Edmund Wilson (May 8, 1895–June 12, 1972), journalist, critic, novelist, and historian, vigorously commented on American culture and society for five decades. He was born in Red Bank, New Jersey, and graduated from Princeton University in 1916. In World War I, he served in France with an army medical unit and in Germany on occupation duty. On his return to the United States in 1919, he became a magazine writer and editor, first at the monthly Vanity Fair, then at the liberal weekly The New Republic. In 1927, he completed his first novel, I Thought of Daisy, and in 1930 his first major book of criticism, Axel's Castle.
As the United States's economic crisis worsened after the 1929 crash, Wilson went on the road to report what he saw as the breakdown of U.S. capitalism and the onset of class war. With such contemporaries as John dos Passos and Sherwood Anderson, he used vivid literary journalism to counter indifference or ignorance about the country's growing distress. His articles on Communist demonstrations in New York, Detroit's automobile factories, West Virginia coal mines, workers at the Hoover (Boulder) Dam, and suicides at "The Jumping-Off Place," San Diego, were collected in The American Jitters: A Year of the Slump (1932). Alfred Kazin wrote that the book caught "perfectly the revolutionary and unsettling impact of the 1930s" (Kazin 1962, p. 408). Wilson's subsequent Depression-era reporting—notably "Hull-House in 1932," a dark portrait of Chicago in the pit of the Depression—was republished in Travels in Two Democracies (1936).
In the early 1930s Wilson called himself a communist, but he avoided contact with the Communist Party. In 1935 he won a Guggenheim Fellowship for travel in the Soviet Union—the other "democracy" in Two Democracies. By the time he published his major historical work on the roots of Marxism, To the Finland Station, in 1940, he had become more skeptical of the Soviet system.
Wilson continued to produce scholarship, polemic, and criticism for the remainder of his life. Among the notable works of his later career were the novel Memoirs of Hecate County (1946), which censors declared obscene; Apologies to the Iroquois (1960), on Native American culture; Patriotic Gore(1962), analyzing the literature of the U.S. Civil War (1962); and, finally, the melancholy Upstate (1971). He considered himself primarily a journalist, and his Depression writings remained the most enduring example of that aspect of his work. As the critic Robert Cantwell commented, "The body of writing that . . . Wilson produced in the period of his pilgrimage is one of the major accomplishments of the American imagination" (Cantwell 1958).
See Also: LITERATURE.
Cantwell, Robert. "Wilson as Journalist." The Nation (February 22, 1958): p. 166–170.
Castronovo, David. Edmund Wilson. 1985.
Kazin, Alfred. Contemporaries. 1962.
Wilson, Edmund. The American Earthquake. 1958.
Wilson, Edmund. Letters on Literature and Politics 1912–1972. Edited by Elena Wilson. 1977.
Wilson, Edmund. "The Literary Consequences of the Crash," in The Shores of Light: A Literary Chronicle of the Twenties and Thirties. 1952.
Wilson, Edmund. The Thirties: From Notebooks and Diaries of the Period. Edited by Leon Edel. 1980.