Edmund Wilson

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Edmund Wilson
Edmund Wilson.jpg
Born Edmund Wilson
(1895-05-08)May 8, 1895
Red Bank, New Jersey, U.S.
Died June 12, 1972(1972-06-12) (aged 77)
Talcottville, New York, U.S.
Occupation Literary critic, essayist, editor, journalist, writer
Nationality American
Education Princeton University
Genre Fiction, review of fiction
Notable works Axel's Castle, To the Finland Station, Patriotic Gore

Edmund Wilson (May 8, 1895 – June 12, 1972) was an American writer and critic who notably explored Freudian and Marxian themes. He influenced many American fiction-writers, including Scott Fitzgerald, whose unfinished work he edited for publication. His scheme for a Library of America series of national classic works came to fruition after his death.


Early life

Wilson was born in Red Bank, New Jersey. His parents were Helen Mather (née Kimball) and Edmund Wilson, Sr., a lawyer who served as New Jersey Attorney General. Wilson attended The Hill School, a college preparatory boarding school in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, graduating in 1912. At Hill, Wilson served as the editor-in-chief of the school's literary magazine, The Record. From 1912 to 1916, he was educated at Princeton University. Wilson began his professional writing career as a reporter for the New York Sun, and served in the army with Base Hospital 36 from Detroit, Michigan, and later as a translator during the First World War. His family's summer home at Talcottville, New York, known as Edmund Wilson House, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973.[1][2][3]


Wilson was the managing editor of Vanity Fair in 1920 and 1921, and later served as associate editor of The New Republic and as a book reviewer for The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books. His works influenced novelists Upton Sinclair, John Dos Passos, Sinclair Lewis, Floyd Dell, and Theodore Dreiser. He served on the Dewey Commission, that set out to fairly evaluate the charges that led to the exile of Leon Trotsky. He wrote plays, poems, and novels, but his greatest influence was literary criticism.[4]

He played a recurring role throughout Edna St Vincent Millay's life, from the time she was a foreign correspondent for Vanity Fair magazine, 1921 to 1923, to the end of her life.[citation needed]

Axel's Castle: A Study in the Imaginative Literature of 1870–1930 (1931) was a sweeping survey of Symbolism. It covered Arthur Rimbaud, Auguste Villiers de l'Isle-Adam (author of Axel), W. B. Yeats, Paul Valéry, T. S. Eliot, Marcel Proust, James Joyce, and Gertrude Stein.

In his book, To the Finland Station (1940), Wilson studied the course of European socialism, from the 1824 discovery by Jules Michelet of the ideas of Vico culminating in the 1917 arrival of Vladimir Lenin at the Finland Station of Saint Petersburg to lead the Bolsheviks in the Russian Revolution.

In an essay on the work of horror writer H.P. Lovecraft, "Tales of the Marvellous and the Ridiculous" (New Yorker, November 1945; later collected in Classics and Commercials), Wilson condemned Lovecraft's tales as "hackwork".

Edmund Wilson is also well known for his heavy criticism of J. R. R. Tolkien's work The Lord of the Rings, which he referred to as "juvenile trash", saying "Dr. Tolkien has little skill at narrative and no instinct for literary form."[5]

Wilson was interested in modern culture as a whole, and many of his writings go beyond the realm of pure literary criticism. His early works are heavily influenced by the ideas of Freud and Marx, reflecting his deep interest in their work.

Wilson lobbied for the creation of a series of classic US literature similar to France's Bibliothèque de la Pléiade. In 1982, ten years after his death, The Library of America series was launched.[6] Wilson's writing was included in the Library of America in two volumes published in 2007.[7]

Edmund Wilson comments on his contemporaries

On Ernest Hemingway:

“But for reasons I cannot attempt to explain, something dreadful seems to happen to Hemingway as soon as he begins to write in the first person.[8]

On Katherine Ann Porter:

“[She] writes with a purity and precision almost unique in contemporary American fiction…: Though "the meaning of [her] stories is elusive…" they are "beautifully proportioned and finished… absolutely a first-rate artist."[9]

On Kay Boyle:

