Edmund Wilson (May 8, 1895 – June 12, 1972) was an American writer and critic who explored Freudian and Marxist themes. He influenced many American authors, including F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose unfinished work he edited for publication. His scheme for a Library of America series of national classic works came to fruition through the efforts of Jason Epstein after Wilson's death.
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. Wilson began his professional writing career as a reporter for the New York Sun, and served in the army with Base Hospital 36 from Detroit, Michigan, and later as a translator 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 served on the Dewey Commission, that set out to fairly evaluate the charges that led to the exile of Leon Trotsky. He wrote plays, poems, and novels, but his greatest influence was literary criticism.
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 Axël), W. B. Yeats, Paul Valéry, T. S. Eliot, Marcel Proust, James Joyce, and Gertrude Stein.
In his 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 an 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".
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 US 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.
Wilson's 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."
"[She] writes with a purity and precision almost unique in contemporary American fiction…: Though "the meaning of [her] stories is elusive…" they are "beautifully proportioned 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."
"In these wonderful closing pages [of Finnegans Wake], Joyce has put over all he means with poetry of an originality, a purity and an emotional power, such as to raise Finnegans Wake, for all its excesses, to the rank of a great work of literature."
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..."
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 novelist and playwright Susan Glaspell as well as 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 multiple marriages and affairs.
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.
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 Johnson was decidedly negative. Historian Eric F. Goldman writes in his memoir The Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson that when Goldman, on behalf of Johnson, invited Wilson to read from his 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."
Throughout his career, Wilson often answered fan mail and outside requests for his time with this form 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 writers' 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"
But this has not prevented writers and scholars from trying in recent years to elevate Wilson to what they claim is his rightful status as this century's preeminent American man of letters.
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