The Last Great Littrateur?

Book cover
Edmund Wilsonby Lewis M. Dabney

Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 639p $35


Man of letters? Public intellectual? Cultural critic? Feuilletoniste? Whatever he was exactly, they don’t make them like that anymore; and the more’s the pity. Once upon a time writers like Edmund Wilson, Mary McCarthy, Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin or even George Orwell, armed only with their wits and a general education (not a Ph.D. in the crowd), knew how to combine criticism and creativity. They could tell a story. They spoke out convincingly on a broad spectrum of political, moral and aesthetic issues in a language that was both serious and readable. They were self-taught without being amateurish. And Wilson (1895-1972) was among the best, if not himself the best, of them.

Recounting his life, however, presents enormous problems. Wilson wrote about three dozen books, only a handful of which (Axel’s Castle, Patriotic Gore, To The Finland Station, for example) are fairly well known. And most of` that work consists of shorter journalistic pieces stitched together. Interrupting the flow of a biography to summarize scores of articles and arguments that readers (younger ones, anyway) have likely never heard of, much less read, can be tedious. Then too, while Wilson’s personal life was anything but tamely academicit crackled for decades with passion and conflictthe traces it left behind include vast, bulging diaries, 70,000 letters and countless responses from friends and lovers, wives and children, allies and enemies. What to do with all this?

Lewis Dabney, who teaches English at the University of Wyoming and who edited both The Sixties (Wilson’s last journal) and Edmund Wilson: Centennial Reflections, has lowered his head and waded through this gigantic body of material. The result is sloppy at times; but it gives us the fullest picture yet of the incomparable Bunny. (His mother said that as a baby Wilson looked just like a plumb-bunshe couldn’t have guessed that a lifetime of barely controlled boozing, from his 20’s on, would give him the pink face and pudgy physique that made the nickname permanently appropriate.)

Wilson came from a distinguished line of New Jersey WASP’s (his father was a crusading Republican state attorney general); and, though his adulthood displayed none of his ancestors’ religious faith and very little of their sexual restraint, he was in many crucial ways an old-fashioned man of conscience. While serving as a wound-dresser in France during World War I, he swore that if he survived, he would never again live trivially or indifferentlyand he didn’t. He may have blundered through three bad marriages before getting it right the fourth time; and his powerful libido may have lured him into all sorts of doomed love affairs (leading in turn, as he bitterly phrased it, to abortions, gonorrhea, entanglements, a broken heart), but he was always more the guilty sinner than the happy roué.

Above all, however, Wilson was a tough-minded, deeply committed liberal (he would have snorted indignantly to see the term devolve into its current status as a term of contempt used by conservatives), an Arnoldian humanist with a hunger for social justice. Too honest and shrewd to be a naïve fellow traveler (he spent five months in the U.S.S.R. in 1935), he was nonetheless, like most American leftists, stung by the Moscow show trials and the belated revelations of Lenin’s remorseless brutality; but he wised up and soldiered on. A lifelong student, Wilson learned Russian, Hebrew and Hungarian as part of his exploration of alien worlds. He visited Haiti and Israel, the Zuni and the Iroquois; he read entire libraries (Michelet, Marx, Pushkin, American history, scriptural scholarship and more); and he venturedfruitfullyinto such areas as socialist theory or the Dead Sea Scrolls, where nowadays only tenured specialists go.

If the development of Wilson’s oeuvre is edifying rather than enthralling stuff (and Dabney in any case is nowhere near the sharp-eyed, vigorous writer that his subject was), Wilson’s trials, tribulations and occasional triumphsnever before presented in such detailmake for a much livelier tale. Margaret Canby, his second wife, who died when they had been married for two short years and whom he dearly missed, once declared, You’re a cold, fishy, leprous person, Bunny Wilson; but that appears to have been, at most, a half-truth. He had moments when he behaved that way; but hot-tempered, high-spirited, playfully arrogant would have been more like it. Marriage with someone like Mary McCarthy, as volatile, contentious and (at the time) alcoholic as he was, not to mention that she was 17 years his junior, was bound to erupt into nasty fireworks. But Elena Mumm Thornton, his French-born, German-Russian fourth wife, finally rescued him in 1946, not least of all because of the graceful way she (mostly) subordinated her life to his. A trying husband, Wilson was a fairly devoted father to his three children, Rosalind, Reuel and Helen. At any rate, they judged him less harshly than his women did.

Readers who stick with Dabney on this long and exhausting ride have much to be thankful for. Still, Wilson would have winced at his biographer’s lapses: garbled quotations in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Russian and French; bits of bad literary judgment (Dabney finds a tone of giggling cynicism in Wilson’s comments on Lolita); plain errors of fact (Arthur Hugh Clough died of malaria, not acute alcoholism; Walter Pater never celebrated a fading gemlike flame); and occasionally lumpy writing (enthused, staccato impressionism). But in general Dabney goes astray only when he wanders away from Wilson; otherwise he is a reliable guide. And in the end that is what matters: a reintroduction to this flawed but appealing prophet (who liked to do card tricks and put on Punch and Judy shows), a quintessentially modern person (who could barely type and never learned to drive), a passable poet, a fairly good novelist, a vivid diarist and an illuminating judge of his age.

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11 years 5 months ago
Peter Heinegg’s perceptive review of Edmund Wilson: A Life in Literature (1/2) reminded me of an incident almost a half-century ago. I grew up a few miles from Talcottville, the upstate New York village where Wilson spent part of each year. As a Princeton undergraduate, I had learned about Wilson and wrote a review of his memoir, A Piece of My Mind: Reflections at Sixty for the local daily in Watertown. In the course of the review I referred to his “prolific and catholic mind” (lowercase ‘c’), but the editor at the paper changed this to “Catholic mind” (capital ‘C’)—a major distortion, to say the least.

When the review appeared, I was off in Army basic training at Fort Dix, N.J. My mother wrote to say that “Edmund Wilson called and wants to have dinner with you.” I followed up on the invitation instantly on my first furlough home. The two of us Princetonians had a long, convivial—very convivial—evening solving the world’s problems: the “c” problems, not the “C” ones.

It was for me an extraordinary encounter that ended with Wilson’s jocular pontification: “You know, Duffy, there are only three people from upstate New York who’ve ever amounted to anything—you, me and John Foster Dulles, and I have grave doubts about him.” It was nice of Peter Heinegg to bring back this memory.


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