Edmund Wilson, Jr.

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Edmund Wilson, Jr.

Birthdate: (77)
Birthplace: Red Bank, Monmouth, New Jersey, United States
Death: Died in Talcottville, NY
Cause of death: heart failure
Place of Burial: Wellfleet, Barnstable, Massachusetts, United States
Immediate Family:

Son of Edmund Wilson, Sr. and Helen Mather Wilson
Husband of Mary Wilson; Margaret Erskine Wilson and Elena Mumm Wilson
Ex-husband of Mary Therese Wilson

Managed by: Private User
Last Updated:
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Immediate Family

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.

Early life

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.[citation needed]

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.[4] 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",[citation needed] 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. ”



There are several biographies of Wilson. Among them are "Edmund Wilson. A Biography" by Jeffrey Meyers. (Houghton Mifflin, 1995) and The biographies describe him as intellectual, alcoholic, constitutionally unfaithful to his wives and lovers, emotionally abusive to nearly everyone.

He was first introduced to Cape Cod when he followed Edna St.Vincent Millay to Truro, about 1920. Among his Cape Cod social circle were John and Katherine (Smith) DosPassos, Paul and Nina Chavchavadze, Charles and Adelaide Walker, the Waugh family, Barbara Deming, Mary Meigs, Marie-Claire Blais... ---------------------------------------------------- http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/USAwilsonE.htm Edmund Wilson, the son of a railroad lawyer, was born in Red Bank, New Jersey on 8th May, 1895. After attending Princeton University (1912-1916), Wilson was briefly a reporter for the New York Sun before serving in the United States Army during the First World War. After working in an army hospital he was transferred to the Intelligence Unit at General Headquarters in Chaumont.

After the war Wilson became managing editor of Vanity Fair. Later he became associate editor of the The New Republic (1926-1931) and a book reviewer for the New Yorker. Deeply influenced by the ideas of Karl Marx, Wilson argued for a socially responsible fiction and helped to influence the work of novelists such as Upton Sinclair, John Dos Passos, Sinclair Lewis, Floyd Dell and Theodore Dreiser.

Throughout his life Wilson wrote plays, novels and poems. However, his most important writing was literary criticism. This included Axel's Castle (1931), Travels in Two Democracies (1936), The Triple Thinkers (1938), To the Finland Station (1940), The Wound and the Bow (1940), The Boys in the Back Room (1941), Classics and Commercials (1950) and The Shores of Light (1952).

Edmund Wilson published two autobiographies, A Piece of My Mind (1956) and Landscapes, Characters and Conversations (1967), and died in New York on 13th June, 1972. ----------------------------------------------------------------------------- from EDMUND WILSON'S CAPE COD LANDSCAPE by REUEL K. WILSON Virginia Quarterly Review, 2004, vol 80(2) Beginning in the summer of 1920, when he came to see Edna St. Vincent Millay in Truro, Massachusetts, my father, Edmund Wilson, made a habit of visiting the Cape Cod shoreline. He was fascinated by the Cape's unique mixture of forest, marsh, bay, and sea. Provincetown, at the very end of Cape Cod, became his summer base of operations in the twenties and thirties. Its narrow streets and breathtaking sea vistas beckoned city dwellers, while offering the vitality of a still viable fishing community. During the summer it attracted crowds of artistic and would-be artistic people. In 1941, Wilson bought a house in Wellfleet, fourteen miles south of Provincetown. He would keep the house on Money Hill until his death in 1972, and it was here that he first moved in with his third wife, my mother, Mary McCarthy, and me (age three).

Over his lifetime, roughly half of which he spent on Cape Cod, Wilson kept a personal diary that, although maintained intermittently and sometimes written in haste, he intended for publication. Many of its entries concern people, and these tend to be anecdotal; some describe nature and landscapes—these are often carefully fashioned word pictures. Wilson was well versed in nature and could name most of the flora and fauna he observed in the wild. During the forties he kept an aquarium/terrarium in the hall outside his Wellfleet study. The specimens of pond life that he collected there fared poorly as a rule, although I remember he had some success nurturing tadpoles, or pollywogs as he called them, into frogs. During the summers of my childhood and early adolescence, Wilson often joined his family for an afternoon swim at Gull Pond. Each trip to the pond followed the same ritual: first my father plunged into the water, then, reborn as a blustering water demon, he vigorously splashed water in my direction and that of any other children who might have been present. Only a little scared, we shrieked in feigned terror at the onslaught of this all-too-benign spirit of evil. After this short performance he took a quick swim, describing a few circles in the water using a peculiar flailing one-arm sidestroke. After swimming, he donned an old oxford short-sleeved shirt over his brown bathing trunks and a worn brown fedora hat—to depart on a long nature walk around the pond.

