scope, it belongs on the shelf near Erich Auerbach's Mimesis.
Edmund Wilson did so much so well that it may be ungracious or perverse to wish for more. But looking over his books …, I noticed how seldom he took on the real giants of literature, other than those of this century. There are exceptions to his neglect of these figures: he wrote brilliantly on Sophocles' Philoctetes and on Dickens; he helped to give Pushkin to the English-speaking world; and he discussed Ben Jonson, though badly, I think. That is nearly all. Intelligent and germane references to Dante, Shakespeare and Goethe pervade his judgment of infinitely lesser writers, but there is no substantial comment on these men. There is, in Classics and Commercials, a review of J. Dover Wilson's book on Falstaff, in which Edmund Wilson makes a few brief and unconvincing remarks on the nature of Shakespeare's art. There is even less on Homer, Virgil, Milton, Dostoevski, Tolstoi.
C. S. Lewis once observed that no poet is under contract to write every poem that we think suitable for him, and the same independence surely must be allowed to literary critics. The proposition, moreover, that a critic of great talents should, for some abstract reason, focus on older rather than newer writers is quite unsupportable. But at the same time one naturally wonders what is down the road not taken. Edmund Wilson had those gifts of erudition, critical acumen and linguistic ease, together with a blessed distance from jejune academic quarrels, that, on the evidence of Axel's Castle, just might have allowed him full membership in the tiny community of great modern philologists—along with Auerbach, E. R. Curtius, Leo Spitzer, a few more Europeans, and perhaps a single American, Kenneth Burke. (pp. 386-87)
Mark Taylor, "Edmund Wilson and Literature," in Commonweal (copyright © 1972 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), July 14, 1972, pp. 386-87.
[After] World War II a change can be seen in Wilson's work, that he becomes more aloof and misanthropic, that his writing moves toward fragmentation as if suffering from the loss of meaningful direction, and that the tone of some of this writing is one of weariness. Wilson's remoteness can be seen in Europe Without Baedeker (1947), his collection of pieces on England and Europe immediately after the war, in which he tends to regard Europe as a sordid piece of real estate and, oddly enough, to make no distinction between the Allied and the Nazi powers. In some respects, his mind seems already closed and unreceptive. He gives no sense of sympathy with people in their suffering during the war or after, and sometimes describes them with biological images. In Upstate (1971) he describes people who seem to him very common, and wonders why they should wish "to reproduce their kind." A deep disillusionment runs through all of the latter half of Wilson's career.
The crisis of Wilson's later years would seem to involve not only the political disillusionment he felt at the end of the thirties, but even the rational life itself. War is a recurring subject in some of the later books, and in A Piece of My Mind (1956), attempting to account for it, Wilson rejects Marx's economic exploitation as an adequate explanation. Its causes are irrational. Having lived through two World Wars in which he did not believe and which produced only an accelerated cheapening and depersonalization of society, as well as the nuclear age that threatens our survival, he can no longer believe in the power of rationality to create a humane and meaningful world. He withdraws into his "pocket of the past," into the period of the early republic in which rationality and individual integrity were important. Patriotic Gore, apparently about the Civil War and its consequences, is Wilson's disillusioned testament of the 20th century experience he has known. In this, Wilson comes to resemble his friend John Dos Passos who returned to a Jeffersonian vision, and even to resemble his college friend F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose Tender Is the Night uses the tragedy of the American Civil War to express his sense of the betrayal of life. (p. 286)
Robert Emmet Long, "The Decade of 'Axel's Castle'," in The Nation (copyright 1972 by The Nation Associates, Inc.), October 2, 1972, pp. 285-86.
Wilson was the foremost American man of letters of the twentieth century. He was also, I think, a great American sage. He embodied that rare combination of stubborn scepticism, inveterate innocence and sturdy, clarifying common sense which we used to consider peculiarly American—almost an American invention—but whose exponents are now sunk under the horizon, as deep as Atlantis. Wilson's sort, if it has not quite vanished from America, is in the fast-dwindling, minuscle minority: although once dominant in the Republic's affairs, this old American type is now almost completely disfranchised and disregarded….
His place in the hall of literary immortals is secure; in fact, he is there already, looking unimpressed by the company, and seated between Sainte-Beuve and Dr Johnson. (p. 210)
T. S. Matthews, "Edmund Wilson Revisited," in The Spectator (© 1974 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), August 17, 1974, pp. 208-10.
