It’s said that Art Tatum’s technique persuaded a great many aspiring young pianists to become insurance salesmen. Edmund Wilson’s chops were equally phenomenal; not as sheerly, immediately dazzling, perhaps, but in range, erudition, penetration, clarity and unfussy elegance, no less jaw-dropping. And just as Tatum’s multivolume The Complete Pablo Solo Masterpieces is one of the summits of piano jazz, the Library of America’s new two-volume issue of Wilson’s essays and reviews from the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s is one of the summits of twentieth-century literary criticism.
Edmund Wilson’s life story is well-known from his many published journals (The Twenties through The Sixties), memoirs (“The Author at Sixty” and Upstate) and letters (a superb collection, Letters on Literature and Politics, edited by Elena Wilson, his fourth wife), other people’s remembrances and two good biographies by Jeffrey Meyers and Lewis Dabney. He was born in 1895–with difficulty, because he already had an unusually large head. His father was a reforming lawyer and Attorney General of New Jersey but was disabled for much of his later life by hypochondria and depression. Young Edmund got an extraordinary education at the Hill School in Pennsylvania and a decent one at Princeton, especially after he encountered the literary scholar and peerless teacher Christian Gauss. At Princeton he also (like Dwight Macdonald at Yale) began several lifelong literary friendships, notably with F. Scott Fitzgerald and the poet John Peale Bishop.
During World War I, Wilson served as a hospital orderly in France. Afterward he was managing editor for Vanity Fair and freelanced for The Dial, and in 1925 he became an editor of The New Republic until 1931, then traveled around Depression-era America as a correspondent. (His reporting is available in a marvelous collection, The American Earthquake.) In 1935 he spent some months in the Soviet Union, about which he was ambivalent. The second half of the decade he researched and wrote To the Finland Station, his brilliantly idiosyncratic history of revolutionary socialism. In 1940 he rejoined The New Republic, though not for long. Like Randolph Bourne before him and others more recently, Wilson fell afoul of that magazine’s recurring enthusiasm for American military intervention.
In 1944 he began writing regularly for The New Yorker, where most of his subsequent work first appeared, except for Memoirs of Hecate County, a collection of stories and novellas, and Patriotic Gore, a study of American writing around the time of the Civil War. Besides literary criticism, Wilson produced a great deal of travel writing (much of it, as Dabney notes, “verging on cultural anthropology”) about Europe, Russia, Israel, the Caribbean and the American Southwest, as well as a widely read and admired book about the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. He was present at the creation of The New York Review of Books and first proposed the Library of America.