Edmund Wilson (1895-1972) was America's most influential literary critic from the early 1920s through the 1950s. During those decades, his reviews and essays in such publications as Vanity Fair, the New Republic and especially the New Yorker introduced readers to many new writers. For example, Wilson encouraged his good friend and former fellow Princeton student F. Scott Fitzgerald and personally rekindled Fitzgerald's literary reputation with a series of essays after the author's early death. Wilson was the first in the U.S. to review Ernest Hemingway's work, the first to consider Yeats the great modern poet and the critic who helped to introduce the work of James Joyce, Gertrude Stein and Edith Wharton to a general audience. In later years, Wilson praised the work of his friends W.H. Auden and Vladimir Nabokov and promoted the work of Israeli author S.Y. Agnon before that author received the Nobel Prize in literature.
But Wilson was concerned with more than literature. His wide-ranging intellectual curiosity led him to report on the U.S. during the Depression and the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. He explored the literature of the Civil War and religious ceremonies of Native Americans. He also shared his travel experiences in Stalin's Russia of the 1930s, Europe after World War II and other places. Lewis M. Dabney's Edmund Wilson: A Life in Literature brings the tempestuous private life of its subject including his four marriages, the third to another prominent literary figure, Mary McCarthy and his incredibly productive writing life into sharp focus. Wilson wrote much about himself, and his journals and correspondence have long been available. Dabney uses these sources, but he has gone far beyond them to talk with Wilson's friends and to do other research for a more balanced perspective. Perhaps Dabney's greatest accomplishment is to demonstrate the depth of Wilson's achievement and why it was and remains important.
Dabney describes Wilson as the last great critic in the English line. What led to his pre-eminence, Dabney says, was that Readers respond to what Auden called the unassertive elegance of his prose, to his vigorous narrative rhythm, his reserve of apt and forceful imagery, and his art of quotation. As a critic he correlates the writing of others with their personalities, and in all his work sympathy is matched to relentless analysis. Dabney relates in fascinating detail how Wilson's body of work, which also includes fiction, poetry and plays, came into being and points out strengths as well as weaknesses in certain works.
Not long after Wilson's graduation from college, his father asked Don't you think you ought to concentrate on something? Wilson replied, Father, what I want to do is to try to get to know something about all the main departments of human thought. He probably did not reach that objective, but he certainly got further along than many of us. Even those who have never heard of or read Wilson may have been touched by him: he was the prime mover behind what we know today as The Library of America, uniform editions of the works of major U.S. authors, even though publication of that series did not begin until after his death. And contemporary writers continue to be influenced by him. Perhaps the most prominent example is Louis Menand, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning The Metaphysical Club was inspired by Wilson's To the Finland Station. Roger Bishop is a Nashville bookseller and a frequent contributor to BookPage.