Edmund Wilson
Edmund Wilson; drawing by David Levine


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 the world of business.”

But now the new America was, unexpectedly, the supreme power in the world; and meeting in a Europe ravaged by war, Wilson and Santayana inevitably discussed the changes within the United States. Sitting on a chaise longue in his bare, dark room, with a blanket over his legs, Santayana spoke of the “great role” in world affairs that America was called upon to play—a role he would regard with skepticism in his last book, Dominations and Powers (1952), the manuscript of which Wilson saw sitting on a table in Santayana’s room.

Slightly unsettled by the “spooky” atmosphere of the convent and the dark room, Wilson wondered about Santayana’s solitude, and then concluded:

I do not imagine he is troubled by the thought of death or that it even impinges as a shadow…. Nor is he really alone in the sense that the ordinary person would be. He is still in the world of men, conversing with them through reading and writing…. While others, in these years of the war, have been shaken by the downfall of moralities or have shuddered under the impact of disaster, while they have been following the conflict with excitement, his glass has scarcely clouded or brightened; but the intelligence that has persisted in him has been that of the civilized human race—so how can he be lonely or old? He still loves to share in its thoughts, to try on its views. He has made it his business to extend himself into every kind of human consciousness with which he can establish contact, and he reposes on his shabby chaise longue like a monad in the universal mind.

Writing about the solitary but self-contained Santayana in 1945, Wilson seems to be addressing himself as much as his readers. He was fifty years old then, and, as Lewis Dabney describes in his comprehensive and engaging biography, “at loose ends in his career,” resembling in “the isolation of the Cape” (where Wilson owned a house in Wellfleet) the “Philoctetes of Sophocles’ play, the alienated possessor of a magical instrument.”


As Dabney describes it, Wilson had never had much money. The foundations, awards, grants, fellowships, academic positions, and other forms of cultural philanthropy that now keep many American intellectuals solvent developed too late for Wilson—in Upstate (1971), his record of life in Talcottville, he remarks on the postwar “cultural explosion” in the country sparked off by “federal handouts and foundation grants.” His only commercial success was Memoirs of Hecate County (1946), a collection of interlinked stories. Before that, he had struggled to make a living through his books and by writing for Vanity Fair, The New Republic, and The New Yorker.

Wilson had been less preoccupied in the Twenties and Thirties with money than with the question “whether it is possible,” as he wrote in Axel’s Castle, “to make a practical success of human society.” His optimism about modernism and Marxism derived from the Progressive-era belief that human beings could use art and reason to change or transcend their unsatisfactory circumstances. In 1931, Wilson had scolded Allen Tate for refusing to believe in progress, “the faith on which my own ideas are based.” “I can’t see,” Wilson wrote, “that people who don’t think so and are not religious are ever able to give life any meaning at all.” In 1940, he had asserted that “all our intellectual activity, in whatever field it takes place, is an attempt to give a meaning to our experience.”

But meaning was hard to find in 1945. Wilson’s tumultuous marriage to Mary McCarthy had just ended. Many of his friends, including Scott Fitzgerald, whom he had first met at Princeton, had died. His faith in the redemptive power of reason and art was challenged not only by the successive disasters of the Depression and the two world wars but also by what he identified as the “two great enemies of literary talent in our time: Hollywood and Henry Luce.”

John Updike expressed an influential view of Wilson’s later career when, reviewing the journals, he wrote that after the Thirties Wilson chose to “hole up in Wellfleet and Talcottville and relinquish commentary on the present American scene,” renouncing “the hope of a civilized intelligence to identify itself with America.” Reviewing Patriotic Gore (1962), Wilson’s study of the literature of the Civil War, Norman Podhoretz claimed that while Wilson is “still functioning as a first-rate intellect” he is “no longer able to do so without the help of isolation and pessimism.” “From now on,” Podhoretz declared, “we shall have to look elsewhere for the kind of guidance that it was once his particular glory to give.”

