Edmund Wilson

A Life in Literature

Lewis M. Dabney

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Edmund Wilson
Edmund Wilson, Jr.
12 Wallace Street
A Nest of Gentlefolk
Born May 8, 1895, Edmund Wilson, Jr., was a shy boy, the only child of Edmund and Helen Mather Kimball Wilson. He grew up in Red Bank, New Jersey, thirty-some miles south of New York, near the ocean. Though accessible to the city by the North Jersey Coast train, the town then had a Southern flavor. "In the spring," his daughter Rosalind recalled, "old men would appear on the streets selling soft-shell crabs from baskets of seaweed. The summers were long and hot and full of mosquitoes, bred in the Jersey swamps." Twelve Wallace Street (one day to be renumbered and renamed 100 McLaren Street) was a three-story house on several acres, with barns and coops, fences, and a vegetable garden. A dark house with large ground-floor rooms all opening into one another in the style of the 1880s, it was set off by a bright, ever expanding garden that won the boy's mother first prize in a Monmouth County competition. Three servants lived with the family. Jennie Corbett, the maid and housekeeper, had emigrated from Ireland at age fifteen. Almost six feet tall, with "beautiful Irish blue eyes" and "the soul of a saint," she was there to help young Edmund take his first steps, and the Wilsons grew to depend on her. Gerda the cook was part Indian, silent and proud. Her mulatto husband, Oscar, served as coachman.
Wilson's large head had damaged his mother during what was a difficult birth, and when he learned this, presumably from her or from Jennie, he would associate it with her distrust of intellectual men. Yet she doted on the cherubic baby with the dark eyes, the reddish hair and complexion of her people, calling him Bunny, since he looked, she said, "just like a plum-bun." Mother and son visited back and forth within the family, anda snapshot shows them driving down a lane in a pony cart, she wearing a long dress with a bustle and he, six or seven years old, a straw boater. Physically alike, they appear equally intent and determined.
Perhaps they were on their way to the nearby town of Sea Bright, where he played with his cousins, including Reuel "Sandy" Kimball, Jr. The boys delighted in childish pranks, cut wax phonograph cylinders on a machine, played checkers, and put on puppet shows, a diversion Wilson later shared with his children. Sandy and his sister Esther, whose mother was Wilson's socially ambitious Aunt Caroline, always had a French governess. "At Sea Bright," Wilson recalled in a memoir, "the lawns were ironed smooth." The Kimballs were doctors, and Uncle Reuel was the pillar of the clan. "Thick-set and short, with a bristling square-cut mustache," he was "a terrific worker," a diagnostician who cared enough to sit up all night with patients who needed him. Like Edmund he had red hair, and like Mrs. Wilson he was gruff in tone.
Twenty miles south, at Lakewood, their Kimball grandparents lived in a home that seemed a temple of Victorian tranquillity. Wilson's grandmother, also named Helen, grew flowers in her conservatory and wrote pious verse, while his grandfather, Walter Scott Kimball, a homeopath who due to ill health no longer practiced much, was usually found among his stuffed owls (one of them later Wilson's) and his chessmen in his library. Wilson's and Sandy's Aunt Laura, then still living with her parents, recorded the cousins' first stories in paper pamphlets she sewed together. She took them on nature walks with a guidebook, a source of the colorful anatomies of flowers and landscapes in Wilson's journals. Uncle Paul, a dashing playboy as well as a surgeon, had an intriguing deadpan manner and did tricks with dimes, performing song and dance routines like "The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo." Wilson recalled of his family that "I knew almost nobody else, that my relatives were extremely varied and that most of them seemed to me interesting."
Differences between the Wilsons and Kimballs helped to shape the future critic. His grandfather Thaddeus Wilson was a Presbyterian minister, though "a very moderate one." His parents went to church at Shrewsbury, and on "bleak and severe" Sunday mornings his formidable paternal grandmother, a Calvinist of Dutch background, instructed the child in the Scriptures. His mother was proud to be a collateral descendant of Cotton Mather, but her people "had scrapped the old-time religion and still retained a certain animus toward it." She forbade the use of a catechismthat threatened eternal damnation, remarking that her mother-in-law had "a 'queer' and morbid side." Edmund, however, "stood very much in awe of" his Wilson grandmother, who amused herself by studying mathematics, and the respect for the Bible she instilled would flower in his studies of the Old Testament and the Dead Sea Scrolls. Although in youth he identified with his mother's family, the values he absorbed through his father's had the deeper hold.
He enjoyed visiting his Wilson connections in Virginia. His Uncle John died when the boy was four, and after Aunt Susan took their children back to Charlottesville his father regularly went down to pay her debts, taking the son along. On balmy nights Edmund Jr. explored Jefferson's campus with his cousin Susan Wilson, a friend all his life, and her brother Edmund Minor Wilson. Lincoln was Wilson's father's hero, and when one of his cousins called Lincoln "a bloody tyrant," the future author of Patriotic Gore was shocked to realize that there was more than one view of American history.
