A Life in Literature
By Lewis M. Dabney,
New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005
Hard back: ISBN: 0374113122 Price: $35.00
Lewis Dabney has produced the definitive biography of Wilson, combining the life, work, and literary history in roughly equal measures.
Edmund Wilson is often referred to as America's last man of letters. He published fiction, poetry, plays, reviews, criticism, and (posthumously) extensive journals and letters, yet he was never affiliated with any academic institution. His reading was prodigious and his writing equally so; in his lifetime he published some forty books over a fifty-year career, with more than a dozen additional titles coming out after his death.
Lewis Dabney, a professor of English at the University of Wyoming, has produced the definitive biography of Wilson, combining the life, work, and literary history in roughly equal measures. Dabney met Wilson in the early 1960s and wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on him in 1965. He edited Viking's Portable Edmund Wilson in 1983 (later expanded as The Edmund Wilson Reader in 1997) and was selected to edit Wilson's final volume of journals, The Sixties (1993). It can truly be said that Dabney has been working on his subject for nearly forty-five years, and a number of scholars, Wilson collectors, and educated readers have been anticipating this book for the past decade.
Wilson was born May 8, 1895, in Red Bank, New Jersey. He attended Princeton (class of '16) along with F. Scott Fitzgerald (a lifelong friend), served in France from 1917 to 1919 as a stretcher-carrier, and joined the staff of Vanity Fair in 1920. From 1925 to 1940, he was the literary editor of The New Republic, then moved to The New Yorker in 1943, an association that would last, with interruptions, to the end of his life. Dabney covers Wilson's love affairs—noted in extravagant detail in his journals—with Edna St. Vincent Millay, among others, and his four marriages, including his stormy third marriage to Mary McCarthy and his last one to Elena Mumm Thornton, partial heir to the champagne fortune.
Dabney treats both the life and work, with extensive analysis of Wilson's major books. He is especially good at covering events leading up to Wilson's breakdown in 1929, and he gives shape to Wilson's life and career by seeing the period after 1945 as "a second flowering," a period in which he settled down and began taking stock of his own life and the literary life to which he had been witness for several decades.
Wilson's reputation rests on just a handful of his books: Axel's Castle (1931), an explication of Yeats, Joyce, Pound, Eliot, and other modernists; The Triple Thinkers (1938); The Wound and the Bow (1941), which contains probably the best single essay on Dickens by anyone; and the book most people know him by, To the Finland Station: A Study in the Writing and Acting of History (1940), a study of Marxism in which he gives full range to his understanding, experience, wide reading, and abiding belief in the transformative power of history.
In the twenty years after World War Two Wilson traveled extensively and continued writing, publishing nearly a dozen titles, including his own favorite among his many books, Memoirs of Hecate County (1946), a collection of six short stories that was banned as obscene at one time. These two decades culminated in a major study, Patriotic Gore: Studies in the Literature of the American Civil War (1962), a collection of essays about the effect of the conflict on writers and other figures both well known and obscure. Dabney devotes a chapter to the book.
Wilson's last decade was marred by declining health and income tax troubles, but his mind continued to be curious and probing as ever. The Bit Between My Teeth, third in a series collecting his magazine pieces, appeared in 1965. It was followed six years later by Upstate: Records and Recollections of Northern New York, an exploration of his family's past, their relation to the isolated environment of upstate New York, and the central place in his life and theirs of the stone house that had been in the family since the 1700s. Since his death there have been nearly a dozen posthumous volumes, notably the five volumes of his diaries, published by decade: The Twenties (1975) through The Sixties (1993), all with skilled and informative introductory material and explanatory notes, and three collections of letters.
Wilson received numerous awards late in life, among them the Presidential Medal for Freedom in 1963; the MacDowell Medal (1964); the National Medal for Literature (1966); and the Aspen Award (1968). The news of his death on June 12, 1972, was given a full page in The New York Times. His centennial in 1995 was observed with programs at Princeton and at the Mercantile Library in New York, eventuating a volume, Centennial Reflections, in 1997, also edited by Dabney.
Dabney's biography reminds us that not only are Wilson's books well worth revisiting, but also that he truly was one of the last of a vanishing breed. His messy life and astounding erudition is captured in these pages in great detail, along with the literary culture of sixty years from the heart of the American century.