Edmund Wilson's Life in Letters

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Edmund Wilson was an excellent specimen of that now nearly extinct species: the all-around man of letters. During his long life (he outlived his friend and Princeton classmate, F. Scott Fitzgerald, by more than thirty years), he tried his hand at a wide variety of literary genres: from poetry and drama to fiction, journalism, history and polemics, as well as a voluminous (and decidedly indiscreet) journal. Primarily, sometimes exclusively, known as a literary critic (a fact that never failed to annoy him), he also found time to write an average of more than two-and-a-half letters per day for every day of his life — an astounding 70,000 in all. Although two previous collections of his correspondence have been published, the vast majority of his more personal letters have remained private. But a new selection, revealing Wilson's more intimate side, has been put together by David Castronovo and Janet Groth: "Edmund Wilson, the Man in Letters" (Ohio University Press; 354 pages; $49.95).

It's amazing that anyone who wrote as much in as many different fields as Edmund Wilson did could have found time to have a life at all, much less to document it as doggedly as he does in his letters and journals. This volume begins with letters that Wilson wrote to his parents while he was overseas during World War I, then divides the letters up in sections according to their recipients, and while this technique has been used before (most notably with Andrew Turnbull's edition of Fitzgerald's letters), I've never quite see the point of it. There's an argument to be made that when a person's correspondence with one individual is extensive and interesting enough it should be published separately (as has been done with Wilson's letters to and from Vladimir Nabokov), but in a book like this it feels more distracting than enlightening to group them this way.

Reading Edmund Wilson gives you the pleasure of accompanying a first-rate intellectual explorer as he embarks on a ceaseless quest to learn new things (and to tweak old friends: "I hope you are not one of those dreadful liberals who are rooting for the downfall of [Senator Joseph] McCarthy," he writes to the once radical and by then notoriously reactionary John Dos Passos). While his familial relations, highlighted here, can sometimes be off-putting (one wonders if the letters included from Wilson to his third wife, the much-younger novelist Mary McCarthy, are really the meatiest part of the correspondence inspired by that legendary mésalliance), these letters are filled with wonderfully caustic appraisals of everything from Robert Frost ("partly a dreadful old fraud and one of the most relentless self-promoters in the history of American literature") to the Metropolitan Opera house in the newly-constructed Lincoln Center ("a miracle of bad taste and ineptitude"), as well as the financial perils of the freelance life (some of the more amusing letters in the book are Wilson's epistles to his various publishers, for which "curt" hardly does justice as a description: "I was interested to see these pathetic specimens of Doubleday's feeble pretense to have advertised my book..." begins one of the politer examples).

The major problem with this collection is that it suffers from too much editorial fussing. There are too many letters which consist of a single sentence (sometimes a sentence fragment) bookended by ellipses bound in brackets; too many paragraphs wrenched out of context and tossed into another section of the book; too many references to paragraphs being deleted because they've already appeared in a previous collection of Wilson's correspondence, "Letters on Literature and Politics: 1912-1972," which has clearly been thought of, unhelpfully, as a template for the present volume. The editors seem to be working under the assumption that anyone who would buy this book already owns the previous collection, and won't mind flipping through it to find what's been omitted. And Wilson the amateur linguist, who had a habit of sprinkling his letters with bits of Greek, Hebrew and Russian, would hardly have approved of the decision not to print his use of other languages in their original orthography. The editors are also not above a little politically correct editorializing in the footnotes, as witness their comment on Wilson's "totally unjustifiable anger" with the IRS, the subject of his 1963 polemic "The Cold War and the Income Tax." According to whom was it "unjustifiable," much less "totally" so?

Nor are the footnotes free from redundancy and error. It's one thing to read about the "grisly" car accident that killed and decapitated Katy Dos Passos, the wife of Wilson's longtime friend John Dos Passos, in one footnote, but stating the same gory fact in three different footnotes seems a bit like overkill. Gore Vidal, however, might be pleased to know that the editors have seen fit to knock four years off his age (he was born in 1925, not 1929). They also have Wilson referring to Ulysses S. Grant's "Personal Memoirs" under the title "Personal Veracity." Did they misread Wilson's notoriously crabby handwriting (the earlier collection quotes it accurately)? Or was it a Freudian slip on Wilson's part? Either way the mistake goes, literally, unnoted. The amazing thing is that, in spite of the efforts of the editors to get in the way of the readability of these letters, they still manage to hold your interest.

Years ago, Leon Edel, who edited Wilson's posthumously published journals, promised that a "comprehensive collection [of Wilson's letters] is planned for a later date." A quarter-century later, we're still waiting for that comprehensive collection (as we're still waiting for Wilson, who had the original idea for what later became The Library of America, to be included in the collection he inspired). But in the meantime this volume, as problematic and as frustrating as it might be, is a useful stop-gap.