Authors: Edmund Wilson

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2017

American writer and literary and social critic.

May 8, 1895

Red Bank, New Jersey

June 12, 1972

Talcottville, New York

Biography

Edmund Wilson was an authentic man of letters, a rarity in the twentieth century. Primarily known as a literary critic, he was also a novelist, poet, playwright, historian, and social critic. Wilson was the son of a distinguished New Jersey attorney, a somewhat distant man who inculcated in his only son the virtues of decency and honor. The young man attended Hill School and Princeton University, where he became a close friend and adviser of the novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald and the poet John Peale Bishop. After service in France during World War I, Wilson began a career as a writer and editor for various journals published in New York, including Vanity Fair, The New Republic, and, eventually, The New Yorker. The latter association began in 1943 and continued until his death.

Wilson was already a well-known critic when he published his book-length study of literary modernism, Axel’s Castle. The first such study to treat the Symbolist and Freudian elements in literature as significant and coherent, Axel’s Castle was an eloquent defense of such writers as James Joyce and Gertrude Stein as well as a clear exposition of their methods and achievements. During the same period of time, Wilson caused something of a scandal with his novel, I Thought of Daisy. Based loosely on the character of Wilson’s great early love, the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, I Thought of Daisy chronicles the life and loves of what in the Roaring Twenties was called a flapper, a young woman who goes from one man to another in search of enjoyment with little regard for the future or for the consequences of her actions. The novel shared with his later work of fiction Memoirs of Hecate County a frankness about sex regarded as shocking at the time of its publication.

Edmund Wilson

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(Library of Congress)

Wilson was not particularly interested in theories of criticism. He had been taught by his famed Princeton teacher Christian Gauss that literature, like all art, is the product of particular times and places, and that it is a critic’s job to explain literary works in terms of their relationship to the times that produced them. Wilson therefore regarded his interest in the ideas and the history of his time and of earlier times as essential aspects of his work. In the early 1930s, he traveled widely in the United States, looking for the manifestations of the Great Depression. This search led to his book The American Jitters. His interest in modern psychological theory led to the critical study The Wound and the Bow, which argues that every writer’s works are profoundly influenced by some wound or trauma suffered in the past.

Wilson made his reputation as a defender of the new literature of his own time, but later in his career he became much more interested in history and in earlier writing. Never committed to any political party or theory, he became fascinated by Marxism during the 1930s, an interest that took the form of research into the history of the development of socialism from Karl Marx and the French and German socialists of the nineteenth century down to the beginning of the Russian Revolution. The result was To the Finland Station. During the 1940s and 1950s, he took an interest in the discoveries of the ancient Qumran scrolls of the Essene sect and traveled to Israel to see them and discuss them with specialists, a project that led to his controversial study The Dead Sea Scrolls. Wilson’s major interest, however, was always in his own country and its history. He spent years studying the literature and history of the Civil War, a project that led eventually to the book many other critics regard as his finest work, Patriotic Gore. This work examines some lesser-known writers who showed, in Wilson’s view, aspects of the United States’ past which history had neglected; it included writers such as Oliver Wendell Holmes, Harold Frederic, Mary Chesnut, and Thomas Wentworth Higginson. It was Wilson’s conclusion that the war was fought for cynical reasons having to do with power and that Abraham Lincoln was far from the hero history has made him out to be.

Wilson was amazingly prolific. In addition to writing books on specific subjects, he was a regular reviewer for different journals, and his reviews were collected in such volumes as Classics and Commercials, The Shores of Light, and The Bit Between My Teeth. Some of these reviews later led to more extended studies. The collections contain an inclusive history of Wilson’s view of literature from the early 1920s until 1970. Leon Edel, after Wilson’s death, edited the journals Wilson had kept for most of his adult life, The Twenties, The Thirties, The Forties, and The Fifties. These chronicled the somewhat tangled details of Wilson’s personal life, including his four marriages. Upstate concerns his experiences in Talcottville, New York, and the surrounding area, where he lived during the summers of his later years, in an old stone house inherited from his mother’s family.

Everything Wilson wrote, however intimate or remote the subject matter, is couched in his characteristic prose. His style was somewhat formal, but it was lucid, precise, and often exciting. He tended to be magisterial in his judgments, as if the conclusions he reached were inarguable. Because he was human, he sometimes erred, especially in his judgments of poetry. He was, nevertheless, a careful and exact observer of his own time, and his comments on the literature and history of the middle years of the twentieth century are a substantial and fascinating record of a time of radical change as seen through the eyes of an observer who is very much a part of his own times. Wilson saw those times with a clear eye. He thought and wrote about them interestingly and well.

