Born on May 8, 1895, in Red Bank, New Jersey, Edmund Wilson was noted mainly as one of the leading literary critics and essayists of his time. As a New York Times piece once put it: “For half a century Wilson was, in the minds of many, the most serious and penetrating cultural commentator in America.”
Wilson was educated at Princeton University, where in 1916 one of his professors advised him to “seek the truth, no matter where it lay or who it hurt.” Also at Princeton, Wilson was taught that good writing had little to do with political outlook. The seed inherent in this lesson came to fruition when he later championed writers as diverse as conservatives like T.S Eliot and Raymond Chandler, the proto-fascist Ezra Pound, and the apolitical (at least till the Spanish Civil War) Ernest Hemingway. And when the old and New Left were reviling the Old South as the natural breeding ground for American fascism, Wilson found value in the works of such antebellum writers as Harriet Beecher Stowe and Joel Chandler Harris.
After graduating from Princeton, Wilson took a job as a reporter for the New York Sun. Thereafter he worked for Vanity Fair (as managing editor from 1920-21), New Republic (as associate editor from 1926–31 and contributing writer until late 1940), and The New Yorker (as a book reviewer from 1944-48).
Beyond his works in literary criticism, Wilson also wrote about modern culture. His first critical work, Axel’s Castle (1931), was an international survey of the Symbolist tradition, in which writers used highly symbolized language to express individual emotional experience. Wilson’s 1940 book To the Finland Station – a reference to Lenin’a arrival in St. Petersberg’s Finland Station to lead the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 – examined the thinkers who laid the groundwork for that Revolution and for the subsequent course of European socialism. The ideas of Freud and Marx were major influences on Wilson’s early writings.
Wilson was a true believer in Lenin until very late in his life (1971) and never abandoned his view that the U.S. was not in any way morally superior to the Soviet Union. Though he commonly lauded the scientific and objective nature of Marxism, his portrait of Marx and Lenin in To The Finland Station betrayed a religious exaltation — a charge that Wilson lodged at the American Communist Party throughout the 1930s. Wilson’s devotion to truth, for instance, was put on hold during a hopeful visit to pre-purge-trial Moscow, and he later admitted to having soft-pedaled the brutality he saw when writing about the regime in 1935.
There was, admittedly, a dissident beneath Wilson’s Marxist rhetoric. As early as 1931, Wilson was urging progressives — in vain — to take Marxism away from the Marxists and Americanize it. And like Orwell, he never bought in to the Soviet version of the purge trials. But Wilson never abandoned his view that the Revolution might have worked, had the right people remained in charge.
Much of his support of the Revolution was linked to his identification with Lenin. But had Wilson pursued this identification to its logical end, as he did when writing about other topics, he would have found little commonality save an educated upbringing in the middle class. Wilson was interested in working people as individuals in a manner that Lenin would have written off as bourgeiose sentimentality. For example, Wilson regarded a working-class waitress and prostitute as more than a sexual object, and he spent evenings asking her about her life — not for fodder with which to attack capitalist America, but to truly get to know her.
If Wilson was slow in abandoning Leninism, he was in positive suspension about his isolationist view of foreign policy. He regarded Hitler, even after the death camps had been revealed, as a threat magnified and exaggerated by Wall Street merchants seeking profit.
Like many on the Left, Wilson harbored guilt but it had nothing to do with his earlier support of the Soviet regime. Rather, his guilt stemmed from his realization that he had been unfairly condescending in his estimation of the literary efforts of his old college friend, the late F. Scott Fitzgerald. After Fitzgerald’s death in 1940, Wilson tried to make amends, editing the Last Tycoon (which Fitzgerald had never completed), editing Fitzgerald’s posthumous papers and notebooks, and writing glowingly of his Princeton classmate for the rest of his life. Toward the end of his own life, Wilson even participated in a seance trying to communicate with Fitzgerald from beyond.
A harsh critic of U.S. Cold War policies during his later years, Wilson charged that Americans’ civil liberties were being eroded under the guise of anti-Communism. He believed that American behavior during the Cold War was motivated by dollar diplomacy and nothing else. And he opposed America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. Because of these grievances, Wilson refused to pay his federal income tax from 1946-55. He was later investigated by the Internal Revenue Service and was fined $25,000 for his transgression.
Selected by President John F. Kennedy to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Wilson was officially awarded the medal, in absentia, on December 6, 1963 by President Lyndon Johnson, whom Wilson abhorred.
In addition to the titles cited above, Wilson’s other major works included Travels in Two Democracies (1936); The Triple Thinkers (1938); The Wound and the Bow (1941); The Boys in the Back Room (1941); The Scrolls from the Dead Sea (1955); A Piece of My Mind: Reflections at Sixty (1956); Red, Black, Blond, and Olive (1956); Apologies to the Iroquois (1960); Patriotic Gore (1962); The Cold War and the Income Tax (1963); O Canada: An American’s Notes on Canadian Culture (1965); and The Fruits of the MLA [Modern Language Association] (1968). Moreover, his magazine pieces were collected in five volumes: Europe Without Baedeker (1947); Classics and Commercials (1950); The Shores of Light (1952); The American Earthquake (1958); The Bit Between My Teeth (1965).
Wilson also wrote a number of plays, poems, and short stories as well as one novel. In addition, he contributed a number of major articles to The New Yorker until the year of his death, including a serialization of his journal writings titled Upstate: Records and Recollections of Northern New York (1972).
Wilson died on June 12, 1972 in Talcottville, New York.