Edmund Wilson
Literary Essays and Reviews of the 1920s and ’30s
Library of America, $40, 958 pp.

Edmund Wilson
Literary Essays and Reviews of the 1930s and ’40s
Library of America, $40, 979 pp.


Edmund Wilson is one of the few American critics to command a wide audience, or to merit one. During his long career, which stretched over fifty years, he lived by his pen and assiduously avoided any lengthy classroom assignments. Yet he was among the great teachers of the twentieth century.

Wilson’s own liberal education was only beginning when he graduated from Princeton in 1916, and he shared its progress with thousands of appreciative readers. Having already mastered Greek, Latin, French, Italian, Russian, and Hebrew, at sixty-five he took up the study of Hungarian, in order to explicate its literary riches for his readers. Shortly before his death in 1972, Wilson lamented that he was too old to take a run at Chinese.

Late in life Wilson also complained of the pedantry that afflicted the official editions of canonical American writers authorized by the academics at the Modern Language Association. The readers to whom and for whom he spoke deserved better. “The editing of the classical American writers has got to be an academic racket that is coming between these writers and the public to which they ought to be accessible,” he wrote. “I have for a long time had the project of getting out the American classics in a series similar to the Pléiade editions published by Gallimard in France...well but not pretentiously edited, well-printed on thin paper, and not impossibly priced.”

This vision underlies the admirable Library of America, which began publication in 1982 and has thus far brought out more than 170 volumes. Now the Library has got around to paying tribute to its founding visionary with two substantial volumes of Wilson’s literary essays from the interwar decades. Other writers who were first-rate critics have already had generous selections of their criticism published in the series, Edgar Allan Poe and Henry James among them. But Wilson is, appropriately enough, the first writer whose criticism is his ticket to such canonization.

These volumes include Axel’s Castle (1931), Wilson’s guide to modernist poetry and prose; four previously published collections of his literary essays—Shores of Light, The Triple Thinkers, The Wound and the Bow, and Classics and Commercials; and a generous selection of previously uncollected reviews. Much of this material appeared originally in magazines such as Vanity Fair and the New Republic, where Wilson served as literary editor from 1926 to 1931.

Lest the two thousand pages gathered here (on thin paper) strike anyone as insufficient testimony to Wilson’s prodigious productivity in these years, I would observe that the volumes exclude a substantial output of poems, plays, stories, memoirs, and travelogues, as well as a novel (I Thought of Daisy), an imaginative anthology (The Shock of Recognition), and his extensive Depression reportage (much of it collected in American Earthquake). Absent as well is Wilson’s finest book of this period, To the Finland Station (1940), his extraordinary history of Marxist thought and politics.

Yet, even so, I am hard-pressed briefly to list, let alone describe, the particular riches of these compilations. A select baker’s dozen of standout pieces would include an admiring early review of Eliot’s Wasteland; an uncollected tribute to H. L. Mencken; the chapters on Yeats, Proust, and Joyce in Axel’s Castle; probing considerations of the “ambiguities” (sexual and textual) of Henry James, the moral imagination of Hemingway, and the politics of Flaubert in The Triple Thinkers; a warm appreciation in the same volume of the long-forgotten critic John Jay Chapman; the long essays on the traumas and triumphs of Dickens and Kipling from The Wound and the Bow; and the tribute to Edna Saint Vincent Millay, Wilson’s first lover, with which he concluded Shores of Light.

This is not to say readers will not rightly skip around in these volumes: when you have read one evisceration of the stodgy “New Humanists” Irving Babbitt and Paul Elmer More, you need not read three more. Nor is it to credit Wilson with uncontestable judgment: one might well differ with his estimates, both high (Millay, Woodrow Wilson, Lenin) and low (Wallace Stevens, Kafka, Dorothy Sayers). Yet he always has an argument worth engaging.

Wilson’s approach to criticism can be gleaned from the tribute to one of his teachers, Princeton professor Christian Gauss, to whom he dedicated Axel’s Castle. “Gauss’s understanding of the techniques of art,” Wilson said, “was combined, as is not always the case, with a highly developed sense of history, as well as a sense of morality.” In his lectures, Gauss “would show you what an author was aiming at and the methods he had adopted to achieve his ends.” He had a keen eye for the unstated assumptions of an epoch that infused a writer’s work but “he was interested also in individuals and liked to bring out the traits of a literary personality.”

All of this Wilson, unlike Gauss, put on the page, and hence his classroom outlives him. His best essays are full yet compact portraits that combine fair, sympathetic description and exposition of often difficult texts, a rich infusion of historical and biographical context, carefully weighed judgments, and, not least, extraordinary writing.

Consider, for example, Wilson’s treatment of Proust and À la Recherche du Temps Perdu, which includes a remarkable extended summary of the huge novel that might have the effect of deterring grateful readers from plunging into the six volumes themselves were it not for the thoroughly compelling case Wilson makes for the riches—intellectual, aesthetic, and moral—to be reaped from engaging Proust’s mind and imagination first-hand. This is the last sentence of the essay:

Proust is perhaps the last great historian of the loves, the society, the intelligence, the diplomacy, the literature, and the art of the Heartbreak House of capitalist culture; and the little man with the sad appealing voice, the metaphysician’s mind, the Saracen’s beak, the ill-fitting dress shirt and the great eyes that seem to see all about him like the many-faceted eyes of a fly, dominates the scene and plays host in the mansion where he is not long to be master.

Wilson said that Gauss “made us all want to write something in which every word, every cadence, every detail, should perform a definite function in producing an intense effect.” In Wilson’s case, the desire found fulfillment, again and again.

Robert Westbrook is the author, most recently, of Democratic Hope: Pragmatism and the Politics of Truth (Cornell).

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Published in the 2008-04-25 issue: View Contents
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