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The Smartest Guy in the Room

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So from Meyers it would follow that Wilson used book reviews to get Nin into bed (life over literature), while from Dabney it follows that he was more interested in the existence of a Brontë complete works (literature over life). And Dabney, I think, is closer to the truth. For Wilson, books, the lives described in books, the words used to describe them—these were in fact the substance of his life, the meaning of it. What’s so great about life, anyway, that we should love it more than literature?

You can sense this best in a long memoir of Millay that Wilson wrote after her death in 1950, in which he struggled, quite movingly, to capture his feelings for the woman he loved most of all (Meyers) or second-most of all (Dabney).

The memoir makes for strange reading. When Wilson describes Millay’s looks and conversation, you don’t see what’s so wonderful about her; when he recalls his feelings for her, you don’t see it; and even when he praises her poetry, you don’t see it. But then finally he quotes at length from a letter she wrote after a terrible depression late in her life. Millay describes how she had begun to memorize poetry. Shelley is hard, she says, but Keats is even harder, because he “shifts all the time from ‘thou’ to ‘you.’ ” Nevertheless, she has done it: “Ode on Melancholy” and “Ode to the West Wind” and “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty.” “I have them all now,” says Millay. “And what evil thing can ever again brush me with its wing?”

And suddenly, having set it up, and surrounded it, and quoted it at length, Edmund Wilson has managed to make you see what he sees, and love what he loves. Which was books, and people who loved books, and Edna St. Vincent Millay.

Edmund Wilson: A Life in Literature
by Lewis Dabney.
Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
656 pages. $35.


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