Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Pottstown, Montgomery County
Hill School alumnus became a famed Marxist literary critic.
Literary critic and author Edmund Wilson was born in Red Bank, New Jersey, in 1895. His father was a prominent attorney who served as New Jersey's attorney general. Wilson attended the Hill in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, a preparatory school for boys, before attending Princeton University. Wilson also served briefly in the military. Wilson married for the fourth time to Elena Mum Thornton, with whom he spent the remainder of his years. In 1972, Wilson died in Talcottville, New Jersey, from complications of stroke.
Edmund Wilson was born in Red Bank, New Jersey, on May 8, 1895. His parents were Edmund Wilson, Sr., an attorney and attorney general for New Jersey, and Helen Mather Kimball. Unfortunately, Wilson is said to have an unhappy childhood, which many speculate is reflected in his work The Wound and the Bow (1941).
Throughout Wilson's childhood, his father suffered with anxiety and in his mid-thirties had a nervous breakdown. Wilson's mother suffered from hysteria as well. When Wilson's father was placed in an insane asylum for a short period of time, his mother went deaf when the doctors informed her that he would probably not resume his normal life. Jeffrey Meyers, the author of Edmund Wilson: A Biography, stated that Wilson had written later in life that he attempted to communicate with his mother via long letters, which she sometimes refused to read.
Edmund Wilson was educated in his teen years at the Hill School, a preparatory school for boys located in Pottstown, Pennsylvania. His first year studying there was 1908. During his time there, many visiting evangelicals preached the gospel. Meyers wrote in his biography on Wilson that this turned Wilson off to religion for the better portion of his life. Wilson's essay Galahad, written in 1927, describes some of his feelings about religion and the moral attitudes that were present at the school. Regarding his prep school, Wilson wrote in his essay, Mr. Rolfe, that the school rose like a segregated plateau in the midst of the little steel town-the narrow and cobbled streets where the greenery showed meager in the spring, the slay pits and the blast furnaces that startled the new boys and kept them awake at night by blazes that would light up the whole room.
During his time at the Hill, Wilson worked as editor for the school newspaper, Hill School Record, for which he wrote a total of 11 fiction pieces and many editorials. After Wilson graduated from the Hill in 1912, he matriculated at Princeton University in New Jersey. There he met two men that influenced his personal and professional life.
As a student at Princeton, he met professors Norman Kemp Smith and Christian Gauss. In his essay, A Prelude, Wilson says of Smith, He is one of the most admirable men I have ever known and one of the most rewarding. Christian Gauss became the missing father figure in Wilson's life, and both men spoke highly of each other. Gauss said that Wilson was a brilliant student of classics, philosophy and modern languages. While at Princeton, Wilson continued his editorial work on the school's Nassau Literary Magazine. Wilson loved the atmosphere of the campus but did not care for the physical landscape of New Jersey.
Edmund Wilson spent a brief time as a soldier in the military during the summer of 1916 at an army camp in Plattsburgh, New York, on Lake Champlain. While the United States was not yet involved in war, the camp was set up as a preparedness program for young men who may eventually go to war. This military experience was not to Wilson's liking, and he only stayed until the fall of that same year. Wilson later wrote: I was incapable of becoming an officer and that; in general, I loathed the Army. I could not imagine commanding men, and I could not imagine killing them. However, he served in the military in the future, though in a different position.
Edmund Wilson, Sr. got his son a job working for the New York Evening Sun as a cub reporter in the fall of 1916. He worked for the Sun for $15.00 a week. Wilson had completed basic training at the army camp, so his unit was ready to serve and was sent to England on October 30, 1917. While the life as a soldier did not agree with him, he found that he was at least a bit more suited to be a nurse and to deal directly with the treatment of wounds and injuries. Wilson's unit was transferred to France at the end of November 1917.
