My quest for Edmund Wilson

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My quest for Edmund Wilson

Edmund Wilson Jr. (1895–1972)

My Edmund Wilson (1995), the first biography about him, was the middle volume in my trilogy of American writers who began their careers in the 1920s: Hemingway, Wilson and Fitzgerald.  I was lucky at the start of this book.  I sold it for six figures to Ticknor & Fields, which was immediately swallowed up by Houghton Mifflin.  I was then assigned to Peter Davison, poet and sometime lover of Sylvia Plath, who was the best editor I ever had (though not terribly good at selling books).  I remained with Peter, until he retired, for Frost (whom he’d known) and Bogart.

Wilson, a heavy drinker, had a melancholy streak, a contentious character and a frightening demeanor.  But I admired his energy and erudition, clear thought and pure style, personal courage and defense of the underdog, loyalty to friends and generosity to many writers.  He had a wide range of interests and wrote about art, theater, music, film and popular culture as well as political events, foreign travel, the revolutionary tradition in Europe, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Zuni and Iroquois Indians, the American Civil War and the culture of Canada.

Wilson’s life was unusually interesting.  He lived in bohemian poverty in the Twenties and Thirties, was seriously ill in Russia, suffered a nervous breakdown and the tragic death of his second wife, had three other wives (including Mary McCarthy), attracted an astonishing number of beautiful mistresses (including Edna Millay) and was a compulsive chronicler of his sexual adventures.  Always combative, he quarrelled with the Communists in 1935, fell out with Evelyn Waugh in 1945, had his erotic novel suppressed in 1946, fought against American involvement in Vietnam.  He refused to pay income tax, bitterly disputed Russian prosody with his old friend and formidable adversary Vladimir Nabokov, and mocked the academic pedantry of the Modern Language Association.

My wife and I did most of the archival research in the Beinecke Library at Yale.  It was well worth driving an hour each way to a charming house in Mystic, on the Connecticut coast, which a friend had lent me.  Since there was no garbage pick up, I’d make a daily pit stop at a supermarket dumpster.  A watchful employee tried to foil my efforts, and it was great fun to sneak in the back way or rush up unexpectedly, fling in the garbage bag and drive off amidst his angry, arm-shaking yet futile protests.

The most riveting part of my biographical research, in 1993-94, was interviewing distinguished people who had known Wilson and constantly told me things I could use in my book.  Leon Edel, the great editor of Wilson’s Diaries, helped me identify and describe the real and often obscure women who were referred to by misleading initials in the five volumes.  I was then able to show how Wilson had used them in his fiction.  The graphic descriptions of his sexual experiences with wives and mistresses—an unexpected contrast to his puritanical background and dignified public persona—gave me the information I needed to analyse this fascinating aspect of his life.

Like Wyndham Lewis, Wilson had a most impressive circle of friends. William Fenton was a gentle, learned man who’d introduced Wilson to the Iroquois in upstate New York.  On the reservation, Wilson immediately got into things and rapidly established rapport.  The Indians didn’t know who he was, but the amateur magician enchanted them with his rabbit and coin tricks.  He had gout and was interested in Indian medicine, and they promised to fix him up.  The Indians began their work on high-altitude construction with bridges on the St. Lawrence River, and you couldn’t keep them off the girders.  They had a long tradition of dangerous occupations as rafters, boatmen and canoemen on the river, and earned their kudos.  The social organization in high steel work was the same as in the tribe and their ability was social as well as physical.  They learned not to experience vertigo, it was not in their blood.  They were either fearless or must seem to be.  I parted reluctantly from Fenton and would have seen much more of him if we had lived near each other.

Wilson’s publisher Roger Straus, who’d commissioned a rival but still unpublished biography, used provocatively crude language — “cocksucker” and “motherfucker” — while my wife was present.  He wanted to test me and show that I was dealing with a tough guy.  But as I listened patiently to his fulminations, he eventually became less hostile and told me what I wanted to know.  Wilson once called him and said: “I’ve just had a stroke and am waiting for an ambulance.  Can you understand what I’m saying?”  Straus promised to send me a hard-to-find book by Wilson and surprised me by keeping his word.

Two months later I noted, in the New Criterion of September 1993, the astonishing number of errors in Lewis Dabney’s inept edition of Wilson’s The Sixties.  In the November issue the editor, Hilton Kramer, printed Straus’ letter of complaint, but was afraid of him and refused to publish my response.  I wrote: “Roger Straus, loyal but misguided, attempts to justify Lewis Dabney’s incompetent editing by calling my review ‘vitriolic’.  I was surprised to find that Dabney, after ‘working’ on Wilson’s authorized biography for 25 years, was still confused about the facts of his life.  It was my duty as a reviewer to point out the numerous errors that Straus’ editorial staff had failed to notice and correct.”

