Edmund Wilson: A Life in Literature [NOOK Book]

Overview


From the Jazz Age through the McCarthy era, Edmund Wilson (1895-1972) stood at the center of the American cultural scene. In his own youth a crucial champion of the young Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, Wilson went on to write three classics of literary and intellectual history (Axel's Castle, To the Finland Station, and Patriotic Gore), searching reportage, and criticism that has outlasted many of its subjects. Wilson documented his unruly private life--a formative love affair with Edna St. Vincent ...
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Edmund Wilson: A Life in Literature

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Overview


From the Jazz Age through the McCarthy era, Edmund Wilson (1895-1972) stood at the center of the American cultural scene. In his own youth a crucial champion of the young Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, Wilson went on to write three classics of literary and intellectual history (Axel's Castle, To the Finland Station, and Patriotic Gore), searching reportage, and criticism that has outlasted many of its subjects. Wilson documented his unruly private life--a formative love affair with Edna St. Vincent Millay, a tempestuous marriage to Mary McCarthy, and volatile friendships with Fitzgerald and Vladimir Nabokov, among others--in openly erotic fiction and journals, but Lewis Dabney is the first writer to integrate the life and work.

Dabney traces the critic's intellectual development, from son of small-town New Jersey gentry to America's last great renaissance man, a deep commentator on everything from the Russian classics to Native American rituals to the Dead Sea Scrolls. Along the way, Dabney shows why Wilson was and has remained--in his cosmopolitanism and trenchant nonconformity--a model for young writers and intellectuals, as well as the favorite critic of the general reader. Edmund Wilson will be recognized as the lasting biography of this brilliant man whose life reflected so much of the cultural, social, and human experience of a turbulent century.


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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Dabney, who edited The Sixties, the last volume of Wilson's posthumous journals, brings a deep familiarity with his subject to this critical biography. Wilson (1895-1972) was mid-20th-century America's most influential literary critic, and Dabney meticulously unfolds the circumstances behind the writing of his most significant books while tracing the evolution of Wilson's thought. Wilson was equally skilled at criticism and reportage, and fairly successful at fiction-including the scandalously erotic (for the 1940s) novel Memoirs of Hecate County-and Dabney confidently sorts out these varied writings and their part in Wilson's legacy. Biographical details are generally filtered through the literary perspective, but the life story does get a thorough if sometimes slow rendering. The account of Wilson's "nightmarish" marriage to Mary McCarthy, for example, carefully weighs everything that both authors wrote about the relationship after the fact, as well as the perspectives of other sources, before judging that accusations that Wilson abused her are probably unfounded. Often, though, the best source on Wilson is his own detailed (and uncensored) journals, which frequently add a welcome personalizing touch. Readers seeking an introduction to Wilson will find their perseverance through this hefty tome rewarded with a rich context for approaching his writings. (Aug.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
This thorough biography gives the definitive treatment to the life and work of one of the early 20th century's most highly revered men of letters. Wilson rose to prominence as a literary and cultural critic, first at the New Republic in 1925 and later at The New Yorker. He was a versatile author whose writings ranged from criticism to social commentary, history, fiction, and poetry. Dabney (English, Univ. of Wyoming) draws largely from interviews, personal diaries, letters, and published works to create a complex account of a man torn between public success (the publication of such renowned works as Axel's Castle and his Civil War study, Patriotic Gore) and private turmoil (an early romance with Edna St. Vincent Millay, the failure of his first three marriages). Throughout, Dabney vividly recounts the writer's associations with such notable authors as F. Scott Fitzgerald, T.S. Eliot, and Ana s Nin. This comprehensive, well-researched biography deserves a place in any upper-level literature collection. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 4/15/05.]-Ben Bruton, Murray State Univ., KY Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A searching life of the eminent literary critic and journalist 1895-1972). It was Edmund Wilson's conceit, first voiced in the essay "The Wound and the Bow" and often repeated, that the artist bears an internal wound whose healing lies in making art, but who can never be healed. Ever the man of letters-he died at a table strewn with galleys and "a dog-eared copy of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, with which Dickens had been struggling at his death"-Wilson bore psychic wounds of his own. Perhaps self-servingly, he insisted that the man (or woman) of letters was also a wounded hero, and "Bunny" Wilson was surely something more than ink-stained drudge; as Dabney (English/Univ. of Wyoming; Edmund Wilson: Centennial Reflections, 1997) observes, he lived up to the challenge of a kind of Hemingwayesque life, lived "all the way up," always by his wits and with his pen. (Only late in life, and then grudgingly, did Wilson accept academic largess, and then he irritated its bestower, Paul Horgan, by asking whether Horgan wrote.) Dabney follows Wilson's brilliant trajectory from protected youth to Jazz Age high-liver and liver-damaged "literary alcoholic," from sexual naif to the chronicler of suburban sexual high-jinks in Memoirs of Hecate County, from somewhat snooty highbrow to much more worldly highbrow. For all the life changes-and all the adventures and misadventures in the company of Edna Millay, Mary McCarthy, the Algonquian Circle, Vladimir Nabokov and such-Wilson remained consistent to at least a few principles and pleasures, confessing, for instance, "that he was never happier than when telling people about a work they were unfamiliar with in a language they didn't know." That he did so in thepages of The New Yorker, The New Republic and Vanity Fair ought to make his admirers-and Wilson still has many, having, as Dabney observes, passed the ten-year test for longevity long ago-yearn for better, more lettered days. A solid, much-needed work of literary biography, stronger on matters critical but a touch less absorbing, because less sensational, than Jeffrey Meyers's Edmund Wilson (1995).
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781466810440
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 8/3/2005
  • Sold by: Macmillan
  • Format: eBook
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 656
  • Sales rank: 1,429,755
  • File size: 3 MB

