New biography of Edmund Wilson

A&L Daily links to Jonathan Yardley's review of a new biography of the literary critic Edmund Wilson by Lewis M. Dabney.

After listing Wilson's personal problems (including his many bad marriages, to his alcoholism, to his generally spiky temperament), Yardley describes the tone of the biography:

All of which is to say that [Wilson] presents formidable difficulties for a biographer. On the one hand there is his immense life's work, to be sorted out, evaluated and interpreted. On the other hand there is his frequently sordid private life, also to be sorted out, evaluated and interpreted. Lewis M. Dabney, a professor of English at the University of Wyoming who has dedicated much of the past four decades to tending Wilson's flame, approaches both tasks methodically and dutifully, though one senses from time to time that he really does wish Wilson had been a nicer fellow.

Yardley's a bit frustrated with Dabney's tendency to dwell on some of the darker aspects of Wilson's personal life, especially since Dabney is clearly not enthralled by what he sees:

He tells [Wilson's story] conscientiously and, as mentioned above, dutifully, but the net effect of Edmund Wilson: A Life in Literature is to leave one wondering why, precisely, books such as this are written. To be sure, one must marvel that Wilson could have done such an incredible amount of major work when so much of the time he was drunk, but that is merely another footnote to the long story of writers and booze. Our curiosity about the innermost sources of any writer's work is understandable and legitimate, but page after page of drunken bouts and sexual conquests really tell us little except that this is a man we care to meet only in the words he wrote. As the fourth of his wives once said, "When I read his work I forgive him all his sins." Wise words indeed, to which must be added: If the sins have been forgiven, why bother to chronicle them?

Then again, that is the nature of the genre these days: everyone expects something salacious, even if it's tedious. So it's not necessarily the publisher's fault (people seem to like their toast burnt). A Rigorous Account of the Arguable Contemporary Relevance of Edmund Wilson's Ideas About Literature is not going to sell many copies. (Then again, maybe we should do something about the title...)

I wrote a bit more about Wilson here.

[Cross-posted at The Valve]