The Smartest Guy in the Room

Poor Edmund Wilson, everyone is always saying: He loved literature more than he loved life. The greatest literary critic of the twentieth century, he never quite had the artistic success he dreamed of. One of his best friends from Princeton, F. Scott Fitzgerald, became the most famous writer of the twenties, and then his ex-wife Mary McCarthy became so famous that the young people in Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus actually talk about her, and then Wilson befriended a snobbish Russian émigré named Vladimir Nabokov. Ten years later, as Lewis Dabney puts it in his new authorized biography of Wilson, Lolita made Nabokov “rich and a celebrity, while Wilson continued to work up nineteenth-century statesmen, generals, and second-line writers, as well as to attack big-power imperialism.”

Dabney is not a terribly fluent writer, and that last sentence makes it sound like attacking big-power imperialism is not as cool as being rich and a celebrity, but you get the idea: Nabokov retired to Montreux to chase butterflies; Wilson remained at his desk in upstate New York, writing his book on the literature of the Civil War, as well as editing his private journals, published to discharge a debt to the IRS incurred by neglecting to pay any income tax between 1946 and 1957. But is it true that Wilson didn’t love life? He fell madly in love with Edna St. Vincent Millay, the most glamorous literary woman in Greenwich Village. He had a tempestuous marriage to the bewitching McCarthy, after luring her away from Partisan Review editor Philip Rahv (in return, he let Rahv publish one of his finest essays, “Flaubert’s Politics”). He was a prodigious drinker and traveler. He tried to steal Arthur Koestler’s girlfriend. And he had an affair with the famous erotic writer Anaïs Nin!

And yet the charge sticks. There is something impersonal about Wilson. Part of it is simply the magnitude of his achievement: For sheer range of intelligence, no one comes close. Did Irving Howe write a fine little biography of Trotsky? Well, Wilson wrote To the Finland Station, covering the entire history of socialism. Did Alfred Kazin write a moving memoir, New York Jew, about the literary life of the forties through the sixties? Wilson published The Twenties, The Thirties, The Forties, The Fifties, and The Sixties. Did Dwight Macdonald, writing in The New Yorker, do battle against middlebrow literature (he called it “Midcult”)? Wilson, also writing in The New Yorker, reviewed the top ten books on the best-seller list—and then, when readers wrote in to say that he’d missed some of their favorites, he reviewed those too. Did Partisan Review spend the forties championing European Modernism? Sure, but Wilson had written the seminal book on Modernism, Axel’s Castle, way back in 1931.

Dabney is understandably cowed by these accomplishments. Most biographies consist of a kind of psychic battle between writer and subject; not this one. In a devastating little scene in the introduction, Dabney tells of visiting the great man for a weekend in his upstate home in the early sixties. At the time, Dabney was compiling a bibliography of Wilson’s works, and one evening after everyone has gone to bed, the bibliographer emerges to go to the bathroom and runs into Wilson, in his bathrobe. Wilson, glowering, looks Dabney up and down and declares that the younger man should be writing his own books, “instead of annotating mine.” The self-effacing Dabney does not record his response.

Dabney has no quarrels with Wilson; instead, the great unnamed villain in Edmund Wilson: A Life in Literature is the author of Edmund Wilson: A Biography. That’s right. While Dabney spent decades slaving away at becoming the leading authority on all things Wilson, the inexorable Jeffrey Meyers, author of at least ten literary biographies as well as books on Gary Cooper and Humphrey Bogart, swooped in with a Wilson bio in 1995. Dabney does not take kindly to this. Meyers, absent from even the index, rates only a single mention, on page 144: “Wilson’s first biographer,” we are told, misrepresented some facts. The truth is, Dabney and Meyers need each other. Dabney is so buried in his source material, and so protective of Wilson, that he achieves at times an almost Jamesian circumlocution. Here is how he describes Nin: “Wilson’s review of Under a Glass Bell had established Anaïs Nin ‘as a serious writer of some importance.’ ” Meyers, who writes a biography approximately every six months, gets to the point faster: “Wilson lavished unwarranted praise on her work—not to repay friendship, but to gain sexual favors.” Advantage: Meyers.

But it is Dabney who tells us that Nin, in her diaries, claimed Wilson had sent her a complete set of Emily Brontë’s work, whereas Wilson later pointed out that actually it was Jane Austen’s work. In his own diary, Wilson notes that there was no such thing as a complete Emily Brontë.

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.

The Smartest Guy in the Room