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.

One way to grasp Wilson's achievement is to compare his work with that of the critics he himself respected. In Classics and Commercials he offers a tribute to his late Princeton classmate T.K. Whipple, the author of two books on American literature, Spokesmen (1928) and the posthumous Study Out the Land (1943). Whipple, like Wilson, turned left in the thirties, but, unlike many others, the two managed, in the end, to keep their balance. He praises his friend for writing criticism that remained "unhysterical and unstampeded" despite his leftism. Wilson calls Whipple "the first of our critics to study the new novelists and dramatists and poets at the same time appreciatively and calmly, to try to see the work of each as a whole and to make some sort of summary of it." This generous praise describes Wilson's own criticism more accurately than it does his classmate's fine work.

Two essays in Classics and Commercials praise George Saintsbury, the turn-of-the-20th-century English critic whose opinions were very different from Wilson's--"in religion he was Church of England and in politics an extreme Tory"--who wins Wilson's praise because "his prejudices were rarely allowed to interfere with his appetite for good literature, wherever and by whomever written." Wilson even argues that Saintsbury's extreme political opinions give his criticism a dramatic interest it would not have otherwise, "provided by the recurring conflict between Saintsbury's Tory principles and the productions of those of his subjects who hold contrary opinions. The thrill for the reader results from Saintsbury's displays of gallantry in recognizing and applauding the literary merit of writers whose views he abhors."

Of course the quasi-Marxist Wilson's treatment of the Tory Saintsbury itself exemplifies the same "gallantry." Similarly, Wilson's masterpiece, Patriotic Gore, gains in dramatic quality as the reader waits to see if Wilson will treat Lincoln, Grant, Alexander Stephens, and Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. with the reductivism that the "sea-slug" theory of history announced in the preface would seem to demand. Wilson seems to be characterizing his own work when he notes both Saintsbury's limitation and his strength: "[I]t is true, as has sometimes been said of him, that he does not plumb the deepest literature deeply. But at least he has arrived by himself at his reasons for the greatness of the greatest. He never takes merits for granted."

The 18th-century rationalism that was an enduring part of Wilson's intellectual equipment did, indeed, keep him from appreciating fully those writers whose vision either transcended, or at least differed radically, from that outlook, as his once-notorious "Dissenting Opinion on Kafka" illustrates. Yet Wilson's essays also demonstrate his own insistence on judging for himself, whether he is considering would-be "classics" or "commercials" like the latest bestseller. Ready to condemn Somerset Maugham despite "his swelling reputation" as "a half-trashy novelist, who writes badly, but is patronized by half-serious readers, who do not care much about writing," Wilson finds that the religious bestseller The Robe, despite being written with "an almost unrivaled fabric of old clichés," nevertheless has an imaginative integrity that gives the novel "a certain purity" and makes the author worthy of "a certain respect." Lloyd Douglas, the author, "has imagined the whole thing for himself," and thus "his book, on a lower level, has the same kind of dramatic effectiveness as Bernard Shaw's Saint Joan."

Wilson's personal life, especially his troubled marriage to Mary McCarthy, has sometimes been used to impugn his reputation as a judicious literary critic, as have his political opinions, which changed over his career but were consistently less than perspicacious. In the presidential election of 1932 he endorsed the Communist candidate William Z. Foster. In To the Finland Station Lenin is presented as a heroic figure whose practical sagacity is matched by his humanity: "Lenin was one of the most selfless of great men . . . He regarded his political opponents not as competitors who had to be crushed, but as colleagues he had regrettably lost or collaborators he had failed to recruit." In The Cold War and the Income Tax Wilson complains with vehemence and moral indignation about the income tax after being taken to court by the IRS for not filing returns for nine years. (Wilson explains he had been "unaware that failure to file had been made a serious offense.") The preface to Patriotic Gore characterizes the United States and the Soviet Union as equally amoral agglomerations of power, sea-slugs each attempting to swallow the other, and suggests that the South's rebellion in the Civil War should be understood as

an attempt to avoid being swallowed by the sea-slug North.

Beyond the question these opinions raise about Wilson's political sagacity, they, like his personal life, raise the larger issue as to whether the study of literature really does make for deeper insights and greater wisdom about human affairs, as the humanistic tradition affirms, and as Wilson himself firmly believed. One response may be found in the answer Evelyn Waugh reportedly gave when Nancy Mitford demanded that he explain how he squared "being so horrible with being a Christian." Waugh replied that were he "not a Christian [he] would be even more horrible."

If it is impossible to gauge the influence, or lack of it, of Wilson's literary faith on his personal life, it can be surmised that the political and ideological judgments expressed in his writings, ill-advised as these sometimes are, would have vitiated his work much more than they, in fact, do if he had not been determined to maintain an independent literary judgment in all circumstances whatsoever. Thus, To the Finland Station, with the exception of its portrait of Lenin, retains a sense of the complexity and variety of human beings that prevents it from descending to the cheap polemics and vulgar Marxism so common among literary intellectuals of the period. Similarly, the body of Patriotic Gore refutes the reductivism of its preface in the most effective way possible, by bringing out through close studies of literary works and individual lives the inevitable failure of any historical theory, including the one offered in the preface, claiming to explain them all.

