Edmund Wilson: A Life in Literature
by Lewis M. Dabney
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 639 pp., $35.00
In May 1945, Edmund Wilson called upon George Santayana at the Hospital of the Blue Nuns in Rome. The meeting did not begin well. Before leaving America earlier that year to report on the “wreckage” of the war for The New Yorker, Wilson had received an inscribed copy of the first volume of Santayana’s memoir Persons and Places; his review of the second volume appeared in America while he was in Europe. But the Spanish-born philosopher, who had left America in 1912 after almost four decades in the Boston area, appeared not to know who Wilson was.
Wilson was, as he confessed in Europe Without Baedeker (1948), initially “nonplussed.” A friend and often mentor to Ernest Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, and John Dos Passos, Wilson was a well-known writer at the time. He had introduced a generation of Americans to the writers of European modernism, describing in Axel’s Castle (1931) how Joyce, Eliot, Proust, Yeats, and Valéry had broken down the “walls of the present” and uncovered the “untried, unsuspected possibilities of human thought and art.” Traveling to Southern mining towns and New England mills, he had described for readers of The New Republic the effects of the Depression—suicide, poverty, malnutrition, and the lure of militant socialism—on the most vulnerable Americans. In To the Finland Station (1940) he had provided what remains the most accessible account of the tradition of radical thinkers in modern Europe seeking to interpret and change history.
Wilson took Santayana’s ignorance of him with good grace. He had visited London just before Italy, and it may be that after his encounters with upper-class British people, whom he thought were unreconciled to the postwar diminishment of Britain, Wilson could only find refreshing Santayana’s modesty—an attitude which, Wilson wrote, is “rather rare with the literary and the learned,” and which is “simply that of a man in the world who was trying to make some sense of it as you were.” And Wilson, who was born in 1895 in Red Bank, New Jersey, seems also to have cherished the austere Santayana for his connection to the American past. Born in 1863, Santayana had known, however briefly, an American life not shaped by industrial capitalism, or dominated by big business and corrupt party machines—a pre-modern America, which Wilson revered, even romanticized, and which he saw as symbolized by his old stone family house at Talcottville in upstate New York.
In 1955, Wilson would read The Last Puritan (1935) and remark on the resemblance between his friends at Princeton and Santayana’s hero, who struggles to reconcile his genteel idealism with the aggressively commercial culture of post–Civil War America. Wilson, who partly blamed this culture for the mental instability of his father, a distinguished lawyer, knew that Santayana in Europe was an exile from the new America, which he had left after an unsatisfactory academic career at Harvard, where he claimed President Eliot had turned education into preparation for “service in …