Edmund Wilson




Chronology  His Works  The Life  Selected Bibliographic Sources  

Contexts: Decades; Locales; Ideas; Authors; Issues  

Introduction by the Editor

Drawing by David Levine. Reprinted with permission from

The New York Review of Books. Copyright © 1963 Nyrev, Inc.

Edmund Wilson (1895-1972) was an American writer, critic and social commentator whose books, essays, and journals include sweeping accounts of American literary life, personal reactions to famous contemporaries, and highly readable forays into ideas and history. Educated at the Hill School and Princeton University, he served in World War I and then started his career as a reporter and cultural journalist.In the 1920s he wrote about Hemingway, Fitzgerald, O’Neill, Cummings for the New Republic, the Dial, and the Bookman. His first major critical book, Axel’s Castle, explored the world of Proust, Joyce, Yeats, and Stein. During the decade he evoked jazz age Greenwich Village and Broadway in his novel I Thought of Daisy, reviewed theater and nightclubs, expressed his anti-Establishment convictions in an essay on Sacco and Vanzetti, and acquired a formidable reputation as a judgmental critic and arbiter of taste.His standards--craftsmanship, forcefulness, and responsiveness to modernity--made him a pioneering discoverer of new talents as well as a bearer of the classical humanist tradition. In The American Earthquakehe responded to the suffering of the Depression with essays on American victims, especially the urban unemployed and the dazed and ruined middle classes. He also expressed his anger and idealism in his epic work on the history of revolutionary writing and action, To the Finland Station. In 1936, he traveled to the USSR, studied socialism and cultural life, and wrote positively of the Soviet experiment in his journals. But his leftist enthusiasm, like that of many other intellectuals, cooled in the late 1930s as a result of having watched the spectacle of the Moscow Trials.In the forties he quit at the New Republic in a quarrel over "Roosevelt's war," then worked for the New Yorker as a reviewer, published a sexually explicit collection of stories about Manhattan and suburbia called Memoirs of Hecate County and soon turned to the massive tasks of a 19th century man of letters: books about the literature of the Civil War, the meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the plight of the Iroquois in New York State.Once a radical of his time, he became in the 1950s a fogy with a radical connection to an older, more cultivated and civic-minded America: he denounced the atomic bomb, the IRS, and corporate America and all its works.Retreating to literary studies of classic modernists and a few contemporaries in The Bit Between My Teeth, he also focused on his native Talcottville in Upstate and on his own life of constant writing and reading, literary friendships, love affairs, and travel in the series of journals that began with A Prelude and ended with The Sixties

Professor David Castronovo, Pace University

In His Own Words

On Literature and Commercialism:“It is partly the character of the city itself that inevitably makes impossible any close and really profitable exchange between different kinds of literary people.New York is too expensive for most writers, and even when they do manage to live here, the distances are usually too great for them to be able to see much of each other.And the spirit of artistic and intellectual adventure has, as I say, been deadened by the pressure of the commercial book clubs, which, however discriminating the tastes of the individual members may be, are bound to illustrate the same principle that is always being brought forward as an apology for the mediocrity of the movies, since their choices must always represent a compromise between their personal preferences and the preferences of their vast public in the provinces.”
The Shores of Light
On His Range:“Now, I am far from an authority on any of these subjects, but, out of volatile curiosity and an appetite for various entertainment, I have done some reading in all of them; and I have been working, as a practicing critic, to break down the conventional frames, to get away from the academic canons, that always tend to keep literature provincial.”
The Bit Between My Teeth
Edmund Wilson: Classic & Commercial is a Pace University website edited by David Castronovo, Ph.D. and designed by Robert Bové, M.F.A.