Edmund Wilson: A Life in Literature

by Lewis M. Dabney
639 pages,
ISBN: 0374113122

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The Immortal Edmund Wilson
by Ray Robertson

Covering virtually one entire side of the four-drawer filing cabinet in the room where I write is the wall of heroes-a collage of pictures of people who have inspired and continue to sustain me-that I've steadily assembled over the last decade or so. For anyone who knows either me or my work, the choices aren't surprising: Barry Hannah, Mordecai Richler, Jack Kerouac; Gram Parsons, the Ramones, Marc Bolan; old friends, deceased pets, favourite relatives. Portraits are rarely removed because earning a place there in the first place is nearly as rare. Additions do get made, although it usually takes my wife a while to get around to noticing. Recently, she did.
"Who's the fatty?" she said.
My wife lacks pretension to an extraordinary degree, a very useful attribute in a partner to someone whose profession-the making and selling of literature-is as thick with it as lung disease is among miners.
"Edmund Wilson," I said. And just for the record, he wasn't always fat; in fact, he was nearly as nattily trim as Scott Fitzgerald when both were undergraduates together at Princeton. One tends to get a little defensive about one's gods.
"Why is he up there?" she said.
An excellent question. Had Lewis M. Dabney's Edmund Wilson: A Life in Literature been published when she had asked it, I could have simply suggested that she read it. Dabney's book is the second, and by far the best, full-scale biography written about the greatest man of letters of the American twentieth century. Anyone else asking the same question now knows where to find the answer.
Considering not only Wilson's lofty literary status but his central role in twentieth-century American intellectual life in general-classmate and life-long conscience of Fitzgerald, difficult husband of the difficult Mary McCarthy, close friend of John Dos Passos, Dawn Powell, Edna St. Vincent Millay (to whom he lost his virginity), Auden, and (less successfully if more absorbingly for readers of their letters) Nabokov-it's slightly surprising that, until now, there existed only one book-length study dedicated to the life, Jeffrey Meyers' Edmund Wilson: A Biography, and a handful of memoirs, including Near the Magician: A Memoir of My Father, Edmund Wilson by Wilson's eldest daughter, Rosalind. Then again, Wilson didn't fulfill the essential requirement for continuing biographical fascination (dying young and/or wretchedly), but merely lived to be an old man who loved and was loved in return by many, and who did the work he set out to do and did it extremely well.
Wilson was born in 1895, the only child of Edmund Wilson, Sr. and Helen Mather Kimball Wilson, and grew up in ocean-side Red Bank, New Jersey, thirty miles south of New York. Although his mother tended toward emotional coldness (abetted, no doubt, by her deafness) and Wilson suffered strained relations with her until her death, it was his father who would have the greatest parental influence. A Princeton- and Columbia-educated lawyer, as New Jersey's attorney general he attempted to clean up the rackets that controlled Atlantic City, and eventually sent several hundred men to jail, including the boss of Atlantic City itself. President Woodrow Wilson (no relation) was so impressed that he offered Wilson Sr. a variety of Washington posts over the next several years, which he never accepted. As Wilson reflects in his essay, "The Author at Sixty", in A Piece of My Mind, his father's tools of trade were "learning, logic, and dramatic imagination and eloquence," which he would use to compel a jury "to live through the events of the crime or supposed crime [and guide them] through the steps of the transaction, whatever this was, and . . . would lodge in their heads a picture that was difficult for his opponent to expel." This was exactly how and what Wilson would do over the course of fifty years of elucidating, advocating, and exposing the books and ideas (good, bad, and inconsequential) of his time.
Wilson's intellectual inclinations and conscientious work habits weren't the only things he inherited from his father. In "The Author at Sixty", Wilson remembers his father's dinner conversation chiefly consisting of "asking my view on some question, then immediately squelching this view and setting me right on this subject, or of explaining at length, but with an expert lucidity, some basic point of law or government." Compare this with Barry Callaghan's recollection in Barrelhouse Kings of Wilson: "He spoke in short declarative sentences or in paragraphs, the flow broken only by stuttering. With him, even gossip was a deliberate exchange of information. He prodded anyone he met for opinions and facts and then, if necessary, straightened them out ('No, no, Thornton Wilder's The Eighth Day is much the best thing he has done . . . No, no, Podhoretz, his book is ridiculous')."
