The Magazine

America's Critic

Edmund Wilson, mandarin in chief.

Dec 19, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 14 • By JAMES SEATON
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Edmund Wilson

by Lewis M. Dabney

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 656 pp., $35

OVER HIS LONG CAREER EDMUND Wilson (1895-1972) produced a body of work that is, perhaps, the most impressive in quantity and quality of any 20th-century literary critic. Lewis Dabney's new biography does what the biography of a great writer should do above all else: It sends the reader to the writer's books and essays with fresh enthusiasm.

Dabney traces Wilson's career from its beginning in the twenties, when, as a general reviewer for first Vanity Fair and then the New Republic, Wilson championed Ernest Hemingway's early short stories, explained why the Minsky Brothers' Follies were superior to Ziegfeld's, and declared that Harry Houdini's career as a magician and escape artist "showed a rare integrity." Wilson's stature as a literary critic was confirmed by the success of Axel's Castle (1931), a study of the writers now known as modernists (a term Wilson hated, Dabney points out). Since its publication, Axel's Castle has been recognized as the best introduction to the generation of Eliot, Joyce, and Proust, writers whose seemingly impenetrable works were shown by Wilson to possess broad human significance.

In the thirties Wilson, like many other literary intellectuals, turned left. To the Finland Station (1940) is a study of Marxism that remains readable today, despite its thesis that Lenin's revolution should be taken as a sign "that Western man at this moment can be seen to have made some definite progress." (Dabney goes further, calling the book "the most significant imaginative work to come out of the thirties in the United States except for several of Faulkner's novels.") In the essays collected in The Triple Thinkers (1938) and The Wound and the Bow (1941), Wilson assimilated the new ideas of psychoanalysis without letting them become a controlling system.

Wilson was often at his best in the short reviews and essays assembled in three collections: The Shores of Light (1952), his essays from the twenties and thirties; Classics and Commercials (1950), the reviews, mostly from the New Yorker, of the forties; and The Bit Between My Teeth (1965), taken from the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books. In the fifties and sixties he investigated and wrote about, among other things, the Dead Sea scrolls, the Iroquois of upstate New York, and the French culture of Quebec. The big book of his later years was Patriotic Gore (1962), a study of the writing of the Civil War era, including not only literary works but also diaries, memoirs, and speeches, which remains, despite its combatively reductive preface, one of the great works of American literary and cultural criticism. Meanwhile, Wilson wrote fiction and plays, reported on the United States during the Depression and Europe after World War II, compiled memoirs like Upstate (1971), and throughout his career kept voluminous diaries, which have been published posthumously.

Wilson's unceasing productivity was sustained while he went through many affairs and four marriages, including an especially tumultuous one to the beautiful, talented, and much younger Mary McCarthy, all the while maintaining a drinking habit that would have incapacitated most people. (Dabney comments that "Wilson was the only well-known literary alcoholic of his generation whose work was not compromised by his drinking, but alcohol undermined his marriages.") There is a lot here for any biographer to deal with. Indeed, David Castronovo and Janet Groth have written a book, Critic in Love, focusing only on Wilson's relations with women. Dabney deserves high praise for his success in balancing his narrative of Wilson's personal life with lucid accounts of the essays and books that provide the only reasons Wilson's drinking or his sexual activity should concern anybody beyond friends and family.

The biography offers no overall assessment of Edmund Wilson's critical stature, though Dabney does mention approvingly Isaiah Berlin's view that Wilson was "the most important critic" of the 20th century. Perhaps because Wilson cannot be definitively linked with any one critical method or political ideology, it has been difficult for his admirers to explain exactly why his criticism remains fresh and rewarding today, even though research and criticism on almost all the figures he discusses has increased exponentially since his own essays and books were written.