“I picked up Kay Boyle’s Avalanche in the hope of finding a novel worth reading, and have been somewhat taken aback to get nothing but a piece of pure rubbish.”[10]

On Wallace Stevens:

“Mr. Stevens is the master of style. His gift for combining words is baffling and fantastic, but sure: even when you do not know what he is saying, you know he is saying it well.[11]

On James Joyce:

“Joyce has little respect for the capacities of the readers’s attention…[his novel] Ulysses suffers from an excess of design rather than from a lack of it…Joyce has half buried his story under the virtuosity of his technical style."[12]

"In these wonderful closing pages [of Finnegans Wake], Joyce has put over all he means with poetry of an originality, a purity and an emotional power, such as to raise Finnegans Wake, for all its excesses, to the rank of a great work of literature.".[13]

On H.L. Mencken:

“The striking thing about Mencken’s mind is its ruthlessness and rigidity… Though one of the fairest of critics, he is the least pliant....”[14]

Context and relationships

Wilson's critical works helped foster public appreciation for several novelists: Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Vladimir Nabokov. He was instrumental in establishing the modern evaluation of the works of Dickens and Kipling.[15] Wilson was a friend of the novelist and playwright Susan Glaspell as well as the philosopher Isaiah Berlin.[16]

He attended Princeton with Fitzgerald, who referred to Wilson as his "intellectual conscience".[17] After Fitzgerald's early death (at the age of 44) from a heart attack in December 1940, Wilson edited two books by Fitzgerald (The Last Tycoon and The Crack-Up) for posthumous publication, donating his editorial services to help Fitzgerald's family. Wilson was also a friend of Nabokov, with whom he corresponded extensively and whose writing he introduced to Western audiences. However, their friendship was marred by Wilson's cool reaction to Nabokov's Lolita and irretrievably damaged by Wilson's public criticism of what he considered Nabokov's eccentric translation of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin.

Wilson had many marriages and affairs. His first wife was Mary Blair, who had been in Eugene O'Neill's theatrical company. His second wife was Margaret Canby. After her death in a freak accident two years after their marriage, Wilson wrote a long eulogy to her and said later that he felt guilt over having neglected her. From 1938 to 1946, he was married to Mary McCarthy who, like Wilson, was well known as a literary critic. She admired enormously Wilson's breadth and depth of intellect, and they collaborated on numerous works. In an article in The New Yorker, Louis Menand says "The marriage to McCarthy was a mistake that neither side wanted to be first to admit. When they fought, he would retreat into his study and lock the door; she would set piles of paper on fire and try to push them under it."

He wrote many letters to Anaïs Nin, criticizing her for her surrealistic style as opposed to the realism that was then deemed correct writing, and ended by asking for her hand, saying he would "teach her to write",[citation needed] which she took as an insult. Except for a brief falling out following the publication of I Thought of Daisy, in which Wilson portrayed Edna St Vincent Millay as Rita Cavanaugh, Wilson and Millay remained friends throughout life. He later married Elena Mumm Thornton (previously married to James Worth Thornton), but continued to have extramarital relationships.

The Cold War

Wilson was also an outspoken critic of US Cold War policies. He refused to pay his federal income tax from 1946 to 1955 and was later investigated by the Internal Revenue Service.

After a settlement, Wilson received a $25,000 fine, rather than the original $69,000 sought by the IRS. He received no jail time. In his book The Cold War and the Income Tax: A Protest (1963) Wilson argued that, as a result of competitive militarization against the Soviet Union, the civil liberties of Americans were being paradoxically infringed under the guise of defense from Communism. For these reasons, Wilson also opposed involvement in the Vietnam War.

Selected by President Kennedy to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Wilson, in absentia, was officially awarded the medal on December 6, 1963 by President Johnson.

Wilson's view of Johnson was decidedly negative. Historian Eric F. Goldman writes in his memoir The Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson[18] that when Goldman, on behalf of Johnson, invited Wilson to read from Wilson's writings at a White House Festival of the Arts in 1965: "Wilson declined with a brusqueness that I never experienced before or after in the case of an invitation in the name of the President and First Lady."