Even though Wilson was spared his father's crippling hypochondria, he was prone to the same periodic depressions, once requiring institutionalisation (at approximately the same age, thirty-four, his father had been when suffering his first major breakdown). After this single incident, Wilson managed to cope with, if never conquer, his occasional melancholic bouts. In a letter to the poet, John Peale Bishop (a former Princeton classmate), Wilson speculates that his father's propensity toward depression wasn't helped by "an insufficient capacity for dissipation." Being a young man during Prohibition didn't stop Wilson from developing a lifelong dependency on alcohol's mood-soothing properties as well as the habit of indulging in liquor-fueled sprees when completing a major project. Of course, every drug takes as well as gives, and Wilson was an occasionally violent, and certainly argumentative, drunk, who suffered from a handful of alcohol-related illnesses, including periodic flare-ups of gout.
While living in New York after graduation, and learning about alcohol and love (not only was Millay his first sexual partner, she was the first woman with whom he fell in love-unrequited, alas; she also initiated a three-way with Wilson and Bishop, another rival for her sole affection-"According to an arrangement insisted upon by herself . . . I [had] her lower half and John her upper"), Wilson began practising his chosen vocation, that of a man of letters. The gradual decline in societal interest in literature as a significant cultural force, and the rise of the academic specialist within university literature departments, rendered it a dying profession, but one for which Wilson was ideally suited nonetheless.
While on a visit to his family's summer home in Talcottville in upper state New York for a solitary week of fishing and reading when he was seventeen, Wilson recalls saying to himself, "I am a poet," then-pausing, clarifying, correcting-"No: I am not quite a poet, but I am something of the kind." The pause is what is truly prescient. Unlike many of his literary friends, Wilson's deepest instinct was always for intellectually understanding, not imaginatively creating. While he wrote fine light verse (Night Thoughts), passable fiction (Memoirs of Hecate County), plays, and was an obsessive diary keeper (Dabney describes the six published volumes as "creating an art of portraiture in the tradition of Dr. Johnson, Taine, and Saint-Beuve"), and his always clear, crackling prose illustrates his sure feel for language, Wilson's truest talents were for criticism, although the poverty of contemporary connotations of that word make it misleading in the context of Wilson's gifts.
Every critic-every writer-is what they eat, particularly when they're formatively hungriest, when they're young, and Wilson's diet was not only extraordinarily fortifying, but, for a future critic, varied to an uncommon degree. A solid scholastic grounding in Greek and Latin imbued in him a passion for both the ideal of classical objectivity, and what Gore Vidal calls "the long view". Christian Gauss's lectures at Princeton were extremely influential as well, not only in their then novel comparative study of non-English literature, but, as Dabney notes, in conveying what Gauss taught: that of being "loyal to the truth 'no matter where it led or whom it hurt.'" (More than one long-term friendship was strained-some beyond repair, as with Nabokov-due to Wilson's unwillingness to pull his critical punches.) The obvious early-twentieth-century critical touchstones were also important-super scoffers of modern maladies like Mencken and Shaw. But most influential, perhaps, were eighteenth-century humanistic literary critics, such as Arnold, Saint-Beuve, and Saintsbury (the New Critics disparagingly referred to them as mere "Impressionists"), men who saw their primary responsibility as compelling others to love what they loved.
Dabney's subtitle, "A Life in Literature", is apt. Amidst the war service, the marriages, the children, the love affairs, the travelling, the boozing, the friendships, and the homes in Talcotville and Wellfleet, dwarfing it all is the writing-the daily, religious compulsion to write-and the many resultant books. Dabney rightfully places a great emphasis on the genesis, construction, and elucidation of Wilson's work. At all three tasks he is excellent, turning what could easily have been, at best, a series of perfunctory capsulisations, at worse, a laborious ordeal, into a lucid, entertaining, even exciting narrative-exactly the sort of job Wilson himself would have admired.
Dabney's treatment of Wilson's first major work, Axel's Castle-described by the author to his publisher, Max Perkins, as an attempt to "persuade people of their [the early Modernists'] importance and persuade people to read them"-is indicative. Seamlessly fusing the anecdotal with the analytical, Dabney effectively captures Wilson's essentially indivisible nature as man, reader, and writer.

