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Edmund Wilson (May 8, 1895 – June 12, 1972) was an American writer and literary critic.


Early life

Wilson was born in Red Bank, New Jersey. His father, Edmund Wilson, Sr., was a lawyer and served as New Jersey Attorney General. From 1912 to 1916, he was educated at Princeton University, after attending prep school at The Hill School, where he served as the Editor-in-Chief of the school's literary magazine, The Record. He began his professional writing career as a reporter for the New York Sun, and served in the army during the First World War. His family's summer home at Talcottville, New York, known as Edmund Wilson House, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973.[1]


Wilson was the managing editor of Vanity Fair in 1920 and 1921, and later served as Associate Editor of The New Republic and as a book reviewer for The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books. His works influenced novelists Upton Sinclair, John Dos Passos, Sinclair Lewis, Floyd Dell, and Theodore Dreiser. He wrote plays, poems, and novels, but his greatest strength was literary criticism.

He played a recurring role throughout Edna St Vincent Millay's life, from the time she was a foreign correspondent for Vanity Fair magazine, 1921 to 1923, to the end of her life.[citation needed]

Axel's Castle: A Study in the Imaginative Literature of 1870-1930 (1931) was a sweeping survey of Symbolism. It covered Arthur Rimbaud, Auguste Villiers de l'Isle-Adam (author of Axel), W. B. Yeats, Paul Valéry, T. S. Eliot, Marcel Proust, James Joyce, and Gertrude Stein.

In his landmark book To the Finland Station (1940), Wilson studied the course of European socialism, from the 1824 discovery by Jules Michelet of the ideas of Vico culminating in the 1917 arrival of Lenin at the Finland Station of Saint Petersburg to lead the Bolshevik Revolution.

In a celebrated though error-riddled[citation needed] essay on the work of horror writer H.P. Lovecraft, "Tales of the Marvellous and the Ridiculous" (New Yorker November 1945; later collected in Classics and Commercials), Wilson condemned Lovecraft's tales as 'hackwork'.

Wilson was interested in modern culture as a whole, and many of his writings go beyond the realm of pure literary criticism. His early works are heavily influenced by the ideas of Freud and Marx, reflecting his deep interest in their work.

Wilson lobbied for the creation of a series of classic U.S. literature similar to France's Bibliothèque de la Pléiade. In 1982, 10 years after his death, The Library of America series was launched.[2] Wilson's writing was included in the Library of the America in two volumes published in 2007.[3]

Context and relationships

Wilson's critical works helped foster public appreciation for several novelists: Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Vladimir Nabokov. He was instrumental in establishing the modern evaluation of the works of Dickens and Kipling. Wilson was a friend of the philosopher Isaiah Berlin.

He attended Princeton with Fitzgerald, who referred to Wilson as his "intellectual conscience". After Fitzgerald's early death (at the age of 44) from a heart attack in December 1940, Wilson edited two books by Fitzgerald (The Last Tycoon and The Crack-Up) for posthumous publication, donating his editorial services to help Fitzgerald's family. Wilson was also a friend of Nabokov, with whom Wilson corresponded extensively and whose writing Wilson introduced to Western audiences. However, their friendship was marred by Wilson's cool reaction to Nabokov's Lolita and irretrievably damaged by Wilson's public criticism of what Wilson considered Nabokov's eccentric translation of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin.

Wilson had many marriages and affairs. His first wife was Mary Blair, who had been in Eugene O'Neill's theatrical company. His second wife was Margaret Canby. After her death in a freak accident two years after their marriage, Wilson wrote a long eulogy to her and said later that he felt guilt over having neglected her. From 1938 to 1946, he was married to Mary McCarthy, who like Wilson was well-known for her literary criticism. She admired enormously Wilson's breadth and depth of intellect, and they co-operated on numerous works. In an article in The New Yorker, Louis Menand says "The marriage to McCarthy was a mistake that neither side wanted to be first to admit. When they fought, he would retreat into his study and lock the door; she would set piles of paper on fire and try to push them under it." He wrote many letters to Anaïs Nin, criticizing her for her surrealistic style as opposed to the realism that was then deemed correct writing, and ended by asking for her hand, saying he would "teach her to write",[citation needed] which she took as an insult. Except for a brief falling out following the publication of I Thought of Daisy, in which Wilson portrayed Edna St Vincent Millay as Rita Cavanaugh, Wilson and Millay remained friends throughout life. He later married Elena Mumm Thornton (previously married to James Worth Thornton), but continued to have extramarital relationships.