Meet the Author


Lewis Dabney edited Wilson's last journal, The Sixties as well as Edmund Wilson: Centennial Reflections. He is professor of English at the University of Wyoming.

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Read an Excerpt

Excerpted from Edmund Wilson: A Life in Literature by Lewis M. Dabney. Copyright © 2005 by Lewis M. Dabney. Published in August 2005 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.

Introduction

On a brisk afternoon in September 1922, a conservatively dressed young man with red hair sat on the upper deck of a Fifth Avenue bus in Manhattan, engrossed in a manuscript. A friend at the literary magazine The Dial had put a long poem into his hands. The Dial was interested in publishing it, and the editors hoped that the young man—Edmund Wilson—would write an essay to elucidate the poem. By the time he reached Greenwich Village, Wilson had completed a first reading of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. Decades later he would recall being "bowled over,” and his essay called the poem "simply one triumph after another.” This recognition of Eliot followed Wilson’s account, in The New Republic, of Joyce’s Ulysses as a masterpiece fusing naturalism and symbolism, re-creating the mind "straining always to perpetuate and perfect itself” and the body "always laboring and throbbing to throw up some beauty from its darkness.” He believed the general reader could absorb these works that challenged existing literary forms and commandeered in new ways the powers of language. Both Eliot and Joyce, he thought, occasionally tried one’s patience, but he was committed to making them more accessible.
Edmund Wilson was twenty-seven. He was fortunate to come on the scene as a critic when he did, but he had trained for this moment. At fifteen he had been sure of his literary vocation, and he absorbed all that liberal education had to offer both at the Hill School and at Princeton, where extraordinary teachers encouraged his curiosity and enthusiasm for books and about ideas. He emerged from his parents’ uncongenial marriage with emotional scars, but his confidence in his abilities was strong, and he was seasoned by a year as a hospital orderly in France during World War I. Though he hated the suffering he saw, he liked being on a footing of relative equality with Americans of diverse backgrounds, and returned to his country skeptical of institutions and of rank and social privilege. He joined Vanity Fair as an editorial assistant, immediately became its managing editor, and began publishing criticism there as well as in other magazines.
The generation of the 1920s was brought up on the best of the Old World and hoped to equal it, applying the work habit—even as they broke away from Victorian mores—that Americans traditionally brought to commerce. Wilson was indebted to the men of letters of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century England and France as well as to Emerson, and at the beginning of his career owed much to H. L. Mencken and Van Wyck Brooks. While these critics shied away from the transformation of literature after the war, he became the spokesman of writers bringing this about. He found a podium at The New Republic in 1925, and for ten years his work appeared in almost every issue, often twice, a running account of books and of American culture, alternating with the studies of the new international literature that became Axel’s Castle. The Depression deepened the perspective on his class attained in the army, and he largely put aside criticism to be a reporter on the labor front. He absorbed Marxism while doing the studies reprinted in The American Earthquake and overcame his naiveté about the Soviet Union. As the 1930s ended, he came into full possession of his powers as the biographer-historian of revolutionaries in To the Finland Station and the post-Marxist, neo-Freudian critic of The Triple Thinkers and The Wound and the Bow.
In Greenwich Village of the jazz age Wilson explored the new found freedoms of booze and sex. He was sexually innocent until twenty-five, then lost his virginity and his heart to one of the most desired women of the period, the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay. His private life became as chaotic as his professional life was discipline. Wilson was the only well-known literary alcoholic of his generation whose work was not compromised by his drinking, but alcohol undermined his marriages. In addition to four of these—his third, to Mary McCarthy, providing fodder for gossip, attacks, and counterattacks, which survive in their writings—he had many affairs and sexual encounters. As he aged, the once handsome man became physically unattractive, but still had no difficulty as a seducer. When asked how he got "all those dames” into bed, he answered that he "talked them into it” by discussing subjects in which they were interested. Jason Epstein described Wilson as "by nature a pedagogue. He was always in search of promising student. And this, I believe, is what his love affairs were really all about.”