Certainly, Wilson’s political views looked extreme at a time when America seemed to be leading a moral and ideological crusade against Soviet communism. He had served in the First World War as a private in the hospital corps in France; and his experience of the cruelty of war and the mendacity of politicians had bred in Wilson an instinctive distrust of the high-minded aims offered by warring parties. He had also challenged the British and American claim to represent civilization in the Second World War by pointing to the alliance with Stalin, the destruction from the air of German cities, and the atomic bombing of Japan. In Patriotic Gore Wilson attacked the moral rhetoric of the Unionists in the Civil War, and blamed it for the later national conviction that America’s cause is always just: “Whenever we engage in a war or move in on some other country it is always to liberate somebody.”

Wilson no longer admired the human ability to change history; the defeat of his radical hopes and the standoff between the American and Soviet military machines had made him particularly alert to the human capacity for deception and self-deception. He now saw the lust for expansion and power as explaining much of modern European and American history. “The wars fought by human beings,” Wilson asserted in his introduction to Patriotic Gore, “are stimulated as a rule primarily by the same instincts as the voracity of a sea slug,” even though “man has succeeded in cultivating enough of what he calls ‘morality’ and ‘reason’ to justify what he is doing in terms of what he calls ‘virtue’ and ‘civilization.'” Writing a preface to a new edition of Europe Without Baedeker during the Vietnam War, Wilson claimed that “our talk about bringing to backward peoples the processes of democratic government and of defending the ‘free world’ is as much an exploit of Anglo-Saxon hypocrisy as anything ever perpetrated by the English.”


By the 1950s Wilson was a national cultural institution, and his apparently bitter commentaries on the American scene dismayed even many of his admirers, such as Alfred Kazin. But they were of a piece with his background and education—a perspective Kazin himself had described, in On Native Grounds (1942), as “deeply anticapitalist, with a distaste for the values and exhibitions of an acquisitive society that went back to a family tradition of scholarship and cultivation, of gentlemen’s politics and community.”


“We are all,” Wilson once wrote to a contemporary of his, the writer Louise Bogan, “more or less in a position of having been brought up in one kind of world and having to adjust muscles, socially, sexually, morally, etc., to another which is itself in a state of flux.” Wilson seems to have made the adjustments without abandoning the ethical and spiritual commitments of his superseded world; it is what gave him his extraordinarily cohesive sensibility, and made him appear so rooted, confident, and therefore, in postwar America, increasingly rare.

Wilson knew of the risks and temptations an increasingly affluent society posed to writers and intellectuals; and he believed that many in his own generation had succumbed. Scott Fitzgerald, he wrote to Lionel Trilling in 1953, “was early bedazzled by the plutocratic society of St. Paul and Chicago and could never quite get over the idea that serious literature did not provide a real, or a sufficient career.” In an essay about his father in 1956, Wilson wrote:

In repudiating the materialism and the priggishness of the period in which we were born, we thought we should have a free hand to refashion American life as well as have more fun than our American fathers. But, we, too, have had our casualties. Too many of my friends are insane or dead or Roman Catholic converts—and some of these were among the most gifted; two have committed suicide.

Devoted to the life of the mind, Wilson couldn’t see it flourishing in the isolation of Axel’s Castle, the academic ivory tower, or the research laboratory. Instead he saw intellectual life as shaping and being shaped by the political and moral health of society at large. This belief and the related search for what Kazin called “a new spiritual order”—“a reaching not frantic or explicitly political, but based upon a deeply ingrown alienation from the culture and prizes of capitalism”—made Wilson more than a literary critic, although he wrote most often about literature.

Wilson preferred to call himself a “writer and journalist.” The description concealed the range and depth of his interests, and his polyglot learning. But it served to highlight his contemporary aims and to state his distance from the kind of monastic, highly specialized study of literature that fostered, as he claimed in an essay on A.E. Housman, arrogance and meanness.

It was his engagement with the world beyond texts that gave Wilson’s criticism such clarity and narrative power—and this is what especially struck me when I first read his books in India in the late 1980s. For someone like myself, who knew little of the world apart from his own lowly position within it, and for whom books were primarily a mode of escape, Wilson’s insistence on relating literature to the urgent questions of life—how it has been lived, how it can or should be lived—came as a revelation and a surprise.