In the early journals Wilson shows a predilection for seascapes on the New Jersey coast near his family home in Redbank; then the focus gradually shifts to Cape Cod. The Cape also surfaces in Wilson's poetry, for he was an avid writer of verse, light as well as elegaic. Night Thoughts (1953), a collection of assorted poetry with a few prose pieces, incorporates six poems (two of them ambitious in scope) on Cape Cod themes. Among the papers that Wilson sold to Yale in 1968 is a corpus of unpublished, and in some cases unfinished, work entitled "Wellfleet Poetry." The texts, written in the forties during, and after, his marriage to Mary McCarthy, reveal some of the darker confines of his psyche. I should emphasize that he wrote poetry and the diaries "with his left hand." This kind of writing was mostly done in intervals between concentrated work on more demanding projects. Wilson never did write about Cape Cod in his fiction, although he planned to stage one episode of a (never written) novel in Provincetown. His long-standing friend John Dos Passos, for many years a Provincetown resident, also seems to have treated the Cape as a place to write, rather than write about. A few minor writers who lived on Cape Cod have written about it quite well. Among these are Susan Glaspell, Mary Heaton Vorse, and Harry Kemp (all part of Wilson's Provincetown circle in the twenties and thirties), John Peale Bishop, his Princeton classmate, and the Canadian writer Marie Claire Blais, whom Wilson introduced to Wellfleet and the American reading public.

The Cape Cod where I grew up is not quite the same today as it was then. To be sure, the solid nineteenth-century house (built by a sea captain) is still there, as is the adjacent cottage, once the wing of a sister house across the street, that Elena Wilson (Wilson's fourth wife) so kindly bought and set up for me and her son, Henry Thornton. Long gone, however, are the days of a tranquil Route 6 where just in front of our house our dog Rex used to sleep extended full length in the sun. He responded only grudgingly to the impatient honking of those motorists who chose not to circumvent him.

In those easier days the whip-poor-wills sounded their haunting refrain every night in the woods outside my window. They and the cheeky bobwhites have disappeared from Money Hill, where I still occupy the cottage. Gone too is the noon siren at the Wellfleet curtain factory, which Rex echoed with primordial howling in our yard. The curtain factory was closed and turned into a candle factory/gift shop, finally to be recast as the upscale municipal library we know today. The Cape vegetation, once sparse, has dramatically increased since my childhood. The "salt and pepper churches" (as my father called them) in Truro are no longer visible from Route 6. The trains, which plied back and forth from Hyannis to Provincetown, have fallen silent. In his diaries Wilson notes their whistling, shrieking, and baying. In a May 1956 entry he reports that "the one train a day whistling in the afternoon silence . . . still makes me think of Edna."

Edna St. Vincent Millay was Wilson's first lover. They met in New York early in the year 1920. That summer she invited him to visit her in Truro, where she, her mother, and her sisters were renting a cottage just behind the ocean beach at Longnook. Wilson took the train both ways. During that (to him) fateful visit he asked the poet to marry him. Her response was noncommittal. The next weekend his old pal John Peale Bishop was the Millays' houseguest. The rivalry over Millay, who liked them both but loved neither, did not affect the Wilson-Bishop friendship.


Writer, Critic. Born in Red Bank, New Jersey, he was considered a central figure in the intellectual history of the United States in the 20th Century. For over 50 years his works were published extensively in "Vanity Fair", "The New Republic" and "The New Yorker". He produced a remarkable body of books such as "Poets, Farewell!" (1929), "The Triple Thinkers: Ten Essays on Literature" (1938), "The Triple Thinkers: Twelve Essays on Literary Subjects" (1948), "Apologies to the Iroquois" (1960) and "Paris, Rome, Budapest" (1967). As a critic, he was outspoken about US Cold War policies, the Vietnam War and published the book, "The Cold War and the Income Tax: A protest" (1964). In 1963, he was presented with the Presidential Medal of freedom by President Lyndon Johnson. He died at age 77 in Talcottville, New York. (bio by: John "J-Cat" Griffith)


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Edmund Wilson, Jr.'s Timeline

May 8, 1895
Red Bank, Monmouth, New Jersey, United States
June 13, 1972
Age 77
Talcottville, NY
Wellfleet, Barnstable, Massachusetts, United States