Commentary Magazine


Edmund Wilson, by Jeffrey Meyers

A Literary Life

Edmund Wilson: A Biography.
by Jeffrey Meyers.
Houghton-Mifflin. 554 pp. $35.00.

Edmund Wilson (1895-1972) was a central figure in the literary life of his time. In his journalism of the 1920′s and his pioneering study Axel’s Castle (1932), he did more than anyone else to chart the achievements of modernism for ordinary readers. His later books ranged from psychologically based reassessments of established literary authors, as in The Wound and the Bow (1941), to a best-selling account of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, to political history and polemics, to Fiction. As a member of the staff of the New Republic from 1921 to 1941, and subsequently during his long connection as a critic with the New Yorker, he published review-essays and reportage on an extraordinary variety of subjects.

A formidably productive career, then; and also one much gossiped-about. Wilson engaged in some celebrated controversies: with New York State censors over his sexually tinged collection of stories, Memoirs of Hecate County (1946); with the Modern Language Association over its publicly funded and (in his view) desperately pedantic editions of American literary classics; with the Internal Revenue Service over his unpaid taxes. He had a stormy marriage to Mary McCarthy (the third of his four wives). His close friends included F. Scott Fitzgerald, a Princeton classmate, and Vladimir Nabokov, whom he originally championed but with whom he subsequently had a spectacular falling-out over Nabokov’s translation of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin.

A biography of Wilson has been long overdue—he died more than twenty years ago—and Jeffrey Meyers, a seasoned practitioner, has come up with an intelligent, well-executed piece of work. Stylistically it has its unhappy moments, but in general Meyers displays good sense and writes readable prose. His research, too, has been thorough. Though he draws heavily on already published diaries and other autobiographical material, we are left with a much more comprehensive picture of Wilson /??/ have previously had.

Not that this is an unalloyed pleasure. Much of Wilson’s personal life makes for depressing reading—his notorious boozing, his bad temper, his seductions (or at any rate the clinical manner in which he chose to record them in his posthumously published diaries), the ease with which he crossed the line from crustiness to bristling egoism. True, the anecdotes Meyers recounts often show Wilson in an amiable or impressive light; for the most part, though, the portrait of the private man that emerges is hardly appealing.

Fortunately, this is only part of the story, and the lesser part, since Meyers is primarily concerned with Wilson’s literary career. Wilson has often been called the greatest modern American man of letters, but the accolade seems superfluous: there is no other serious contender for the title. Although there are critics who have excelled him in important departments, no one in the U.S. or indeed in the English-speaking world can match his range, his powers of exposition, his ability to popularize without sacrificing standards, the skill with which he presents literary history as a form of personal and social drama. To read him at his best is to have horizons opened and energies aroused.

Meyers offers guidance on many different aspects of Wilson the working author: his relationship with other writers, his dealings with editors and publishers, the biographical dimension behind individual pieces of work. Above all, we are reminded of the role Wilson played with unparalleled distinction: that of the literary freelance. He was an independent commentator who assumed that literature existed in the first instance to be read rather than studied, and who addressed himself, in principle at least, to the equally independent general leader.

Wilson’s natural medium was the essay. He had trouble sustaining an argument or a narrative over hundreds of pages, and his full-length books tend to break down into sketches, studies, portraits, individual chapters. Still, that is hardly a disgrace: the same could be said of Dr. Johnson, William Hazlitt, Saint-Beuve, and others. Taken in conjunction with Wilson’s other qualities as a writer, this particular one can be seen as a sign of variety and openness rather than mere lack of direction. In any case, his personality supplied all the unity one could want.

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But that still leaves, alas, the question of Wilson’s politics, which, from around 1930, form a recurrent theme in his work. Most of what Meyers has to say about this subject is sensible as far as it goes, though he is inclined to err on the side of indulgence.

There were two major strands in Wilson’s political outlook. The first was a patrician radicalism—rather like Henry Adams, he believed that the wrong elements (i.e., the twin forces of industrialism and the bourgeoisie) had gained control of American life after the Civil War; during the Depression, this element in his political views became more intense and was given a Marxist tilt. The second was Wilson’s own private brand of pacifism, initially a response to the horrifying sights he witnessed while serving in an army hospital unit during World War 1.

