Edmund Wilson: A Biography
From the Uncollected Edmund Wilson
The Edmund Wilson of Jeffrey Meyers’s squalid biography is an irascible erotomaniac, short, stout, and redfaced, whose chronic irritability is relieved mainly by alcohol. Meyers concedes that Wilson was his country’s foremost literary critic, even though he often overpraised the work of women he had seduced or wanted to seduce and underestimated the work of Robert Frost, whom he disliked personally, as well as that of Wallace Stevens, while largely ignoring American writers who came of age after World War II. According to Meyers many of the women whom Wilson approached found him repugnant, though many others, impressed by his reputation, submitted despite his obesity and ill temper. A few, Meyers suggests, may actually have loved him or been attracted to him sexually, but it is hard, from this account, to see why. To his four wives and his three children, according to Meyers, he was occasionally brutal and often cold, and for this reason unloved and resented by them. Meyers emphasizes that as an academic lecturer, a job Wilson took from time to time when he needed money, he was a bore, too busy with his own work to prepare lectures that might interest his students.
Wilson’s defective character, Meyers believes, was formed by his self-centered mother and by his highly neurotic father, a pedantic lawyer so debilitated by emotional problems that he paid little attention to his only child. Wilson’s family, rooted on both sides deep in the American past, included many neurotics, some of whom seem to have been insane.
Meyers apparently thinks that Wilson was driven to erotic excess as a substitute for the love his mother failed to give him and became a critic in order to gain the approval of his inattentive father. Meyers also suggests that Wilson was neurotically incapable of lasting friendship with many of the writers he knew, especially men, for in the case of those whose work he admired he tended to become aggressively competitive while he scorned those whose work he disliked. Toward the harmless opportunist Archibald MacLeish, for example, Wilson was deliberately cruel, and with Vladimir Nabokov, whom Wilson greatly admired, he could not resist quarreling bitterly in public.
Even his many erotic relationships, though he pursued them with passion, were generally without warmth, Meyers thinks. In his journals, as Meyers need hardly remind us, Wilson describes himself with scientific detachment in the act of love as if he were a third party to the proceedings, a kind of umpire. Readers of Wilson’s journals will find these observations recorded minutely, along with descriptions of his partners’ genitalia as well as his own, and especially their feet, which Wilson fancied in particular, a quirk to which Meyers calls special attention. But he seems unaware of the literary antecedents of Wilson’s fascination with such details or with the nature of the feelings that might account for it. He overlooks, for example, the possible link between Wilson’s forthright sexual curiosity and his determination, as a traditional rationalist, to dispense with the illusions and evasions that inhibit understanding and true feeling in general. He sees no connection, for example, between Wilson’s analytic approach to his own sexuality as simply another human activity worth looking into and his willingness to regard Jesus and Lincoln as merely human and God as a character in a book before it became generally permissible to do so.
Meyers is nevertheless convinced that with both women and men Wilson’s relationships were defensively aloof and pedagogical. Meyers believes that toward his wives he was especially unfeeling, willful, and selfish and that this largely explains the failure of his marriage to Mary McCarthy, though he admits that she too was willful and herself the product of neurotic parents.
Too numb emotionally for intimacy according to Meyers, Wilson, in this account of his life, tended to retreat from his family and friends into alcohol or literary conversation or usually both. He had no small talk and could barely cope with the routines of everyday life. Meyers has studied Wilson’s financial affairs in detail and finds that these were generally a mess. Wilson failed to pay his income taxes not on principle as he later claimed disingenuously, but because he wanted to keep the money for himself and dependent upon a careless lawyer to handle his affairs.
Meyers may also feel that Wilson was insufficiently grateful for the many honors eventually awarded him, including the Presidential Medal in 1963. Though President Kennedy, a great admirer, insisted that Wilson be given the medal despite his tax problems, which he ordered the IRS to settle, Wilson informed the President that he would be out of the country on the day the medal was to be awarded and unable to receive it in person. After the assassination Wilson wrote to Robert Kennedy, expressing his appreciation for the medal “all the more because I understand it was given at the insistence of the late President.” But when Lyndon Johnson asked the American ambassador in Paris to present the medal to Wilson, Wilson replied that he would be leaving for Rome and asked that “you simply send it to me.”