Cold War times

Wilson was also an outspoken critic of U.S. Cold War policies. He did not pay his USA federal income tax from 1946 to 1955 and was later investigated by the IRS.

After a settlement, Wilson received a $25,000 fine rather than the original $69,000 sought by the IRS. He received no jail time. In his book The Cold War and the Income Tax: A Protest (1963), Wilson argued that, as a result of competitive militarization against the Soviet Union, the civil liberties of Americans were being paradoxically infringed under the guise of defense from Communism. For these reasons, Wilson also opposed U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.

Wilson's view of President Lyndon Johnson was decidedly negative. Historian Eric Goldman writes in his memoir The Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson that when Goldman, on behalf of President Johnson, invited Wilson to read from Wilson's writings at a White House Festival Of The Arts in 1965: "Wilson declined with a brusqueness that I never experienced before or after in the case of an invitation in the name of the President and First Lady."

On December 6, 1963, Wilson was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Lyndon Johnson.

For the academic year 1964-1965, he was a Fellow on the faculty in the Center for Advanced Studies at Wesleyan University.[4]

Selected bibliography

  • Axel's Castle: A Study in the Imaginative Literature of 1870-1930, New York, NY: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1931
  • The Triple Thinkers: Ten Essays on Literature, New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1938
  • To the Finland Station: A Study in the Writing and Acting of History, Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1940
  • The Wound and the Bow: Seven Studies in Literature, Cambridge, MA: Riverside Press, 1941
  • (editor) The Shock of Recognition: The Development of Literature in the U.S. Recorded by the Men Who Made It, New York, NY: Modern Library, 1943
    • Volume I. The Nineteenth Century
    • Volume II. The Twentieth Century
  • Memoirs of Hecate County, Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1946
  • The Triple Thinkers: Twelve Essays on Literary Subjects, New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Co., 1948
  • Classics and Commercials: A Literary Chronicle of the Forties, New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Co., 1950
  • The Shores of Light: A Literary Chronicle of the Twenties and Thirties, New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Young, 1953
  • The Scrolls from the Dead Sea, Fontana Books, 1955
  • Red, Black, Blond and Olive: Studies in Four Civilizations: Zuni; Hainti; Soviet Russia; Israel, London: W. H. Allen, 1956
  • A Piece of My Mind: Reflections at Sixty, New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1956
  • The American Earthquake: A Documentary of the Twenties and Thirties (A Documentary of the Jazz Age, the Great Depression, and the New Deal), Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1958
  • Apologies to the Iroquois, New York, NY: Vintage, 1960
  • Patriotic Gore: Studies in the Literature of the American Civil War, New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1962. Title "Patriotic Gore" was taken from the song "Maryland, My Maryland".
  • The Cold War and the Income Tax: A protest, New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Co., 1964
  • The Bit Between My Teeth: A Literary Chronicle of 1950-1965, New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1966
  • Europe without Baedeker: Sketches among the Ruins of Italy, Greece and England, with Notes from a European Diary: 1963-64: Paris, Rome, Budapest, London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1967
  • The Twenties: From Notebooks and Diaries of the Period, ed. Leon Edel, New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1975
  • The Thirties: From Notebooks and Diaries of the Period, ed. Leon Edel, New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1980
  • The Forties: From Notebooks and Diaries of the Period, ed. Leon Edel, New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1983
  • The Fifties: From Notebooks and Diaries of the Period, ed. Leon Edel, New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1986
  • The Sixties: The Last Journal 1960-1972, ed. Lewis M. Dabney, New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1993
  • Dear Bunny, Dear Volodya: The Nabokov-Wilson Letters, 1940-1971, ed. Simon Karlinsky, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1979; "Revised and Expanded Edition," 2001
  • Edmund Wilson: The Man in Letters, ed. Janet Groth and David Castronovo, Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1992
  • Literary Essays and Reviews of the 1920s & 30s: The Shores of Light / Axel's Castle / Uncollected Reviews Lewis M. Dabney, ed. (New York: Library of America, 2007) ISBN 978-1-59853-013-1
  • Literary Essays and Reviews of the 1930s & 40s: The Triple Thinkers, The Wound and the Bow, Classics and Commercials, Uncollected Reviews Lewis M. Dabney, ed. (New York: Library of America, 2007) ISBN 978-1-59853-014-8


