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Wednesday, May 7, 2014

BIRTH | May 8–Edmund Wilson (Comment)

The young Edmund Wilson.
This day in 1895 was born in Red Bank, NJ, the writer and literary critic Edmund Wilson. He was an editor in the 1920s at Vanity Fair and The New Republic, and later a book reviewer for The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books.

Garrison Keillor provides the following samples of Wilson's acerbic attacks on writers he didn't like:
The cruelest thing that has happened to Lincoln since being shot by Booth was to have fallen into the hands of Carl Sandburg. 
[Another writer's] style has the desperate jauntiness of an orchestra fiddling away for dear life on a sinking ship.
Tolkien's Lord of the Rings Wilson called "juvenile trash" and Kay Boyle's Avalanche "a piece of pure rubbish." In 1959, he wrote to Lionel Trilling:
In my opinion, [Robert] Frost is partly a dreadful old fraud and one of the most relentless self-promoters in the history of American literature.
He said that his friend and fellow Princetonian F. Scott Fitzgerald
has been given imagination without intellectual control of it; he has been given a desire for beauty without an aesthetic ideal; and he has been given a gift for expression without very many ideas to express.
Comment (JT Marlin):

Wilson's To the Finland Station, which I had to study for an exam at Harvard, was a good read. While I was an undergraduate, I wrote Wilson a letter and then called on him to try to persuade him to speak to a group of students. He was sitting on a sofa with Mary McCarthy, drinks in their hands, in their ancient two-story house in Cambridge. He said–"Wait a second"–and he made his way to the upstairs floor. There were sounds of rummaging around, and he returned downstairs with a card that said, at some length:
Mr. Edmund Wilson does not write introductions to books, read manuscripts, give speeches etc. etc.
It was neatly printed on a postcard flyer. Having established the principle, he then said he would be glad to have a meal with a group of us, which was a fine prize for my aggressiveness.

I did not know then, nor did he, that the woman he was once passionate about, Edna St. Vincent Millay, was my great-aunt. She married my mother's uncle. In her letters, she refers to him affectionately as "Bunny". He was mad for her body and her lyric poetry. Maybe the first influenced the second. She was grateful for his interest in her poetry but unflattering about his desirability as a lover. When she married, in 1923, it was a blow for him.

In his book on the 1920s, he expresses disappointment that she would marry someone he described as  a "Dutch importer". It was an accurate enough description, but he could have added "successful Dutch importer" which has a slightly more interesting ring to it. Boissevain & Company had a fleet of ships operating between Java and New York City delivering coffee.

Furthermore, Eugen Boissevain had already won over Inez Milholland and had established his credentials as a ladies' man twice over. Other men gave Eugen more credit. William Marconi, inventor of the radio and finance for several months to Inez, told Eugen that Inez needed a stronger man, someone like him. Max Eastman, who fancied both Inez and Edna, gave an admiring appraisal of Eugen Boissevain in his book Great Companions, identifying in Eugen the qualities that made him appealing.

Having lost his first wife to an illness, Eugen was totally dedicated to Edna's well-being. She once regretted not having their satin sheets at their home in Austerlitz. So he got in his car and drove to New York City to get them...

Edna herself paid the ultimate tribute to her husband after he died in 1949, a year before she did. She wrote: "The only thing I ever did for you was survive you. But that was much."