Meyers believes that Wilson’s astonishing introduction to Patriotic Gore, his book on the Civil War, was “a strategic error,” because it would cost Wilson readers. In this introduction Wilson compared the United States in its relations with other countries to a sea slug blindly and stupidly attempting to devour adjacent sea slugs and lumped Lincoln, Bismarck, and Lenin together as imperialists, swallowing their neighbors: in Lincoln’s case, the South. But Meyers gives no opinion concerning the merits of Wilson’s criticism of the United States as an irresponsible power, and it is impossible for the reader to infer one from what he writes. Meyers also neglects to say that Wilson’s subtle, moving, and highly original essay on Lincoln in this book is far more complex, and has been considerably more influential, than the analogy to Bismarck and Lenin alone suggests. Meyers does, however, reveal how many copies were sold of Patriotic Gore and how much Wilson’s publisher paid in advance for the rights to the book.
Meyers’s description of our most esteemed man of letters will surprise no one who has read the vivid, often lyrical, and always enlightening journals that Wilson kept throughout most of his life and prepared for publication in the years preceding his death in 1972.1 Wilson’s journals are, I believe, a permanent contribution to American literature, as their author must have hoped they would be, for he put much effort into preparing them. Yet to anyone who has read Wilson’s journals and the collections of letters that appeared after his death, as well as his more formal writing, Professor Meyers’s portrait will seem false in the same way that copies of the Mona Lisa sold in souvenir shops are false. The details will be familiar but the quality of the original will be absent, so that viewers of the copy alone will fail to see why the original is so much admired.
The journals that Wilson kept from the 1920s until the end of his life are unlike anything else in American literature, and not only because of their erotic candor. They are a record, often day by day, of Wilson’s adventures as a literary man of the nineteenth century journeying, like a time traveler, through the twentieth, and reporting back on the strange, often thrilling, but deteriorating world he encounters. Anyone who reads these journals even in part will immediately discover a personage entirely different from the cartoon sketched by Jeffrey Meyers, despite the coincidence of names, places, and dates. Meyers lacks what is essential for any literary biographer, the ability to imagine with compassionate curiosity someone with a mind more complex than his own. In Meyers’s hands Wilson, defenseless in death, becomes the Kafkaesque victim of a brisk and uncomprehending pigeon-holder, a condition to which not even the IRS could quite reduce him during his lifetime.
From Wilson’s journals Meyers learns that toward the end of his life Wilson liked to retreat for the summer to his ancestral house in upstate New York. The house was gloomy, damp, and crumbling, and the surrounding countryside was undistinguished. Wilson, however, was strongly attached to the place by childhood memories and oblivious to its defects as a resort.
I enjoy “galvanizing” this old house into life, as I feel I have at last been doing, making it express at last my own personality and interests, filling it with my own imagination, substituting myself for Talcotts, Bakers, Reeds, and my own parents, yet feeling a continuity with them, basing myself, in some sense, on them—the older I grow the more I appreciate them. Intellectually and geographically, I travel farther away from them, yet also now fall back more on them, probably become more like them; feel more comfortable and myself than probably anywhere else in the world.
Wellfleet on Cape Cod, where he lived with his fourth wife, Elena, and their daughter Helen, had become by the 1960s jammed with summer visitors and Wilson found it less distracting to spend his summers in his ancestral upstate village, where he could work without interruption. Though at first Elena joined him on these bleak retreats and did her best to make the gloomy old house tolerable, after several summers she tired of it and eventually refused to stay there. It is clear from the journals that Elena was gregarious, that she liked her Wellfleet friends and the white shingled house with green shutters which she had comfortably restored and where she would bring to Wilson in the study she had outfitted for him his breakfast every morning on a tray. She was highly spirited and felt it unfair of Wilson to deprive her of the summertime life she enjoyed.
It will be obvious to readers of the journals that the difference between the two on this issue could not be reconciled and would result in quarreling which would strain the marriage. For Meyers this is further proof of the squalor of Wilson’s personal life and of his inability to get along with his wives. But the journals make it clear that the source of the quarrel was love or at least a strongly affectionate desire for the other’s company. Nevertheless, Meyers sees only hostility and bad faith: stubbornness on Wilson’s part and selfishness on Elena’s, a problem for a marriage counselor rather than evidence that after his turbulent earlier life Wilson had come to depend not only for companionship and comfort, but for survival upon this attractive, intelligent, and generous woman, who was sufficiently strong-willed to insist upon her delicious Wellfleet summers rather than submit without resistance to her husband’s childhood ghosts.
