From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Edmund Wilson (May 8, 1895 – June 12 1972) was an American writer, noted chiefly for his literary criticism. Most literary experts considered Wilson the preeminent American literary critic of his day, and perhaps of the 20th century. He is the author of Axel's Castle and the banned-for-many-years Memoirs of Hecate County.
Edmund Wilson was born in Red Bank, New Jersey, and his father was a lawyer. He was educated first at The Hill School and then at Princeton from 1912-1916. He began his writing career as a reporter for the New York Sun, and served in the army during the First World War. He was the managing editor of Vanity Fair in 1920 and 1921, and later served as Associate Editor of The New Republic and a book reviewer for The New Yorker. His works influenced novelists Upton Sinclair, John Dos Passos, Sinclair Lewis, Floyd Dell and Theodore Dreiser, and he wrote plays, poems, and novels, but his strength was literary criticism.
Early major works
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 Vico culminating in the 1917 arrival of Lenin at the Finland Station of Saint Petersburg to lead the Bolshevik Revolution.
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.
Context and relationships
Edmund Wilson attended Princeton with Fitzgerald, who referred to Wilson as his "intellectual conscience," and after his early death from a heart attack in December 1940 at the age of 44, Wilson edited two books of Fitzgerald's (The Last Tycoon and The Crack-Up) for posthumous publication, donating his editorial services for free in order to help Fitzgerald's family. He 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 a dispute over Wilson's public criticism of Nabokov's eccentric translation of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin.
Edmund Wilson was often rather indifferent to the pain that his vigorous criticism might bring to others. This was only a minor problem in his role as a literary critic, but in personal relationships it was more costly.
Wilson was a much-married man who also had many affairs. His first wife was Mary Blair, who had been in Eugene O'Neill's theatrical company. Second wife Margaret Canby was described as a charming, cultured lady who regarded Wilson as more of a friend. After her death in a freak accident two years after their marriage, Wilson wrote a long elegy to her and said later that he bore a burden of guilt over having neglected her. From 1938 to 1946 he was married to Mary McCarthy, who was also well-known for her literary criticism. She admired enormously Wilson's breadth of reading 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 Anais 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. He later married Elena Mumm Thornton, but continued to have extramarital relationships.
Cold War times
Wilson was also an outspoken critic of U.S. Cold War policies. He did not pay his income tax from 1946 to 1955 and was later investigated by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). He also failed to pay state income taxes, which had little to do with the Cold War.
After a settlement, Wilson received a $25,000 fine rather than the original $69,000, perhaps due to his political connections to the Kennedy administration. 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 US involvement in the Vietnam War.
- Axel's Castle: A Study in the Imaginative Literature of 1870-1930, New York, NY: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1931.
- To the Finland Station: A Study in the Writing and Acting of History, Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1940.
- The Wound and the Bow: Seven Studies in Literature, Cambridge, MA: Riverside Press, 1941.
- (editor) The Shock of Recognition: The Development of Literature in the U.S. Recorded by the Men Who Made It, New York, NY: Modern Library, 1943.
- Volume I. The Nineteenth Century.
- Volume II. The Twentieth Century.
- Memoirs of Hecate County, Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1946.
- The Triple Thinkers: Twelve Essays on Literary Subjects, New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Co., 1948.
- Classics and Commercials: A Literary Chronicle of the Forties, New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Co., 1950.
- The Shores of Light: A Literary Chronicle of the Twenties and Thirties, New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Young, 1953.
- The Scrolls from the Dead Sea, Fontana Books, 1955.
- Red, Black, Blond and Olive: Studies in Four Civilizations: Zuni; Hainti; Soviet Russia; Israel, London: W. H. Allen, 1956.
- A Piece of My Mind: Reflections at Sixty, New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1956.
- The American Earthquake: A Documentary of the Twenties and Thirties (A Documentary of the Jazz Age, the Great Depression, and the New Deal), Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1958.
- Apologies to the Iroquois, New York, NY: Vintage, 1960.
- Patriotic Gore: Studies in the Literature of the American Civil War, New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1962.
- The Cold War and the Income Tax: A protest, New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Co., 1964.
- The Bit Between My Teeth: A Literary Chronicle of 1950-1965, New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1966.
- Europe without Baedeker: Sketches among the Ruins of Italy, Greece and England, with Notes from a European Diary: 1963-64: Paris, Rome, Budapest, London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1967.
- The Twenties: From Notebooks and Diaries of the Period, ed. Leon Edel, New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1975.
- The Thirties: From Notebooks and Diaries of the Period, ed. Leon Edel, New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1980.
- The Forties: From Notebooks and Diaries of the Period, ed. Leon Edel, New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1983.
- The Fifties: From Notebooks and Diaries of the Period, ed. Leon Edel, New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1986.
- The Sixties: The Last Journal 1960-1972, ed. Lewis M. Dabney, New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1993.
- Dear Bunny, Dear Volodya: The Nabokov-Wilson Letters, 1940-1971, ed. Simon Karlinsky, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1979; "Revised and Expanded Edition," 2001.
- Edmund Wilson: The Man in Letters, ed. Janet Groth and David Castronovo, Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1992.