Edmund Wilson

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Wilson, Edmund

Wilson, Edmund, 1895–1972, American critic and author, b. Red Bank, N.J. grad. Princeton, 1916. He is considered one of the most important American literary and social critics of the 20th cent. From 1920 to 1921 he was managing editor of Vanity Fair, and he was later on the staffs of the New Republic (1926–31) and New Yorker (1944–48). In the 1930s he was much interested in the theories of Freud and Marx, ideas that are treated in many of his works. Among his major writings are Axel's Castle (1931), a study of symbolism (see symbolists) and other imaginative modernist literatures; The Wound and the Bow (1941); The Shores of Light (1952); and Patriotic Gore (1962), on the American Civil War.

As a critic Wilson was concerned with the social, psychological, and political conditions that shape literary ideas. His social studies include To the Finland Station (1940), a history of the European revolutionary tradition that praises the Soviet Union (a position he soon reversed), and The American Earthquake (1958), a record of the Great Depression. His versatility is further revealed in his I Thought of Daisy (1929), a novel; Memoirs of Hecate County (1949), short stories; and Five Plays (1954). Wilson also edited F. Scott Fitzgerald's unfinished The Last Tycoon and posthumous The Crack-up (both: 1945). His later works include Israel and the Dead Sea Scrolls (1955), A Window on Russia (1973), and The Devils and Canon Barham: 10 Essays on Poets, Novelists, and Monsters (1973). Wilson's third wife was the author Mary McCarthy.


See The Edmund Wilson Reader (1997, ed. by L. M. Dabney) and essays and reviews of the 1930s and 40s, ed. by L. M. Dabney (2007); his letters, ed. by E. Wilson (1977), letters with Vladimir Nabokov, ed. by S. Karlinsky (1979), and other letters, ed. by D. Castronova and J. Groth (2002); The Sixties: The Last Journals (1993, ed. by L. M. Dabney); his notebooks and diaries, ed. by L. Edel (4 vol., 1975–86); memoirs of his daughter, R. Wilson (1989); his autobiographical Piece of My Mind: Reflections at Sixty (1956) and Upstate: Records and Recollections of Northern New York (1971); biographies by C. P. Frank (1970), J. Groth (1989), J. Meyers (1995), and L. M. Dabney (2005); studies by G. Douglas (1983) and D. Castronovo (1984 and 1998); bibliography by R. D. Ramsey (1971).

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Wilson, Edmund

(1895–1972) writer, editor; born in Red Bank, N.J. After taking his B.A. at Princeton (1916) and serving with the U.S. Army in World War I, he went to New York City and became an editor for such periodicals as Vanity Fair (1920–21) and the New Republic (1926–31); he was the regular book reviewer for the New Yorker (1944–48) and thereafter contributed occasional reviews. He wrote a novel, plays, poems, and short stories, but except for a collection of the last named, Memoirs of Hecate County (1946), his creative work did not command much attention. Instead, he gained his reputation as the dean of American letters through his erudite and trenchant nonfictional works. As he became interested in various topics, he would learn whatever languages were necessary, and after immersing himself in the subject, he would produce his own original interpretations, such as To the Finland Station: A Study in the Writing and Acting of History (1940) and The Scrolls from the Dead Sea (1955). His major reputation rests on his literary criticism, exhibited in such works as Axel's Castle: A Study in the Imaginative Literature of 1870–1930 (1931) and Patriotic Gore: Studies in the Literature of the American Civil War (1962). He edited the uncollected works of his Princeton classmate, F. Scott Fitzgerald (1954), and wrote countless magazine articles, essays, and reviews. He published two autobiographical works, and after his death a series of memoirs were extracted from his diaries and notebooks. He was married four times, including to Mary McCarthy (1938–46). Based in New York City for much of his life, he also spent parts of each year in Wellfleet, Mass., and at his family home in upstate New York.
The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography, by John S. Bowman. Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1995. Reproduced with permission.
References in periodicals archive ?
You read Shakespeare, Shelley, George Meredith, Dostoevsky, Ibsen, and you wanted, however imperfectly and on however infinitesimal a scale, to learn their trade and have the freedom of their company." Every page of Lewis Dabney's new biography, Edmund Wilson: A Life in Literature, is animated by that formidable ambition, in his preface, Dabney describes the meetings he had as a young man with the elderly author who "was intensely curious, and would slap his thigh in laughter, but his standards were stern." There are echoes of Wilson's infectious curiosity and sky-high standards in the eloquently paced, beautifully considered prose of this masterful biography.
An examination of Paul Elmer More's late essay, "Proust: The Two Ways" (1933), which takes a strange lead from Edmund Wilson's Proust essay in Axel's Castle (1931), will show how conservative literary criticism could only find Proust indigestible.
In this respect, Francoise Clary, who writes an interesting essay on "the significance of the water metaphor" in Cane, might have compared her theme to what Edmund Wilson, writing on The Waste Land in The Dial only a month after the poem was publishe d, called "The Poetry of Drouth."
His comparison of Lincoln to Bismarck and Mazzini, for example, was anticipated by Edmund Wilson, a great literary critic but a man capable of monumentally flawed political judgments (for example, he urged voting for the Communist ticket in 193 2).
Instead, as people sacrificed individuality and commitment to mass passivity, the nation slipped, James argued, into the moral unconsciousness he defined as "drift." The players in Berman's pageant of despair are many: Royce, Dewey, Russell, Wittgenstein, Santayana, Whitehead, Niebuhr, and Berlin among the philosophers; Van Wyck Brooks, Mencken, Gilbert Seldes, and Edmund Wilson among the literary critics and social commentators.
He did not directly address the subject of his dispute with Edmund Wilson, the topic of an article in this month's Currents in Modern Thought, but many of his interpretations of Ulysses provided clues as to why he was right in his opposition to political art.
That theme is continued in "Part Four: Dreams and Awakenings 1915--1945," a period when--no matter that eastern critics like Edmund Wilson denied it--this state's literature surged, with major writers developing or settling all over the state: Robinson Jeffers, Dashiell Hammett, William Saroyan, John Steinbeck, Raymond Chandler, Nathaniel West...the usual suspects.
(The fact that the ebb and flow of Civil War memory could be charted in The Atlantic Monthly, Century Magazine, and other popular periodicals led critic Edmund Wilson to observe that "old issues must be put to sleep with the chloroform of magazine prose.")
There is a sprinkling of typographical errors and a few of the index dates are incomplete or in error (Edmund Wilson's birth date is a decade out, while Anna Seghers died back in 1983).
Their lovers and husbands (notably, Philip Rahv, Edmund Wilson, Robert Lowell and Heinrich Bl[ddot{u}]cher) appear on the scene, as do other contemporary literary figures in couples and cameos (Allen Tate and Carolyn Gordon, Lionel and Diana Trilling, Alfred Kazin, Dwight Macdonald, and so on); but Laskin casts as his starring players those three exceptional women who, he incisively shows, ended up rejecting feminism even as an idea (typing and making dinner notwithstanding.
But if this brainy woman, this "woman Stendhal," this wild Irish orphan with the abusive papist uncle and the secret Jewish grandmother, could go to bed with trolls like Philip Rahv and Edmund Wilson, surely there was hope for all of us.
There have been those, notably Edmund Wilson, who surmised that 'Lewis Carroll' obscured a more sympathetic man.