The man who knew too much

Edmund Wilson had four wives, dozens of affairs, a drinking problem -- and the sharpest critical mind of his generation.

Published October 4, 2005 6:58PM (EDT)

Two distinct Edmund Wilsons exist concurrently in American letters. The first is the eminent literary and social critic who, before World War II, in books such as "Axel's Castle" (1931), "The Triple Thinkers" (1938), "To the Finland Station" (1940) and "The Wound and the Bow" (1941), summed up the significant literary and political developments of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The second is the crack journalist and non-academic scholar who, from roughly 1950 practically until his death in 1972, popularized such arcane subjects as biblical research ("Scrolls From the Dead Sea," 1955), the state of eastern American Indian tribes ("Apologies to the Iroquois," 1960), the literature of the American Civil War ("Patriotic Gore," 1962), and Canada ("O Canada: An American's Notes on Canadian Culture," 1965).

Both Wilsons transcend periods, trends and fashion, though it's the first one, the literary historian and guardian of taste, who is most with us today. This is the Wilson whose judgments on Dickens, Yeats, Proust, Eliot, Joyce, Fitzgerald and Hemingway have become what Clive James astutely referred to as "permanent criticism." It's hard to think of any modern critic in any language with such an astounding ability to assimilate entire writers -- entire literatures -- and crystallize them in a few pungent and incisive sentences. His method was simple. "Whenever he wanted to write about somebody," recalled Isaiah Berlin after Wilson's death, "he read all their works and accumulated an enormous amount of information until some shape emerged, built itself in his head." When the shape emerged, it was invariably expressed in what W.H. Auden (who once confessed that he wrote for Wilson alone) called "the unassertive elegance of his prose."

For instance, on Yeats, from "Axel's Castle": "The prose of Yeats, in our contemporary literature, is like the product of some dying loomcraft brought to perfection in the days before machinery." On his old Princeton classmate, F. Scott Fitzgerald, from "The Shores of Light": "Fitzgerald has been given an imagination without intellectual control of it ... he has been given a gift for expression without very many ideas to express." (Fitzgerald agreed with his friend's assessment.) From "Eight Essays," on Hemingway, "The weaknesses of the book ["For Whom the Bell Tolls"] are its diffuseness -- a shape that lacks the concision of his short stories, that sometimes sags and sometimes bulges; And a sort of exploitation of the material, an infusion of the operatic, that lends itself all too readily to the movies." (Hemingway still regarded Wilson as the only critic "in the States I have any respect for.")

On G.B Shaw, also from "Eight Essays": "he is a considerable artist, but his ideas -- that is, his social philosophy proper -- have always been confused and uncertain ... the future will exactly reverse the opinion which his contemporaries have usually had of him." From "A Window on Russia," on Nabokov: "In spite of the queer prejudices which few people share -- such as his utter contempt for Dostoevsky -- his sense of beauty and literary proficiency, his energy which seems never to tire, have made him a wire of communication which vibrates between us and that Russian past which still provides for the Russian present of vitality that can sometimes inspire it and redeem it from mediocrity."

For those of us in the 21st century faced with the daunting task of sifting through Wilson's massive and still very much available oeuvre, the question is: Which of these Edmund Wilsons is the real one? Or, at the risk of sounding '60s-ish, which is the most relevant? As proved by two new books -- Lewis Dabney's hefty (600-plus pages) and definitive "Edmund Wilson: A Life in Literature,"a feast for the intellectually horny, and David Castronovo and Janet Groth's "Critic in Love: A Romantic Biography of Edmund Wilson," a tasty hors d'oeuvre -- both of these Wilsons are real, and each is indispensable.

Though he yearned for success as a fiction writer, his interests were too diverse, his intellect too restless, to be fully engaged by the abstractions of writing fiction. Still, he left behind some pretty good work: a novel, "I Dream of Daisy," and stories, "Memoirs of Hecate County," whose sexual frankness made the collection scandalous in its day. His best poetry is more than passable, though as he phrased it, "I am not a poet, but I am something of the kind." He wrote several monotonous plays, translations of classic Russian poetry, volumes of social commentary ("Europe Without Baedeker"), memoirs (most notably "Upstate," the story of the good fortunes and hard times of the Wilson family's New York State farmhouse), journals that still serve as windows on the literary scene for every decade from the '20s through the '60s, and numerous thick, rich volumes filled with reviews and essays on everyone and everything from the legacy of Teddy Roosevelt to Wilson's aversion to detective stories to his own New Jersey childhood ("The Shores of Light," "Classics and Commercials," "The American Earthquake," "A Window on Russia," and "A Piece of My Mind"). There are also hundreds of letters -- including an entire collection on literature and politics, the ones to and from Vladimir Nabokov before their famous feud -- written with the same "unassertive elegance" (in W. H. Auden's phrasing) as Wilson's formal reviews and essays. Who in the age of e-mail will ever again write such vivid, authoritative missives?