Such conflicts were muted by the shared family background in New York State, whence his four grandparents had migrated to New Jersey after the Civil War. Though his name implied a connection with the British magistrate and dramatist Edmund Wilson, his true Wilson ancestor had emigrated from Londonderry into central New York equipped, according to family legend, "with nothing but a fishing-rod and a silver onion watch." The Kimballs, once yeomen farmers among the high medieval walled towns of East Anglia, were early settlers in Massachusetts Bay. As the nineteenth century began, the first Reuel, Edmund's great-great-grandfather, a preacher--in Hebrew his name meant "friend of God"--and his Mather bride drove ox teams through the Berkshires into the wilderness, settling on the high plateau between the Mohawk Valley and the Adirondacks. But in that "new America, now forever for a century on the move" the fire-and-brimstone faith lost its hold. Reuel was put out of his pulpit by his congregation, and his grandson, Wilson's grandfather Kimball, read Herbert Spencer and John Stuart Mill and went to medical school.
Dr. Kimball came home to find a bride, Helen, one of the eight daughters of Thomas Baker, a Jacksonian democrat who had a stone house in the tiny town of Talcottville in Lewis County, New York. Edmund Sr. eventually bought the place from the surviving Bakers, allowing his wife's Uncle Tom and Aunt Rosalind to go on living there. Built by Tories in flight from the Revolution, the old house survives with its foot-thick wallsand beams secured by handmade nails, carved mantels over the fireplaces, a front gallery the length of the building, a large front door with a fanlight over it and on either side a long pane of glass that, with its white filigree of ironwork, reminded the boy of ice over winter ponds. While Uncle Tom occupied a downstairs room, upstairs lived Great-Aunt Rosalind, eldest of the Baker daughters, receiving visitors by special arrangement, elegantly dressed but "so bloodless and shrunken as dreadfully to resemble a mummy" to young Edmund, who was also reminded of Miss Havisham in Great Expectations. In this "pocket of the past" his father was comfortable and Wilson would one day return to retrieve his roots and don the role of country squire.
Summer family reunions at Talcottville were an idyll for an only child from suburban New Jersey. On the milk train north from Utica young Wilson would gaze through the window at "the widening pastures, the great boulders, the black and white cattle, the rivers, stony and thin, the lone elms like feather-dusters" in the clear light of late afternoon. Sandy and he, usually staying with the Collins family down the road, were reunited with Talcott, Baker, and Kimball cousins from as far away as Iowa and Wisconsin--"we fished and swam in the rivers, had all sorts of excursions and games." During chilly evenings after college, Edmund would sit by a woodstove with his mother to read Michelet's multivolume History of France. At Talcottville, too, he read Maeterlinck and was impressed by his vision of the literary life--"first the dedicated toil, then the orgy." Northern New York was associated in Wilson's mind "with the first moments of my being conscious that I was capable of imaginative activity and some sort of literary vocation." At seventeen, arriving for a solitary week of fishing and reading, he would recall, in Upstate, a new sense of his identity. "I said suddenly to myself, 'I am a poet,' then after a moment corrected myself with, 'No: I am not quite a poet, but I am something of the kind.'"
The conflict between his genteel clan and the new class of millionaires helped shape Wilson's social attitudes. In a memoir of Lakewood he describes how bachelor Uncle Paul took him, age nine or ten, to play at a showy estate whose owner is here called James Finch--echoing Jay Gould, cornerer of gold during the Grant administration--and characterized as "the son of a great grabber and wrecker of railroads." A mural of the Canterbury Tales, sixteen feet high and eighty feet long, adorned the main hall of the house, and among the outbuildings was a theater, used not, as Edmund first assumed, for amateur theatricals, but for musicalcomedies imported from New York. He tried not to be impressed by all this or by young James's toys, including cowboy and Indian suits, hung on hangers in a special closet, and a custom-built miniature automobile. This millionaire's son, who seemed to the young Wilson totally uneducated, surprised him by a greater understanding of physics, winning an argument over whether a log would float in a large puddle. Wilson reestablished a sense of superiority by rejecting his playmate's behavior with one of his many servants as they rode in a pony cart about the grounds. James commanded the footman to get some fruit from a nearby tree. When the man hesitated, the English governess explained that the fruit was unripe and inedible. The young master repeated his order, declaring, "These men must do their duty, Anna!" Edmund told himself he wouldn't "have been allowed to behave like that," would never "speak like that to or about a servant."