While in the United States, Edmund Wilson befriended the writer F. Scott Fitzgerald and continued to keep in touch off and on during his stint in the war. In December 1917, Wilson wrote Fitzgerald explaining his living conditions while stationed in France: Our life here, with its round of marvelous French dinners at little cafes and of walks and bicycle rides to ancient villages that are all around us, would be perfectly idyllic, if it were not for the fact that the unseen, unrealized reality of the war and one's own prolonged inactivity makes it more ghastly than you can believe. In I Thought of Daisy (1929), Wilson describes some of his experiences in the story: "After a time, after his first physical sinkings of nausea and fear, he had been able to line up corpses on the floor of the field hospital with less emotion than he had once arranged books on the shelves of his bookcases at college."
After a year at war as a nurse, Wilson asked his father to help him get a transfer. Wilson Sr. succeeded, and Wilson Jr. was promoted to sergeant and transferred to General Headquarters at Chaumont, France. Here he translated documents from French to English for the Intelligence Corps. Again, Wilson recorded his true feelings for war; in 1922, his collection of short stories, The Undertaker's Garland, was published. One of the stories, The Death of a Soldier, features an American soldier traveling with his unit from Le Havre to Vittel, located very near the General Headquarters in France where Wilson was stationed. While on this two-day journey, the soldier becomes gravely sick and is ignored by the medical personnel. Eventually he dies of pneumonia while still in transit and is quickly buried by his superiors, only to have the location forgotten. His family is never fully sure exactly where the soldier is buried.
In January 1920, Wilson started work at Vanity Fair for $45 a week. While working there, he fell in love with Edna St. Vincent Millay, the first female poet to win the Pulitzer Prize (1923). Up until this point, she had made all of her work to the public in Vanity Fair. He was so smitten with Millay that later that year he proposed marriage, but he was rejected. She inspired the character of Rita Cavanaugh in I Thought of Daisy. After the split with Millay, Wilson met Mary Blair, an actress in Eugene O'Neill's play: Diff'rent. Blair, who was the daughter of a wealthy family involved in the literature printing business, did not become a successful actress.
Wilson left Vanity Fair in February 1921 to work at The New Republic, where he became a junior editor. However, this only lasted until July 1922, when he chose to return to Vanity Fair for 10 months. He was hired at $75 a week, and when he left he was making $82 a week. Wilson and Blair married on February 14, 1923, when she was two months pregnant. After the birth of their daughter, Rosalind, Blair continued to travel extensively and continued to work as an actress. Mary Blair stated in her own letters to friends that Wilson was not the most loving husband and tended to treat his wife as one of the household staff. After his death, his daughter said that he demanded of any wife that she perform the same duties as my grandmother's staff, which is what he was used to.
The couple split in 1925 and later divorced in 1930. During his brief marriage, he moved back and forth between positions with various publications. On May 5, 1923, he resigned from Vanity Fair and became the drama critic for The Dial, an American magazine for modernist literature. In 1924, he rejoined The New Republic and worked here until 1931. But while he worked at various publications, he also worked independently. In 1926, Wilson published his second book, Encounters: Plays and Dialogues, which contained dialogues that were written in different voices. It was also during this time, that Wilson befriended Ernest Hemingway. In fact, Wilson was one of the first literary critics to discover Hemingway's talent for fiction writing. In Wilson's book, The Wound and the Bow, he writes a rather long essay in favor of Hemingway's writing.
Because of his experiences with war, Wilson became a self proclaimed pacifist and later in the 1930s became a socialist and cultural critic. Of this turning point in his life, he said, I swore to myself that when the War was over I should stand outside of society altogether. I should do without the comforts and amenities of the conventional world entirely, and I should devote myself to the great human interests who transcended stands of living conventions: Literature, History, the Creation of Beauty, the Discovery of Truth. On May 9, 1930, Wilson married his second wife, Margaret Canby, in Washington, DC, at the home of lawyer John Amen. Canby was from a wealthy coal mining family from California.
Axel's Castle: A Study in Imaginative Literature of 1870-1930, Edmund Wilson's 5th book, was published in 1931. With this book, Wilson was the first to define the Imaginative Literature movement and to reveal the core of meaning in these obscure and difficult works. Axel's Castle, was influenced by Arthur Symons's The Symbolist Movement in Literature, a book that covered influential poets from 19th century France. Axel's Castle proved to be one of his most influential books.