Compared to him, most literary critics I had been directed to by my semi-colonial education appeared to be patrician connoisseurs, creating or upholding the canons of taste suitable to rich imperial societies. To read them was usually to be put in one’s place. It was bracing then to encounter Wilson, and his often blunt take on what to me and others in the former colonies were figures of tremendous political and literary authority: for instance, T.S. Eliot, whose “utterances on political, social, and theological questions” Wilson dismissed as “utter twaddle,” or Winston Churchill, whom Wilson thought had “always lived more or less in an historical novel for boys just as Theodore Roosevelt did.”

Wilson’s own outlook seemed unimpaired by the assumptions of his triumphant society. Indeed, his Americanness manifested itself to me as a democratic curiosity and temperament. He was equally interested in Michelet, a murder trial, and the Ziegfeld Follies. His tone suggested not so much an intimidatingly learned and well-connected writer as a “man in the world who was trying to make sense of it as you were.”

Wilson harnessed all his obviously great learning and powers of explication and summary to bring writers celebrated mainly for their style into the flow of history. His essay on Flaubert’s Sentimental Education discussed the effect of the failure of the 1848 revolution upon the apparently apolitical and obsessive seeker of le mot juste. Rescuing Chekhov from the English fog through which Virginia Woolf saw him, Wilson showed how the stories of serfs, peasants, landowners, engineers, and officials illuminated the social world of pre-revolutionary Russia.

His writings on literature not only stayed clear of academic theory and mere humanistic generalities; they followed no conventional aesthetic norms of “beauty” or “fine writing.” Wilson’s own prose was flexible, clear, and resonant—perfectly suited for exposition and analysis, if not, as the overexplicit detailing of landscape and sex in his journals and fiction hinted, for evocation. He was unimpressed by the kind of linguistic brilliance which, as he wrote about Nabokov’s Ada, “aims to dazzle, but which cannot but be dull”; and he rarely paused in his reviews to savor individual sentences or phrases. “The purely impressionist critic,” he claimed, “approaches the whole of literature as an exhibit of belletristic jewels, and he can only write a rhapsodic catalogue.”

Wilson had a keen eye for individual prose styles, but he tended to move quickly beyond them to their geographical and historical conditions of being. In Patriotic Gore, he tried to explain why Hawthorne and Poe often wrote dense prose:

In the case of all these writers, the relative lack of movement is quite in keeping with the tempo of secluded lives, of men in a position to live by themselves, usually in the country, to write about country manners which they try to think traditional and stable; to idealize historical episodes; to weave fantasies out of their dreams; to reflect upon human life, upon man’s relation to Nature, to God and the Universe; to speculate philosophically or euphorically, to burst into impetuous prophecy on the meaning and promise of the United States.

While reviewing a book, Wilson usually attempted to figure out a whole sensibility and world—to show its author as “a real man dealing with the real world at a definite moment of time.” This often made him tolerate what by high bourgeois standards might seem awkward or bad writing. Tough on Somerset Maugham’s clichés, Wilson could say this of Theodore Dreiser in 1932: “The style is always collapsing, but the man behind it remains sound.”

Anything too morbid or unpleasant in a writer’s sensibility put him off. He did not warm to the Central European pessimism of Kafka, disliked Kipling for his worship of power, and found Baudelaire’s personality “unsympathetic and rather uninteresting.” His indifference to abstract ideas kept Wilson from appreciating such contemporaries of his as Thomas Mann, Karl Jaspers, and Hannah Arendt. And he was confident enough in the soundness of his own sensibility to hector his literary correspondents about mistakes he believed they had made. (To George Orwell: “I see that you persist in the error that I tried to dispel when I saw you in London: that the various kinds of insects in America are indiscriminately known as ‘bugs.'”)

