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The survivor

Edmund Wilson A Life in Literature Lewis M. Dabney Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 642 pp., $35

November 20, 2005|Matthew Price | Matthew Price, a journalist and critic, is an occasional contributor to Book Review.

ONE of the most poignant moments in Lewis M. Dabney's monumental new life of Edmund Wilson is a reference to an eviction threat Wilson received in 1934, when he was at work on the series of articles that would become "To the Finland Station," his still valuable chronicle of socialism and its founders. Wilson was hard up, but the harassing letter did not deter him; he simply turned it over, put it in his typewriter, and banged out a quick note on Marx.

Such resourcefulness and determination were hallmarks of Wilson's long career. Wilson was a survivor: He endured failed romances (too many to count), broken marriages (his violent, ill-fated union with Mary McCarthy is still the subject of fevered commentary), spiritual desolation, bad health, money troubles (a lifelong plague; in 1951 he complained to Vladimir Nabokov, his friend and sometime antagonist, "You can't be any more broke than I am -- I have never been so badly in debt in my life") and, always, the ever-shifting fortunes of the literary freelance. In the teeth of all this, he became one of the glories of 20th century American intellectual life.

On his death in 1972, the New York Times declared, "If there is an American civilization, Edmund Wilson has helped us to find it and is himself an important aspect of it." A look back on his work today is an occasion for awe. He was born in 1895, the son of a distinguished New Jersey lawyer, and studied at Princeton, where his best friend was F. Scott Fitzgerald. He then set himself up in New York, where he quickly emerged as a canny operator on Grub Street, tackling nearly any subject that came his way. As a young critic in the '20s, he introduced American readers to "The Waste Land" in Vanity Fair, while over at the New Republic he played the role of cultural omnivore, writing about everyone from Harry Houdini to Igor Stravinsky. In 1931, he published his first major work, "Axel's Castle," a primer on literary modernism. Wilson came of age at a pivotal time in American culture, which was throwing off the shackles of provincialism; if H.L. Mencken hammered away at the "booboisie," Wilson saw his task, in part, as putting American letters on an equal footing with the classics of European literature.

The Depression radicalized Wilson, as it did many of the writers of his generation. He did double duty as critic and journalist, reporting from the coalfields of West Virginia and the factories of Detroit and making his first excursions into Marxism. (Though he voted for the Communist Party presidential candidate, William Z. Foster, in 1932, Wilson never joined the party.)

But literary criticism, collected in "The Wound and the Bow" (1941), "The Triple Thinkers" (1938) and elsewhere, remained paramount. Wilson's essays and reviews -- the bulk of his output -- came in generous torrents throughout the 1930s, the war years and after, when he served as the New Yorker's book critic and then reporter at large, taking up Hebrew and Hungarian, exploring vanished civilizations and forgotten writers. "Patriotic Gore" (1962), his late, idiosyncratic masterpiece, remains one of the best books on the Civil War, and his five decades of journals are both a vivid tapestry of modern writing -- Wilson's literary friendships were legion: John Dos Passos, Allen Tate, W.H. Auden, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Fitzgerald, Nabokov -- and a lacerating self-portrait of the critic as lover and rake, dwelling in doubt and uncertainty.

Dabney's fine-grained biography has long been in the works. Here it is at last, weighing in at a hefty 642 pages. The sheer wealth of anecdote confronting the Wilson biographer is enough to put one off the task. Not Dabney. We get the sex and the crit -- and then some. Dabney's estimate of Wilson's character is measured and humane; he is a sympathetic chronicler throughout but not reluctant to judge when he must. Wilson could behave very badly. He drank too much, made frequent lunges at women and took forensic notes on his sexual conquests. (John Updike, one of Wilson's best readers, once noted his "unchivalric post-coital eye.") For a man who looked like a cross between W.C. Fields and Henry James, Wilson had little trouble attracting women. In 1938 he met McCarthy, who would become his third wife. Her striking beauty and fierce intellect were the talk of the New York cultural scene, and Wilson was soon hooked. Their combustible seven-year marriage has provoked much debate -- did Wilson, as is alleged, punch her? -- but Dabney walks through this minefield unscathed. The McCarthy-Wilson relationship was a mutually destructive union of two unstable souls, and Dabney's conclusion seems to me just: "American letters has not seen another alliance so flawed and so distinguished."

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