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BOOK REVIEW : Ideas Were Not Critic's Only Companion : EDMUND WILSON by Jeffrey Meyers ; Houghton Mifflin Co. $35, 483 pages

June 25, 1995|RALPH SIPPER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Jeffrey Meyers' latest subject represents previously uncharted territory. Unlike D.H. Lawrence, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, whose charismatic and overly documented lives he mined for untapped lodes of melodramatic revelation, Edmund Wilson, on the surface, seems not heroic enough to inspire a full-fledged study by this prolific biographer.

Wilson was a soft-bodied, baldish man whose writing career began unprepossessingly. Starting in the 1920s as a free-lance book reviewer, essayist and reporter of popular culture, he would, over the next half-century, turn out 50 volumes of criticism, history, foreign travel accounts, memoirs, drama and fiction. "America's best mind," Gore Vidal called him.

Beginning at a Pennsylvania prep school and then at Princeton University, Wilson developed a rigorous method of composition that Meyers describes as "a cunning mixture of nostalgic autobiography and contentious opinions."

He was ever at work and took no shortcuts. Whatever subject engaged him--French symbolist poetry, Russian communism in the '30s, the literature of the Civil War--he ransacked the resources of his capacious mind and the many books he carefully read to locate central truths. His thinking had its blind sides, though. He was stubbornly determined. Wilson did not pay his income taxes for a decade largely through lordly neglect, and he did without a telephone in his Cape Cod summer house because he resented the $10 deposit.

In rounding out Wilson's complex and often contradictory nature, Meyers tracks Wilson's social life to edifying effect. Ideas were not Wilson's only companions. In addition to four marriages, he had affairs with women of all types, by the dozens, well into his 70s.

Meyers wisely skirts the motivations for Wilson's randiness, though he hints at possible sources, such as Wilson's antipathy to his Puritan heritage (descended from scholar and preacher Cotton Mather) or the emotional coldness of his mother, with whom Wilson skirmished throughout his life.

His drinking--analogous to his uncritical womanizing--was equally straightforward. He drank when the workday ended and continued throughout the evening until he had consumed whatever alcohol there was in the house.

Wilson was almost 70 when the first feature article on him was published. Just as his health began to fail, he found himself gaining official recognition. He turned down a pacemaker in the year preceding his death.

Wilson obviously identified with the title character of his critical masterwork, "Axel's Castle," in which Axel rejected the physical world, preferring to live in his head. "Live? Our servants will do that for us," he said. Wilson had it both ways--passionately expending both body and intellect in a productive and difficult life. Meyers captures this duality admirably in this, his most balanced biography.

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