Edmund Wilson Jr. was born in Red Bank, N.J., in 1895. Today, the town features not a single bookstore -- in fact, its best-known landmark is filmmaker Kevin Smith's comic book shop -- but when Wilson was growing up it was a highly literate town with a genteel, sleepy Southern flavor and a cosmopolitan upper middle class. The elder Wilson, a lawyer and one-time attorney general for the state of New Jersey (appointed to the position by Gov. Woodrow Wilson, no relation), sometimes brought socialist pals to dinner, much to Mrs. Wilson's dismay. He numbered among his friends Sigmund Eisner, with whom Wilson shared a passion for improving public education. (Eisner was an ancestor of the Michael Eisner who would one day, as head of Disney, help to propagate the mass culture that Wilson loathed.) His mother's side of the family brought two important strains to the bloodline: Through her Northern relatives, she was a descendant of Cotton Mather, and, through her Southern ties, to Virginians who, whenever they got the chance, reminded young Edmund that there were two viewpoints on the causes of the Civil War.

Wilson's father attended Princeton, and it was inevitable that his son would go there, too. There could have been no university better suited to him; pre-World War I Princeton, in Dabney's phrase, offered "a purely humanistic education in the tradition going back to Erasmus, though absorbed within a country club environment." There he came under the influence of the great teacher and scholar Christian Gauss, to whom he would dedicate "Axel's Castle." Wilson, writes Dabney, took Gauss as the voice of "that good eighteenth century Princeton which has always managed to flourish between the pressures of a narrow Presbyterianism and a rich man's suburbanism."

While at Princeton, Wilson would later write, "We were fascinated by learning to use the language in prose or verse. We wrote sonnets and French forms; we intimated Pepys and Dr. Johnson; we read our work aloud to each other, not in public after the modern fashion, but attempting to find out if it was any good." "The shy little scholar of [Princeton's] Holder Court," as Fitzgerald called him, came under the spell of Carlyle, the great French critic Hippolyte Taine (whose "History of English Literature" provided him with a continental perspective that lasted his entire life) and, most of all, Shaw, to whom he sent a parody of the great man's work, which earned a cheerful postcard reply. (Wilson would credit Shaw, perhaps the most idiosyncratically religious writer of his time, with turning him into an atheist.)

Wilson's world was shaken by the piles of corpses he saw while serving in the medical corps during the First World War. Sobered, and with his horizons expanded, he returned home and became a top-flight journalist and critic for Vanity Fair, never quite comfortable writing in what managing editor Robert Benchley referred to as "the Elevated Eyebrow school of journalism. You could write about any subject you wished, no matter how outrageous, if you said it in evening clothes." Wilson's suits tended to be a bit rumpled. He would later move to the New Republic, where, as literary editor, he helped turn the magazine into the country's premier literary organ. He would eventually find a home at the New Yorker, where fans such as Malcolm Cowley would read the magazine "to see what in God's name he would be doing next," though, as Dabney makes clear, Wilson "lacked The New Yorker's then characteristic tone, [and] was never a member of the club." By 1931 he had written his study of 60 years of the development of symbolism in literature, "Axel's Castle," and had surpassed an early mentor, H.L. Mencken, in both scope and influence. Already, at age 36, his work made Mencken's seem stuffy and provincial in comparison.

In retrospect, it's hard to say what's more impressive, the astonishing body of work or the fact that it was all written under the influence of alcohol. For his entire professional life, Wilson was an alcoholic, "The only well known literary alcoholic of his generation," says Dabney, "whose work was not compromised by his drinking." But his marriages were. He was married four times, once to Mary McCarthy, the wife closest to being his intellectual equal. ("American letters," in Dabney's words, "has not seen another alliance so flawed and distinguished.") He had perhaps dozens of affairs, including sensational trysts with the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay ("A resplendent casualty," wrote one of her biographers, "of sex, drugs and fame") and Anaïs Nin, whose work he may have overrated because of his personal infatuation (hardly a sin for which he can be singled out). Jason Epstein thought him "by nature a pedagogue. He was always in search of a promising student. And this, I believe, was what his love affairs were really all about."

Castronovo and Groth, in their forthcoming "Critic in Love," seem to concur with Epstein. "The special kind of camaraderie and companionship in question," they write, "was simply not something he could get from a man. Vaguely erotic, it depended more on bonds of trust, on speaking the same language, on humor and wit, on flirting and performing intellectually than on going to bed."

Ordinarily, learning the details of the private lives of great writers doesn't do much for me, but in Wilson's case I am happy to find that he had a more human side than previous biographers such as Jeffrey Meyers have revealed. I find it comforting to know that the great interpreter of Joyce and Proust liked to relax with Bing Crosby records. At age 60, he enjoyed sitting down with Frank Sinatra's "In the Wee Small Hours" album. (I like to think that had he been born 25 years later he might have siphoned off some stress by listening to New Jersey's favorite son, Bruce Springsteen.)