Meyers brings home how deeply Wilson was marked by his military experience: he emerged from the army convinced that war was something to be avoided at all cost. This was a feeling he shared with countless other members of his generation in many countries, but in Wilson’s case it persisted throughout the 30′s, long after the need to rearm had become abundantly clear, and at a moment when revulsion from war had become one of Hitler’s strongest cards in his game with the democracies.

Nor can it be said that Wilson faced up squarely to the implications of his pacifism. What we find in him is less a tragic recognition that, to put it bluntly, others would be paying the cost of his principles than a stream of low-grade isolationist prejudice. Thus, he stubbornly maintained that the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 had been engineered by Franklin D. Roosevelt, and he caricatured Winston Churchill as the mad brother in Arsenic and Old Lace who keeps charging up the stairs under the impression that he is Teddy Roosevelt at San Juan Hill. In his postwar writings, Wilson became known for a strong streak of philo-Semitism; this was possibly an oblique attempt to make amends for his earlier views about World War II. Be that as it may, those views reveal an astonishing lack of moral imagination.

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Wilson’s isolationist stance was bad enough, but as a theme in his work it pales in significance next to his enthusiasm for Marx and Lenin. Though never a Communist, he put in his time as one of the party’s “useful idiots,” and never more incandescently than in his 1936 Travels in Two Democracies—the two in question being the U.S. and the USSR. Meyers makes the essential point about this work: it was a monument to wishful thinking. Written near the height of Stalin’s Great Terror, it glorified the Soviet system in the face of facts which Wilson himself suspected, or knew, or to an extent even reported.

Yet Meyers’s summary does not quite convey the awful flavor of the worst passages in Travels in Two Democracies: the drooling over Lenin’s face (“exquisite fineness . . . profoundly aristocratic”); the breathtaking reassurance that “of course [the Communist system] is no worse than Hollywood (though the penalties—death and deportation—are greater)”; the sense that Russia was “at the moral top of the world.” As we learn from Meyers, Wilson spouted this palaver even after he had received from the novelist John Dos Passos a letter spelling out the principal blots on the Soviet record.

True, Wilson grew somewhat disenchanted with Communism soon after the book’s publication. He distanced himself from American Stalinists, and took a firm line against Soviet policy. One might have hoped that he would then have gone even further, that the jolt of realizing how wrong he had been would have led him to rethink his whole political position. Instead, he pushed ahead with his reconstruction of the European revolutionary tradition in To the Finland Station.

That book, first published in 1940, is a masterpiece of romantic historical narrative. But it is also impenitent in its idealizing of Marxism in general and of Lenin in particular. Reissued as a paperback in the 1950′s, it continued to sell heavily in the 1960′s, and helped pave the way for the emergence of a de-Stalinized but still Leninized New Left. It was not until a year before his death that Wilson, in the introduction to a new edition, admitted to a change of mind: “I have been charged with having given a much too amiable picture of Lenin, and I believe that this criticism is not without some justification.” This is hardly the most ringing sentence he ever wrote, and the whole introduction is a weak performance—very weak, given the enormity of the issues at stake. Still, better something than nothing, and better late than never.

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In the end, however, it must be said that when he was functioning as a literary critic, Wilson seldom permitted his politics to distort his judgment in any serious way. Meyers is therefore right not to dwell overly long on the notorious introduction to his 1962 book about the Civil War, Patriotic Gore. That introduction offers a Darwinian reading of the cold war as, at bottom, a struggle between sea slugs writ large; but the striking thing is how little the introduction impinges on the rest of the book. In exploring Civil War authors, many of them neglected or obscure, Wilson proved once again that his greatest strength lay in the individual case history, the imaginative assessment of a personality or a career, the use of literature to illuminate (in the terminology of his model, the 19th-century French critic Hippolyte Taine) a specific moment and milieu. The literary Wilson will live. The longer the shadows that are cast over the field of literary studies by today’s deconstructionists and other ideologues, the brighter his achievement will shine. And the political Wilson deserves to be remembered, too—if only as an object lesson in what all too many intellectuals in our century, even the greatest among them, failed to avoid.

About the Author

John Gross is the editor most recently of The New Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes. His “Mr. Virginia Woolf” appeared in the December 2006 COMMENTARY.




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