It was midlife before Wilson recognized that his family "had been drawn into the orbit of the power represented by the Finches." This understanding was triggered as he savored memories of the Kimballs' Lakewood house with its books and flowers and oriental rugs. He recalled the water running from nickel-plated faucets into porcelain basins unlike the old wood and tin ones at Wallace Street, and he remembered his father saying that to build this new house had strained the doctor's finances. His physician uncles died relatively young. Uncle Reuel wore himself out on behalf of his wife's ambitions while Uncle Paul, a ship's doctor on the yachts of the rich, became an alcoholic and was often depressed. In retrospect, Wilson believed it was through his gentle Kimball grandparents that "the superior virtue and value of certain things" had come down to him--"of the spirit that studies and understands against the spirit that acquires and consumes; of the instinct to give light and life against the lethal concentration on power; of the impulse that acts to minimize the social differences between human beings instead of trying to keep them up and make them wider." In this form the snobbery of the professional class and the gentry became part of Wilson's intellectual enterprise, that of an American democratizing Matthew Arnold's idea of culture.
Father, Mother, Son
Wilson's rejection of his playmate's world and attitudes also mirrored his father's idea of the American community, a man living among neighbors forwhom he felt some measure of responsibility. The senior Edmund was a conundrum--a distinguished local lawyer who served a term as attorney general of New Jersey and a neurotic who regularly collapsed under the weight of a mysterious, terrifying mental ailment. Born in Shrewsbury in 1863, "Ed" attended Andover and Princeton. At Princeton he edited the newspaper with his brother John and excelled in the struggle between the debating societies, Whig and Clio. In his senior year, after leading a student rebellion against the faculty, he was "rusticated," made to live in the town of Kingston ten miles north of campus. He took his law degree at Columbia and went into practice in 1891. In both corporate and criminal cases he relied upon "learning, logic, dramatic imagination and eloquence," says Wilson, naming important tools of his own work. His father would cause the jury "to live through the events of the crime or supposed crime, he would take them through the steps of the transaction, whatever this was, and he would lodge in their heads a picture that was difficult for his opponent to expel." Well paid when representing corporations, he enjoyed the chance to oppose them and would work for little or nothing for local people whom he thought had a case, but almost never undertook a case he didn't think he could win. Rehearsing his arguments at home, "he would pace back and forth through the rooms, go nervously up and down stairs, and all other operations would have to be suspended."
Wilson Sr. was a charismatic man who dressed well, drove fast horses, and whom women found attractive, but a colleague noted that he "retained to the end some of the rigid Calvinistic views in which his childhood was reared." Wilson says that he refused to invest in the stock market, considering this a form of gambling. Although this kept him from becoming a rich man in circumstances where that would have been easy, it gave him a moral advantage in a state "dominated by corporations." He had aimed for a political career in the tradition of New England magistrates who served God within the world and of Lincoln, who rescued the Union. When Wilson declares in A Piece of My Mind, "The Republic has thus had to be saved over and over again, and it continues to have to be saved," it is with his father's Calvinist urgency. A lifelong Republican, as New Jersey's attorney general his father took a stab at reform when challenged by Woodrow Wilson, the Democratic governor-elect (no relation), to go after the Republican rackets that controlled Atlantic City. Said to have avoided entrapment by several beautiful blondes, he unearthed a little used law that allowed him to bring in jurors from another county andsend several hundred men to jail, including the boss of Atlantic City, who went to prison with aplomb, in a fur coat and a limousine. The prosecutor explained to his son that this man would only be replaced by another, but Woodrow Wilson saw the conviction as a triumph and later offered Edmund's father various Washington posts.
Such gentlemen reformers were uncomfortable in an age of business dominance, of party bosses and machine corruption. Their moral snobbery was always collapsing into cynicism, as when a seasoned attorney in another state destroyed the illusions of a Harvard Law graduate then opening his practice by observing--in language worthy of Mark Twain--"You think you're a lawyer. Son, you ain't a lawyer. You ain't nothin' but a incipient commercial instrument." These resentments contributed to the Progressive movement. Though Wilson's father's ambition for elective office faded, he counseled the Republican Party, befriended the socialist editor of a local paper, and allied himself with a businessman named Sigmund Eisner--the great-grandfather of Disney's Michael Eisner--to improve the Red Bank school system.
He was a popular public speaker, delivering lay sermons on politics and such subjects as "Duties of Educated Men" and "The Power of a Lie," as well as an encomium upon his moral debt to a teacher at the Shrewsbury Academy. The texts of these talks are old-fashioned in diction, with what Wilson came to regard as "a silvery quality of clearness." A favorite subject was Lincoln, the rail-splitter and grave humorist whom he called "the Great Commoner," a self-made American who vindicated the national ideal. Meanwhile Wilson's father grew bored with the law. Although he had to provide for his younger brother John's family as well as his own, he declined offers of partnerships in New York firms--his wife persuaded him this would be too hard on his nerves--and practiced from an office permeated by "a casky vinous smell" from the liquor store below--amusing to his son, since he never drank.
