- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 4, 2006

EDMUND WILSON: A LIFE IN LITERATURE

By Lewis M. Dabney

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $35, 641 pages, illus.

CRITIC IN LOVE: A ROMANTIC BIOGRAPHY OF EDMUND WILSON

By David Castronovo and Janet Groth

Shoemaker & Hoard, $25, 222 pages, illus.

REVIEWED BY MARTIN RUBIN

If there is any word in the English language which should definitely come with a warning label, it is that perilous adjective unique. But in the case of Edmund Wilson (1895-1972), I am going to plunge ahead and use it.

The poet and critic Randall Jarrell was famous for using another dangerous locution, “no other,” and this too pops into mind when contemplating Wilson, for indeed no other figure in American letters achieved such a weighty and impressive body of work as an independent scholar with only minimal and sporadic institutional support.

It is especially salutary to contemplate Edmund Wilson in our age, where so much aid if not comfort is provided to scholars inside and outside the academy from a plethora of private foundations and government agencies. Who among us has not marveled at the quantity of financial and other support provided for projects of barely minimal value, often undertaken by academics already graced with salaries and accompanying benefits?

And then we look at the prodigious output of someone like Wilson, who as an elderly, unwell man beset by tax and other financial burdens thought nothing of learning challenging languages like Hebrew, Russian and Hungarian to aid his scholarship. Certainly, he did have the benefits that came in his day of being a regular at “The New Yorker,” but except for very brief and usually unhappy sojourns in the groves of academe, he was the very epitome of the independent — in every sense of the term — scholar.

Indeed, it is finally Wilson’s total independence of mind that makes him such a unique figure in American literature. Deeply engaged with such movements as marxism and modernism which dominated so much of 20th century literature, he would never allow himself to be captured, much less enslaved, by them.

Yet he could produce studies of marxism that even as exigent and clear-eyed a mind as the late Sidney Hook could value even after he had seen through that ideology. And at a time when the denizens of modernism like T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound held sway to such an extent that it could seem like lese-majeste to even look at matters in a different way, Wilson was gloriously unbound by their strictures. He could always be relied upon to bring a genuinely fresh approach to any writer he was considering.

Of course, it is easy to appreciate Wilson the critic by reading his work, whether it is such majestic edifices as “To the Finland Station” or “Patriotic Gore” or his shorter essays and book reviews which have been collected in many volumes. It is also possible to get some sense of Edmund Wilson the man from his foray into cutting-edge fiction “Memoirs of Hecate County” and even more from his immensely detailed, no-holds- barred published diaries, which could hardly have been more explicit about his sex life and other intimate aspects of his existence.

Grouped together by decade, these were excellently edited by Lewis Dabney, a professor of English at the University of Wyoming, and so it is no surprise that this academic scholar should have brought to his biography of Edmund Wilson the fruits of decades of immersion in the life and works of his subject.

And what a subject he has. Wilson led a life as filled with characters and events as the richest of fictional creations and he had a character as colorful, original, individualistic and — yes, I’ll risk it again — unique as his intellect.

He was a close college friend of F. Scott Fitzgerald at Princeton and played a crucial role in the establishment and maintenance of that writer’s reputation. And as for the women in his life, they coincide with much of the firmament of the distaff side of American literature in the 20th century, including — among others — Edna St.Vincent Millay, Elinor Wylie, Dorothy Parker, Dawn Powell, Louise Bogan, Mary McCarthy (who became his third wife and the mother of his only son) and Penelope Gilliatt.

Nor did he limit himself to celebrated and accomplished females: the wife of his dentist, neighbors, and assorted characters from many walks of life found their way into his bed (and his diaries).

Mr. Dabney does a fine job of using Wilson’s own writings without ever making the mistake of overreliance on them. His judgment as a biographer is always evident as he skillfully puts Wilson’s words into context and provides apt bits of background and other information for which the original texts cry out.

This is the kind of biographer you long for but seldom get: one who knows that you have to take the story on past its subject’s death. I have read so many books on Wilson which left me wondering what happened to his long-suffering fourth and final wife, the enigmatic Elena Mumm Thornton, in her widowhood; Mr. Dabney satisfied my curiosity in this regard and also provided tactful yet informative accounts of Wilson’s three children during and after his life.

It is touches like this that make reading Mr. Dabney’s book a profoundly satisfying experience and “Edmund Wilson: A Life in Literature” probably merits yet another adjective that can be perilous for a reviewer but which I feel is justified here: definitive.

If there is one criticism to be made of Mr. Dabney’s splendid biography, it is his tendency on occasion to seem like an apologist for Wilson even when he seems to be behaving inexcusably, something he did quite often, usually when inebriated. Perhaps this is an occupational hazard attendant upon a lifetime’s work on a particular subject and this occasional flaw is generally outweighed by a mountain of intelligent analysis and interpretation that has indeed produced a rounded, balanced portrait.

Which unfortunately is a description I would definitely not apply to David Castronovo and Janet Groth’s “A Critic in Love: A Romantic Biography of Edmund Wilson.” It must have seemed to them and to their publisher a good idea to shine a spotlight on the ins and outs of Wilson’s protean lovelife involving that extraordinary cast of characters.

Taken out of the context of a busy and brave life and an important career, his lusting and rutting just seems ludicrous. After all, Wilson is an important figure for many other reasons — historical, literary, political — and his sexuality and the part he played in the struggle for frank expression are viewed to greater effect in a wider context.

It is also unfortunate that the authors of “A Critic in Love” are noticeably opinionated and in general strike the wrong tone for an enterprise such as theirs which verges on the edge of plain silliness. Besides which, the interstices of Wilson’s sex life have been even better explored by Mr. Dabney than they were by Wilson himself, so “A Critic in Love” seems, in the last analysis, simply redundant.

Martin Rubin is is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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