The Twenties: From Notebooks and Diaries of the Period

by Edmund Wilson, edited with an introduction by Leon Edel
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 557 pp., $10.00

Edmund Wilson
Edmund Wilson; drawing by David Levine

From the bleak isolation of a provincial elite, young Edmund Wilson drove himself to escape by way of cosmopolitan society, sexual freedom, and high culture. A dreary chronicle of alcoholic camaraderie now reveals that his personality had set too deeply and too soon for indirect methods to transform it. In middle age he would come to terms with his fate, realizing that the humanistic tradition gave meaning to his life even if it could not expel his demons.

Wilson was the only child of a melancholy lawyer who thought gambling in stock shares was immoral, and of an ardent gardener who loved spectator sports. Both parents belonged to rich, distinguished families; both were hard to talk to. The father was self-absorbed and hypochondriacal; the mother was deaf. Mr. Wilson senior began having breakdowns when his son was an infant, and he spent his later years in and out of sanatoriums. Mrs. Wilson would have liked Edmund junior to be an athlete; she did not read his work.

When Wilson was growing up, the family relations constituted his social circle. He collaborated on literary projects with a favorite cousin Sandy Kimball, who became his only “really close companion” before Wilson went away to prep school. They read Studies in the Psychology of Sex together, and Sandy disturbed him with tales of homosexual experiences at St. Paul’s School. When Wilson returned from military service in 1919, he discovered that Sandy was now schizophrenic, living in a sanatorium.

At this point, where an earlier and mercifully thinner volume left off, Wilson’s fat new gathering of autobiographical materials takes up. Some hint of its limitations may be conveyed by his treatment of the month of May 1923. About the beginning of that month he married the actress Mary Blair. Mrs. Wilson senior disapproved of the bride, and Mr. Wilson had discussed the matter with—of all people—Frank Crowninshield, his son’s epicene boss at Vanity Fair. But Dean Gauss of Princeton, Wilson’s surrogate father, at once invited the young couple for a visit and politely wondered whether the new wife would take her husband’s name.

On May 8 Wilson had his twenty-eighth birthday. The following week, he and his mother visited his father in the hospital where he was dying of pneumonia. Just before the end, the sick man asked them for the doctor’s opinion, and his wife gave a little cry. But as soon as she came downstairs with her son, she declared what was really on her mind: “Now I’m going to have a new house.” The only entries in The Twenties under May 1923 are descriptions of landscapes—although Wilson mentions the talk with Crowninshield in an editorial commentary.

It looks as if he would have liked to furnish his audience with a panoramic view of American civilization through the eyes of an acute observer. He supplies lists of popular songs and current slang, like…

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