Wilson: the search for love that fed a career in letters

A 'great populizer' who could clarify the complex

A 1916 graduate from Princeton, Edmund Wilson (1895-1972) was voted worst poet and most likely bachelor. But by 1938, Wilson had married for the third time and had been romantically linked with several other women. He was also well on his way to becoming America's preeminent man of letters.

Wilson's success came with a sordid underside. The two were inextricably linked, according to Lewis Dabney's sympathetic biography, Edmund Wilson, A Life in Literature.

Writing articles for "The Dial," "Vanity Fair," "The New Republic," and "The New Yorker," as well as some 50 books, including "Axel's Castle," "The Wound and The Bow," and "The Triple Thinkers," Wilson was a public critic.

Art, theater, music, film, culture, literature, history, politics, travel, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Zuni and Iroquois, communism, Marxism, and Canadian culture: The topics came alive in Wilson's clear and engaging style. Unlike the Modern Language Association, which he disdained, Wilson was the "great popularizer," explaining abstruse literary theories to the reading public. He was also adept at writing autobiographical essays probing even his most intimate moments.

He counted F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Dos Passos, Ernest Hemingway, W. H. Auden, E.E. Cummings, Vladimir Nabokov (with whom he had a falling out), H.L. Mencken, and Roger Straus, of Farrar, Straus, Giroux among his friends.

Women and Wilson were mutually attracted. The problem was Wilson felt compelled to write graphically about that attraction in his many journals and memoirs. His two novels - "I Thought of Daisy" and "Memoirs of Hecate County," (which was banned as obscene) were thinly disguised paeans to his two enduring passions. The first was the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and the second, the nightclub dancer and barmaid, Frances Minihan whose sexuality inspired some of Wilson's most salacious writing.

There were others: Leonie Adams, Anais Nin, Louise Bogan, Djuna Barnes, and Elizabeth Waugh - to say nothing of his four wives. Wilson's promiscuity would have shocked his distant ancestor, Cotton Mather.

Billed as the authorized biography, this doorstop book comes 33 years after Wilson's death but adds little new information. It follows numerous book-length studies, as well as several biographies, including "Near the Magician" published in 1989 by Wilson's oldest daughter, Rosalind; a memoir by Wilson's third wife, Mary McCarthy, which painted Wilson as a brute and a philanderer; and "Edmund Wilson, A Biography" published in 1995 (Wilson's centennial year) by Jeffrey Meyers - well known biographer of such literary notables as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway.

Meyers' book, Dabney suggests, focused on Wilson's dark side. But Dabney's book dredges up - inadvertently perhaps - much of the scandal concerning Wilson. In writing this "true account of Wilson's turbulent life," Dabney must include the turbulent details.

Editor of Wilson's final journal, "The Sixties," and of "The Edmund Wilson Reader," a collection of talks given during Wilson's centennial celebration, Dabney, a professor of English at the University of Wyoming, ultimately offers an unevenly written but well-researched account of Wilson. Some of Dabney's sentences are convoluted and require rereading, but Dabney knows his subject and cares about it. These two qualities, if nothing else, make the book a worthwhile read.

Dabney portrays Wilson as traumatized by an emotionally starved childhood. Born in Red Bank, N. J., into an upper- middle-class family, Wilson was a spoiled only child. His father, though a successful lawyer, was a neurotic hypochondriac, who suffered a nervous breakdown - as did Wilson himself in his 30s. Wilson's mother was a lonely woman who dominated her "Bunny," as she called her son. (The name stayed with Wilson even in his old age.)

In "The Wound and the Bow," Wilson espoused the theory that genius and disease were bound together. Just as the "wound" of poverty in Dickens' childhood led to the "bow" of his literary art, so - as Dabney sees it - the wound of emotional deprivation sent Wilson on an insatiable search for love, even as it drove him to success as writer and critic par excellence.

Diane Scharper teaches English at Towson University. She is editing a collection of memoirs for The Helen Keller Foundation.

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