Meyers quotes an obtuse Harvard student whom Wilson attempted to befriend but who later complained that Wilson was “frankly, a poor teacher, who seemed happy just to talk, about Virgil, or Baudelaire, or Turgenev…[and] when it came to Russian…seemed…incurably sentimental.” As for Elena, the student found her “severe and removed.” But any reader of the journals will find the opposite to be true and will suspect that Elena was reacting with predictable disapproval to the poor specimen her husband had brought home. Elena, Wilson writes in the journals, “is used to having people like her,” and it must have been obvious to her that this student was not such a person. Elena was mirthful and affectionate, and the marriage was on the whole enviable. “Our life has been very pleasant lately,” Wilson wrote in the winter of 1965, in the nineteenth year of their marriage.
It is wonderful to be back in our own house, with enough room to get out of each other’s way and all our books around us. I am reading William James’s Pragmatism, which I have never read before—and am also beginning to enjoy “nature” again on our afternoon walks…. In the evening, we have drinks and read Faust…and the fireplace in the middle room has contributed a lot to our coziness. I don’t have much craving to see people and am glad to be relieved of the obligation to.
Earlier he had written of the “thought that I shall presently be extinguished” along with “memories of old love affairs—Frances, Margaret, Louise, Anais, Elena, and expectations of making more love to Elena, which can never again now, I am afraid, live up to these expectations.” Readers of the journals soon learn that these fears prove unnecessary. Later that year Wilson writes a poem to Elena on their twentieth anniversary:
That we’ve been twenty years to- gether I forget;
Some married men are bored, I never yet.
Your brains and beauty, your de- licious meals,
Your lovely little feet at which one kneels,
Your knowledge of the world at which one reels—
All this, my dearest love, and so much more
Makes up the woman that I still adore,
Surprised to find myself now old and slow,
The man who loved you twenty years ago.
Yet this marriage, in Meyers’s view, was as unsatisfactory as were Wilson’s other personal relationships. Its final scene was particularly ugly. According to Wilson’s older daughter, Rosalind, whom Meyers quotes, Elena enters the room where Wilson had died. “The first thing she did was to walk to the card table and scoop the papers off it, saying ‘Where are the diaries? Where are the diaries?’ ” And this is the last we see of Edmund and Elena in this biography.
Why then did Meyers bother to write about such a disagreeable life at all? Literary biography is mere voyeurism unless it becomes literature in its own right or clarifies an author’s work that is either obscure in itself or misunderstood. But Wilson’s work requires little clarification, and Meyers’s attempts at elucidation are perfunctory. His judgment, for example, of Patriotic Gore is that it is “strongly sympathetic to the South,” that it is “sometimes sluggish” and at its best “when it describes battles,” though these are surely the least memorable passages in this study of the literature of the American Civil War.
In one respect, however, Wilson’s work does require some explanation. Wilson’s greatest ambition was to succeed as an imaginative writer, yet his fiction and drama, to say nothing of his poetry, are lifeless and mostly forgettable. He seems to have composed his imaginative work according to a set of rules derived by him from his reading of literature rather than from his imagination of life and to have been intimidated or even paralyzed by the need to obey them. The results almost invariably seem overworked, thin, and untrue to life, as cold as Meyers finds Wilson to have been in his emotional transactions. But in his journals Wilson writes about actual people and events vividly and often with the spontaneity, affection, and understanding that he aimed for and missed in his avowedly imaginative writing.
Meyers sensibly acknowledges the merits of the long and heartbreaking account in the journals of his marriage to his second wife, Margaret Canby, that he wrote while he was still grieving over her accidental death.2 This is a strong performance which can stand beside the imaginative work of almost any of Wilson’s contemporaries. But Meyers does not ask the obvious question: Why in this piece, but not in his fictional attempts to produce literary effects, was Wilson able to create the sensation of actual life and true feeling?
