To call Edmund Wilson (1895-1972) the greatest American critic or our most dynamic man of letters doesn't begin to hint at the scope of his achievement...

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To call Edmund Wilson (1895-1972) the greatest American critic or our most dynamic man of letters doesn’t begin to hint at the scope of his achievement.

Wilson’s passions ranged from modernist literature (his favorites were the writers he came of age with — Yeats, Proust, Joyce, Hemingway, though not, oddly, Kafka), to politics (particularly the ways in which Marxism had permanently shaken the world), the American Civil War, the ancient Middle East, northeastern American Indians, and just about anything else that piqued his intellect.

He wrote good fiction (a novel, “I Thought of Daisy,” and a collection of stories, “Memoirs of Hecate County”), boring plays, scintillating memoirs and journals that now function as time capsules for the decades in which they were written; translated classic Russian poetry; and filled several thick, rich volumes with reviews and essays on everything from his Princeton classmate F. Scott Fitzgerald to why he hated detective stories.

“Edmund Wilson: A Life in Literature”

By Lewis M. Dabney
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 642 pp., $35

No other American writer has produced so many essential volumes; no American who aspires to be an intellectual can afford not to be familiar with “Axel’s Castle,” “To the Finland Station,” “The Wound and the Bow,” “Patriotic Gore,” “A Window on Russia” and perhaps a dozen other Wilson titles.

Hemingway said Wilson’s opinion was the only one “in the States I have any respect for.” W.H. Auden candidly admitted that he wrote for Wilson alone.

Since Wilson’s death 33 years ago, there have been numerous portraits and a couple of biographies, but Lewis M. Dabney’s “Edmund Wilson: A Life in Literature” is by far the most comprehensive deep-dish study of both his life and work.

Born and raised in Red Bank, N.J., young Edmund was given an education grounded in both the Scriptures (his mother was proud to be a descendant of Cotton Mather) and the classics. His father, an attorney general of New Jersey, was an upper-class WASP with surprisingly cosmopolitan tastes.

Given his background, it was inevitable that Wilson would attend Princeton, where he received “a purely humanistic education in the tradition going back to Erasmus, though absorbed within a country club environment.”

There he met and befriended Fitzgerald, a relationship that would loom large in American literature, not only because of his influence on Fitzgerald but also because of his role in reviving Fitzgerald’s reputation years after his death.

Wilson’s complacent world was shaken by the piles of corpses he saw during the First World War. Sobered, and with his horizons expanded, he returned home and became a top-flight journalist and critic for Vanity Fair.

Then, as The New Republic’s literary editor, he helped turn that magazine into “the primary organ in the United States for people who love books.” He finally found a home at The New Yorker. As early as the mid-1930s, he had surpassed his idol H.L. Mencken in scope and influence as the most acclaimed critic in the country.

There were four tumultuous marriages, including one to the brilliant and acerbic novelist and critic Mary McCarthy. There were dozens of celebrated affairs and friendships — whether in pursuit of one or the other, in Dabney’s sly phrasing, “he was always in search of a promising student.”

His feuds, most notably his famous falling out with Russian émigré novelist Vladimir Nabokov, dominated the pages of the leading literary periodicals. Given Wilson’s decades-long on-and-off romance with Marxism, it’s amazing in retrospect that Wilson and the fanatical anti-communist Nabokov were ever friends at all.

Always, always, there was alcohol, astonishing quantities of it. Wilson, concludes Dabney, “was the only well-known literary alcoholic of his generation who was not compromised by his drinking,” but, as Dabney makes clear, “alcohol undermined his marriages.”

“A Life in Literature” humanizes our greatest man of letters without ever trivializing him. The most American of the 20th century’s great scholars, Wilson spoke “with a pronounced British accent” while bristling at British class snobbishness.

The great interpreter of Joyce and Eliot liked to relax with Bing Crosby records; by age 60 he enjoyed sitting down with Frank Sinatra’s album “In the Wee Small Hours.”

Though he was a model of urbanity and intellectual control to some, Anais Nin found him “irrational, lustful, violent.” A Seneca Indian woman he befriended while writing “Apologies to the Iroquois” was so impressed by his sincerity that she offered to make him a member of the tribe and named her son for him.

Indeed, at times in Dabney’s enormously satisfying account, there seems to be several Edmund Wilsons, all of them products of a time “culturally narrower than ours,” but “in some respects more literate.”

Until the end of his life, Edmund Wilson reflected the confidence, vitality and sometimes arrogance of an America that had, with startling swiftness in the history of the Western world, become not only important but dominant, a society whose “Mass culture was not yet its primary export,” writes Dabney.

“A Life in Literature” makes one nostalgic for such a time and such a man.