For the academic year 1964–65, he was a Fellow on the faculty in the Center for Advanced Studies at Wesleyan University.[19]

"Edmund Wilson regrets..."

Throughout his career, Wilson often answered fan mail and outside requests for his time with this form postcard:

"Edmund Wilson regrets that it is impossible for him to: Read manuscripts, write books and articles to order, write forewords or introductions, make statements for publicity purposes, do any kind of editorial work, judge literary contests, give interviews, conduct educational courses, deliver lectures, give talks or make speeches, broadcast or appear on television, take part in writer's congresses, answer questionnaires, contribute to or take part in symposiums or 'panels' of any kind, contribute manuscripts for sales, donate copies of his books to libraries, autograph books for strangers, allow his name to be used on letterheads, supply personal information about himself, supply photographs of himself, supply opinions on literary or other subjects"[20]


  1. Staff (March 13, 2009). "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>.
  2. Wilson, Edmund (biography), Penn State University (PSU)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>.
  3. "Wilson, Edmund", Literary map, PSU<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>.
  4. Stossel, Scott (November 1, 1996), "The Other Edmund Wilson", The American Prospect, But this has not prevented writers and scholars from trying in recent years to elevate Wilson to what they claim is his rightful status as this century's preeminent American man of letters.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. Wilson, Edmund (April 14, 1956), "Oo, Those awful Orcs!: A review of The Fellowship of the Ring", The Nation, retrieved March 15, 2012<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>.
  6. Gray, Paul (May 3, 1982), "Books: A Library in the Hands", Time<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. McGrath, Charles (October 7, 2007), "A Shaper of the Canon Gets His Place in It", The New York Times, retrieved February 22, 2010<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. Wilson 1952 in Wilson 2007a, p. 505.
  9. Wilson 1950 in Wilson 2007b, pp. 647–50.
  10. Wilson, Edmund (1944), Kay Boyle and The Saturday Evening Post<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>, in Wilson 1950, in Wilson 2007b, p. 575.
  11. Wilson 1921 in Wilson 2007a, p. 50.
  12. Wilson, Edmund (1931), James Joyce<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> in Wilson 2007a, pp. 787–91.
  13. Wilson, Edmund (1941), The Wound and the Bow, p. 271<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>.
  14. Wilson, Edmund (1921), HL Mencken<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> in Wilson 2007a, p. 858.
  15. "1, 2", The Wound and the Bow, University Paperbacks, 1941, cat# 2/6786/27<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>.
  16. Berlin, Isaiah (April 12, 1987). "Edmund Wilson Among the 'Despicable English'". The New York Times. Retrieved June 24, 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  17. Fitzgerald, F. Scott (April 1936). "The Crack-Up". Esquire. Retrieved March 10, 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  18. Goldman, Eric. "The Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson". Amazon. Retrieved August 20, 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  19. Gillispie, Valerie, ed. (June 2008). "Guide to the Center for Advanced Studies Records, 1958–1969". Wesleyan University. Retrieved August 20, 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  20. "Edmund Wilson Regrets..." Anecdotage.com. Archived from the original on April 29, 2014. Retrieved June 8, 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> which cites:



  • Wilson, Edmund (1921), Wallace Stevens and E.E. Cummings<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>.
  • The Undertaker's Garland, (with John Peale Bishop), 1922
  • I Thought of Daisy, 1929.
  • Wilson's Night Thoughts, 1961.
  • Poets, Farewell!, New York, NY: Charles Scribners's Sons, 1929
  • Axel's Castle: A Study in the Imaginative Literature of 1870–1930, New York, NY: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1931
  • The American Jitters: A Year of the Slump, New York, NY: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1932
  • The Triple Thinkers: Ten Essays on Literature, New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co, 1938
  • To the Finland Station: A Study in the Writing and Acting of History, Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1940
  • The Wound and the Bow: Seven Studies in Literature, Cambridge, MA: Riverside Press, 1941
  • The Boys in the Back Room, Colt Press, 1941
  • (editor) The Shock of Recognition: The Development of Literature in the U.S. Recorded by the Men Who Made It, New York, NY: Modern Library, 1943
    • Volume I. The Nineteenth Century
    • Volume II. The Twentieth Century
  • Wilson, Edmund (1946), Memoirs of Hecate County, Garden City, NY: Doubleday<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>.
  • Wilson, Edmund (1948), The Triple Thinkers: Twelve Essays on Literary Subjects, New York, NY: Farrar, Straus & Co<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>.
  • ——— (1950), Classics and Commercials: A Literary Chronicle of the Forties, New York, NY: Farrar, Straus & Co<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>.
  • ——— (1952), The Shores of Light: A Literary Chronicle of the Twenties and Thirties, New York, NY: Farrar, Straus & Young<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>.
  • The Scrolls from the Dead Sea, Fontana, 1955
  • Red, Black, Blond and Olive: Studies in Four Civilizations: Zuni; Haiti; Soviet Russia; Israel, London: WH Allen, 1956
  • A Piece of My Mind: Reflections at Sixty, New York, NY: Farrar, Straus & Cudahy, 1956
  • The American Earthquake: A Documentary of the Twenties and Thirties (A Documentary of the Jazz Age, the Great Depression, and the New Deal), Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1958
  • Apologies to the Iroquois, New York, NY: Vintage, 1960
  • Patriotic Gore: Studies in the Literature of the American Civil War, New York, NY: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1962. Title "Patriotic Gore" was taken from the song "Maryland, My Maryland".
  • The Cold War and the Income Tax: A protest, New York, NY: Farrar, Straus & Co., 1964
  • O Canada: An American's Notes on Canadian Culture, New York, NY: Farrar, Straus & Co., 1965
  • The Bit Between My Teeth: A Literary Chronicle of 1950–1965, New York, NY: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1966
  • Europe without Baedeker: Sketches among the Ruins of Italy, Greece and England, with Notes from a European Diary: 1963–64: Paris, Rome, Budapest, London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1967
  • The Dead Sea Scrolls, 1947–1969, Oxford University Press, 1969, ISBN 0‐19500665‐8
  • Upstate: Records and Recollections of Northern New York, New York, NY: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1971

Posthumous books

  • The Twenties: From Notebooks and Diaries of the Period, ed. Leon Edel, New York, NY: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1975
  • Letters on Literature and Politics, ed. Elena Wilson, New York, NY: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1977
  • The Thirties: From Notebooks and Diaries of the Period, ed. Leon Edel, New York, NY: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1980
  • The Forties: From Notebooks and Diaries of the Period, ed. Leon Edel, New York, NY: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1983
  • Wilson, Edmund (1986), Edel, Leon (ed.), The Fifties: From Notebooks and Diaries of the Period, New York, NY: Farrar, Straus & Giroux<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>.
  • ——— (1992), Groth, Janet; Castronovo, David (eds.), Edmund Wilson: The Man in Letters, Athens, OH: Ohio University Press<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>.
  • ——— (1993), Dabney, Lewis M (ed.), The Sixties: The Last Journal 1960–1972, New York, NY: Farrar, Straus & Giroux<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>.
  • ——— (2001) [1979], Karlinsky, Simon (ed.), Dear Bunny, Dear Volodya: The Nabokov-Wilson Letters, 1940–1971 (revised & expanded ed.), Berkeley, CA: University of California Press<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>.
  • ——— (2007a), Dabney, Lewis M (ed.), Literary Essays and Reviews of the 1920s & 30s: The Shores of Light, Axel's Castle, Uncollected Reviews, New York: Library of America, ISBN 978-1-59853-013-1<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>.
  • ——— (2007b), Dabney, Lewis M (ed.), Literary Essays and Reviews of the 1930s & 40s: The Triple Thinkers, The Wound and the Bow, Classics and Commercials, Uncollected Reviews, New York: Library of America, ISBN 978-1-59853-014-8<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>.


  • "Books: Two Russian Exiles: Paul Chavchavadze and Oksana Kasenkina", The New Yorker, 25 (46), pp. 74, 77–79, January 7, 1950<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>. Reviews Chavchavadze's Family Memoirs and Kasenkina's Leap to Freedom.


  • Presidential Medal of Freedom, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>.

External links