The early forties were his dark period, a midlife crisis not of identity but of morale, due not only to his failing marriage to McCarthy—he was sexually faithful, she not—but to the deaths of friends and the grim spectacle of a second world war. A resilient temperament, a new literary platform, and marriage to Elena Mumm Thornton enabled him to recover and achieve a second career. In The New Yorker he progressed from reviews to long essays and reportage, again trying out the materials of his books in magazine form. He brought a single-minded concentration to everything from nineteenth-century American writing and the Russian classics to Native Americans, Israel, and the ancient texts of the Dead Sea Scrolls. His contemporary Malcolm Cowley wrote that one followed The New Yorker "to see what in God’s name he would be doing next.” He turned his literary journalism into chronicles, began editing his diaries, created The Twenties and The Sixties as well as his book about American character and culture in the Civil War, Patriotic Gore. Wilson’s experience as a free-living man of the twenties meant more to him as it became memory and history. In later life he came full circle, embracing "the old provincial America” that the family home in Talcottville, New York, represented.
Wilson’s story—in the words of Paul Horgan, who knew him in various settings—is that of the artist "searching for a rational design in the world through his own life and the act of writing.” This story is carried by his letters, verse, fiction, and memoirs, and reflected in his generation, the confession d’um enfant du siècle—a child of the century—that Christian Gauss suggested he write but Wilson himself could not see as a whole. His multi-volume journal, a record of American life from 1914 to 1972, looks out ward from the self to the world. Yet the glimpses of Wilson are accurate, though he sometimes gets a detail wrong when he retells the anecdotes of others. Just as he does not spare the women with whom his sexual experiences are eventually made public, he never tries to make himself look good. He describes an outburst in drunken quarrel with his second wife, Margaret Canby, in 1932 exactly as this was overheard and recalled by a neighbor in their building in a memoir published after Wilson’s death and before the appearance of his journal for these years.
The stories of others—Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Dos Passos, Malraux, Nabokov, and Auden, along with Millay and McCarthy, Louise Bogan and Dawn Powell—who helped define the literary and intellectual life of Europe and the United States over these fifty years are interwoven in this biography. Their voices in the correspondence complement Wilson’s, and so do those of non-authors—Stanley Dell, an early friend, Margaret Canby, Mamaine Paget Koestler—who have their own eloquence on paper, the mark of an era that, though culturally narrower than ours, was in many ways more literate. But it is Wilson whose voice is dominant.
It is tempting to explain Wilson’s powers in terms of the pain and psychic struggle of his life, which was his method in portraying writers and historical figures. He wished to have made better connections with his father, who died when Wilson was twenty-seven. His youthful affection for his mother faded as, impressed neither by her son’s career nor by what she saw of his private life, she doled out on her terms his share of the estate left by his father, while Wilson haggled with magazines and publishers for money. The critic, journalist, and portraitist never had the success he wanted as a fiction writer or playwright. His first three marriages were failures. One can see Wilson—Edgar Johnson, the Dickens scholar, seems first to have suggested this—as the wounded archer of his account of Sophocles’ Philoctetes, a play that offered him metaphors for the tension between the writer and society as well as the relationship of art and neurosis. Philoctetes has a suppurating ulcer and a magical bow, a gift of the gods on which the conquest of Troy depends. But if Wilson projects himself as Philoctetes, in his portaiture he is also young Neoptolemus, who, sent to acquire the weapon, realizes it will not work without the willing presence of the exiled, sick, irascible warrior.
Isaiah Berlin integrated these two figures in his view of his friend. Thinking Wilson by nature "disharmonious,” Berlin linked this to his profound understanding of the artists and public figures he wrote about. "He was always worried about whether he thought this or that was true of false,” Sir Isaiah said. "He was an uncomfortable man, uncomfortable with himself; and that’s what caused the friction, and the friction caused the genius.” In proposing Wilson as the most important critic of their century, Berlin accounted for his staying power in terms attractive to a biographer: the other critics mostly wrote "just intelligent sentences,” but "everything Wilson wrote was filled with some kind of personal content.”
His writing reveals a figure full of contradictions: a rationalist and classicist who was also a restless romantic, question for more books and writers to investigate, ever more scenes in which to re-create himself; empiricist who kept coming back to questions of belief and faith; a man of ideas for whom abstractions lacked the validity of individual figures and particular scenes; someone self-absorbed in relation to his family, vulnerable to romantic entanglements, endlessly generous with literary friends. Wilson was an explorer, "bold enough”—as he remarked of someone else in one of his late self-interviews—"to open up a whole new geography of the intellectual world.” Restless and tireless, doggedly thinking through subjects, expanding and recycling his work in some thirty-two volumes that still entertain, and inspire, this determined man gave to books and writing their full weight in the human struggle.