"'As Edmund was raising the first spoon [of soup] to his mouth, I [Robert Linscott] asked him a question about Proust,' whereupon he 'lowered the spoon and started to talk. Now and then he would pause, lift his spoon and continue his talk.' While a servant brought in courses of fish and dessert 'he was all the time raising and lowering his spoon but never getting it to his mouth.' As his guest finished the meal Wilson appeared to be 'coming down to earth,' and glancing over, he exclaimed, 'Why Bob, she hasn't given you anything to eat . . .' The ardent thirty-page re-creation of the seven volumes [of Remembrance of Things Past] that is a high point of Axel's Castle was written in just such a frame of mind and creates something of the effect on the reader that Proust had on Wilson."

And so on, through the numerous magazine essays Wilson wrote that would eventually find their way into collections like Classics and Commercials, The Shores of Light, and The Wound and the Bow, where "the extraordinary gulf between first- and second-rate Hemingway suggests to Wilson-which became an influential idea-that his ego and his personal emotions undermine his perfect control of line" (Hemingway, after reading Wilson's essay on his work and discovering that it was to be published in a collection by his own publisher, Scribners, protested so much that "Scribners, afraid they'd lose their star, asked Wilson to omit the essay, and when he refused, they broke their contract") ; through To the Finland Station ("[Wilson believed that] Marx's true authority was moral. Although Marx was an atheist who considered the Jews moneylenders and usury the essence of capitalism, Wilson saw him drawing on his heritage, reviving the fervid vision and righteous wrath of the Old Testament"); through Patriotic Gore, Wilson's study of the American Civil War and its literature, which Dabney considers his masterpiece: "For Wilson, the apocalyptic light in which Lincoln came to see the Civil War serves to help his countrymen persuade themselves that theirs is always the just cause. Dismissing the slogans that, in the modern age, rally the populace, the introduction to Patriotic Gore offers a sweeping, pseudo-scientific account of warring nations as sea slugs who ingurgitate one another at the bottom of the ocean . . . Wilson makes the larger historical point efficiently: 'Whenever we engage in a war or move in on some other country it is always to liberate somebody'"; through the final journal entries, all that the heart attack-weakened Wilson could only manage to write: "Wilson, who thought Nixon 'an empty valise', sported a McGovern button when taken by Mary [a Talcotville friend] to The Godfather on the night of June 8 and by Anne [another Talcotville friend] to The French Connection on the tenth. 'Painful getting in and out of theatres,' he writes, and sums up the two films: 'Bang bang.'" A critic to the near end.
Wilson's third and last wife, Elena, his partner in his longest and by far happiest marriage, preferred the sun and sand and the friends they had made near the couple's Wellfleet home at Cape Cod, while Wilson spent as much time as possible at the old stone home in Talcotville, a house that had been in his family for over a hundred years and where Wilson had enjoyed boyhood summers at the turn of the century, an America of so long ago it seemed like another world. Wilson had a superior upstairs library, a routine that allowed him to stay in his pajamas most of the day reading and writing, and the comfort of being surrounded by remnants of a preferred past in a country that, by the time of Wilson's death in 1972, "'[was] no longer any place for me.'" Against his wife's wishes he returned there one last time, dying a little more than week later of a coronary occlusion. "'Well, he wanted it this way,'" Dabney recounts Elena telling a friend. Not surprisingly, he got it.

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