Edmund Wilson

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Edmund Wilson

The American critic Edmund Wilson (1895-1972) pursued an independent course that secured him respect and eminence.

Edmund Wilson was born in Red Bank, N.J., on May 8, 1895, the son of a railroad lawyer. He attended Princeton University (1912-1916), where he was editor of the Nassau Literary Magazine and a friend of writers John Peale Bishop and F. Scott Fitzgerald. With Bishop, he was later to publish a miscellany, The Undertaker's Garland (1922); after Fitzgerald's death, Wilson compiled in The Crack-up (1945) the tragic story of the disaster which overtook that novelist.

After taking a bachelor of arts degree, Wilson was briefly a reporter for the New York Sun. Drawn into World War I, he served in a French hospital and in United States intelligence. He then became managing editor of Vanity Fair. The first of his four marriages took place in 1923. He was, in turn, book review editor and associate editor of the New Republic (1926-1931); later he was a book reviewer for the New Yorker (1944-1948).

Despite his very great endowment as a critic, Wilson never settled comfortably into that role and tried his hand repeatedly at other things. Discordant Encounters (1926) is a volume of "dialogues and plays." Five Plays (1954) and other works are theatrical efforts. I Thought of Daisy (1929) and Memoirs of Hecate County (1946), the latter banned as pornographic, are fiction. Poets, Farewell! (1929) is a second volume of verse. It is hard to classify The American Jitters (1932), Europe without Baedeker (1947), The Scrolls from the Dead Sea (1955), and Apologies to the Iroquois (1959) as anything but journalism, albeit journalism of a high order. Marked by the influence of Karl Marx, whether it be criticism or journalism, Wilson's writing shows a strong social consciousness.

Wilson's reputation, however, rests solidly on his critical works: Axel's Castle (1931), The Triple Thinkers (1938), To the Finland Station (1940), The Wound and the Bow (1941), The Boys in the Back Room (1941), Classics and Commercials (1950), The Shores of Light (1952), and individual essays collected in miscellanies. The encompassing and organizing power of his mind, his ability to state with exceptional clarity, his range of learning, and his sensibility are brilliantly displayed in these volumes. He opened new perspectives on novelists Henry James, Rudyard Kipling, Edith Wharton, and Charles Dickens.

On June 13, 1972, Wilson died at his home in Talcottville, N.Y. The house was the setting of his last work: Upstate: Records and Recollections of Northern New York (1971).

Further Reading

Wilson's autobiographical writings are A Piece of My Mind: Reflections at Sixty (1956), A Prelude: Landscapes, Characters and Conversations from the Earlier Years of My Life (1967), and Upstate (1971). Paul Sherman, Edmund Wilson: A Study of Literary Vocation in Our Time (1965), and Warner Berthoff, Edmund Wilson (1968), are surveys of Wilson's life and work. An important new book is Leonard Kriegel, Edmund Wilson (1971). Appreciative assessments are in Lionel Trilling, A Gathering of Fugitives (1955), and Delmore Schwartz, Selected Essays of Delmore Schwartz, edited by Donald A. Dike (1971).

Additional Sources

Costa, Richard Hauer, Edmund Wilson, our neighbor from Talcottville, Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1980.

French, Philip, Three honest men: Edmund Wilson, F. R. Leavis, Lionel Trilling: a critical mosaic, Manchester: Carcanet New Press, 1980.

Meyers, Jeffrey, Edmund Wilson: a biography, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1995. □

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Edmund Wilson, 1895–1972, American critic and author, b. Red Bank, N.J. grad. Princeton, 1916. He is considered one of the most important American literary and social critics of the 20th cent. From 1920 to 1921 he was managing editor of Vanity Fair, and he was later on the staffs of the New Republic (1926–31) and New Yorker (1944–48). In the 1930s he was much interested in the theories of Freud and Marx, ideas that are treated in many of his works. Among his major writings are Axel's Castle (1931), a study of symbolism (see symbolists) and other imaginative modernist literatures; The Wound and the Bow (1941); The Shores of Light (1952); and Patriotic Gore (1962), on the American Civil War.

As a critic Wilson was concerned with the social, psychological, and political conditions that shape literary ideas. His social studies include To the Finland Station (1940), a history of the European revolutionary tradition that praises the Soviet Union (a position he soon reversed), and The American Earthquake (1958), a record of the Great Depression. His versatility is further revealed in his I Thought of Daisy (1929), a novel; Memoirs of Hecate County (1949), short stories; and Five Plays (1954). Wilson also edited F. Scott Fitzgerald's unfinished The Last Tycoon and posthumous The Crack-up (both: 1945). His later works include Israel and the Dead Sea Scrolls (1955), A Window on Russia (1973), and The Devils and Canon Barham: 10 Essays on Poets, Novelists, and Monsters (1973). Wilson's third wife was the author Mary McCarthy.

See his autobiographical Piece of My Mind: Reflections at Sixty (1956) and Upstate: Records and Recollections of Northern New York (1971); his notebooks and diaries, ed. by L. Edel (4 vol., 1975–86); his letters, ed. by E. Wilson (1977); his letters with Vladimir Nabokov, ed. by S. Karlinsky (1979); other letters, ed. by D. Castronova and J. Groth (2002); memoirs of his daughter, R. Wilson (1989); biographies by C. P. Frank (1970), J. Groth (1989), J. Meyers (1995), and L. M. Dabney (2005); studies by G. Douglas (1983) and D. Castronovo (1984 and 1998); bibliography by R. D. Ramsey (1971).

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Wilson, Edmund (1895–1972) US journalist and critic. He was editor of Vanity Fair (1920–21) and literary editor of The New Republic (1926–31). His influential critical work includes Axel's Castle (1931) on symbolism; To the Finland Station (1940) on European revolutionary traditions; and Patriotic Gore (1962) on the literature of the American Civil War.

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Edmund Wilson


American cytologist who helped discover the existence and nature of sex chromosomes. Wilson's "The Cell in Heredity and Development" (1928) integrated cell structure and function with heredity, adaptation, and evolution, and helped advance Mendelian genetics. Wilson identified the spiral cleavage of annelids, arthropods, and mollusks, and the radial cleavage of echinoderms, chordates, and vertebrates as the two major patterns of embryo development. Wilson insisted that the scientific method of careful observation, testable hypothesis formulation, and precise experimentation be used throughout biological research.