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First Chapter

Excerpted from Edmund Wilson: A Life in Literature by Lewis M. Dabney. Copyright © 2005 by Lewis M. Dabney. Published in August 2005 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.

Introduction

On a brisk afternoon in September 1922, a conservatively dressed young man with red hair sat on the upper deck of a Fifth Avenue bus in Manhattan, engrossed in a manuscript. A friend at the literary magazine The Dial had put a long poem into his hands. The Dial was interested in publishing it, and the editors hoped that the young man—Edmund Wilson—would write an essay to elucidate the poem. By the time he reached Greenwich Village, Wilson had completed a first reading of T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land. Decades later he would recall being "bowled over," and his essay called the poem "simply one triumph after another." This recognition of Eliot followed Wilson's account, in The New Republic, of Joyce's Ulysses as a masterpiece fusing naturalism and symbolism, re-creating the mind "straining always to perpetuate and perfect itself" and the body "always laboring and throbbing to throw up some beauty from its darkness." He believed the general reader could absorb these works that challenged existing literary forms and commandeered in new ways the powers of language. Both Eliot and Joyce, he thought, occasionally tried one's patience, but he was committed to making them more accessible.

Edmund Wilson was twenty-seven. He was fortunate to come on the scene as a critic when he did, but he had trained for this moment. At fifteen he had been sure of his literary vocation, and he absorbed all that liberal education had to offerboth at the Hill School and at Princeton, where extraordinary teachers encouraged his curiosity and enthusiasm for books and about ideas. He emerged from his parents' uncongenial marriage with emotional scars, but his confidence in his abilities was strong, and he was seasoned by a year as a hospital orderly in France during World War I. Though he hated the suffering he saw, he liked being on a footing of relative equality with Americans of diverse backgrounds, and returned to his country skeptical of institutions and of rank and social privilege. He joined Vanity Fair as an editorial assistant, immediately became its managing editor, and began publishing criticism there as well as in other magazines.

The generation of the 1920s was brought up on the best of the Old World and hoped to equal it, applying the work habit—even as they broke away from Victorian mores—that Americans traditionally brought to commerce. Wilson was indebted to the men of letters of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century England and France as well as to Emerson, and at the beginning of his career owed much to H. L. Mencken and Van Wyck Brooks. While these critics shied away from the transformation of literature after the war, he became the spokesman of writers bringing this about. He found a podium at The New Republic in 1925, and for ten years his work appeared in almost every issue, often twice, a running account of books and of American culture, alternating with the studies of the new international literature that became Axel's Castle. The Depression deepened the perspective on his class attained in the army, and he largely put aside criticism to be a reporter on the labor front. He absorbed Marxism while doing the studies reprinted in The American Earthquake and overcame his naiveté about the Soviet Union. As the 1930s ended, he came into full possession of his powers as the biographer-historian of revolutionaries in To the Finland Station and the post-Marxist, neo-Freudian critic of The Triple Thinkers and The Wound and the Bow.

In Greenwich Village of the jazz age Wilson explored the new found freedoms of booze and sex. He was sexually innocent until twenty-five, then lost his virginity and his heart to one of the most desired women of the period, the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay. His private life became as chaotic as his professional life was discipline. Wilson was the only well-known literary alcoholic of his generation whose work was not compromised by his drinking, but alcohol undermined his marriages. In addition to four of these—his third, to Mary McCarthy, providing fodder for gossip, attacks, and counterattacks, which survive in their writings—he had many affairs and sexual encounters. As he aged, the once handsome man became physically unattractive, but still had no difficulty as a seducer. When asked how he got "all those dames" into bed, he answered that he "talked them into it" by discussing subjects in which they were interested. Jason Epstein described Wilson as "by nature a pedagogue. He was always in search of promising student. And this, I believe, is what his love affairs were really all about."