"The more kinds of character a man has," Edmund Wilson wrote in an early entry in his journals, "the more kinds of characters he can create." The remark was made about literary artists generally but it applies handsomely to Wilson in particular. Wilson's character was unitary, of a piece, stamped in brass. It explains why he never turned out first-class fiction. He had not the artist's ventriloqual gift; his own voice too easily drowned out all others. Fiction for Wilson was criticism by other means. A character too bold in outline, too firm in impress is a defect for a novelist, but for any other prose writing a marvelous asset. Yet to criticism, to history, to social reportage Edmund Wilson nonetheless brought the sensibility of the artist. (p. 1)
Joseph Epstein, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 15, 1975.
The publication of Wilson's notebooks of the '20s … show his sexual scorecards mingled as if naively with landscape descriptions and intellectual ruminations and the anecdotes of his rather silly upper-class friends. The lonely bookish child is staring with a frown from the shadows of the Red Bank mansion, where the mother was deaf and the father nervously fragile; the America he perceives seems grim and claustrophobic, though hectic. There is a true whiff of Hell in Hecate County, less in the specific touches of supernatural diabolism with which this utter rationalist rather quaintly adorned his tales, but in the low ceilings and cheap underwear of the sex idyll, the clothes and neuroses of the copulators. America has always tolerated sex as a joke, as a night's prank in the burlesque theater or fairground tent; but not as a solemn item in the work of life. It was Wilson's deadly earnest, his unwinking naturalistic refusal to release us into farce, that made Hecate County in all its dignity and high intent the target of a (successful!) prosecution for obscenity.
Rereading, now, in this liberated age, and in the light of the notebooks, one expects to find the sex tame. And so, in a sense, it is…. In the fiction, Wilson sets down no sexual detail in simple celebration, to please and excite himself, but always to illuminate the social or psychological condition of the two women. The Anna of "Princess," compared to the confusing love-object of the journals, is admirably coherent, as the product of certain cultural and economic conditions, in Brooklyn; how telling, for instance, is her reluctance to be seen naked, as if nudity—to the upper classes an esthetic proclamation, a refutation of shame—evokes inhibitions having nothing to do with sexual acts, which she performs freely. And how plausibly, if ploddingly, are the clothes of the two women described and made to symbolize their social presences. Such details—seized, we sometimes feel, by a sensibility that doubts its own grasp on the "real"—lend the factual sexual descriptions a weight, a heat, far from tame. It is Imogen … who occasions Wilson's subtlest, harshest instances of sexual realism…. Gently enough, the failure of an overprepared, ideal love to connect is masterfully anatomized, and movingly contrasted with his tawdry, harried affair with Anna…. (pp. 40-1)
"The Princess with the Golden Hair" is a love-poem to [Anna] and one of the best of his writing generation's obligatory love-poems to the lower classes…. It is, like Thornton Wilder's Heaven's My Destination, a generous aberration, a visit to the underworld by a member of the last predominantly Wasp generation of writers, the last that conceived of itself as an aristocracy. Wilson's portrait of this one slum-child lives by her light, the "something so strong and instinctive that it could outlive the hurts and infections, the defilements, among which we lived." The fiction she inhabits, as its true princess, overtops the flanking Gothic vignettes (though "Ellen Terhune" has its authenticity, and the last story a wrenched pain)…. His fiction, generally cluttered, savoring of the worked-up, of collected details moved by force majeure of the writer's mind, here finds a theme that moves him. Sex was his one way in, into the America to which his response, however much he wished it otherwise, was to reach for anaesthesia, whether found in books or bottles. Imogen, in this respect, is a better metaphor for America than Anna; her flamboyant costumes and greedy orgasms serve the same narcissism, reflect the same blank passion to succeed; in her richly, ironically particularized and overfurnished setting, she ends as a comic vision, empty but not unlovable, a gaudy suburban witch, in a land of Hecate Counties. No longer shocking, and never meant to be, this "memoir" remains, I think, a work of exemplary merit, still the most intelligent attempt by an American male to dramatize sexual behavior as a function of, rather than a suspension of, personality. (p. 41)
John Updike, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1976 by The New Republic Inc.), January 17, 1976.