About Edmund Wilson, Jr.
Edmund Wilson (May 8, 1895 – June 12, 1972) was an American writer, literary and social critic, and noted man of letters.
Wilson was born in Red Bank, New Jersey. His parents were Helen Mather (née Kimball) and Edmund Wilson, Sr., a lawyer who served as New Jersey Attorney General. Wilson attended The Hill School, a college preparatory boarding school, in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, graduating in 1912. At Hill, Wilson served as the editor-in-chief of the school's literary magazine, The Record. From 1912 to 1916, he was educated at Princeton University. He began his professional writing career as a reporter for the New York Sun, and served in the army during the First World War. His family's summer home at Talcottville, New York, known as Edmund Wilson House, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973.
Wilson was the managing editor of Vanity Fair in 1920 and 1921, and later served as Associate Editor of The New Republic and as a book reviewer for The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books. His works influenced novelists Upton Sinclair, John Dos Passos, Sinclair Lewis, Floyd Dell, and Theodore Dreiser. He wrote plays, poems, and novels, but his greatest influence was literary criticism.
He played a recurring role throughout Edna St Vincent Millay's life, from the time she was a foreign correspondent for Vanity Fair magazine, 1921 to 1923, to the end of her life.
Axel's Castle: A Study in the Imaginative Literature of 1870-1930 (1931) was a sweeping survey of Symbolism. It covered Arthur Rimbaud, Auguste Villiers de l'Isle-Adam (author of Axel), W. B. Yeats, Paul Valéry, T. S. Eliot, Marcel Proust, James Joyce, and Gertrude Stein.
In his landmark book, To the Finland Station (1940), Wilson studied the course of European socialism, from the 1824 discovery by Jules Michelet of the ideas of Vico culminating in the 1917 arrival of Vladimir Lenin at the Finland Station of Saint Petersburg to lead the Bolsheviks in the Russian Revolution.
In a celebrated essay on the work of horror writer H.P. Lovecraft, "Tales of the Marvellous and the Ridiculous" (New Yorker, November 1945; later collected in Classics and Commercials), Wilson condemned Lovecraft's tales as "hackwork".
Edmund Wilson is also well known for his heavy criticism of J. R. R. Tolkien's work The Lord of the Rings, which he referred to as "juvenile trash", saying "Dr. Tolkien has little skill at narrative and no instinct for literary form."
Wilson was interested in modern culture as a whole, and many of his writings go beyond the realm of pure literary criticism. His early works are heavily influenced by the ideas of Freud and Marx, reflecting his deep interest in their work.
Wilson lobbied for the creation of a series of classic U.S. literature similar to France's Bibliothèque de la Pléiade. In 1982, ten years after his death, The Library of America series was launched. Wilson's writing was included in the Library of America in two volumes published in 2007.
Edmund Wilson comments on his contemporaries -
On Ernest Hemingway:
“But for reasons I cannot attempt to explain, something dreadful seems to happen to Hemingway as soon as he begins to write in the first person.”
On Katherine Ann Porter:
“[She] writes with a purity and precision almost unique in contemporary American fiction…: Though “the meaning of [her] stories is elusive…” they are “beautifully porportioned and finished…absolutely a first-rate artist.”
On Kay Boyle:
“I picked up Kay Boyle’s Avalanche in the hope of finding a novel worth reading, and have been somewhat taken aback to get nothing but a piece of pure rubbish.”
On Wallace Stevens:
“Mr. Stevens is the master of style. His gift for combining words is baffling and fantastic, but sure: even when you do not know what he is saying, you know he is saying it well.”
On James Joyce:
“Joyce has little respect for the capacities of the readers’s attention…[his novel] Ulysses suffers from an excess of design rather than from a lack of it…Joyce has half buried his story under the virtuosity of his technical style.”
On H. L. Mencken:
“The striking thing about Mencken’s mind is its ruthlessness and rigidity…Though one of the fairest of critics, he is the least pliant....”