On September 30, 1932, Wilson's wife Margaret died from an accidental fall down a set of stairs in her family's home in California. Wilson, who was not present at the time, is said to have been stricken with guilt, and it took him many decades to come to terms with her death. Around this time, Wilson spent three weeks in the Clifton Springs Sanatorium and Clinic in upstate New York for depression and alcoholism. While he was here, he became addicted to paraldehyde, which was a form of ether that was used as treatment for depression. He continued to be addicted to this drug for months after he was released and fought the addiction on his own.
In 1932, Wilson published a collection of essays in a volume called American Jitters. The volume contained 29 essays that were published in The New Republic between October 1930 and October 1931. These essays described what Wilson had hoped would occur: the creation of an American Socialism. Wilson stated, I believe that if the American radicals and progressives who repudiate the Marxist dogma and strategy of the Communist Party still hope to accomplish anything valuable, they must take Communism away from the Communists, and take it with ambiguities, asserting that their ultimate goal is the ownership by the government of the means of production. In American Jitters, essays covered subjects such as the labor conditions of the Ford factory in Detroit and the attempts of the American Red Cross to assist those in poverty in Kentucky.
In 1938, Wilson married his third wife, Mary McCarthy, a well respected literary critic. Wilson said of being a literary critic, It is dangerous, it may prove fatal to one's own effectiveness, to betray that one's feelings have been hurt. The critic must remain invulnerable. When goaded, he should show himself not peevish, but indignant, with a background of scorn.
To the Finland Station: A Study in the Writing and Acting of History was published in 1940 and is the study of the history of revolutionary thought and the birth of socialism from the French Revolution to the arrival of Lenin at the Finland Station in St. Petersburg, Russia in 1917. While completing the research for this book, Wilson became disenchanted with the Communist movement and said that the Stalin regime is in its present phase is pretty hopelessly reactionary and corrupt. In 1946, Wilson and Mary divorced. Shortly after this, Wilson began to write letters to the now famous diarist Anas Nin, criticizing her surrealist style and offering to teach her how to write properly. During the 1940s, Wilson quit The New Republic again. He worked briefly at the New Yorker as a reviewer.
In 1946, Wilson married his fourth and final wife, Elena Mum Thornton, after his divorce was final. He also published The Bit Between My Teeth, in which he denounced the atomic bomb, the IRS, and corporate America and all its works. Of this book, Wilson states, Now, I am far from an authority on any of these subjects, but, out of volatile curiosity and an appetite for various entertainment, I have done some reading in all of them; and I have been working, as a practicing critic, to break down the conventional frames, to get away from the academic canons, that always tend to keep literature provincial.
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Edmund Wilson continued to publish literary criticism as well as attempts at fiction and drama. In 1970, he suffered the first of a series of strokes, but he continued to work. In 1971, Upstate was published, as well as several critiques of Russian essays. In 1972, Wilson and his wife moved from Naples, Florida, to Talcottville, New York, where he suffered a small stroke in the spring and later died of complications on June 12, 1972.
(with John Peale Bishop) The Undertaker's Garland. New York: Knopf, 1922.
I Thought of Daisy. New York: Scribners, 1929.
Axel's Castle: A Study in the Imaginative Literature of 1870 to 1930. New York: Scribners, 1931.
The American Jitters: A Year of the Slump. New York: Scribners, 1932.
Travels in Two Democracies. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1936.
This Room and This Gin and Three Sandwiches: Three Plays. New York:New Republic, 1937.
To the Finland Station: A Study in the Writing and Acting of History. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1940.
The Boys in the Back Room: Notes on California Novelists. San Francisco: Colt, 1941.
The Wound and the Bow: Seven Studies in Literature. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1941.
The Shores of Light: A Literary Chronicle of the Twenties and Thirties. New York: Farrar, Straus & Young, 1952.
The Bit Between My Teeth: A Literary Chronicle of 1950-1965. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1965.
Edmund Wilson Dies, The New York Times 13 Jun 1972: 1+.