cover image Edmund Wilson: A Life in Literature

Edmund Wilson: A Life in Literature

Lewis Dabney, . . Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $30 (642pp) ISBN 978-0-374-11312-4

Dabney, who edited The Sixties , the last volume of Wilson's posthumous journals, brings a deep familiarity with his subject to this critical biography. Wilson (1895–1972) was mid–20th-century America's most influential literary critic, and Dabney meticulously unfolds the circumstances behind the writing of his most significant books while tracing the evolution of Wilson's thought. Wilson was equally skilled at criticism and reportage, and fairly successful at fiction—including the scandalously erotic (for the 1940s) novel Memoirs of Hecate County —and Dabney confidently sorts out these varied writings and their part in Wilson's legacy. Biographical details are generally filtered through the literary perspective, but the life story does get a thorough if sometimes slow rendering. The account of Wilson's "nightmarish" marriage to Mary McCarthy, for example, carefully weighs everything that both authors wrote about the relationship after the fact, as well as the perspectives of other sources, before judging that accusations that Wilson abused her are probably unfounded. Often, though, the best source on Wilson is his own detailed (and uncensored) journals, which frequently add a welcome personalizing touch. Readers seeking an introduction to Wilson will find their perseverance through this hefty tome rewarded with a rich context for approaching his writings. (Aug.)