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Edmund Wilson Biography

(1895–1972), Vanity Fair, New Republic, Axel's Castle, The Wound and the Bow

American critic, born in Red Bank, New Jersey, educated at Princeton, where his contemporaries included F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose posthumous publications Wilson edited. In 1920 he joined the staff of Vanity Fair, of which he became managing editor, and was associate editor of the New Republic from 1926 to 1931. Wilson was a distinguished and forceful American man of letters, one of the last of the species to pursue a freelance career outside the university. Axel's Castle (1931) was an influential survey of the Modern movement in literature, tracing the conjunction of Naturalism and Symbolism in the work of Joyce, Eliot, Yeats, Proust, and others. The Wound and the Bow (1941) contained the important title essay arguing that talent in art, like the skill at archery of the legendary Philoctetes, is inseparable from illness, or from psychic or other damage. In his essay ‘The Two Scrooges’, Wilson almost single-handedly rerouted Dickens's reputation, discovering for modern readers a dark, brooding, Dostoevskyan complement to the Dickens of hearty laughter and cheery Christmases. Less plausible, but much imitated, was Wilson's essay on Henry James's The Turn of the Screw, purporting to show that all the horror of the story stems from the governess's neurotic fancy. Wilson also wrote a fluent and thoughtful history of socialist thought, To the Finland Station (1940), and addressed himself, in Apologies to the Iroquois (1960), to the injustices suffered by the earliest inhabitants of his continent. Scott Fitzgerald once described Wilson as the ‘keeper of my conscience’, and Wilson effectively kept America's conscience for a long time, fulminating against what he saw as dreary specialization in literary studies, quarrelling with Nabokov on behalf of common sense and common language. Some of Wilson's work now seems overly broad and blunt, but his energy and stamina are indisputable, and he stood for (and against) his age as few other writers did, or do. Among his other works are Travels in Two Democracies (1936), written after a visit to Russia; The Triple Thinkers (1938), a study of various fin de siècle authors; Memoirs of Hecate County (1946), a collection of short stories set among the New York intelligentsia; the experimental novel I Thought of Daisy (1929); the frequently satirical poems in Night Thoughts (1961); and Five Plays (1954). His essays have been collected in Classics and Commercials (1950), The Shores of Light (19523), and The American Earthquake (1958). A Piece of My Mind (1956) and Upstate (1972) are autobiographical. His journals (3 volumes; 1975, 1980, 1983) were edited by Leon Edel, and his Letters on Literature and Politics (1977) were edited by Elena Wilson.

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Literature Reference: American Literature, English Literature, Classics & Modern FictionEncyclopedia of Literature: Patrick White (Patrick Victor Martindale White) Biography to David Wojahn Biography