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Edmund Wilson vs. America

- Abstract

The United States is not a nation in the sense that England or France is. It is a society, a political system, which is still in an experimental state. Hence our panics of various kinds.

-Edmund Wilson, A Piece of My Mind

EDMUND WILSON is not an easy writer to r get in clear perspective, and most of those who have discussed him in recent years have chosen instead to envelop him in a hagiographical haze. He was, so the litany runs, “the most important American critic of his generation,” or, in a still more ubiquitous formula, “our most distinguished man of letters.” The large volume just published of Wilson’s Letters on Literature and Politics: 1912-1972 sheds a good deal of light on the truth and half-truth of both those labels, but reviewers in general have responded chiefly by echoing the blurbs, apparently dazzled or daunted by the teeming variety of Wilson’s intellectual interests in half a century at the writer’s trade.

Wilson was, to be sure, a deservedly commanding presence in American intellectual life from the late 20′s onward, but, paradoxically, there is also something ultimately manque about his literary career. He achieved much that was impressive, but never-on the evidence of his own early letters-what he had initially aspired to achieve. The fault was partly in the nature of his talents, partly in the nature of his relation to American culture.

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