The Man with Qualities

Edmund Wilson: A Biography

by Jeffrey Meyers
Houghton Mifflin/a Peter Davison book, 554 pp., $35.00

From the Uncollected Edmund Wilson

selected and introduced by Janet Groth and David Castronovo
Ohio University Press, 373 pp., $32.95

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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.