True Crit

In two new compact volumes, Edmund Wilson still looms large

The Depression and World War II stimulated newer facets of Wilson's questing mind. He began to employ the twin analytic tools that were then coming to dominate the critic's craft, Marx and Freud, but always as tools, never as dogmas. While his political columns of the 1930s (hopefully to be collected in a later volume) cover every current phenomenon from coal strikes to soup kitchens, his extended studies delved ever deeper into the causes, psychological and environmental, that shaped great writers' careers. The two sets of long essays, The Triple Thinkers and The Wound and the Bow, that open Volume 2 of the new collection are nearly all seminal masterpieces: If you haven't read Wilson on Dickens, Flaubert, Shaw, Kipling, and Henry James, you have yet to learn how criticism can enrich your love and respect for a great author while shining the harshest light imaginable on his defects. Almost better are the set's two great abstract studies, "Marxism and Literature" and "The Historical Interpretation of Literature," which lay down, with immaculate lucidity, a foundation for understanding the social meanings of art that's still valid in today's world of p.c. nitpickers.

A staggering range: Edmund Wilson in 1930
Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library/The Library of America
A staggering range: Edmund Wilson in 1930

Details

Edmund Wilson: Literary Essays and Reviews
Vol. 1: The 1920s and '30s, 937 pp., $40
Vol. 2: The 1930s and '40s, 956 pp., $40
The Library of America

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As postwar America settled into corporate smugness and the Cold War, the middle-aged Wilson's interests began to veer away from the modernist mainstream. The 1940s reviews collected in Classics and Commercials, which rounds out Volume 2, alternate rescue operations on obscure writers worth preserving, like Thomas Love Peacock and Ronald Firbank, with devastating slice-ups of the mass-market and genre kitsch that was slowly engulfing the book trade. These are never priggish: He finds a few kind words, along with many disdainful ones, for H.P. Lovecraft, and even his notorious "Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?", which still makes murder-mystery fans fume, pauses in its ire to praise Raymond Chandler, while the Marxist scalpels used so delicately on Flaubert get plunged with a ferocious (and justified) glee into Emily Post. Yet even this range, from Homeric epic to etiquette book, doesn't display all of Wilson's capacities: By my estimation, there should be at least three more volumes of Wilson still to come. Wilson on Turgenev and Navajo ritual, on the sculptures of Bomarzo and the Dead Sea Scrolls, on the IRS and the Marquis de Sade—many astonishments await.

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