Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

A literary critic who raised criticism to the level of literature

Axel's Castle, by Edmund Wilson. New York: W. W. Norton. 319 pp. Index. $6.95 (paper). The Triple Thinkers and The Wound and the Bow: A Combined Edition, by Edmund Wilson. Foreword by Frank Kermode. Boston: Northeastern University Press. 536 pp. $11.95 (paper). Patriotic Gore: Studies in the Literature of the American Civil War, by Edmund Wilson. Foreword by C. Vann Woodward. Boston. Northeastern University Press. 816 pp. Index. $12.50 (paper). The name of the late Edmund Wilson (1895-1972) has been visible lately in connection with the newly established Library of America. It was Wilson's frequently repeated plea for a uniform, standard edition of the major American writers that helped stimulate that splendid and indispensable project into being; this despite the fact that Wilson (although Princeton-educated) had no standing as a formal scholar.

He had, essentially, made himself into an important literary critic by the force of his amazing self-discipline and tireless curiosity.

About these ads

Wilson's many books and countless articles cover a range of material almost unheard of in this age of scholarly specialization. His willingness to master extraliterary disciplines (such as history and economics) in order to comprehend the backgrounds of the books he analyzed, and his successful efforts to teach himself languages (Hebrew, for example, to study the Dead Sea Scrolls), are evidence of a passion to explore and understand that has been matched by few, if any, American writers.

Four of his best books have recently been reissued in three new volumes. Even a cursory look through them shows how much we have to learn from Wilson's diligent, meticulous explorations of his several literary worlds.

Axel's Castle, first published in 1931, offers a history of the symbolist movement during the years 1870-1930, in vivid essays on Yeats, Paul Val'ery, T. S. Eliot, Proust, James Joyce, and Gertrude Stein, plus a concluding analysis of Villiers de l'Isle-Adam's 1890 narrative poem ``Axel'' (whose contemplative aesthete-hero embodies the ``world of the private imagination in isolation from the life of society'').

The book's weaknesses derive from Wilson's adamant belief in writers' social responsibilities -- which leads him to undervalue aestheticism generally (he's stubbornly insensitive to Val'ery's poems and Eliot's critical essays, and cheerfully cruel to poor Yeats).

But the study's scope is admirable, and the essays on Joyce and Proust are superbly empathic. Despite the axes it grinds and oxen it gores, this is a brilliant book, displaying -- already this early in Wilson's career -- his enviable ability to summarize and describe, and to excite the reader's interest.

The Triple Thinkers (1938) is a miscellany containing memorial essays, an introduction to Pushkin (including Wilson's own prose translation of ``The Bronze Horseman''), theoretical studies of ``Marxism and Literature'' and ``The Historical Interpretation of Literature,'' a fine tribute to the 19th-century American essayist John Jay Chapman, and two incisive ``political'' readings of Flaubert and George Bernard Shaw. Most notably, it includes Wilson's infamous Freudian interpretation of Henry James's ``The Turn of the Screw'' and his daringly unconventional ``Morose Ben Jonson,'' which subjects the great Jacobean dramatist to a brand of psychosexual speculation that is beyond T. S. Eliot's wildest dreams.

Wilson's most Freudian book, The Wound and the Bow (1941), is a close-knit and compellingly argued examination of psychic trauma as inspiration for artistic production. It is based, quite loosely, on the title hero of Sophocles's play ``Philoctetes,'' which describes the wounded Greek soldier abandoned by his comrades, then called upon to use his magic bow -- a gift from Hercules -- to aid their attack on Troy.

About these ads

Wilson's analyses of writers who overcome potentially crippling disabilities are dismayingly uneven. He is uninspired on the subjects of Hemingway and Casanova, but ``Justice for Edith Wharton'' is interesting (and was well ahead of its time), and ``The Dream of H. C. Earwhicker'' is an explication that did for ``Finnegans Wake'' what Wilson's Joyce essay in ``Axel's Castle'' had done for ``Ulysses.''

``The Kipling That Nobody Read'' paid appropriate respect to a superb craftsman too often dismissed as a writer for children, and the remarkable ``Dickens: The Two Scrooges'' probably initiated the serious critical attention that Dickens has received in superabundance ever since.

Patriotic Gore (1962) was Wilson's last major book, and perhaps his best. Subtitled ``Studies in the Literature of the American Civil War,'' it analyzes the writing of nearly 30 Northern and Southern men and women who were involved in the conflict, or were affected by it while it occurred and afterward. This is an impressionistic, highly personal book that omits or glosses over most of the major writers of the period.

Instead, the book concentrates on memoirs, diaries, and public writings, as well as on marginal writers such as the war-scarred, misanthropic Ambrose Bierce and (in Abraham Lincoln's words) ``the little lady who made this big war,'' Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of ``Uncle Tom's Cabin.''

Wilson labors to be fair to both ``sides,'' although his admiration for Confederate Vice-President Alexander H. Stephens may seem overcompensatory, and his ``Lincoln'' chapter is chiefly notable for his amusing vilification of Carl Sandburg's windy biography.

Wilson includes a brilliant appreciation of Ulysses S. Grant's ``Personal Memoirs'' and a penetrating character study of Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, whose later life and career he presents as logical consequences of Holmes's wartime experiences.

And in the centerpiece essay, ``The Chastening of American Prose Style,'' Wilson traces the gradual shift away from formally patterned rhetoric toward simple and concise writing that resulted from the new prominence of newspapers and the example of Abraham Lincoln's own forthrightness and simplicity.

It's a perfect illustration of Wilson's best qualities as a critic -- his ingenuity, penetration, and organizing power -- in concert and in balance.

There's a small liberal education to be found in these four works alone. They remind us that Edmund Wilson was a one-of-a-kind man of letters whose best work raises literary criticism to the level of literature itself. In my opinion it should eventually be included in the Library of America.

Bruce Allen reviews books regularly for the Monitor.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.