Wilson, Epsteined

Joseph Epstein re-examines Edmund Wilson:

“In the history of literary criticism written in English, very few names have survived, or probably deserve to survive. Samuel Johnson is one, perhaps the only true genius who put his mind chiefly to criticism; and Johnson also happens to have been a great man, which gives his writing all the more authority. Matthew Arnold is another, not so much for his particular pronouncements, which could be very smart and sharp, as for their cultural sweep and continuing relevance.
Some might include William Hazlitt in this company, though he was a better writer than critic, and what he thought of the actors, poets, and painters of his day is less important than that he understood the spirit of his age and wrote brilliantly and courageously about it. Others might claim a place for T.S. Eliot, but much of Eliot’s best criticism is rather narrowly confined to adjusting the canon of English poetry—Metaphysical poets up, John Milton down—and to the principles behind literary creation.
Does Edmund Wilson belong in this short list of critics of enduring interest? I certainly thought so once—and I was hardly alone. To his many admirers, Wilson—courageous in his opinions, deep in his culture, broad in his point of view, unassailable in his integrity—seemed to exist in the closest possible relationship with literature itself. Versatile, productive, cosmopolitan, he was a being organized for writing. To judge by the reverential reviews of Dabney’s biography, this is still the received opinion.”

Epstein isn’t always this reverent; earlier in the piece, he has a devastating summary of Wilson:

But he wasn’t just prose, and he certainly wasn’t poetry. He was instead a bald, pudgy little man with a drinking problem and a mean streak.


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