Context and relationships
Wilson's critical works helped foster public appreciation for several novelists: Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Vladimir Nabokov. He was instrumental in establishing the modern evaluation of the works of Dickens and Kipling. Wilson was a friend of the philosopher Isaiah Berlin.
He attended Princeton with Fitzgerald, who referred to Wilson as his "intellectual conscience". After Fitzgerald's early death (at the age of 44) from a heart attack in December 1940, Wilson edited two books by Fitzgerald (The Last Tycoon and The Crack-Up) for posthumous publication, donating his editorial services to help Fitzgerald's family. Wilson was also a friend of Nabokov, with whom he corresponded extensively and whose writing he introduced to Western audiences. However, their friendship was marred by Wilson's cool reaction to Nabokov's Lolita and irretrievably damaged by Wilson's public criticism of what he considered Nabokov's eccentric translation of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin.
Wilson had many marriages and affairs. His first wife was Mary Blair, who had been in Eugene O'Neill's theatrical company. His second wife was Margaret Canby. After her death in a freak accident two years after their marriage, Wilson wrote a long eulogy to her and said later that he felt guilt over having neglected her. From 1938 to 1946, he was married to Mary McCarthy who, like Wilson, was well known for her literary criticism. She admired enormously Wilson's breadth and depth of intellect, and they co-operated on numerous works. In an article in The New Yorker, Louis Menand says "The marriage to McCarthy was a mistake that neither side wanted to be first to admit. When they fought, he would retreat into his study and lock the door; she would set piles of paper on fire and try to push them under it."
He wrote many letters to Anaïs Nin, criticizing her for her surrealistic style as opposed to the realism that was then deemed correct writing, and ended by asking for her hand, saying he would "teach her to write", which she took as an insult. Except for a brief falling out following the publication of I Thought of Daisy, in which Wilson portrayed Edna St Vincent Millay as Rita Cavanaugh, Wilson and Millay remained friends throughout life. He later married Elena Mumm Thornton (previously married to James Worth Thornton), but continued to have extramarital relationships.
The Cold War
Wilson was also an outspoken critic of US Cold War policies. He refused to pay his federal income tax from 1946 to 1955 and was later investigated by the Internal Revenue Service.
After a settlement, Wilson received a $25,000 fine, rather than the original $69,000 sought by the IRS. He received no jail time. In his book The Cold War and the Income Tax: A Protest (1963) Wilson argued that, as a result of competitive militarization against the Soviet Union, the civil liberties of Americans were being paradoxically infringed under the guise of defense from Communism. For these reasons, Wilson also opposed involvement in the Vietnam War.
Wilson's view of President Lyndon Johnson was decidedly negative. Historian Eric Goldman writes in his memoir The Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson that when Goldman, on behalf of President Johnson, invited Wilson to read from Wilson's writings at a White House Festival Of The Arts in 1965: "Wilson declined with a brusqueness that I never experienced before or after in the case of an invitation in the name of the President and First Lady."
On December 6, 1963, Wilson was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Lyndon Johnson.
For the academic year 1964-1965, he was a Fellow on the faculty in the Center for Advanced Studies at Wesleyan University.
"Edmund Wilson Regrets..."
Throughout his career, Wilson would often answer fan mail and outside requests for his time with this printed postcard:
“Edmund Wilson regrets that it is impossible for him to: Read manuscripts, write books and articles to order, write forewords or introductions, make statements for publicity purposes, do any kind of editorial work, judge literary contests, give interviews, conduct educational courses, deliver lectures, give talks or make speeches, broadcast or appear on television, take part in writer's congresses, answer questionnaires, contribute to or take part in symposiums or 'panels' of any kind, contribute manuscripts for sales, donate copies of his books to libraries, autograph books for strangers, allow his name to be used on letterheads, supply personal information about himself, supply photographs of himself, supply opinions on literary or other subjects. ”