The political philosopher Sir Isaiah Berlin invited me to meet him at the Athenaeum Club in London.  He said Wilson had a pot belly and a red face and looked like Herbert Hoover.  No critics equaled him.  Berlin was charmed by their conversation, mostly about Russian writers.  Wilson admired Lenin but later admitted: “Maybe I was too pro-Lenin.”  His fourth wife, Elena, was well-born, sweet and charming, and took good care of him.  When our interview was over and I got up to leave, Berlin urged me to stay for high tea and continued to talk (he was also a good listener) about mutual friends and common interests.

Isaiah Berlin during the reception of the Erasmus Prize, Oct. 1983

The rather angry and embittered literary critic Alfred Kazin felt he’d been patronised by Wilson and had not received proper recognition from him or from the world.  I felt, on the contrary, that since Kazin had not written a first-rate book since On Native Grounds (1942), he got more recognition than he deserved.  Kazin called Wilson scholarly and highly cultivated, but vain and condescending, arrogant and domineering, a self-absorbed and sometimes brutal curmudgeon.  Wilson said learning languages was like having a love affair.  When Kazin asked if he’d like a drink, Wilson replied: “my tongue is hanging out.”  Elena indulged him terribly and was hurt by his affairs.  When Wilson expressed outrageous opinions, Elena would call him, in her French accent, “ee-dee-óh” (idiot).  Wilson’s only peers were Isaiah Berlin, Vladimir Nabokov and André Malraux.  Kazin concluded that Wilson “looks bigger and bigger today”.

At Harvard, during my first year as a graduate student in 1960, I used to see the pudgy Wilson padding around the Widener Library and didn’t dare speak to him.  He was teaching a course on what became Patriotic Gore  (1962), but I was unfamiliar with the literature of the American Civil War and not ready for his high-powered seminar.  Students also feared the sharp tongue and intellectual brilliance of Harry Levin in the Comparative Literature department.  He didn’t have a Ph.D. and was famous for exclaiming: “But who could examine me?”  Levin recalled that Wilson made advances to all women, despite his big belly, and didn’t mind rejections if he could score a few hits.  He once sat next to Levin and his wife at dinner, and whispered to her: “I’d like to go to bed with you.”  An odd mixture of shyness and rudeness, he was always nervous in an academic setting.  But he was treated with great adulation and responded most warmly to those who admired him.

Levin arranged Wilson’s professorship at Harvard, where he droned through drafts of Patriotic Gore.  His failure as a teacher intensified his prejudice against academics, his relations with Levin deteriorated and he refused an honorary degree from Harvard.  When Levin returned to his house one day and Wilson insisted, “Oh, you can’t go into the study now,” Levin was enraged and began to shout at him.  Levin didn’t realise that Nabokov was writing a poem on a glass window with a diamond pen and Wilson feared he would make a mistake if he were disturbed.

In his unbuttoned Diaries Wilson had wounded Levin by calling him excessively critical, arid, “pompous and pedantic”.  Levin now wanted to set the record straight.  It was deeply moving to find the once fearsome polymath, now deaf and debilitated by a blood disease that required frequent transfusions, pleading for my understanding.  Yet again, the biographer had the last word.  I did not quote Wilson’s negative remark in my book and tried to reassure Levin that Wilson had respected him.

The Harvard historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. had been Special Assistant and speechwriter to President Kennedy and President Johnson.  When he first met Wilson he was struck by the disparity between the stout elderly man with old man’s manners and his pretty young wife Mary McCarthy.  She often discussed Wilson with Schlesinger, and   with wry humor narrated atrocity stories about when he beat her and tried to have her committed to an insane asylum.  Wilson often drank himself into a stupor, but would somehow be clear-headed for work early next morning.  Schlesinger recalled that Wilson had an inexhaustible intellectual curiosity, that he never gave lectures when talking and was immensely entertaining.  He was opinionated and dug in, but listened with amused tolerance to opposing views and could sometimes be persuaded to change his mind.  Levin, unlike his wife, didn’t speak Russian and could be prickly and testy, with a condescending manner.  Wilson and Levin respected each other, but also made fun of each other behind their backs.  Wilson was unhappy at Harvard, where the weather was terrible and he found few kindred spirits.  It was hard to imagine the peremptory and imperious Wilson in the classroom.  His older daughter Rosalind, who unfortunately looked like her father, could be both sulky and fun.  Wilson was impatient, difficult and hard to please with Rosalind, but he also loved her.

Arthur Schlesinger Jr in 1961

After my interview Schlesinger offered to show me his library.  We descended the stairs of his Manhattan townhouse and, with a gracious gesture, he took my life of Hemingway off the shelf and asked me to sign it.  When Hilton Kramer invited me to lunch at the Century Club in New York, I saw Schlesinger walk down the staircase and went over to say hello.  He gave me a genial greeting and said, “I hear you’re writing a life of Orwell, a great subject.  Good luck with it.” This mightily impressed Kramer.

A familiar pattern emerged when I tried to see Wilson’s three children, each of whom had different mothers and had quarrelled about their inheritance.  Rosalind was extremely helpful; Helen refused to talk to me; and Reuel, who’d retreated to Canada, would not see me until after my book appeared. (I later helped Reuel publish his memoir of Wilson and his mother, Mary McCarthy, which appeared in the Virginia Quarterly Review, Winter 2004.)  We drove up to see Rosalind, next to Wilson’s ancestral home in Talcottville, a remote and isolated town in west-central New York.  I was surprised to find that the Adirondacks in the East were as wild and empty as the Rockies in the American West.