His hypochondria was precipitated by the fate of John, also a lawyer, who had moved to Pittsburgh, failed in his practice, and succumbed to Bright's disease, a kidney condition worsened by nervous tension. The doctor was delayed by a blizzard, and the senior Edmund was alone with his brother when he died. After this, he would experience attacks in which he imagined diseases affecting one organ or another, the symptoms invariably requiring immediate attention. Following the successful conclusion of a case, he'd retreat behind a felt-lined bedroom door, where his fearsmultiplied. Edmund Jr. grew up accompanying his parents "for desolating drives or walks" in the course of which his father endlessly described his ailments. Alternately--in an instance used in the novel I Thought of Daisy--he would "freeze us with prophetic looks and announce that the household was 'hurtling to ruin!' because he'd just gotten a caterer's bill or something." Rosalind heard stories of trained nurses "going quite mad, rushing downstairs to beat up sofa pillows or to scream uncontrollably"; she reports that the doctor who had the most success with her grandfather prescribed a cup of chamomile tea "that was made a certain way involving twelve steps and almost as many people." He had several unnecessary operations, including the removal of his gallbladder. Sometimes he signed into a sanitarium. By the time his son was in college these eclipses "were lasting for months and years."
Wilson later speculated that his father's malady "may partly have been a form of the Calvinist fear of damnation," a fear to which the son thought himself on some level subject. His father's mother, Dutch in background, had raised him on the fundamentalist catechism according to which the majority of the human race are consigned to eternal torment. On his deathbed he murmured, "What does the doctor say about my condition?," restating complaints about nonexistent illnesses, now apparently anxious about the state of his soul. Insofar as the ancestral quest for salvation entered into his vision of public service, to withdraw from a corrupted world intensified his nervousness, and in a materialistic age this may well have shown itself as corruption of the body. Wilson Jr.'s determined rejection of Christianity and the refusal to fear death that would keep him from having a pacemaker when this would have prolonged his life owed something to his father's obsession with his physical condition.
Helen Mather Kimball Wilson, who abbreviated her name to Helen M. K. Wilson in letters to her son rather than sign them "Mother," became equally formidable and difficult. Nelly, as she was usually called, was only five feet tall and, in her youth, very pretty. An extrovert who liked horses, dogs, and the garden club, she admired money and social position, was a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution. Although her doctor brothers, Reuel and Paul, were members of the professional class, a third, Wilson's Uncle Win, was the family's first businessman. A successful bachelor, he left her money in his will. One of her older sisters eventually married an impoverished farmer, while the other chose the wealthy owner of a slaughterhouse, who took good care of her until he abandoned her and their four children. Helen had known Edmund Sr. since boardingschool. He fell in love with her when he was thirty and her father's chess partner. Though she later called herself fortunate to have caught such a dashing man, for a time she resisted him, perhaps intuiting a deeper incompatibility.
The onset of his hypochondria devastated Mrs. Wilson's nerves, and her brother Reuel persuaded him to consult a neurologist in London. On the boat trip home she became deaf overnight. Her son believed this was because the doctor had suggested that his father was "mad." Diagnosed as having gout of the ear, she henceforth depended on people shouting or on an ear trumpet, described by Rosalind as "a three-foot job with a hose in the middle, a horn mouthpiece on one end, and a tubular piece she inserted in her ear." Mrs. Wilson spoke loudly, and would hold forth on the porch about her neighbors' shortcomings, without regard to what they might overhear. But she had a good business head and, no longer able to hear her husband's complaints, was a bastion of sensible support for him. With a rueful sense of his limitations, Mr. Wilson told people, "I would have sunk many times without the rock which is my wife." When persuading him to take on another case, she'd go to his room and announce, "There's no money in the bank!"
Wilson describes the collision of their tastes and temperaments. Red Bank's leading citizen dispensed advice--with a certain condescension and restrained impatience--to a wide range of acquaintances. His wife disapproved of some of his friends--the Jewish Eisner and the socialist editor, who wasn't allowed to enter the house because he "did not wash." The couple disagreed about 12 Wallace Street, which Mrs. Wilson thought gloomy, urging him to build a better-designed home with the larger grounds she wanted for her garden. He was attached to the house and refused to spend the money. They also quarreled about traveling. She wanted to go to places that were "lively and gay," while his father, she told the boy, "simply visited cities, systematically informed himself about their populations, politics and products, inspected their public buildings and looked in on the proceedings of their legislatures." Wilson recalled that as soon as his father arrived in a new city "he began asking people questions, beginning with the driver of his cab." In a surviving photograph of the couple, at an Austrian spa in 1908, the handsome man in glasses has shoved a newspaper into his pocket and stands behind his wife, one hand on the back of the chair where she sits stiffly erect with a slight, complacent smile, gloved hands folded in her lap.
