The maddening genius

Edmund Wilson
November 8, 1996

Before his death in 1972, Edmund Wilson was routinely honoured as the moral, literary and intellectual conscience of his generation in America. He was also routinely upbraided for being irascible, haughty and disdainful. He earned both reputations. Highly visible positions as editor, journalist and book reviewer for the New Republic, the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books secured him power and prestige. Studies such as Axel's Castle (1931) and The Wound and the Bow (1941) established him as a revolutionary literary critic, while The Scrolls from the Dead Sea (1955) gained him enormous respect as a journalist, and the court-suppressed Memoirs of Hecate County (1946) brought him infamy and commercial success as a "pornographer".

He was a relentless polymath: in addition to drama, poetry, novels and literary criticism, he wrote on history, politics, anthropology, world travel, religion and psychology. His brilliance was notorious, but not much was known of his personality and private life. However, since the publication of the last instalment of his five-volume diary in 1993, a full revaluation has been imminent. For those following the debunking trend of late 20th-century biography, Wilson's plummet from grace seemed inevitable. Relying significantly on 2,000 pages of intimate revelation, Jeffrey Meyers asks us to read the man between the sparkling, bristling lines: an alcoholic, emotionally repressed sexologist with a lifelong tendency to destroy relationships.

The problem with writing on Wilson is one of immensity. His canon consists of nearly 50 books, scores of uncollected reviews and essays, hundreds of letters, and 50 years of diaries, never mind the second-hand material concerning his upbringing and education. If we are to agree with Philip Ziegler, in his essay "Biography: the narrative", that "biographers must aim to embrace the totality of the subject's life . . . must never lose their hunger for the minutiae of their subjects' everyday existence", then either Wilson's life requires two volumes or Meyers's work requires a kind of "Who's Who" and "What's What" published as an extensive appendix. However, if we are to compare the biographer with the novelist and side with Henry James, in the preface to Roderick Hudson, in believing that "really, universally, relations stop nowhere, and the exquisite problem of the artist is eternally but to draw, by a geometry of his own, the circle within which they shall happily appear to do so", then Meyers's problem is one of selectivity.

Exhibiting the spoils of a truly remarkable organisational effort, the narrative, in places, is stuffed with minor facts, characters and incidents that break the surface as red herrings or non sequiturs. The effect is to stall the narrative, occasionally giving it the appearance of a catalogue. Intensifying reader vertigo is the overall structure of the book. Although nominally divided into two and three-year periods, the 24 chapters are actually arranged by subjects ("Nervous breakdown, 19-1929", "Mary McCarthy, 1938-1945", "At the New Yorker, 1943-1944") whose roles in Wilson's life very often precede and supervene their assigned time period. A result is a certain amount of overlapping and repetition in the form of introductions and re-introductions of character and situation. Because Wilson's life was saturated with people and events important to him and central to literature - and, therefore, unconventional and confusing - his biography might have been better arranged according to its natural, conventional chronology.

Meyers shines when he discusses Wilson's literary friendships, which read like a journey through modern literature. Among his closest friends were Scott Fitzgerald, John Dos Passos, Vladimir Nabokov, W. H. Auden and Robert Lowell. To add that he also knew Ernest Hemingway, D. H. Lawrence, T. S. Eliot, Eugene O'Neill, Cyril Connolly and Isaiah Berlin is to leave unmentioned an impressive roster of luminaries who loved and loathed him. Meyers poignantly diagrams Wilson's relationship with Fitzgerald, his alter ego, and successfully recreates the high-brow drama of his duelling, stimulating 25-year friendship with Nabokov that ends in the flames of a public dispute over the translation of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin.

Meyers is particularly insistent in asking us to reassess Wilson through his relationships with women. Among the more famous of his numerous wives, mistresses and lovers were Mary McCarthy, Edna St Vincent Millay, Louise Bogan, Anais Nin and Penelope Gilliatt. We see Wilson as the instigator, giving them intellectual and sexual awakening, then, often, destroying them emotionally. The steadiness of Meyers's gaze on this aspect of Wilson's life throughout the book, punctuated by frequent explicit descriptions of sex from the diaries, leads one to believe, perhaps inadvisedly, that sex was the secret source of his motivations and the single factor that linked him to women. Of Wilson's marriage to McCarthy, Meyers concludes that "their good sexual relations . . . as well as their weekly separations and his tolerance of her infidelity, defused their conflicts and enabled their troubled marriage to survive for seven years". Understandably, recourse to psychiatry is a strong temptation, yet attempts to draw conclusions about the famous dead using psychiatric methods are doomed to approximation. Psychiatry intrudes elsewhere: "Wilson drank because everyone drank in the Twenties; it made him more convivial with friends and helped overcome his shyness with women. When the Twenties had vanished, Wilson took alcohol to help him recapture the enchanted world of his youth." Regarding his 1929 mental collapse, Meyers determines that "fearful of losing control after his nervous breakdown, Wilson constantly tried to master himself and dominate others".

More convincing contributions to our understanding of Wilson come from discussions of his literary journalism and criticism. Meyers not only reproduces the course of Wilson's discoveries behind The Scrolls from the Dead Sea (1955), but demonstrates his central role in this crucial historic moment. Wisely eschewing lengthy analysis of the well-known Axel's Castle and The Wound and the Bow, Meyers focuses on how these works were received, then and now, by reviewers and scholars, placing him as the pivotal, controversial critic of his time. Wilson's bold biographising in textual analysis ran counter to the university mainstream and, later, to New Criticism, confirming his isolation. But, ultimately, his prescience located him on the right side of literary history. He was the first American writer to introduce and explicate Joyce and Eliot, and to recuperate Dickens and Kipling; he was also the first to proclaim and defend Hemingway. In Eliot's "The Waste Land", Wilson saw not social and cultural sagacity, but "a most distressingly moving account of Eliot's own agonised state of mind during the years preceding his nervous breakdown". However, this tendency to dissent, pioneer and herald also had damaging results. He stood famously on the wrong side of political history, blindly trumpeting the rise and power of Russian communism in Travels in Two Democracies (1936) and To the Finland Station (1940). But his prose was unfailingly, maddeningly lucid and contrasts sharply with the crabbed, convoluted sentences and arguments of his contemporaries F. R. Leavis, William Empson and Kenneth Burke.

The literary world needs to remind itself of Wilson, to know him again, not because his personal life was rich with darknesses, but because he was so absolutely influential - as a friend and a penetrating, powerful critic - to writers who formed 20th-century American and English literature. Reading Meyers's account of Wilson's lifelong inner tempest, we marvel even more at his ability to produce consistently brilliant scholarship grounded in moral and intellectual conviction. This reviewer's recommendation is that you read Meyers's book, but hope for another.

Gregory LeStage is a DPhil student, Oriel College, Oxford.

Edmund Wilson: A Biography

Author - Jeffrey Meyers
ISBN - 0 395 68993 7
Publisher - Houghton Mifflin
Price - £20.00
Pages - 554

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