Grumpy Good Samaritan

My Debt to Edmund Wilson

The publication of Lewis M. Dabney’s Edmund Wilson: A Life in Literature (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) has once again brought the critical mind of Edmund Wilson to our attention. Wilson (1895-1972) was an important figure in American literary and intellectual culture, but the truth is that since his death he hasn’t proved to be considered as important as he should be. For those who admired his writing during his lifetime, it’s hard to believe how quickly he sank from sight after his death. Who knows when he will bob up again? So I’m enjoying this reemergence while it lasts.

I wrote my doctoral dissertation on Wilson nearly twenty years ago, and it’s still the rare week that I don’t think of him. No one with his grasp, clarity, and honesty-not to mention his impatience for what he considered “twaddle”-has taken his place in intellectual or literary America, and we are the worse for it. It’s not that Wilson was never wrong as a literary critic, cultural historian, or social observer-his declaration that with the advent of the Russian Revolution mankind had for the first time taken control of its destiny was pretty wide of the mark-but that he always held the highest expectations for those he wrote for or argued with.

Almost fifty years ago, when Wilson was sixty years of age, he wrote a passage I enjoy now more than I could have when I first read it. Born at the end of the nineteenth century, Wilson’s...

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About the Author

Paul K. Johnston teaches American literature at SUNY Plattsburgh.