To call Edmund Wilson the greatest American critic doesn’t begin to hint at the breadth of his achievement. His passions included modernist literature, politics, the Civil War, the ancient Middle East, and American Indians. He wrote good fiction, boring plays, scintillating journals, and essays on everything from his Princeton classmate F. Scott Fitzgerald to the tyranny of the Internal Revenue Service. Among his essential works are Axel’s Castle, To the Finland Station, The Wound and the Bow, and Patriotic Gore.
Lewis M. Dabney’s Edmund Wilson: A Life in Literature is the most comprehensive deep-dish study of the man. Born and raised in Red Bank, New Jersey, Wilson was educated in both the Scriptures (his mother was a proud descendant of Cotton Mather) and the classics. It was inevitable that he would attend Princeton, where he received “a purely humanistic education . . . though absorbed within a country club environment.” Sobered by the first World War (he was part of a medical corps in France), Wilson became a topflight journalist and critic for Vanity Fair, then The New Republic, and finally The New Yorker, which one picked up, Malcolm Cowley wrote, “to see what in God’s name he would be doing next.” By the mid 1930s Wilson had surpassed early idol H.L. Mencken in both scope and influence as the most acclaimed critic in the country.
His battle with alcohol lasted through four tumultuous marriages, including one to Mary McCarthy. (“American letters,” Dabney writes, “has not seen another alliance so flawed and distinguished.”) There were dozens of celebrated affairs and friendships; he was, in Jason Epstein’s sly phrasing, “always in search of a promising student.” His feuds, particularly with longtime friend Vladimir Nabokov over the latter’s controversial translation of Pushkin, dominated the pages of the leading literary periodicals.
A Life in Literature humanizes Wilson without trivializing him. The great interpreter of Joyce and Eliot liked to relax with Bing Crosby records. Though he was regarded as a model of intellectual control by many, Anaïs Nin (a lover whose work he championed) found him “irrational, lustful, violent.” A Seneca Indian woman whom he befriended while writing Apologies to the Iroquois was so impressed by his sincerity she offered to make him a member of the tribe and named her son after him. In this enormously satisfying account there seem to be several Edmund Wilsons, all of them products of an era “culturally narrower than ours” but “in many ways more literate.” Dabney makes one nostalgic for such a time and such a man.