Edmund, in youth his mother's ally, agreed with her about their home.In the poem "A House of the 'Eighties" he remembers looking down from the window on a rainy night, upon a scene that seemed
sunken out of time or drowned As hulks in Newark Bay are sunk and slowly drown,
Perhaps he had been reading Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher," or a story about wizards:
--The ugly stained-glass window on the stair, Dark-panelled dining-room, the guinea-fowls' fierce clack, The great grey cat that on the oven slept--My father's study with its books and birds, His scornful tone, his eighteenth-century words, His green door sealed with baize--
This door dramatized the father's isolation and the son's exclusion. When the house was sold after his father's death and his mother bought a large white wooden house not far from her brother Reuel's home at Sea Bright, Wilson often walked over to 12 Wallace Street. Magnified in memory and imagination, in his middle years it became the setting of not only this poem but a play as well as a story.
A shy boy could try to command the family stage through conjuring. In The Sixties Wilson recalls his mother taking him to Martinkas, a magic shop in a dubious neighborhood on New York's Seventh Avenue. "I was fascinated and a little frightened by the devils and mysterious objects of which I did not then know the secrets." As a magician he would work for a skill with his hands which in other respects he lacked, and he was well-known among friends for his not always successful efforts with cards. He sometimes calmed his nerves by practicing magic tricks in front of a mirror. The rationalist who rejected religion but loved ghost stories and mythologies could try to produce the illusion that he was in control.
He owned the standard children's books--Lorna Doone, Bob, Son of Battle, Hans Christian Andersen, and the Arabian Nights--and in his grandfather's library at Lakewood he found the ghouls and vampires of Ralston's Russian Fairy Tales as well as "those long, old-fashioned, formless books full of amusing or curious things," like Robert Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy and the Noctes Ambrosianae. Mrs. Wilson hoped he'dfollow her brother Paul in liking sports, but when she took him to watch polo he could not ignore the horses' bloody sides. She is said to have presented her son with a complete baseball outfit that he took to the ball field and gave away piece by piece.
Margaret Edwards, a childhood friend, recalled that they would put on plays--"he would write the story and I drew the scenery and figures." His cousin Sandy and he wrote and illustrated a series based on Sherlock Holmes. The critical temperament, however, already stood in the way of imaginative invention. In the schoolboy hand that Wilson soon abandoned there survives a revealing page headed "What I would like to Write [sic] about." In fact he tells what he doesn't want to do with what may have been an assignment: he will not make the story "too sad" or "make much plot to it," or make the schoolboy hero "too successful" or "too good." Discouraged by his own strictures, he concludes, "I don't believe I shall ever write this story."
Wilson's travel diary of a trip to Europe in 1908, when he was thirteen--set down in a leather-bound journal that was Margaret's gift--would be innocuous without his interpolations when publishing it half a century later, at the beginning of A Prelude. This was the age of Baedekers and the Grand Tour, of American pilgrims going to Europe to drink culture at its source. In an essay of the 1930s Wilson recalled the "amazement, a wonder that became exaltation" with which he "had come upon the Apollo Belvedere when I had first visited Rome as a child--how I had turned back to stare at its beauty." In his childhood diary, as the family group goes north through Italy to Germany and France, he dutifully names the ancient buildings, calling the museums and their contents, "interesting" or "very interesting." The prose comes alive when he is actually interested. The conjurer and future skeptic notes how the priests at Pompeii make Apollo appear to talk by speaking through a brass tube in the statue. Setting the torture instruments at Nuremberg in an effective series, the boy leads us to "a wheel with a knife blade on it which cut the victim up very small and very slowly, a cradle full of spikes in which the victim was rocked to death," and "a pear which when put in the mouth swells up to four times its ordinary size, thus slowly cracking the victim's head open." In decrescendo he adds "a flute of iron which was fastened to the fingers and mouths of musicians who played badly."
The thirteen-year-old who is distanced from the purposive human cruelties here catalogued omits the explosive tensions of his family life. AtKarlsbad he mentions skipping up and down the hills and eating huge crackers. In a bracketed interpolation in A Prelude, Wilson explains (as he put it in a letter to his old friend Margaret) "what was really going on" at Karlsbad. Uncle Reuel had persuaded his father to join them at the resort in order to try to relax. There Edmund Sr. grew positively cheerful after sitting with the doctor at outdoor cafés, listening to the ubiquitous waltzes and--with no experience of alcohol--consuming quantities of Pilsner beer. Alcohol, however, the son now learned, was Uncle Reuel's private vice. The respected physician regularly escaped the demands of his wife and his two practices on benders, and drinking with Edmund's father set him off on "one of his sprees," a solitary trip to Prague, which on his return he pronounced to be indeed a beautiful city, and then collapsed in a stupor.
