Critic Wilson Held High Intellectual, But Not Personal Standards


By Jeffrey Meyers

Houghton Mifflin

A Peter Davison Book

554 pp.,.$35

EGREGIOUSLY erudite, staunchly independent, and always eager to explore new realms of knowledge and experience, Edmund Wilson (1895-1972) may well be considered the most influential American critic of the century.

When the New Yorker took him on as its weekly book columnist in 1943, the redoubtable H.L. Mencken congratulated the magazine's editor, Harold Ross, on his wise choice: "'You have found a highly competent critic and a perfectly honest man. The combination is not too common in this great Republic.'"

Writing for journals like The New Republic, The New Yorker, and later The New York Review of Books (he disdained the New York Times Book Review as middle-brow), Wilson considered himself not to be writing for academic specialists, but for a reading public whose intelligence he not only presumed but helped to cultivate.

His groundbreaking essays on Yeats, Joyce, Proust, Valery, and T.S. Eliot, collected in his book "Axel's Castle" (1931), were instrumental in bringing these authors to the attention of the general reader. As Jeffrey Meyers points out in this, the first full-scale biography of Wilson, even a well-educated woman like Diana Trilling, two years out of Radcliffe in 1929, "had not yet heard of Proust or Yeats or T.S. Eliot."

Wilson was also among the first to commend - and subsequently to criticize - Hemingway, praising the pared-down prose and powerful moral vision of his early work, while pointing out elements of self-parody and self-aggrandizement that marred some of his later writing. Wilson championed the merits of Dickens and Kipling when both had fallen from critical esteem, and he befriended and sponsored a still-struggling Vladimir Nabokov - with whom he would later carry on a protracted literary feud.

On the socio-political front, Wilson generally supported the underdog, from the Harlan County coal miners in the 1930s to the Iroquois Indians threatened with displacement by the New York State Power Authority in 1959. His uncanny ability to comprehend and clearly communicate the complexities of a literary work or a real-life situation stood him in good stead when he investigated the fascinating story of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the controversies surrounding them.

As Meyers's well-researched and readable biography reminds, Wilson had hopes of becoming a creative as well as critical force in American letters. At Princeton, he was a classmate of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Meyers, author of a biography of Fitzgerald (as well as one of Hemingway), notes the ironies of their relationship:

The frivolous Fitzgerald was awed by Wilson's superior learning and acuity, while Wilson alternately envied and mistrusted his friend's use and abuse of his creative gifts. Ultimately, Wilson's brilliant editing of Fitzgerald's posthumous works, "The Crack-Up" and "The Last Tycoon," went a long way toward restoring and enhancing Fitzgerald's literary standing. Over the years, Wilson tried his hand at creative writing, turning out a number of concept-heavy plays and a steady stream of rather lumbering rhymed verse that Meyers quotes to good effect. One of his novels, "Memoirs of Hecate County," (1946) achieved the dubious distinction of being banned in New York State for its sexual explicitness, and subsequently attained the best-sellerdom that had eluded him.

Nonfiction, however, was his forte: "Axel's Castle" (1931) explored the interiority of the aesthetic impulse; "To the Finland Station" (1940) surveyed the history of revolutionary activism; "The Wound and the Bow" (1941), the connection between personal trauma and artistic achievement; and "Patriotic Gore" (1962), the propagandistic literature surrounding the American Civil War.

Not the least of his nonfiction achievements were the no-holds-barred diaries which he arranged to have published after his death. Beginning in 1975 with "The Twenties," each volume covered a decade, culminating in "The Sixties," which appeared in 1993. Wilson's frank assessment of friends and enemies, his vivid evocation of times and places, and his graphically detailed records of his sexual activities - both in and outside his four marriages - might well threaten to render the task of prospective biographers superfluous.

Meyers, who has written biographies of Poe, D.H. Lawrence, Conrad, Wyndham Lewis, Robert Lowell as well, has acquired over the years a measure of sound judgement that enables him to present a balanced and coherent account of Wilson's life. Far from having to comb through pages in search of the risque parts, however, readers of this biography may find it more difficult to locate the sections on Wilson's political life and literary activities.

Wilson was a quintessentially American figure, but not in the sense of being narrowly chauvinistic. He loved Russian and French literature, and avidly learned other foreign languages - Latin, Greek, German, Italian, Hebrew, even Hungarian - to read works in the original.

Immensely learned, he despised academic pretensions and pedantry. A political progressive who at one point hailed Lenin as the culmination of a great revolutionary tradition, he remained stubbornly isolationist even after the threat of Hitler and the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor.

A diligent practitioner of the famous Protestant work ethic, he rebelled against the Puritan strain in his upbringing by embracing - with a kind of inverted puritan zeal - the pleasure-seeking program of alcoholic indulgence and sexual promiscuity that became de rigueur for aspiring artists and intellectuals in the 1920s.

Meyers is not the subtlest of biographers, yet there's something to be said for his ability to plunge into a complicated, controversy-riddled life story and shape the material into a cogent narrative. While this may not be the definitive account of Wilson's life and work, it offers an enticing, essentially right-minded introduction to a man whom Isaiah Berlin called "the most unsurrendering intellectual ... I have ever met."

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