Still, the dominant tone of his critical writings, always surprising in a writer apparently so self-assured, is one of humility. Meticulously charting the course of a narrative or thought, Wilson made the renunciation of personal ego a literary virtue. This helped give conviction to his harshest assessments, which he usually expressed in his letters. He told V.S. Pritchett that he could not take Graham Greene very seriously; and he had a low opinion of Archibald MacLeish, Robert Frost, and Carl Sandburg. If Wilson’s summary judgments on canonical or celebrated figures often persuade, it is largely because they seem untainted by personal insecurity, resentment, or the whiff of self-aggrandizement that lingers, for instance, in Nabokov’s dismissals of Thomas Mann and Pasternak.


Wilson rarely wrote at length about postwar American writers, even the ones he liked: Robert Lowell, John Berryman, James Baldwin, and Randall Jarrell. By the Fifties he seemed to have felt he had paid his dues to American literature. Nor did his later indifference to it hinder Wilson from enjoying, after 1945, what Dabney rightly calls “a second flowering.”

“From the mid-1940s until the mid-1960s,” Dabney says in summary, “Wilson explored non-Christian faiths as well as minority cultures.” He wrote about the discovery of the first- or second-century-BCE manuscripts that came to be known as the Dead Sea Scrolls. He inquired into the history of the Iroquois Indians in upstate New York; he became an expert on the French literature of Négritude, with a special liking for the poetry of the Martiniquan Aimé Césaire.

Wilson never lost his political instincts, even when absorbed by new discoveries in Haiti, Israel, French Canada, and Hungary. In 1949, the energy and confidence of the Haitians made him wonder about the “wretched life we have made for the Negroes in the States.” In 1954, more than a decade before Israel occupied Gaza and the West Bank, Wilson claimed that “the real unconfessed preoccupation in Israel…is a kind of imperialistic drive to expand in a territorial way and become a power in the Middle East.”

In the Fifties, he became, as he wrote to a friend, “obsessed with minorities.” Unsympathetic to Christianity (in 1945, Wilson abruptly departed an audience with Pope Pius XII at the Vatican, exclaiming loudly, “Let’s get out of here, for God’s sake!”), he observed with fascination, even reverence, the religious ceremonies and rituals of the Zuni Indians and the Iroquois. These new interests partly realized Wilson’s belief that

the experience of mankind on earth is always changing as man develops and has to deal with new combinations of elements; and the writer who is anything more than an echo of his predecessors must always find expression for something that has never yet been expressed, must master a new set of phenomena…. With each such victory of the human intellect, we experience a deep satisfaction; we have been cured of some ache of disorder, relieved of some oppressive burden of uncomprehended events.

But Wilson wasn’t just interested in collecting colorfully arcane facts about minority cultures in exotic places. Living in Talcottville in the late Fifties, he got involved with the legal affairs of the Iroquois Indians, who were protesting a dam project that threatened to submerge their reservation. (Wilson’s efforts piqued President Kennedy’s interest in the dam, but construction went ahead anyway.) As he wrote to Compton McKenzie, who had published a novel critical of missile sites being planted in Scotland, the grinding down of small communities by monolithic, homogenizing states was “typical of a kind of thing that has been going on all over the world.”

Wilson’s concern for older or alternative modes of being—which anticipates a major theme of the counterculture of the Sixties—seems to have flowed out of his growing distrust of what he denounced in Upstate as “the policies of the lying governments; the inevitable standardization of what we assume to be ‘exotic’ and ‘backward’ peoples; the stupidity of applied ideologies; the competition of ‘success’ and ‘status.'”

Though a man of the Enlightenment, Wilson seems to have known how the all-encompassing political and economic systems of the modern world could diminish the life of the mind and spirit. Writing in 1923 to John Peale Bishop, he praised Thoreau’s and Emerson’s stress on individual virtue and self-reliance, which he thought was especially valuable at a time when the “landslide of American nationalism had already begun.” As early as 1932, he feared that, as he wrote to Allen Tate, “the United States will develop into a great imperialistic power with all its artists, critics, and philosophers as ineffective and as easily extinguished as the German ones were in 1914.”