  • "Books: Two Russian Exiles: Paul Chavchavadze and Oksana Kasenkina" The New Yorker 25/46 (7 January 1950): 74, 77-79. Reviews Chavchavadze's Family Memoirs and Kasenkina's Leap to Freedom.



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Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

Edmund Wilson (1895-05-081972-06-12) was an American writer and literary critic.


  • In a sense, one can never read the book that the author originally wrote, and one can never read the same book twice.
    • The Triple Thinkers (1938) [Oxford University Press, 1948], Preface, p. ix
  • Education, the last hope of the liberal in all periods.
    • To the Finland Station (1940) [Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1972, ISBN 374-51045-8/1145], Part I, Ch. 5: Michelet Between Nationalism and Socialism, p. 36
  • It may be that there is nothing more demoralizing than a small but adequate income.
    • Memoirs of Hecate County (1946) [New York Review Books Classics, 2004], Ch. 4, p. 136
  • Marxism is the opium of the intellectuals.
    • Memoirs of Hecate County (1946) [New York Review Books Classics, 2004], Ch. 5, p. 340
    • Karl Marx, in his Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right (1843-4), wrote "Religion…is the opium of the people" ("Die Religion…ist das Opium des Volkes"). Wilson was not the first writer to turn Marx’s statement on its head: Evelyn Waugh published a review of Harold Laski's Faith, Reason and Civilization in The Tablet, 22nd April 1944, under the headline "Marxism, the Opiate of the People".
    • In 1955 the French philosopher Raymond Aron wrote a book on Marxism called L'Opium des intellectuels. Hence Wilson's line is often attributed to him.

About Edmund Wilson

  • He was, as painted, aristocratic, beyond any writer I've met, but in a Jeffersonian-American way that brooked no artificial distinctions. There was no cheap way you could impress him... It was a particular strength of his as a critic that he was not even impressed by the Dead as such. He could write of living authors in precisely the same tones, and applying the same standards, as he used for the Classics.
    • Wilfrid Sheed, The Good Word & Other Words (1978) [Penguin, 1980, ISBN 0-14-005497-9], Part I, ch. 1: "Edmund Wilson, 1895-1972," p. 6
  • Wilson was not, in the academic sense, a scholar or historian. He was an enormous reader, one of those readers who are perpetually on the scent from book to book. He was the old-style man of letters, but galvanized and with the iron of purpose in him.
    • V. S. Pritchett, The Tale Bearers: English and American Writers (1980) [Random House, ISBN 0-394-74683-X], "Edmund Wilson: Towards Revolution," p. 141
  • He was the perfect autodidact. He wanted to know it all.
    • Gore Vidal, "Edmund Wilson: This Critic and This Gin and These Shoes," The New York Review of Books (1980-09-25), later published in The Second American Revolution and Other Essays, 1976-1982 (1982) [Vintage, 1983, ISBN 0-394-71379-6], p. 32
  • Wilson is not like other critics; some critics are boring even when they are original; he fascinates even when he is wrong.
    • Alfred Kazin, in Benet's Reader's Encyclopedia of American Literature (HarperCollins, 1991), p. 1146

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