A Life in Literature

By Lewis M. Dabney

Farrar Straus Giroux. 642 pp. $35 By the late 1930s, as H.L. Mencken gradually lost interest in new books and turned his gaze to cultural and political matters, Edmund Wilson had become the predominant literary critic in the United States. He remained that until his death in 1972, without any real competition, and three decades later he still towers above everyone else, the standard against which everyone else must be measured and, inevitably, found wanting. His range was astonishingly broad, his intuition keen, his taste impeccable, his prose bold and lucid. By contrast with the "critics" in academia today, who write in jargon and speak only to one another, Wilson saw it as his mission to introduce worthy writers to intelligent lay readers, to "persuade people of their importance and persuade people to read them."

If Wilson is to this day a monumental figure in American letters, Wilson himself was something considerably less: arrogant, demanding, self-centered, priapic, alcoholic, abusive. His only son, Reuel, remembered his "fear-inspiring temper" and "stentorian voice." He had four wives and was repeatedly unfaithful to all of them. The most notable of those marriages, to Mary McCarthy, was tempestuous, and there is reason to suspect that he struck her in anger. He had important literary friendships, most notably with F. Scott Fitzgerald and Vladimir Nabokov, but he was an unreliable friend who could turn venomous and derisive without warning. He thought the world owed him a living, mooched off his mother when he felt the occasion warranted it and declined to pay taxes for many years until the IRS finally caught up with him.

All of which is to say that he presents formidable difficulties for a biographer. On the one hand there is his immense life's work, to be sorted out, evaluated and interpreted. On the other hand there is his frequently sordid private life, also to be sorted out, evaluated and interpreted. Lewis M. Dabney, a professor of English at the University of Wyoming who has dedicated much of the past four decades to tending Wilson's flame, approaches both tasks methodically and dutifully, though one senses from time to time that he really does wish Wilson had been a nicer fellow. His reading of Wilson's work is careful, sometimes thoughtful, and he is inclined to give Wilson the benefit of the doubt when private matters arise, occasionally when Wilson clearly doesn't deserve it.

Wilson was born in 1895 in New Jersey (in Red Bank, the birthplace a decade later of another important but very different American, William "Count" Basie), the only son of a prominent lawyer and his extroverted, complicated wife. His mother called the baby "Bunny," a nickname that stuck to him for the rest of his life, becoming ever more incongruous as he matured into a fat, clumsy, owlish man. He went to Princeton, where he assumed leadership of the literary set, befriended Fitzgerald, John Peale Bishop and others, and began to give evidence of his remarkable critical faculties. By 1920 he was in New York, working at Vanity Fair and having an affair with Edna St. Vincent Millay, the poet who "portrayed herself as buried alive, yet embraced the world with passion." She had charisma and sexuality to burn, and though her liaison with Wilson didn't last long, "her dramatic presence would resonate in his mind for thirty years, portrayed in poems, a novel, his journals, and his memoir."

The job at Vanity Fair didn't last long, either. Wilson was by inclination and temperament a freelance, and although he later had important connections with the New Republic (his tenure from 1926 to 1931 as an associate editor in charge of the literary section was one of uninterrupted brilliance) and the New Yorker, mostly he lived from assignment to assignment, book to book: "The magazine criticism he wrote produced little income, and he had an inkling that, in Melville's phrase, he would be 'damned by dollars' -- always pressing publishers for advances and haggling over contracts, doing reviews that distracted him from larger projects, reusing magazine pieces in book form. Until the 1950s his lifestyle would be far from his parents' comfortable Edwardian one."

Wilson published a novel, I Thought of Daisy, in 1929, but it was two years later, with Axel's Castle, that he made his reputation. His readings therein of Proust, Joyce, Eliot and others were acute and, "though its sales amounted to no more than a thousand copies a year," hugely influential; it is no exaggeration to say, as Dabney does, that "a generation discovered modern literature in this book." With that he was on his way, publishing more than three dozen books. Some were collections of his own work, some were compendiums of the work of others. Among the latter, the most important is The Shock of Recognition (1943), which may have done as much as any other book to introduce American readers to their own country's literature.

Late in life, alarmed by the war in Vietnam and embittered by his struggles with the IRS, Wilson had something of a falling out with his native land, but for most of his career he was a passionate advocate of its literature. He believed that literature was "an instrument of human progress" and an ally in "the struggle for a better American society." Like innumerable other American intellectuals of his day, he flirted with Marxism, but exposure to Stalinist Russia left him "pleased to discover again the resilience of his own country, where, despite vast inequalities of wealth, the money is always changing hands and 'we have the class quarrel out as we go along.' " He believed that a healthy American literature was essential to a healthy America, and he sought to lead readers to what he saw as the best American writing.

That, however, was only the beginning of Wilson's interests. In The Wound and the Bow (1941), he explored the influence of psychological suffering in the work of various writers, most notably in the essay "Dickens: The Two Scrooges." Though in time he came to regret his early infatuation with Lenin, his account of the Russian Revolution, To the Finland Station (1940), remains vigorous and perceptive. Late in his life, at a time when most writers are winding down -- if they haven't already done so -- he caught a second wind and produced three extraordinary books. The Scrolls from the Dead Sea (1955) made an important archaeological discovery accessible to the general reader. Patriotic Gore (1962) explored "American character and culture as they were dramatized in the Civil War." Upstate (1971), about his own life in the New York countryside he so deeply loved and about his family's connections there, made that little corner of the world a metaphor for everything that was important to him about America.

All of this is what matters to us about Wilson. The rest of the story that Dabney tells does not. He tells it conscientiously and, as mentioned above, dutifully, but the net effect of Edmund Wilson: A Life in Literature is to leave one wondering why, precisely, books such as this are written. To be sure, one must marvel that Wilson could have done such an incredible amount of major work when so much of the time he was drunk, but that is merely another footnote to the long story of writers and booze. Our curiosity about the innermost sources of any writer's work is understandable and legitimate, but page after page of drunken bouts and sexual conquests really tell us little except that this is a man we care to meet only in the words he wrote. As the fourth of his wives once said, "When I read his work I forgive him all his sins." Wise words indeed, to which must be added: If the sins have been forgiven, why bother to chronicle them? *

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardleyj@washpost.com.

Edmund Wilson