Literature could neutralize the skeletons in one's family closet. In one of his last articles, Wilson recalled that Richard Harris Barham's versified Ingoldsby Legends, with their gruesome anecdotes and jocose humor, had a "fetishistic" power as he entered his teens. There he learned that "the murders and mutilations, the ordeals and the outrages of life are real, but it is possible to laugh about them." Barham's expression of Victorian unease prepared Wilson for the "small, squat, much-used volumes" of the old Globe edition of Dickens. His portrait of Dickens in The Wound and the Bow subordinates the jolly, sentimental novelist to the dark symbolist. He enters into young Dickens's sense of abandonment at the blacking factory, drawing on his relationships with his own parents. "Lasting depressions and terrors," the critic writes, "may be caused by such cuttings-short of the natural development of childhood."
Within the Family Triangle
At Karlsbad Wilson felt sorry for his mother, under strain before his father arrived, then let down by the brother she counted on. Through boyhood he was her sympathetic companion. The habit of speaking loud enough for her to hear left the mark of a "boom" in his high-pitched voice, the voice a friend affectionately recalled as the treble that sounded as if he were repressing a belch. When he went off to Hill, Mrs. Wilson, in a not fully successful effort to get him to write home, gave him a book called Letters of a Japanese Schoolboy, and it survives, with the inscription in Wilson'sschoolboy hand, clearly modeled on hers, "From his mother" and, also in his hand, "You are the nicest girl I know." He must have shown her the compliment instead of shouting it.
Most of the girls he knew were cousins, a circle of sublimated flirtations anticipating his relationships with women writers. Upstate in summers was "my pretty, dark cousin Dorothy, whom I was always hoping to kiss." His second cousin Adelaide Knox, who lived next door to the Kimballs at Sea Bright and was a few years older, was an object of his devotion from their European tour through college, while another, Helen Vinton, had a crush on Wilson that would burn long after she'd married. In adolescence he and Sandy satisfied their curiosity about sex in Havelock Ellis. At Uncle Reuel's second residence in Manhattan, a house on East Forty-first Street off Fifth Avenue, they surreptiously explored the set of brown volumes of the Psychology of Sex, then available only to doctors. The case histories in fine type at the back of these books--"the versatile British officer" whose preference extends "through the vegetable and animal worlds and persons of both sexes, beginning with a humble melon and ending with 'a woman, a friend and lady of my own class'"--were liberating to boys growing up under Victorian strictures. They were part of Wilson's preparation for the journal entries in which he'd one day celebrate sexual experience.
The Oedipal plot of his first published story, "The Conjuring Shop," written at Hill at fourteen, has a transparency possible only in the work of a young person who had never heard of Freud. A boy inventor tries to sell his mysterious device at a magician's store, and though the stingy shopkeeper will pay him nothing, his wife gives him twenty-five dollars and pronounces the apparatus "a great success." As her husband inspects it in the basement, preparing to market it as his own, she locks the door, and when the man lights a match he is consumed by explosive flame. In the subplot of a subsequent skit, "The Sane Tea Party," Edmund Sr. is brought onstage as a "hopeless hypochondriac" named Elgrim Sexton, whose face is "lined with the worry and anxiety of dying many deaths." Sexton dies, leaving a long suffering daughter. "You're a great girl!" the young male observer tells her, echoing Wilson's phrase written to his mother in the book that was her gift. As a college senior Wilson would set himself against the father figure in a story in which a stables manager who wants to get rid of his wife bribes an alcoholic jockey to run away with her. In California they fall in love, but when their cash runs out they return. The jockeyshoots his boss in the arm and is immediately captured, while the woman abandons "this world of lust and treachery and murder" for a convent.
The lovely gardens of Wilson's mother revealed an instinct for warmth and light that her married life denied, and when his father's self-absorption made her lot intolerable, the son encouraged her to leave him. After she had a slight stroke, his father grew more attentive. One night, however, he heard his mother, from her bedroom, ask his father whether he loved her, hearing no reply and unable "to imagine him answering" such a question. In college Wilson read something of Freud's Interpretation of Dreams, and after graduating he'd have "a dream about going to bed with my mother," relieved to learn, from the chorus of Sophocles' Oedipus Rex, that such dreams were not uncommon. Attraction to his mother and rivalry with his father were heightened by the shyness, the awkwardness with girls that caused him to be named "most likely bachelor" by a number of his classmates. His mother remained for a few more years "the nicest girl I know." During World War I he would write her hundreds of pages chronicling aspects of his life as a hospital orderly in France and afterward at general headquarters.
