Edmund Wilson: A Life in Literature, by Lewis Dabney

reviewed by
Warren Leming

Late in life when confronted by the mindless consumerism of Life magazine Edmund Wilson said: “I do not belong to the country depicted there... I do not even live in that country.” Every page of Lewis Dabney’s long awaited biography of Wilson is shadowed by his subject’s realization that the America which he had written of and praised; the world which he had come from was gone. Edmund Wilson had become a ghost.

Wilson’s life parallels America’s rise to world power; to the humiliation of Vietnam and its descent into a National Security State overseen by arms dealing bureaucrats. His final years were soured by his conviction that everything he had championed had been defeated. Wilson’s long life (1895-1972), from his days at Princeton mentoring F. Scott Fitzgerald, to his extended battle with the Internal Revenue, and his ultimate disillusion, in its incidents rivals that of  Samuel Pepys or John Evelyn. Patrician as Wilson may seem, Dabney does not shy from depicting graphic personal details that could belong just as easily to the  seventeenth century.

Wilson’s mother was a Kimball who traced her ancestry to the Puritan Divine, Cotton Mather. His father had been New Jersey’s Attorney General, and had President Woodrow Wilson lived, a Supreme Court Justice. Caught as a child between tyrannizing parents, he was a privileged pawn in an interminable family drama. His mother, on hearing his father diagnosed as ‘mad,’ had gone deaf, and his father, who lost but one case in the course of a long legal career, slowly descended into hypochondria and isolation behind a felt lined door. Wilson, educated at the exclusive Hill School and later at Princeton, was studious; a typical product of the Eastern establishment until, on entering the Army as an enlisted man in 1917, he witnessed military incompetence; the horrors of the First World War; and, up close, people who were not of his lofty class. The combination changed him forever. On returning from the War, scarred by what he had seen and determined “never again to live trivially or indifferently,” he mocked his time at Princeton:

I too have faked the glamour of gray towers
I too have sung the ease of sultry hours,
Deep woods, sweet lanes, wide playing fields, and
smooth ponds
 --Where clean boys train to sell their country’s  bonds.

Having put the ‘instinctive snobbishness’ of his class behind him, he declares himself a Socialist and rooms in Greenwich Village where he falls in love with the poetess Edna St. Vincent Millay. Millay, a femme fatale and Pulitzer Prize winner, betrayed him with élan, but set him on a sexual career that still dazzles. He recycles his college work to small journals and magazines, and determined to succeed as a journalist and critic, wrangles a job at Vanity Fair.

His mates at Princeton he said: “stayed with their class,” while Wilson, perpetually attired in a Brooks Brothers suit, tie and white  shirt, embraced New York bohemian life with a zest that would never flag. Wilson came into his own in the Roaring Twenties with its heady mix of Bootleg alcohol, intense talk, Bohemian camaraderie, romance,  and enduring friendship. He goes to work for Frank Crowninshield, a self- promoting Bostonian, at Vanity Fair; meets Benchley, Dorothy Parker, George  S. Kaufman, and the rest of the Algonquin Round Table; is promoted to managing editor; mentored by H. L. Mencken; declares war on the Philistine and reads  Marx and Freud. His friendship with F. Scott Fitzgerald proved durable, though Wilson could be a prickly mentor, and Fitzgerald a feckless and irritating drunk. Wilson describes a disastrous dinner with the novelist Edith Wharton and a drunken Fitzgerald desperate to impress the proper aristocrat. Dabney is not alone in marveling at Wilson’s extraordinary capacity for drink. Wilson’s work habits were unvarying, and long periods of writing invariably preceded heavy drinking.

His drinking almost cost him his final and happiest marriage to Elena Mumm, who took to suggesting that something be purchased by remarking :”Edmund, this will only cost ten bottles of Johnny  Walker.” Wilson’s first marriage to the actress Mary Blair produces one child, Rosalind, and is soon over. He marries the Californian  Margaret Canby and she dies of a fall shortly after. Wilson will dream guiltily of her for the rest of his life. Left a single parent with a nine year old, Wilson leaves his daughter to his mother’s care and conducts a series of liaisons, most of which found their way visibly into his work. All the same, he meticulously recorded the details of his sexual life. When interested, he was an  inspired conversationalist and commenting on his long list of  conquests admitted candidly: "I talked them into it."  His marriage, in the early Forties, to Mary McCarthy, proves a protracted disaster. “You were too young and I was too old,” he later lamented.

