Last reviewed: June 2017
American writer and literary and social critic.
May 8, 1895
Red Bank, New Jersey
June 12, 1972
Talcottville, New York
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
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.