Author Works Nonfiction: Axel’s Castle: A Study in the Imaginative Literature of 1870–1930, 1931 The American Jitters: A Year of the Slump, 1932 Travels in Two Democracies, 1936 The Triple Thinkers: Ten Essays on Literature, 1938 To the Finland Station: A Study in the Writing and Acting of History, 1940 The Boys in the Back Room: Notes on California Novelists, 1941 The Wound and the Bow: Seven Studies in Literature, 1941 Europe Without Baedeker: Sketches Among the Ruins of Italy, Greece, and England, 1947 Classics and Commercials: A Literary Chronicle of the Forties, 1950 The Shores of Light: A Literary Chronicle of the Twenties and Thirties, 1952 Eight Essays, 1954 The Scrolls from the Dead Sea, 1955 (revised as The Dead Sea Scrolls, 1947–1969, 1969) A Piece of My Mind: Reflections at Sixty, 1956 (literary criticism) Red, Black, Blond, and Olive: Studies in Four Civilizations: Zuñi, Haiti, Soviet Russia, Israel, 1956 The American Earthquake: A Documentary of the Twenties and Thirties, 1958 Apologies to the Iroquois, 1960 Patriotic Gore: Studies in the Literature of the American Civil War, 1962 The Cold War and the Income Tax: A Protest, 1963 The Bit Between My Teeth: A Literary Chronicle of 1950–1965, 1965 O Canada: An American’s Notes on Canadian Culture, 1965 A Prelude: Landscapes, Characters, and Conversations from the Earlier Years of My Life, 1967 (literary criticism) The Fruits of the MLA, 1968 Upstate: Records and Recollections of Northern New York, 1971 A Window on Russia: For the Use of Foreign Readers, 1972 The Twenties: From Notebooks and Diaries of the Period, 1975 Letters on Literature and Politics, 1912–1972, 1977 The Nabokov-Wilson Letters, 1940–1971, 1979, revised and expanded as Dear Bunny, Dear Volodya: The Nabokov-Wilson Letters, 1940–1971, 2001 The Thirties: From Notebooks and Diaries of the Period, 1980 The Forties: From Notebooks and Diaries of the Period, 1983 The Portable Edmund Wilson, 1983, revised and expanded as The Edmund Wilson Reader, 1997 The Fifties: From Notebooks and Diaries of the Period, 1986 The Sixties: The Last Journal, 1960–1972, 1993 (Lewis M. Dabney, editor) From the Uncollected Edmund Wilson, 1995 Edmund Wilson: The Man in Letters, 2002 (David Castronovo and Janet Groth, editors) Long Fiction: I Thought of Daisy, 1929 Memoirs of Hecate County, 1946 "Galahad" and "I Thought of Daisy," 1957 The Higher Jazz, 1998 (Neale Reinitz, editor) Drama: Discordant Encounters: Plays and Dialogues, pb. 1926 This Room and This Gin and These Sandwiches, pb. 1937 The Little Blue Light, pb. 1950 Five Plays, pb. 1954 The Duke of Palermo, and Other Plays, with an Open Letter to Mike Nichols, pb. 1969 Poetry: Note-Books of Night, 1942 Three Reliques of Ancient Western Poetry Collected by Edmund Wilson from the Ruins, 1951 Night Thoughts, 1961 Edited Texts: The Last Tycoon: An Unfinished Novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Together with "The Great Gatsby" and Selected Stories, 1941 The Shock of Recognition: The Development of Literature in the United States Recorded by the Men Who Made It, 1943 The Crack-Up: With Other Uncollected Pieces, Note-Books, and Unpublished Letters, 1945 (by F. Scott Fitzgerald) The Collected Essays of John Peale Bishop, 1948 Peasants, and Other Stories, 1956 (by Anton Chekhov) Bibliography Castronovo, David and Janet Groth. Critic in Love: A Romantic Biography of Edmund Wilson. Emeryville, CA: Shoemaker & Hoard, 2005. A brief biography of Wilson that takes a look at his relationships with women, both intellectual and sexual. Castronovo, David. Edmund Wilson. New York: F. Ungar, 1984. A thorough study of Wilson’s work, emphasizing his criticism. Costa, Richard Hauer. Edmund Wilson: Our Neighbor from Talcottville. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1980. Gives insights into the warmth and capacity for friendship of a man often regarded as frighteningly brusque. Dabney, Lewis M. Edmund Wilson: A Life in Literature. 1st ed. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2005. A meticulous account of Wilson’s life and the circumstances surrounding his writing. Dabney, Lewis. "Edmund Wilson and The Wound and the Bow." The Sewanee Review 91 (Winter, 1983). Examines Wilson’s critical study of writers and writing. Dabney, Lewis, ed. Edmund Wilson: Centennial Reflections. Princeton, N.J.: Mercantile Library of New York in association with Princeton University Press, 1997. A collection of papers originally presented at two symposia held at the Mercantile Library of New York. Includes index. Douglas, George H. Edmund Wilson’s America. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1983. Focuses attention on the author’s view of the relations between the American past and his own time. Frank, Charles P. Edmund Wilson. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1970. Frank is critical about the limitations in Wilson’s literary criticism, but he barely touches on the social criticism. Groth, Janet. Edmund Wilson: A Critic for Our Time. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1989. Focuses on Wilson’s criticism. Meyers, Jeffrey. Edmund Wilson. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1995. A full-length biography. Wain, John, ed. Edmund Wilson: The Man and His Work. New York: New York University Press, 1978. A collection of essays about the personal and professional sides of Wilson; it includes biographical essays by Alfred Kazin and Angus Wilson and critical articles by Larzer Ziff and John Wain.

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