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Edmund Wilson (May 8, 1895 - June 12, 1972) was an American writer and literary critic who explored Freudian and Marxist themes. He influenced many American authors, including F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose unfinished work he edited for publication. His scheme for a Library of America series of national classic works came to fruition through the efforts of Jason Epstein after Wilson's death.
In an essay on the work of horror writer H. P. Lovecraft, "Tales of the Marvellous and the Ridiculous" (New Yorker, November 1945; later collected in Classics and Commercials), Wilson condemned Lovecraft's tales as "hackwork".
Wilson is also well known for his heavy criticism of J. R. R. Tolkien's work The Lord of the Rings, which he referred to as "juvenile trash", saying "Dr. Tolkien has little skill at narrative and no instinct for literary form."
Wilson was interested in modern culture as a whole, and many of his writings go beyond the realm of pure literary criticism. His early works are heavily influenced by the ideas of Freud and Marx, reflecting his deep interest in their work.
Wilson lobbied for the creation of a series of classic US literature similar to France's Bibliothèque de la Pléiade. In 1982, ten years after his death, The Library of America series was launched. Wilson's writing was included in the Library of America in two volumes published in 2007.
He attended Princeton with Fitzgerald, who referred to Wilson as his "intellectual conscience". After Fitzgerald's early death (at the age of 44) from a heart attack in December 1940, Wilson edited two books by Fitzgerald (The Last Tycoon and The Crack-Up) for posthumous publication, donating his editorial services to help Fitzgerald's family. Wilson was also a friend of Nabokov, with whom he corresponded extensively and whose writing he introduced to Western audiences. However, their friendship was marred by Wilson's cool reaction to Nabokov's Lolita and irretrievably damaged by Wilson's public criticism of what he considered Nabokov's eccentric translation of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin.
Wilson had multiple marriages and affairs.
His first wife was Mary Blair, who had been in Eugene O'Neill's theatrical company.
Their daughter, Rosalind Baker Wilson, was born on September 19, 1923.
His second wife was Margaret Canby. After her death in a freak accident two years after their marriage, Wilson wrote a long eulogy to her and said later that he felt guilt over having neglected her.
From 1938 to 1946, he was married to Mary McCarthy, who like Wilson was well known as a literary critic. She enormously admired Wilson's breadth and depth of intellect, and they collaborated on numerous works. In an article in The New Yorker, Louis Menand says, "The marriage to McCarthy was a mistake that neither side wanted to be first to admit. When they fought, he would retreat into his study and lock the door; she would set piles of paper on fire and try to push them under it." This marriage resulted in the birth of their son, Reuel Wilson (born December 25, 1938).
His fourth wife was Elena Mumm Thornton. Their daughter, Helen Miranda Wilson, was born February 19, 1948.
He wrote many letters to Anaïs Nin, criticizing her for her surrealistic style as opposed to the realism that was then deemed correct writing, and ended by asking for her hand - "I would love to be married to you, and I would teach you to write" - which she took as an insult. Except for a brief falling-out following the publication of I Thought of Daisy, in which Wilson portrayed Edna St Vincent Millay as Rita Cavanaugh, Wilson and Millay remained friends throughout life. He later married Elena Mumm Thornton (previously married to James Worth Thornton), but continued to have extramarital relationships.
Selected by John F. Kennedy to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Wilson, in absentia, was officially awarded the medal on December 6, 1963 by President Lyndon Johnson. However, Wilson's view of Johnson was decidedly negative. Historian Eric F. Goldman writes in his memoir The Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson that when Goldman, on behalf of Johnson, invited Wilson to read from his writings at a White House Festival of the Arts in 1965, "Wilson declined with a brusqueness that I never experienced before or after in the case of an invitation in the name of the President and First Lady."
For the academic year 1964-65, he was a Fellow on the faculty in the Center for Advanced Studies at Wesleyan University.
"Edmund Wilson regrets..."
Throughout his career, Wilson often answered fan mail and outside requests for his time with this form postcard:
"Edmund Wilson regrets that it is impossible for him to: Read manuscripts, write books and articles to order, write forewords or introductions, make statements for publicity purposes, do any kind of editorial work, judge literary contests, give interviews, conduct educational courses, deliver lectures, give talks or make speeches, broadcast or appear on television, take part in writers' congresses, answer questionnaires, contribute to or take part in symposiums or 'panels' of any kind, contribute manuscripts for sales, donate copies of his books to libraries, autograph books for strangers, allow his name to be used on letterheads, supply personal information about himself, supply photographs of himself, supply opinions on literary or other subjects".
The Undertaker's Garland, (with John Peale Bishop), 1922
Poets, Farewell!, New York, NY: Charles Scribners's Sons, 1929
Axel's Castle: A Study in the Imaginative Literature of 1870-1930, New York, NY: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1931
The American Jitters: A Year of the Slump, New York, NY: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1932
Travels In Two Democracies, New York, NY: Harcourt Brace, 1936
The Triple Thinkers: Ten Essays on Literature, New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co, 1938
——— (2007b), Dabney, Lewis M (ed.), Literary Essays and Reviews of the 1930s & 40s: The Triple Thinkers, The Wound and the Bow, Classics and Commercials, Uncollected Reviews, New York: Library of America, ISBN978-1-59853-014-8.
^Stossel, Scott (November 1, 1996), "The Other Edmund Wilson", The American Prospect, But this has not prevented writers and scholars from trying in recent years to elevate Wilson to what they claim is his rightful status as this century's preeminent American man of letters.