A searching life of the eminent literary critic and journalist 1895-1972).
It was Edmund Wilson’s conceit, first voiced in the essay “The Wound and the Bow” and often repeated, that the artist bears an internal wound whose healing lies in making art, but who can never be healed. Ever the man of letters—he died at a table strewn with galleys and “a dog-eared copy of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, with which Dickens had been struggling at his death”—Wilson bore psychic wounds of his own. Perhaps self-servingly, he insisted that the man (or woman) of letters was also a wounded hero, and “Bunny” Wilson was surely something more than ink-stained drudge; as Dabney (English/Univ. of Wyoming; Edmund Wilson: Centennial Reflections, 1997) observes, he lived up to the challenge of a kind of Hemingwayesque life, lived “all the way up,” always by his wits and with his pen. (Only late in life, and then grudgingly, did Wilson accept academic largess, and then he irritated its bestower, Paul Horgan, by asking whether Horgan wrote.) Dabney follows Wilson’s brilliant trajectory from protected youth to Jazz Age high-liver and liver-damaged “literary alcoholic,” from sexual naïf to the chronicler of suburban sexual high-jinks in Memoirs of Hecate County, from somewhat snooty highbrow to much more worldly highbrow. For all the life changes—and all the adventures and misadventures in the company of Edna Millay, Mary McCarthy, the Algonquian Circle, Vladimir Nabokov and such—Wilson remained consistent to at least a few principles and pleasures, confessing, for instance, “that he was never happier than when telling people about a work they were unfamiliar with in a language they didn’t know.” That he did so in the pages of The New Yorker, The New Republic and Vanity Fair ought to make his admirers—and Wilson still has many, having, as Dabney observes, passed the ten-year test for longevity long ago—yearn for better, more lettered days.
A solid, much-needed work of literary biography, stronger on matters critical but a touch less absorbing, because less sensational, than Jeffrey Meyers’s Edmund Wilson (1995).