The Depression sharpens Wilson’s maverick revolutionary impulses, and he writes To the Finland Station, still a definitive study of Marx’s ideas and of the men whom he and Engels drew on in their battle with a capitalism only just beginning to assert its power.  

Wilson’s complicated transition from Village bohemian to Communist following the Crash is a contorted tale and Dabney is at some pains to get it all straight. The vicious cross-fire between Stalinists and Trotskyites complicated Wilson’s literary appeal, which was not primarily to workers but to Liberal readers who were leery of or hostile to Marxism. He hoped, he said: ‘to disarm’ them. He was anxious that Americans take communism from the Soviets and rework it according to homegrown democratic values, and in this he was prescient, as the Comintern dominated US party went from a series of catastrophes to self-liquidation.  Sydney Hook wrote of Finland Station that "there was nothing which equals the insight, the eloquence, and the essential justice’ of Wilson’s treatment of the sources of Marxism."  Dabney justifiably calls Finland Station “the most significant imaginative work to come out of the Thirties.’ It remains today an engrossing analysis of Marx and Engels, and of those, like Michelet, who inspired them. Following a tour of the Soviet Union in 1935 financed by a Guggenheim, Wilson became classed a Trotskyite and  ‘renegade’ by Party hacks.

The Forties find him hobnobbing with Stravinsky and Auden and trapped in an unhappy marriage. He lacked the dominating presence necessary for success as a guest professor and found academic atmospheres, English departments, and literary types enervating and soulless, but his tenuous finances demanded long periods lecturing in his thin, quavering tenor at Harvard, Yale, and the University of Chicago. The depth and breath of Wilson's erudition astounded, and he remained a Victorian in his absolute insistence on strength in the face of all that life deals those who insist on living as Hemingway said: ‘at the top.’ By the Nineteen Fifties he has seen through the ‘American Century’ and rejects the Cold War triumphalism and reactionary opinion that find his old friends Dos Passos and Allan Tate embracing Conservatism and an antiquated racism. He learns Hebrew, and writes a book on the Dead Sea Scrolls, still  widely praised. But the Republic to which he had dedicated so much of his intellectual energy has ceased to represent either progress or sanity.

The Second World War puts an end to attempts at changing the United States, and instead much of what Wilson had valued is subverted in the long fight to defeat Fascism. Wilson’s final years are spent chronicling Upstate New York: and  his family’s long history at the Talcottville home he retreated to in the last years of his life. He writes a book damning the Cold War and the income tax, and wages a long struggle over his own tax delinquency with the IRS; finally resolved with some help from well-placed friends.  

What remains of his work? The American Jitters is a prophetic look at the Thirties, and in its interviews and sharp narration suggests Studs Terkel and the New Journalism. To the Finland Station, The Cold War and the Income Tax, Patriotic Gore, and the literary criticism are not just the works of a daunting polymath but all break new ground as well. Wilson abandoned the Stalinists following the purges, and watched as the Second World War puts an end to efforts to liberalize and democratize the US - in favor of an anti-Fascist crusade, which will mutate to the McCarthyism and post War ultra-conservatism he deplored. Wilson was a progressive whose life and attitudes spanned the Victorian and Modern ages.  His conviction that Socialism would both improve culture and the human gene pool was not uncommon among Progressives of his day.  

Wilson’s friendships were deep and longstanding: his letters at Yale number over seventy thousand. But the histories of those around him; Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Dos Passos, John Peale Bishop, Allen Tate, John Crowe Ransom, Edna Millay, and boyhood friends, Sandy Wilson and Ted Paramore are tales of dissolution, waste, instability and finally ultra-conservatism: Wilson mourns them, and passes on muttering a Hebrew phrase he would repeat each morning: “Be Strong, Be strong,” and continues to the end prolific, focused, performing prodigies of work uncorrupted by cant, or the ‘New Criticism’ he came to detest. He mourned the passing of the world he had loved, and its gradual erosion by the corporate Capitalists and bureaucrats he felt had vulgarized and nullified the old American traditions of honesty and rectitude whose history he had helped write.

As he wrote of Chief Justice Holmes: ‘The American Constitution was, as he came to declare, an experiment - what was to come of our democratic society it was impossible for a philosopher to tel l- but he had taken responsibility for its working, he had subsisted and achieved his fame through his tenure of the place it had given him, and he returned to the treasury of the Union the little that he had to leave.” The perfect balance of this sentence is at once proof of Wilson’s great gifts and stark evidence of the vast distances that now separate us from those who once selflessly served this Republic and made it, for a time, a place of great hope and promise.

Warren Leming is a writer and critic based in Chicago and Berlin.