Critical Condition

By Jeffrey Meyers.
Houghton Mifflin. 540 pp. $35


IN THESE DAYS when jargon-ridden works of academic theory pass for state-of-the-art literary criticism,  Edmund Wilson has become for many humanistic critics and literary journalists the quintessential symbol of The Way Things Used To Be. Though he died only 23 years ago, merely to mention his name is to summon images of a seemingly distant heroic age when literature mattered—when there were public critics who felt passionately about great books, who strove to apply objective critical standards to the works they read, and who wrote not for English professors but for educated readers everywhere.

Born in 1895, Wilson was the leading public critic of his time, remarkable for his brilliance, range, and prolificity. Aside from the essays and reviews that he wrote for periodicals like the New Republic and the New Yorker and collected in such volumes as The Shores of Light (1952), Wilson also published several volumes of poetry and plays, as well as book-length polemics on the IRS, the MLA and the treatment of Native Americans. His bestselling novel Memoirs of Hecate County (1946) was banned in New York for its sexual frankness. In To the Finland Station (1940) he powerfully traced the rise of socialist thought; in The Scrolls from the Dead Sea (1955) he made a significant contribution to biblical scholarship; in Patriotic Gore (1962) he exhaustively surveyed the literature of the Civil War era. Since his death, the appearance of several revealing volumes of diaries and letters, notably those of his longtime friend and rival Vladimir Nabokov, has kept Wilson in the public eye.  Yet Wilson’s great gift was for criticism. His pioneering study Axel’s Castle (1931) exerted a well-nigh unparalleled influence on the way in which later commentators thought about the development of European literary modernism; perhaps more than any other individual, moreover, he helped establish the canon of modern American fiction.  He was the first major critic to recognize Hemingway’s talents; after the death of F. Scott Fitzgerald (who had been his classmate at Princeton), Wilson set him on the road to immortality by compiling his uncollected essays, notebooks, and letters in The Crack-Up (1945).  In the 1950s, his energetic promotion of Nabokov played a key role in the Russian novelist’s American success.

A firm believer in literary biography as a legitimate and important element of critical inquiry, Wilson has long been a prime candidate for the sort of rich, thoughtful life study—along the lines of say, Brian Boyd’s recent biography of Nabokov—that reflects the concentrated effort of a lively and probing intelligence to put together the pieces of a public man’s life, to determine what made him tick, to discern the figure in his carpet. Alas, Jeffrey Meyers’s Edmund Wilson is not such a book. The publicity materials boast that Meyers researched and wrote it in a year’s time. It shows. Grammatical errors and awkward constructions abound. Also, he does little with his facts other than to string them together in slapdash fashion; he brings to them no sense of vision, no organizing principle, no illuminating insights. He appears to have selected many details for inclusion almost at random, relating a risque Auden anecdote that has nothing at all to do with Wilson and noting that one of Wilson’s daughters, while a reporter for the Boston Globe, “covered a magicians’ convention.”

Meyers also employs one of the clumsier devices ever seen in any book. Every time a supporting player comes onstage—even if if it’s somebody we’ll never hear from again—Meyers hamhandedly inserts a capsule biography full of largely irrelevant data. These graceless interpolations all follow the same formula. We’re told, for instance that in the legal wrangles over Memoirs of Hecate County, “Wilson’s principal antagonist was the lean, grey-haired, bespectacled, seventy-year-old John Sumner, the executive secretary of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice.” There follows an outline of Sumner’s education, parentage and drinking habits, none of which proves remotely pertinent.

“The qualities exemplified in Edmund Wilson,” Meyers states at the end of his preface, “must be valued and restored if our literary culture is to survive.” No quarrel here. Yet Meyers, who himself embodies few of his subject’s finer qualities as stylist and critic, seems generally to be more interested in Wilson’s less attractive traits. Instead of giving us, as does Brian Boyd, a comprehensive, integrated portrait of a complex and magisterial (if deeply flawed) figure, he proffers an inchoate sketch of a stout, randy freelance writer who was awkward in the classroom, who enjoyed picking literary arguments, who married four women (including Mary McCarthy), who had a foot fetish, who scorned Christianity, who made crude overtures to young ladies, who was profoundly uncomfortable in social situations, who could wildly overrate the writings of women (such as Anais Nin) after whom he lusted, who had a blind spot about Communism, whose arrogance and vanity made him almost incapable of admitting error (as in his disputes with Nabokov about Russian versification), and who was a disengaged— and hated—father to his three children.

READERS may speculate on the connections between some of these attributes (did Wilson start literary arguments, for example, to mask his social discomfort?), but Meyers shows no sign of having given such linkages much thought. As a result his materials fail to yield a fully developed portrait of a living, breathing individual. Reading this book, one frequently wonders why he chose to write about Wilson—for though he offers the occasional pro-forma tribute to his subject’s acumen or fecundity, he evinces little genuine enthusiasm for any aspect of his work or person. When on the last page Meyers feels obliged to summarize Wilson’s achievement, he does so by quoting from Isaiah Berlin and by offering a single sentence of his own faint praise.

Those seeking a deeper, richer, more coherent picture of Wilson than that afforded by this book are advised to turn to his diaries and letters, as well as to Leon Edel’s elegant, judicious introduction to The Fifties, Wilson’s diaries of that decade. The Wilson who emerges from those pages—as opposed to Meyers’s—is a colossal figure, enthralled by the world, curious about all manner of people, places, words and ideas, hungry for facts, fiercely determined to harvest, order and communicate knowledge, and to do so with extreme precision, force, clarity, balance.  For all his failings, his legacy is without question something to be celebrated; certainly in the 1990s his diligence and candor, his devotion to truth, his gift for identifying literary genius and elucidating valuable literary innovations make him a model for anyone who cares about literature’s prospects. If he was not, as Gore Vidal has said, “America’s best mind,” he was awfully close.. He.deserves a first-rate biography. Jeffrey Meyers has not written one.