Dabney's biography, sure to be the definitive work for many years, will be welcomed by all those who love Edmund Wilson, but it will be especially valuable to the many English graduate students and professors who have either never heard of Wilson or know only that he is one of those hopelessly outdated, untheoretical critics who flourished in the benighted era before postmodernism, but who can now be safely ignored. Wilson's current status in academia can be gauged by the attention he receives in the two most influential anthologies of criticism, The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism and Critical Theory Since Plato. The Norton devotes to 20th-century criticism more than 1,500 of its 2,624 pages, of which Wilson is allotted 12, while he does not appear at all in Since Plato. Admirers of Wilson may take comfort, however, in noting that his shabby treatment by the two anthologies puts him in select company: Lionel Trilling, one of his few peers in literary criticism, is missing from both.

Both Trilling and Wilson insisted on making connections between literature and the larger society, and yet neither was willing to reduce literary criticism to a subdivision of psychology, sociology, or anything else. Both were influenced by Marx and Freud, and both were generally on the political left; yet if both are virtually nonpersons in the academy today, it is because each continued to believe in the priority of literature over theoretical or ideological systems. Wilson did not have, as T.S. Eliot said of Henry James, "a mind so fine that no idea could violate it." And yet his writing, if not his politics, remained almost unscathed from his encounters with Marx and Freud. The Freudianism of The Wound and the Bow, for example, is worn so lightly that the validity of the connections Wilson draws between the life and work of Charles Dickens or Rudyard Kipling does not depend at all on acceptance of Freudian formulas.

Wilson's criticism exemplifies his belief that "nothing was quite so important as literature, and that literature was never to be treated as an end in itself," the outlook that Joseph Epstein ascribes to Matthew Arnold, a model for both Wilson and Trilling. Arnold was one of the great humanist critics, part of a tradition that believed good literature was not only a source of refined pleasure for an elite, but also a rich source of insight about human life that could and should be made available to as many readers as possible. Arnold declared in Culture and Anarchy that it was "the men of culture [who] are the true apostles of equality" since it is they "who have had a passion for diffusing, for making prevail, for carrying from one end of society to the other, the best knowledge, the best ideas of their time."

Dabney makes a strong case that Wilson succeeded over his long career in fulfilling Arnold's ideal, at least as well and, perhaps, better than any other writer of the 20th century in any language. The contemporary academy's lack of interest in Wilson is, in large part, explained by its hostility to this humanistic ideal. The Norton Anthology considerably understates this opposition in acknowledging that Arnold's "ideal is one that radical critics and contemporary literary theorists have sought to complicate or undermine."

Dabney offers no sustained argument against the academy's dismissal of Wilson, but he occasionally contrasts Wilson's positions with those of the current orthodoxy, usually managing to imply convincingly that it is the contemporary academy that suffers by the comparison. Noting Wilson's observation, in the course of a generally sympathetic chapter in Axel's Castle, that Gertrude Stein's effort "to detach words from ordinary meanings" was "misguided," Dabney adds that Wilson's reasonable criticism of Stein's technique marks "Wilson's distance from post-structuralists who would one day judge words to be unhinged from their signification."

Noting that Wilson took issue with Paul Valéry's "prediction that, in cultures dominated by radio, movies, and television, literature would become purposeless in its endless introspection and quest for novelty," Dabney comments that Wilson thus anticipated and rejected "what would be called postmodernism." Wilson's distinction between Dante the political activist and Dante the poet places the critic in opposition not only to Wilson's contemporaries the New Critics, but also to "those leftist theorists who, at the tail end of the 20th century, were to find aesthetic taste arbitrary, all writing political." Wilson's "Marxism and Literature" rejects "the view of art as a weapon," a view "fashionable during the Popular Front" of the thirties and also "among English department theorists half a century later." And Dabney contrasts Wilson's observation that the Marquis de Sade used "whips and knives and poisoned aphrodisiacs" only "on women who were his social inferiors" with the glossing-over of this point by "the Sade cult of Barthes, Foucault, and others."

Wilson, without condescension, and while maintaining the highest standards of literary excellence throughout his long career, succeeded in conveying the importance and delights of literature to the general reader more prolifically and more eloquently than any other critic of his time. Though he took issue with the New Humanism of Irving Babbitt and Paul Elmer More, Wilson is arguably the critic who did most in the 20th century to keep alive and enrich that humanist tradition. Even in so personal an essay as the moving tribute to Edna St. Vincent Millay that closes The Shores of Light, Wilson's praise of his onetime lover's lyric poetry articulates and reaffirms the humanistic view of literature's importance:

[I]n giving supreme expression to profoundly felt human experience, she was able to identify herself with more general human experience and stand forth as a spokesman for the human spirit, announcing its predicaments, its vicissitudes, but, as a master of human expression, by the splendor of expression itself, putting herself beyond common embarrassments, common oppressions and panics. This is man who surveys himself and the world in which he moves, not the beast that scurries and suffers; and the name of the poet comes no longer to indicate a mere individual with a birthplace and a legal residence, but to figure as one of the pseudonyms assumed by that spirit itself.

As Dabney observes accurately, that Wilson upheld the "classical premise that literature delights and teaches, invigorating the life of society and the language of ordinary men and women" may discredit him among academics in thrall to the current campus orthodoxies. Dabney's fine biography reminds the rest of us why Edmund Wilson's writings themselves continue to both teach and delight.

James Seaton is professor of English at Michigan State.