Wilson was a man of the last century, a Darwinian who believed that nature, including his own nature, could be understood by distinguishing its components and identifying their logical connections. His criticism, which was essentially journalistic, reflected the same conviction: that if he arranged the components of a work of literature, including the author’s intentions, in a coherent, critical narrative, the various meanings implicit in the work would become clear or at least clearer. For Wilson, the irrational components of actual life or of a literary work were themselves data to be fitted rationally into the narrative account. Thus in his magnificent essay on Lincoln, in which Lincoln first appears as a rationalist disciple of Darwin for whom God does not exist but later professes to be an instrument of God’s will or even God’s spokesman. Wilson sees not a spiritual but a political or, more precisely, a rhetorical conversion reflecting the greater intensity of the occasion.
In his imaginative writing, however, Wilson carries this rational process too far, for here the characters are his own creation, and he feels free to manipulate them as he likes, depriving them of feelings and motives and above all of voices of their own. But in dealing with the literary work of others or with such actual figures as Lincoln or Margaret Canby he is constrained by their own reality, and his power to control events is limited. In his descriptions of his sexual encounters, one knows—simply knows—that no matter how dispassionately he describes them, his partners are very much there, living and breathing, despite Wilson’s attempt to reduce them to their various parts. These same encounters when Wilson fictionalizes them become lifeless, for now he is free to manipulate his partners as he chooses, and they become as a result mere creatures of his will, as abstract as the laws of geometry.
In To the Finland Station, which Wilson began to write while he was still in his thirties, he undertook to trace the history of an idea; that the social world is the work of man—that human beings can create their own societies in rational ways if they so choose and need not submit to archaic despotisms or supernatural authority. The culminating event in this history was Lenin’s arrival in St. Petersburg and his commencement of the Bolshevik Revolution. Though the book was finally published and largely ignored at the time of the Hitler-Stalin Pact, it remains a superb account of a doomed hypothesis. Wilson does not, however, go so far as to confront the denouement. In a revised edition, he somewhat repaired this omission, but even in this revision he fails to see the full extent of Lenin’s malevolent brutality and the cynical use he made of the socialist idea. However, in Patriotic Gore, which Wilson published some twenty years later, he now argues that human life is everywhere subservient to irrational forces—the same forces that impel the sea slugs to devour one another pointlessly—before which reason is powerless.
Yet he never abandoned his belief that through his own powers of reason and narrative he could make sense of a senseless world. In this endeavor he exemplified his friend Fitzgerald’s belief that “a first-rate intellect” should “be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.” Wilson insisted that he had no interest in abstract ideas, but throughout his life he submitted to the grand abstraction, of which he gave so good an account in To the Finland Station, that individual human beings are fundamentally rational and can, in principle, combine to make a better society. This quixotic belief, despite so much evidence to the contrary, was the theme of his life and his work and one that his present biographer has not sufficiently explored.
The University of Ohio Press will publish this fall a collection of fifty-five pieces that Wilson himself chose not to include in the various compilations he made of his own work. Some of these are juvenilia and others reveal enthusiasms and strictures that Wilson may have wanted to forget. They are all, however, of interest to anyone who wants to know how Wilson’s mind and style developed, a subject that evidently failed to interest Wilson himself but will surely interest others. The introduction by the editors, Janet Groth and David Castronovo, is the best attempt I know to give an account of Wilson and his work and ought to encourage readers who have lost interest, or never been interested in the first place, in what passes for literary criticism these days to turn to Wilson.
Wilson’s lifelong project, the editors write, was to show how “literature brings life into focus and makes us able to contend with suffering and disorder.” He built “his career around…writers who master disorder and rise above chaos or who at least resist the attractions of cynicism and despair,” and of course he himself was such a writer.
I was fortunate enough to have been given as a high-school graduation present a copy of Axel’s Castle, Wilson’s first critical work. An even better gift to inspire a young graduate interested in becoming a writer would be this book edited by Groth and Castronovo, which reveals more dramatically than any of Wilson’s own collections the progress of a first-rate intelligence toward what a great Chinese poet called the proper goal of all art, “the clear freshness and effortless skill” of his mature work.
Published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux under the titles Upstate, A Prelude, The Twenties, The Thirties, The Forties, The Fifties, and The Sixties.↩
It is published in The Thirties.↩