Stefan Collini

  • Edmund Wilson: A Life in Literature by Lewis Dabney
    Farrar, Straus, 642 pp, £35.00, August 2005, ISBN 0 374 11312 2

Edmund Wilson has become an object of fantasy. A lot of desire is currently invested in him as the representative of a cherished role: the critic-as-generalist, the man of letters as cultural critic, or what in the last decade or more it has become common in the United States to call the ‘public intellectual’. Fantasies are, by definition, about the not-present, and all of these notions are deployed to express a sense of absence or loss, a form of keening for a vanished world. Now, it is said, we only have specialists, experts who address other experts, uninterested in and unintelligible to those outside the walls; but then, wide-ranging, readable critics addressed their fellow common readers on equal terms (quite when ‘then’ was turns out to be tricky to pin down). Cultural controversies fuelled by this fantasy promote the need for icons, and this is what has led so many parts to be scripted for Wilson – the modern Dr Johnson, the American Sainte-Beuve, the last of the men of letters, the man who read everything.

There is something about the surviving pictures of Wilson that uncannily colludes with this process: the stubby, solid figure, with its big head and staring eyes, as though Evelyn Waugh had been reincarnated as a Roundhead; the dark three-piece suit, an interposing formality signalling that ceremony is a proper thing to stand on; the shadowed, book-lined interiors in which he sits, robed and ready to pass judgment. It is all too easy to see him as the Sydney Greenstreet of literature, holding court in a private room across from Rick’s Bar.

In addition, these nostalgic celebrations of Wilson make him out to be one of those figures to whom, when History was thinking of coming to a turning-point, it made sure an invitation was sent. He was at the Western Front during the First World War, in Manhattan in the Jazz Age, on the picket-line during the Great Depression, in the Soviet Union just before the news of Stalin’s butchery started to become widely known. Although his relations with the Zeitgeist soured in the second half of his career, the invitations kept coming. He managed to be in place to write one of the first reports on the state of Europe at the end of the Second World War; to be on hand for the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls; to champion Native American peoples being driven off their ancestral lands in upstate New York, where he had a house; to be a slightly reluctant literary adornment to Camelot during the Kennedy era; to take a highly visible stand against the Vietnam War; and so on. As his journals and letters make clear, he knew everybody (and the very fact that he kept such discursive journals and wrote such copious letters contributes to his iconic standing). As he liked to tell it, he caught the springtime of Modernism and the autumn of Culture. Part of the fantasy he has come to embody is the yearning for a period when it seemed easier to be at the heart of things.

Even while still alive, Wilson had become a semi-mythical figure in American letters (writing about him always tends towards grandly archaic phrases such as ‘American letters’). He played up to people’s expectations, mischievously combining the parts of doyen and bad boy. He really does seem to have detested what he identified as the academic spirit, but he also knew that he had become a stick with which other people could beat whatever it was they didn’t like about universities and academic literary criticism. His late squib against the professors, The Fruits of the MLA (1968), was not just an idiosyncratic contribution to what has become the tiresome ritual of MLA-bashing in the American press; it was also a calculated deployment of his considerable cultural standing to stoke the ever smouldering fires of middlebrow prejudice.

Over the last two decades or more, certainly since the publication of Russell Jacoby’s The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe (1987), there has been a minor boom in polemical recensions of recent American intellectual history, each of which has attempted to pinpoint when the ‘public intellectual’ was finally supplanted by the ‘academic expert’ (it has been part of the crudity of this literature to assume that these are mutually exclusive categories). The so-called ‘New York Intellectuals’ of the 1940s and 1950s – and it was these Jacoby had in mind – feature in practically every round-up of suspects: figures such as Clement Greenberg, Philip Rahv, Lionel Trilling. But outdoing them all in his credentials for the title-role is Wilson, the freelance writer who never held a regular academic position and who, it is claimed, wrote authoritatively on questions of literature, culture and politics, matters that are now parcelled out among half a dozen non-communicating university departments. These narratives are nearly all to a greater or lesser extent unhistorical, condensing into a single, dramatic turnaround complex developments that have been taking place for well over a century and which anyway do not all point in the same direction; but each retelling of this overworked story only magnifies the symbolic importance of ‘Edmund Wilson’, the locus of unmanageable amounts of longing and regret.

There is also a subtler anachronism at work in these broadbrush accounts, since Wilson did not belong to the generation before the Fall, the generation supposedly furnishing the examples of the now lost ‘critic as intellectual’, those emblematic figures such as Trilling or Irving Howe who assumed their cultural inheritance in the 1940s and 1950s. Wilson, born in 1895, came into his own in the 1920s. It underlines his remoteness to recall that he had already graduated from Princeton before America entered the First World War. His masters, as he himself acknowledged, were H.L. Mencken and George Bernard Shaw. Even the most ideologically liquored-up combatant in the culture wars of the last couple of decades might blanch at taking them as models. The sobering fact is that, by the time ‘the last intellectuals’ were in their pomp, it was already too late for anyone else plausibly to set about trying to be another Edmund Wilson.

All this means that it is hard to get a clear sight of Wilson now, something which the sheer volume and variousness of his writing anyway make difficult. Fortunately, Lewis Dabney appears to be a man of firm purpose. Dabney wrote his PhD on Wilson more than forty years ago, and has been gathering biographical material for decades. Along the way he has contributed to Wilsoniana by editing The Portable Edmund Wilson (1983), the last volume of his journals, The Sixties (1993), and a collection of Centennial Reflections (1997). But proceeding in this comprehensive and methodical way allowed the honour of completing the first full life to fall, almost inevitably, to the swift and prolific Jeffrey Meyers, whose biography appeared in 1995. Dabney’s is a more thorough and fully documented account, one which occasionally casts a sceptical eye over claims made by some of its sources, including those of Wilson himself. His biography is for the most part as readable and judicious as it is deeply informed. Perhaps because Wilson’s life was itself so frenetic in his early adult years, perhaps because it is hard for a biographer to omit laboriously garnered details, the chapters on the 1920s and 1930s struggle at times to retain their shape – though maybe life really was just one damn party after another. By contrast, Dabney is particularly good on Wilson’s later years (he died in 1972), not least because he organises his material more thematically. He is also both attentive to and astute about Wilson’s writing – while remaining, as such a lifetime’s devotion suggests, a great admirer.

Wilson came from fairly typical comfortably-off East Coast Protestant professional stock of the Progressive era, and enjoyed the advantages of private schooling and Princeton when the latter was still partly a drinking club for young Southern gentlemen. He attributed his own widened social sympathies to his service as a private in the US medical corps in France in 1917-18, though in later life the manners and attachments of his class were what struck younger observers. It had been clear from his schooldays that he wanted to write. What now seems striking is the confidence with which he set out not just to write, but to have an all-round literary career. It wasn’t, as with some aspiring writers, that he had a novel in him that just wouldn’t let him get on with living until it had transferred itself onto the page; nor was it, as with some others, that the impulse to write poetry kept overtaking him and reminding him that he was not put on earth for lesser tasks. Wilson, it’s true, did want to write both novels and poems, but from remarkably early on he seems to have had the more middle-aged aspiration to become a ‘man of letters’. After he had completed his war service, he set about realising this aspiration in the approved manner: in the summer of 1919 (when he was 24) he moved to Greenwich Village and set up his writing-table. ‘He wrote steadily and, not letting rejection slips unnerve or discourage him, made a list of magazines and systematically circulated everything he’d written.’ He ‘wrote steadily’ for the rest of his life.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in