Wilson’s mood could only darken during the years of the cold war, especially after his troubles with the Internal Revenue Service (he neglected to pay any income tax between 1946 and 1955). His country had changed, mostly, he felt, for the worse. Writing in 1946 from Charlottesville, Virginia, to Elena Mumm Thornton, a Russian-German woman whom he married in December of that year, Wilson had described how “at night, the great ‘Rotunda’ and colonnaded quadrangle imposes itself as a realized Jeffersonian dream of liberal learning and classical republicanism.” “Nothing I have seen in this country,” Wilson wrote, “has moved me so much for years.” A decade later, he confessed to Dos Passos that “I find—with a certain surprise—that I am rather out of tune with the US. It has suddenly come over me that, whatever you are doing, functioning in America is a terrible struggle—in the long run, it wears you out.”

And yet Wilson seems never to have seriously considered expatriation to Europe. He continued to live in the United States, if with a deepening sense of exhaustion and melancholy—something very palpable in Wilson’s journals of the Fifties and Sixties, even in the detailed accounts of an active social and sexual life that Dabney often seems to embellish redundantly in his biography. Wilson felt his age, and, increasingly, the “swift transience of everything in the United States.” “There’s hardly a house in New York where I ever lived or went in my youth that is still even standing now!” he wrote.

It was in Talcottville that Wilson still felt linked to the America of his youth. In spite of a weak heart, he kept up his work, attacking academic pedantry, learning Hungarian, and supervising the publication of his books. Faulting Housman for condemning his remarkable mind to “duties which prevent it from rising to its full height,” Wilson had praised Heine: “There is in his world an exhilaration of adventure—in travel, in love, in philosophy, in literature, in politics.” This was what Wilson wanted from both books and life. His perennially renewable romanticism occasionally made Wilson, as Dabney records, an unfaithful husband and an indifferent father. It also kept him from the complacencies and pieties of a grand old age; and it seems to have allayed the despair he felt in his final years.

The first sentence of Upstate, the last book he published before his death in 1972, is: “I sit here in this old house alone.” But he was no more solitary than the Spanish-American philosopher he had met in a convent in Rome more than two decades previously. Wilson, too, had “made it his business to extend himself into every kind of human consciousness with which he can establish contact.” And in the isolation of his old stone house, most of his friends dead or dying, Wilson remained “still in the world of men, conversing with them through reading and writing.”

“He is so echt American,” Frank Kermode once wrote, mildly complaining that Wilson had created a “patrician mythology” (“Red Bank, Princeton, houses, friends, heroes such as H.L. Mencken and John Jay Chapman”) that was “rather like Yeats’s.”

But Wilson’s own identification with America was no simple thing. Though unhappy about many aspects of modern American life, Wilson did not wish to resurrect the past—a parochial fantasy that he thought T.S. Eliot and some Southern intellectuals indulged in, denying the fact that “all humanity was in the same boat.” He looked ahead, if often too romantically, to the “probabilities of the future.” He even refused to accept his share of the glory of the American literary renaissance of the Twenties, preferring to see it as “the beginnings of the sometimes all too conscious American literary self-glorification which is a part of our American imperialism.”

“A critic of his country’s mythology,” Dabney suggests, “may be the most orthodox of patriots.” But there is also a larger sense in which Wilson fulfilled the particular obligation that befell American intellectuals in the twentieth century. “To be an American,” Santayana wrote in 1922, “is of itself almost a moral condition, an education, and a career.” This was never truer than in the century when America broke free of its genteel traditions, and emerged, after two world wars, as the richest and most powerful country in history.

With his vivid sense of the past, his active participation in the present, and his quest for a new order, Wilson not only managed, in the first half of his life, to create one of the most wide-ranging and clear-eyed records of this great American transformation—what makes many of his books likely to endure, and to be valued as both personal and social history. Enlarging his curiosity and sympathy beyond the modern West, Wilson also showed how writers and intellectuals of an extraordinarily successful society may have to “break down the walls of the present”; how they may have to move beyond the bitter nostalgia and radical optimism of their native ideologies in order to seek “the untried, unsuspected possibilities of human thought and art.”

This Issue

January 12, 2006