Meanwhile his father passed on intellectual habits and values. When the boy's grades were undistinguished he was warned against "weltering around in a Dead Sea of mediocrity"--this was "the worst fate with which he could threaten me." In the metaphor, the old Calvinist anxiety about Election has become a fear of descending to the average. At dinner, with his mother at her end of the formal table too far away to hear anything his father said, the boy had the benefit of Mr. Wilson's conversation, which "mostly consisted of either asking people questions in order to elicit information or telling them what to think." His father was given to "asking my view of some question, then immediately squelching this view and setting me right on the subject, or of explaining at length, but with an expert lucidity, some basic point of law or government." Wilson believed that "a permanent antagonism existed between my father and me, that I was always, in tastes and opinions, on the opposite side from him." He looked to Uncle Reuel and Uncle Paul as models, then to his teachers. Yet he would quiz people and hold forth just as his father had and, like his father, would "read up" on subjects when traveling.
Through the two years in the army, on which he reported to his mother, Wilson wrote his father just half a dozen letters, discussing a possible transfer to Intelligence or expounding his political views. Yet to step from the ivory tower into a real world that both shocked and excited him led toa change in his allegiances, and he came home to find he was "no longer afraid" of his father, that he actually admired him. Mr. Wilson had urged him to learn about Lincoln, often recommending William Herndon's biography, with the result that he "made, automatically, a point of knowing as little as possible about Lincoln." At the graves of American soldiers in France, however, he ironically invoked the Gettsysburg Address in an epitaph questioning Woodrow Wilson's crusade "to make the world safe for democracy." After the war his father and he began to have satisfying talks. This man whom he'd thought of as a reactionary had the same opinion of the Palmer raids and the Red scare that Edmund did. He did some postwar legal work for the president, whom he confided had sounded him out about a Supreme Court appointment if a vacancy appeared during the balance of his term, saying he'd agreed to accept. The son's pride must have been enormous.
By then the young critic was busy beginning his career in New York, preoccupied with one woman and eventually committed to another. The conversation between father and son was forever suspended when Edmund Sr., opening the unheated stone house at Talcottville in the spring of 1923, developed pneumonia and, upon returning to Red Bank, died. Freud believed the most significant day in a man's life to be that of his father's death, and this may have been so in Wilson's case. In a poem of the mid-thirties he wrote,
When dead I saw you, silent, straight and lean, The film of age's tarnishment effaced, Life's heaviness refined--Looking, I knew at last that I had seen The man of whom old Princeton teachers told--
That youth by age and honor left behind, By manhood's melancholy languished for.
His father's perceived weaknesses died with him, and the rebalancing of the family triangle that was overdue came all at once, when Mrs. Wilson, as they went downstairs from the bedroom, paused to declare, "Now I'm going to have a new house!" It was the frankness of a deaf person used tospeaking her thoughts, and she had long been frustrated, but her eagerness to move on was plain. Remembering how often his mother "made him choose" between his parents, in effect forcing the child to take her side (as Wilson described this emotional turnaround to Mary McCarthy), he made a different choice for himself. When reading over his father's speeches and legal papers he discovered he was already emulating his father's style. "My methods in writing had seemed to me personal," he recalled. "Though I had imitated Shaw, Henry James and a number of other writers, I had consciously corrected these tendencies and was unconscious of my principal model. I must have picked up his style mainly from his dinner-table lectures."
Though Wilson looked up to and fostered intellectual women, in his work he interpreted the struggles of male artists and public figures, playing his part in the generation produced by World War I, who challenged the Victorian deference to the feminine. He followed his father's example within the field of literature, outside the moneyed society with which Edmund Sr. was at odds. When he read Herndon during the 1930s he found the explanation of his father's interest in Lincoln: "a great lawyer who was deeply neurotic, who had to struggle through spells of depression, and who--as it followed from this portrait--had managed, in spite of this handicap, to bring through his own nightmares and the crisis of society--somewhat battered--the American Republic." Wilson was shadowed by his father's neurosis, in consequence, perhaps, of this identification. He would have a breakdown at the exact age when the elder Wilson's hypochondria had descended, and for years afterward suffered spells of depression. Liquor, which could lift him out of these, became the equivalent of a felt-lined door behind which he could withdraw from his wives. He must have experienced a shock of recognition when Margaret Canby, the generous-hearted second wife who died in an accident after only two years of marriage, declared (as he wrote in his journal), "You're a cold, fishy, leprous person, Bunny Wilson."