Wilson’s friends admired him; Rosalind had to live with him.  I spent two days with her, and we exchanged many letters and phone calls.  Her house was so squalid that I conducted our first interview in her equally squalid car.  Short and stocky, she’d suffered serious mental breakdowns, was eccentric to the point of hysteria, yet tough enough to swim outdoors in the arctic winters.  She was warm, funny and extremely perceptive about her mother, the actress Mary Blair, and Wilson’s three subsequent wives; about Reuel and Helen; and about Wilson’s mistresses and friends in upstate New York.  She was also wildly outspoken and indiscreet.  As we dined in a nearby ski lodge, she exclaimed in her characteristically loud, shrill, nervous voice, “I must tell you the most obscene and scandalous story!”  Everyone in the restaurant stopped eating, not a sound of crockery and silverware, and eagerly leaned forward to hear what she had to say.

When Rosalind was a child Wilson would read to her and take her for walks. Always extremely changeable, tense and critical, he would also say cruel things and treat her as a nonperson.  Even when sober, Wilson had bursts of sadism, as if he were possessed, and tried to destroy things.  She was grateful for the many women in his life who looked after him and protected her.  Elena was deeply unhappy, and said it was better to have him drinking and knocked out.  Wilson once rented out their Cape Cod house for the summer, right in front of Elena, who was unable to protest.  She then had no place to stay on the Cape, had to leave her friends and retreat to Talcottville, which she hated.  She never took a stand on anything and that’s how she survived.  When asked if the husband of Mary Pcolar, his upstate lover, ever complained, Wilson  said, “she had him lashed to the mast years ago.”  Wilson needed a pacemaker but was dead against it.  He knew intuitively what was good for him, may have felt it was time to die and didn’t want his heart to go on beating after his brain was dead.

Celia Paget Goodman was the beautiful twin sister of Mamaine Paget, whom Wilson fell in love with and proposed marriage, but who chose instead to marry Arthur Koestler.  Celia showed me a poignant letter that Elena wrote to her on July 18, 1972, a month after Wilson’s death, and was not quoted in my biography: “He had really been very sick for two years but then still kept being able to do things the doctors said was impossible.  Only since we came back from Florida, it wasn’t quite the same.  He was scared of being paralysed or worse still that another stroke would affect his mind.  He got around with great difficulty but his mind until the very last second was absolutely all there, and he died very quickly and easily without suffering.”

I’d left a salaried academic job in 1992, applied for a National Endowment in the Humanities fellowship to write the life of Wilson and been torpedoed by a negative report from James Atlas, who opposed the other positive recommendations.  (You can get sufficient information, when you apply for a government grant, to determine your enemy.)  Atlas, jealous of my success, had once begun a life of Wilson and given it up.  When my book appeared, as scheduled, on Wilson’s 100th birthday Atlas, reviewing it in the New York Times Book Review, grudgingly admitted: “So it was with little hope, with trepidation even, that I approached this hefty opus. . . . Yet somehow Mr. Meyers has produced a highly engaging book.”

The bitter ironies continued when my rival biographer Lewis Dabney got an NEH grant the year I was refused one.  But he did not publish his derivative book, a poor imitation of my own, until 2005.  He organised a Wilson centennial conference in Princeton to which I was not invited.  The New York Times called me to ask about my absence, and in the newspaper on May 17, 1995 I explained that if I were present I’d be Wilson’s biographer.  If I were absent, the organizer—who’d been “working” on his putative book for twenty-five years—could try to maintain the absurd fiction that he was the biographer.

Graham Greene in 1975

I’ve recently discovered two other perceptive letters about Wilson.  After James Salter  had interviewed Graham Greene in People magazine (January 19, 1976), they corresponded about Wilson.  On December 1, 1977, Salter wrote to Greene: “I’ve been reading Edmund Wilson’s notebooks. . . . Imagine teaching oneself Hebrew at 60 and Hungarian at 70 and wanting to start Chinese.  In his final months he kept a sign taped on the oxygen tank at the foot of his bed, a sign in Hebrew that said: ‘Be strong, be strong!’  Uninventible details.”  On December 19 Greene enthusiastically responded: “I’ve just been reading the Letters with a good deal of pleasure.  I only met him once—I gave him lunch in London in 1945, but I have got a great deal of admiration for To the Finland Station & Axel’s Castle and The Wound and the Bow.  He was wildly anti-Catholic but that I can sympathise with.”


Jeffrey Meyers will publish both James Salter: Pilot, Screenwriter, Novelist and Parallel Lives: From Freud and Hitler to Arbus and Plath with Louisiana State University Press in 2024.


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Member ratings
  • Well argued: 90%
  • Interesting points: 95%
  • Agree with arguments: 80%
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