wilson_edmund

Wilson, Edmund '16 (1895-1972), beginning as a brilliant undergraduate (``red-haired, eager, tireless,'' wrote Dean Christian Gauss, ``he bubbled with ideas and threw them out by the handful''), came eventually to be recognized as the dean of American critics. Through nearly half a century, when not engaged with poetry, plays, and novels of his own, he devoted his energies to the reading and judging of work by others. In so doing, he developed a remarkable art of criticism-in-narrative. His honorary degree citation for the Doctor of Letters degree in 1956 called it ``a versatile instrument which he . . . employed both for the reassessment of the literary classics and for the encouragement and appreciation of rising new writers.''

His devotion to good writing was one of the great constants of his life. It first became apparent at the Hill School, where he prepared for college, continued at Princeton, where he belonged to Charter Club and helped T. K. Whipple '12 in the great revival of the Nassau Lit, and shifted afterward to New York, where he served briefly as reporter for the Evening Sun. Although some of his classmates had found him cool and aloof -- he looked upon the ``circus aspects of undergraduate life,'' as Dean Gauss said, ``with amused toleration'' -- the best writers on campus had coalesced around him like bees round a hive and soon recognized that he was ready and eager to print anything they wrote unless it was pretentious or shoddy.

In 1917-1919 he was too busy with the Army Intelligence Corps to write much except reports. After the war he made up for the lapse by serving for a year as managing editor of Vogue, and subsequently as associate editor of The New Republic. Later he was literary critic for The New Yorker. Apart from these positions, the record of his life from the late 1920s to the early 1970s is very largely the record of the books he conceived, wrote, and saw through to publication. The bright and lively Axel's Castle of 1931 established his critical reputation, which was cemented by The Triple Thinkers and The Wound and the Bow. Before and after these books came travelogues such as Europe Without Baedeker; the novels, I Thought of Daisy and Memoirs of Hecate County; a volume of verse; and several volumes of plays. Despite some dull stretches, To the Finland Station remains an absorbing and informative history of socialism and communism, with sketches of the lives of the major revolutionaries from Marx and Engels to Lenin and Trotsky. Another thick volume, Patriotic Gore, first broached in the Gauss Seminars of 1952, offered a reprise of the most important American literature related to the Civil War. He regularly collected his fugitive essays and reviews in what he liked to call ``literary chronicles,'' such as Classics and Commercials and The Shores of Light. The latter begins with an eloquent testimonial to the intellectual and pedagogical powers of Dean Gauss. Glorying in his reputation as a polymath and a multilingual, Wilson added Hebrew to his arsenal of languages to facilitate his study of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and showed the range of his sociological interests in Red, Black, Blond, and Olive, synoptic studies in Zuni, Haitian, Russian, and Israeli civilizations. Two of his autobiographical books, A Prelude, which deals in part with his undergraduate years, and the crusty ``reflections at sixty'' that he called A Piece of My Mind, bracket the time from his young manhood to the beginnings of his old age.

Ten years after his honorary degree at Princeton, he received the National Medal for Literature. He came with some frequency to Princeton in response to invitations to lecture or to conduct seminars, and several generations of faculty and students came to know him by sight as well as reputation. In his salad days, when his coevals all called him ``Bunny,'' he prided himself on his lithe build and his skill in performing distinctive somersaults, but in his later years he developed a solid and beefy figure which gave him something of the look of an ancient Roman senator and seemed to require that he be called Mr. Wilson.

In the last twenty years of his life, he took particular pleasure in the rehabilitation of an old stone house in upstate New York, willed him by his mother, and acquired the nickname of ``Squire.'' Talcottville was a pleasant hamlet and for Wilson a perennial refuge in which he accomplished a good deal of reading and writing, well away from the social whirl of Wellfleet on Cape Cod, where he lived for a number of years. The last publication of his lifetime was Upstate, a chronicle of his periodic residences there, with much about the history and character of the Wilson family, as well as sketches of his neighbors and parttime employees. His friend John Dos Passos, who was well acquainted with his penchant for conversations like those recorded in the book, joshed him with ~a limerick:

``He says he's the Talcottville squire
But the facts will prove him a liar
He don't plow, he don't harrow
He don't push no wheelbarrow
He juss sits and holds forth by the fire.''

Holding forth, whether viva voce or on the printed page, was one of Wilson's strong points, as farming was not. It was one of the qualities, along with his critical integrity, that he shared with another ``great cham of literature'' of at least equal stature: Dr. Samuel Johnson.

Carlos Baker


From Alexander Leitch, A Princeton Companion, copyright Princeton University Press (1978).

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