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Bookmarks Issue: 
19-Nov-Dec-2005
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A Life in Literature

A-EdmundWilsonEdmund Wilson stands as an archetype of the American Man of Letters. From the Jazz Age to the eve of Watergate, his pen canvassed the cultural and political landscape of the 20th century. College chum and adviser to F. Scott Fitzgerald, epistolary rival of Vladimir Nabokov, and friend to every saloon keeper in Manhattan, Wilson’s was a literary life. Though his beat was often highbrow, his evangelical belief in the importance of literature kept his writings for Vanity Fair, The New Republic, and The New Yorker aimed at the common reader. Of course, over four marriages and innumerable affairs, he showed his own common streak, a fact that does little to his written legacy but makes for good biographical padding.
Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 642 pages. $35. ISBN: 0374113122

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"Lewis Dabney’s respectful and replete biography, which offers a welcome corrective to Jeffrey Meyers’s earlier warts-and-all life, is, quite properly, as much a portrayal of 20th-century America as of Dabney’s slippery subject." Bruce Allen

Minneapolis Star Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"A Life in Literature humanizes our greatest man of letters without ever trivializing him: The most American of the 20th century’s great scholars, Wilson spoke ‘with a pronounced British accent’ while bristling at British class snobbishness. The great interpreter of Joyce and Eliot liked to relax with Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra records." Allen Barra

New York Times 3 of 5 Stars
"It is impossible for a biographer to enter with equal fire and flair into Wilson’s tragic and comic soul, his innocent appetites, his pure idealism, his belief in the word and his vast impracticality. . . . All the information one needs about Wilson is here, except how the man became the style, which is the hardest subject to describe, and whose lack is, in a work of this length, somewhat frustrating." Colm Toibin

Miami Herald 2.5 of 5 Stars
"It isn’t that Dabney is hard to understand; he is conscientious to a fault, his approach too by the numbers. In fairly dry prose he follows the chronology of Wilson’s life, summarizing key events and clotting the page with lists." Ariel Gonzalez

San Francisco Chronicle 2.5 of 5 Stars
"Dabney . . . manages to attain some momentum only in a few places, among them Wilson’s marriage to the writer Mary McCarthy and, later, his last half-dozen years. On the other hand . . . Dabney is right to emphasize that Wilson’s day-to-day life was less about relationships than about reading, writing, and drinking." Bob Blaisdell

Washington Post 2.5 of 5 Stars
"[T]he net effect of Edmund Wilson: A Life in Literature is to leave one wondering why, precisely, books such as this are written. To be sure, one must marvel that Wilson could have done such an incredible amount of major work when so much of the time he was drunk, but that is merely another footnote to the long story of writers and booze." Jonathan Yardley

Critical Summary

A divisive character deserves a split decision, and Edmund Wilson and his "authorized" biographer Lewis Dabney suffer from mixed reviews. Some critics welcome the new treatment as a balanced, sober look at a life that was anything but. Comparisons of the biographer’s literary style with that of his subject are unfair, but the criticism of Dabney’s tendency to linger on the sordid details while parsing out dry readings of Wilson’s work hangs over the negative reviews. These questions seem less pointed at Dabney’s work than at the metalevel value of personal information in a biography: is Wilson—or any writer—just his work, or are we simply happier to view him that way?

Supplemental Reading

Piece of My Mind Reflections at Sixty | Edmund Wilson (1956): In this memoir, Wilson offers his thoughts on religion, culture, and literature and looks back at his life and his parents’ relationship.