Frankly, it's a shame Wilson couldn't have bitten more deeply into the rich vein of American popular culture. Wilson's father was close to several of Red Bank's middle-class black families, and the Wilsons were near-neighbors of Red Bank's most famous native son, William "Count" Basie. In fact, Count Basie Way runs just a block from the house where Edmund grew up, but Edmund never mentioned the Count in any of his writings and never wrote in depth about jazz or contemporary music.

He never quite dug film, either. Shortly before his death he went to see "The Godfather," but if he had anything good to say about it, it has gone unrecorded. "I have rarely watched a television program," he wrote in 1955 in "The Author at Sixty," "and I almost never go to the movies (a word that I still detest as I did the first time I heard it)." In his essay "Education," written about the same time as "The Author at Sixty," he wished that "I could make people talk as contemporary Americans did. I tried injecting some current slang into my purely critical writing, but I found that this was likely to jar and that I later had to take it out." The kind of writer that he seemed to be envying, though he could not know it then, was the next great critical mind of the New Yorker, Pauline Kael, who wrote accomplished criticism in an entirely American idiom. But at that point in his life nothing fired Wilson's imagination as movies would fire Kael's.

By the time he had reached 60, he stopped making any attempt to keep up with the new American writers, and he also missed the rise of the most interesting new Europeans, Italo Calvino, Alain Robbe-Grillet and others. The truth is that the great champion of modernism was always something of an old fogy. As one of his admirers, another great old fogy, V.S. Pritchett, put it, "He was the old-style man of letters, but galvanized and with the iron of purpose in him."

Many have wondered why that iron of purpose shifted in late middle age from literary criticism on the grand scale to high journalism -- after 1950 he scarcely heralded the emergence of a single significant new American talent. (He seemed to be losing interest in criticism even before then; despite having some interesting things to say about Faulkner, it was mostly the European critics who rescued him from near obscurity.) There was no diminishing of his intellectual vigor; the '50s and '60s saw several of his best books, including "Apologies to the Iroquois" and "Patriotic Gore," but virtually nothing about post-World War II literature, no attempt to place the work of Norman Mailer, Saul Bellow or Tennessee Williams in the pantheon -- or even to establish that the pantheon, or his idea of a pantheon, still existed.

Why, exactly? No one, not even his new biographers, have provided an entirely satisfactory answer. There are several plausible explanations, beginning with the decline of Marxism as an intellectual stimulant. Almost alone among his friends and colleagues in the '20s and '30s, Wilson was skeptical of Marxism, but he never completely escaped its lure. (Apparently his interest had nothing to do with Marxist economics but rather a conviction, says Dabney, "that Marx's true authority was moral.") Wilson's father often took his son to visit the community of Phalanx, a well-known experiment in cooperative living, which undoubtedly had much to do with setting him on the path toward "To the Finland Station." What he wanted was to see an American form of Marxism take root, but the Second World War and then the Cold War dashed his hopes, and with them the vision of an artistically radical new American literature that would prefigure such a dream.

Then, he had already predicted 10 years before the war that such a literature might never come about. Symbolism, he wrote in "Axel's Castle," "sometimes had the result of making poetry so much a private concern of the poet's that it turned out to be incommunicable to the reader." Paraphrasing French poet Paul Valéry's pessimistic view of the future of literature, Wilson wrote: "as language becomes more international and more technical, it will become also less capable of supplying the symbols of literature; and then, just as the development of mechanical devices has compelled us to resort to sports in order to exercise our muscles, so literature will survive as a game -- as a series of specialized experiments." In 1931, Wilson was not altogether certain that Valéry was correct, but could not entirely hide his own pessimism -- from here on, the book seems to be hinting, it's all downhill. By the time he died, scarcely a fraction of literate Americans were reading modern poetry.

Indeed, in less than two decades after "Axel's Castle" was published, American literature, Western literature, world literature began to fragment, exploding in too many directions down too many tributaries for even someone with as wide a range as Wilson to keep track. In fact, it may well be that his having cast such a wide net in his youth made it more difficult for him to maintain a bead on developments in art, literature and politics.

And, in truth, he had some gaps as a critic -- huge, baffling, yawning gaps. By drawing a blank on Kafka, he shut himself off from one of the most important currents in literature after 1930. He never truly understood the great novels of Nabokov, either; his failure to appreciate "Lolita" was probably the genesis of their eventual falling out. He could never connect emotionally or intellectually with anything Spanish -- he never finished reading "Don Quixote" -- which means that even had he lived longer and been in better health, he would never have understood the greatest wave in world literature that came after the '20s, namely the Latin American boom and the remarkable works of Borges and García Márquez. At the time of his death, younger readers may have wondered why he had such a reputation as a literary critic.

It's often been lamented that we have failed to produce another Edmund Wilson -- the last of the public intellectuals, as a symposium a few years ago proclaimed him. But it's more likely that we lack the unity of vision that once produced Yeats, Proust and Joyce. We can be optimistic that such an age will come again. Meanwhile, enjoying the benefits of multiculturalism while we wait, we are nonetheless nostalgic for a time in which literacy was so prized.

By Allen Barra

Allen Barra is the author of "Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends."

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