The early forties were his dark period, a midlife crisis not of identity but of morale, due not only to his failing marriage to McCarthy—he was sexually faithful, she not—but to the deaths of friends and the grim spectacle of a second world war. A resilient temperament, a new literary platform, and marriage to Elena Mumm Thornton enabled him to recover and achieve a second career. In The New Yorker he progressed from reviews to long essays and reportage, again trying out the materials of his books in magazine form. He brought a single-minded concentration to everything from nineteenth-century American writing and the Russian classics to Native Americans, Israel, and the ancient texts of the Dead Sea Scrolls. His contemporary Malcolm Cowley wrote that one followed The New Yorker "to see what in God's name he would be doing next." He turned his literary journalism into chronicles, began editing his diaries, created The Twenties and The Sixties as well as his book about American character and culture in the Civil War, Patriotic Gore. Wilson's experience as a free-living man of the twenties meant more to him as it became memory and history. In later life he came full circle, embracing "the old provincial America" that the family home in Talcottville, New York, represented.

Wilson's story—in the words of Paul Horgan, who knew him in various settings—is that of the artist "searching for a rational design in the world through his own life and the act of writing." This story is carried by his letters, verse, fiction, and memoirs, and reflected in his generation, the confession d'um enfant du siècle—a child of the century—that Christian Gauss suggested he write but Wilson himself could not see as a whole. His multi-volume journal, a record of American life from 1914 to 1972, looks out ward from the self to the world. Yet the glimpses of Wilson are accurate, though he sometimes gets a detail wrong when he retells the anecdotes of others. Just as he does not spare the women with whom his sexual experiences are eventually made public, he never tries to make himself look good. He describes an outburst in drunken quarrel with his second wife, Margaret Canby, in 1932 exactly as this was overheard and recalled by a neighbor in their building in a memoir published after Wilson's death and before the appearance of his journal for these years.

The stories of others—Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Dos Passos, Malraux, Nabokov, and Auden, along with Millay and McCarthy, Louise Bogan and Dawn Powell—who helped define the literary and intellectual life of Europe and the United States over these fifty years are interwoven in this biography. Their voices in the correspondence complement Wilson's, and so do those of non-authors—Stanley Dell, an early friend, Margaret Canby, Mamaine Paget Koestler—who have their own eloquence on paper, the mark of an era that, though culturally narrower than ours, was in many ways more literate. But it is Wilson whose voice is dominant.

It is tempting to explain Wilson's powers in terms of the pain and psychic struggle of his life, which was his method in portraying writers and historical figures. He wished to have made better connections with his father, who died when Wilson was twenty-seven. His youthful affection for his mother faded as, impressed neither by her son's career nor by what she saw of his private life, she doled out on her terms his share of the estate left by his father, while Wilson haggled with magazines and publishers for money. The critic, journalist, and portraitist never had the success he wanted as a fiction writer or playwright. His first three marriages were failures. One can see Wilson—Edgar Johnson, the Dickens scholar, seems first to have suggested this—as the wounded archer of his account of Sophocles' Philoctetes, a play that offered him metaphors for the tension between the writer and society as well as the relationship of art and neurosis. Philoctetes has a suppurating ulcer and a magical bow, a gift of the gods on which the conquest of Troy depends. But if Wilson projects himself as Philoctetes, in his portaiture he is also young Neoptolemus, who, sent to acquire the weapon, realizes it will not work without the willing presence of the exiled, sick, irascible warrior.

Isaiah Berlin integrated these two figures in his view of his friend. Thinking Wilson by nature "disharmonious," Berlin linked this to his profound understanding of the artists and public figures he wrote about. "He was always worried about whether he thought this or that was true of false," Sir Isaiah said. "He was an uncomfortable man, uncomfortable with himself; and that's what caused the friction, and the friction caused the genius." In proposing Wilson as the most important critic of their century, Berlin accounted for his staying power in terms attractive to a biographer: the other critics mostly wrote "just intelligent sentences," but "everything Wilson wrote was filled with some kind of personal content."

His writing reveals a figure full of contradictions: a rationalist and classicist who was also a restless romantic, question for more books and writers to investigate, ever more scenes in which to re-create himself; empiricist who kept coming back to questions of belief and faith; a man of ideas for whom abstractions lacked the validity of individual figures and particular scenes; someone self-absorbed in relation to his family, vulnerable to romantic entanglements, endlessly generous with literary friends. Wilson was an explorer, "bold enough"—as he remarked of someone else in one of his late self-interviews—"to open up a whole new geography of the intellectual world." Restless and tireless, doggedly thinking through subjects, expanding and recycling his work in some thirty-two volumes that still entertain, and inspire, this determined man gave to books and writing their full weight in the human struggle.

Read More Show Less

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