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Edmund Wilson: Literary Essays and Reviews of the 1920s & 30s: The Shores of Light / Axel's Castle / Uncollected Reviews (Library of America #176) Hardcover – October 4, 2007
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About the Author
Edmund Wilson (1895-1972) was the leading literary critic of his generation. the author of such influential works as Axel's Castle, The Wound and the Bow, and Patriotic Gore.
Lewis M. Dabney (1932-2015) is the author of Edmund Wilson: A Life in Literature and the editor of Wilson’s last journal, The Sixties, and of Edmund Wilson: Centennial Reflections.
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As to "Axel's Castle," it contains what is still one of the more cogent explications of "symbolism." It also contains first rate discussions of Yeats, Eliot, Proust, Joyce and others. In certain cases, the critiques are a bit premature as a "final word" on the authors, but there is not a simgle instance in which Wilson's insights are not at the very least an excellent starting place. The essays on Eliot, Proust and Joyce are especially insightful and valuable. Wilson had a great grasp of what Eliot had accomplished, both as a poet and critic, and I've always thought that Wilson had a particular affinity for French literature and the French literary and critical tradition, and a real appreciation for Proust. On the other hand, his discussion of Gertrude Stein, although adequate, is not the be-all and end-all of Stein commentary. I don't disagree with Wilson about Stein, but he was neither the most insightful nor sympathetic critic. By point of comparison, I would cite Thornton Wilder's "Gertrude Stein's Four in America." Wilder of course had the advantage of some 15 years perspective and he was much more sympathetic to Stein, but reading Wilder and Wilson together does suggest the limitations imposed by Wilson's tastes and preferences (as if such preferences do not always play some part in critical commentary).
All in all, this is a terrific volume. My sole reservation is that, for the reader not especially obsessed with the '20s or '30s or symbolism, and just looking to browse and be entertained by Wilson's wit, intelligence and charm, I would look instead to the second LoA volume.
I think they should be required reading for all Amazonian amateur reviewers. Not that I always agree with everything that he had to say. He was a snob, no doubt, and proud of it, it seems. (Look at the delightful text called Muses out of Work from the 20s, where he pontificates on poets and poetry; then he adds an afterthought when the collection of reviews was published in book form in the 50s: he includes Hart Crane's letter attacking him for being a sort of social parasite, and another letter that attacks his general poetic theory, but admits that his judgments are still good, because he manages to ignore his own theories. That's where my headline is taken from.) As time progresses, his essays become more mature and his subjects more relevant. Must be a function of age, I guess.
The collection is full of interesting thoughts on subjects like Poe, Henry James, Upton Sinclair, Dos Passos, Wilder, D.H.Lawrence, Americans and Russians in exile, American and English English, etc... The man was rather vain, as expected. He took pleasure in bashing the early Scott Fitzgerald, he was exceedingly proud in taking a small part in launching Hemingway...
Why do I read him? 2 main reasons: 1st because of LoA, 2nd because Wilson was a great help to Nabokov when he came to the US as a refugee during WW2. Good deeds must be rewarded. Never mind that they fell out later over Lolita and Nab's Pushkin translations.
Apart from his snobbery, the man had sound principles: one of the first rules for a civilization should be freedom of artist and scientist.
And he was a good polemicist: the influence of T.S.Eliot is making young men prematurely senile...
This volume 1 of the LoA edition contains mainly two essay collections: The Shores of Light, which takes about 3/4 of the space and doesn't seem to be available in print separately any more, and Axel's Castle, a collection of essays published in 1931, which I will review separately.
That history proved his evaluations to be so accurate explains why he was probably the most important critic of his era.