E. W. 1895–1972

What they undertook to do
They brought to pass;
All things hang like a drop of dew
Upon a blade of grass.
—W.B. Yeats

Occasionally, as his death became imminent, I would find myself, most unwillingly, imagining Edmund Wilson’s funeral. It would be at a hilltop cemetery in Wellfleet in spring or early fall. The sky would be clear and the sea, through tall grass and bent pines, would be blue in the distant curve of the Truro beaches. There would be a circle of family and friends—about twenty or so—and, as I imagined the scene, I would stand just outside this ring so that I could see the drawn shoulders and bent backs of the mourners. It was a sentimental picture that kept coming to mind, something that a forgotten expressionist might have painted years ago.

Beside the grave someone would be reading, but his text—which Edmund himself would surely have chosen—was more than I could guess, though no doubt it would be something very humane, very unyielding, a text that would put death in its correct, inevitable, not very terrible place. The residual emotion would be less a sense of loss than of continuity. The spirit of the occasion would be that we must get together and do this again soon.

Except for minor topographical differences, this was pretty much how it happened. It was a bright day in June, clear, humid, and windy. I could feel the wind bend the pine that I was leaning against. We were not on a hilltop, as I had imagined, but in a sort of sandy clearing amid sparse trees, slightly below the main part of the tiny Wellfleet cemetery, and well out of sight of the sea. There were moments of humor that I had not anticipated: the young Orleans curate, like a scrubbed Beatle, shyly adjusting his lacy canonicals beside his blue Volkswagen in the Wilsons’ driveway, as if he were hanging curtains; Edmund’s daughters, Rosalind and Helen, his son, Reuel, and Elena’s son, Henry, smiling as they took turns shoveling sand back into the grave where Edmund’s ashes had been placed, like children playing at the beach. Death seemed incidental to the occasion, and compared with the life that Edmund had led and the work he did, his death really was only an incident, a detail of no great moment, except for those who had known him well enough to love him.

In his last years Edmund was often in great pain. Once last summer when I visited him in Wellfleet for what I assumed would be the last time, he asked me to help him out of his chair. Though he was fully alert to the end of his life, there were days when he lacked the strength to dress himself and could hardly move from room to room without help. I took him by the elbow, but as I began to lift him as gently as I could he…

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