His mother lived to be eighty-six, both a support and a trial. When Mary Blair, Wilson's first wife, couldn't reconcile motherhood with her career on the stage, his mother would step in to raise Rosalind, who loved and was loyal to her. Through the 1920s and '30s Mrs. Wilson maintained what amounted to a second home for him, his retreat from Manhattan. Met at the station by her driver, Oscar, in her latest custom-made Cadillac, he'd find a flask of brandy tucked in the side pocket and, at his bedside,sharpened pencils and the yellow legal pads on which he wrote. But she never revealed any interest in his work, though Rosalind reports that she read for several hours every evening. Her son's books were placed "in the lower shelf of her bedroom bookcase behind locked glass doors." That his articles usually appeared in the back sections of magazines rendered them, in Helen Wilson's view, a bit suspect. In a story the critic told to more than one friend, when going through the house after her death he found at the back of a closet a roll of his familiar yellow legal sheets wrapped in a rubber band. Momentarily believing it was a manuscript of his that she had cherished, he uncovered instead a roll of favorite recipes.
Recalling Wilson as "a man of great brain power," Stephen Spender wrote, "one felt his brain revving behind the great frontal box of his forehead." What soured his relationship with his mother, however, was less her intellectual limitations than the will his father had made many years before. Seeing his wife and son as allies, instead of leaving Wilson a portion of the estate he left them the money together, and Mrs. Wilson, with her good business head, in charge of it. "She was sort of a man of business for him," Mary McCarthy drily recalled, protecting their capital, which survived the crash intact and, though reduced by FDR's Bank Holiday, would be enlarged by what Uncle Win left her. But by nature Helen Wilson was stingy. What she gave to her Talcottville retainers, McCarthy said, was always "'Plenty good enough'--that was a sign-off line, meaning it was all the recipient had a right to expect." Wilson's New Yorker friend of the later years Edith Oliver spoke darkly of "the silver umbilical cord," and Rosalind has documented its workings. When her father came to Red Bank, where he had to ask for money, she remembered him making "scenes." Later on, her grandmother told her and Reuel, the son of McCarthy and Wilson, that she'd bought their house at Wellfleet--one he actually bought with money borrowed partly from her but mostly on a mortgage--and, alternately, that she was "supporting that house." In old age Mrs. Wilson would complain that, with their wrangling over his finances, his visits upset her nerves--she insisted she didn't want him to come, even as, Rosalind says, she planned "what she'd give him to eat." Wilson had a temper, was irritable when interrupted at work, irascible when he drank. He rarely drank at Red Bank, but would burst out in tirades at his mother, then catch himself and pat her hand.
Leon Edel, who edited four volumes of his journals, sees the critic damaged in boyhood by a cold woman isolated in her deafness. In aFreudian reading of the bond of Neoptolemus and Philoctetes in Wilson's essay in The Wound and the Bow, Edel ascribes a latent homosexuality to this inveterate womanizer. In fact, though there are references to homosexual fantasies among the heterosexual ones in Wilson's accounts of his dreams, he was driven by the need for more intimate relationships with women than his father had with his mother. He was damaged not by the pretty young woman whose photograph he had in his bedroom at Wellfleet, but by the battle-ax he depended on and resented. Her place in his psyche was a dark one. In a dream that he recorded in 1934 she tells him, "Nobody will ever love you." One must allow for the impact on his mother of the turning of his allegiance toward his father after his father's death. The situation was no easier for her than for her son. But her spoiling and controlling had consequences in his family life. Wilson expected his wives to have his mother's management skills without her means, and when they failed in such respects he could be petulant and contentious. Mary Blair told Rosalind that the psychiatrist who briefly treated him after his breakdown, in 1929, said "he had a mother complex and should never marry anyone."
When writing "The Author at Sixty" he recorded a nightmare in which he was back "alone, at night--in the old house at Red Bank (which I dream about constantly, not the one Mother bought after Father's death), with the corpses of two people I had killed. I propped them up at the dining-room table in the walnut-stained paneled dining room. I had turned off the lights, and the room was pitch-dark, and I lay back, a little way from the table, in the kind of chair in which one reclines. The body of the woman was facing me." Wondering if he was in Hell, he looked around for a drink, and had gone through the front door down the steps to the lawn when his mother appeared and led him back into the house. She turned on the lights to show there was nothing there, then opened a corner cabinet to reveal "large puppets of mine that I had put away, laying them on their sides. What I had thought was the corpse of a woman was simply a puppet-queen." Even in this dream, he has his mother reassuring him. On awakening he persuades himself that "the woman was Margaret," not his mother, the other body being "my father."
The resentment of his father was a wound of youth, a product of the sealed green door, the nervous self-absorption that, among other things, kept his father from attending his college graduation. The ache and burden of the man's duality did not fade. "The victim of a malodorous diseasewhich renders him abhorrent to society and periodically degrades him and makes him helpless is also master of a superhuman art which everybody has to respect and which the normal man finds he needs," Wilson writes in his essay on Sophocles' Philoctetes, done at the midpoint of his career. He could be describing the emotional cripple and the legal wizard who got clients acquitted of murder charges, put the Atlantic City crooks in jail, was mourned by people of all classes at his funeral. Here too, perhaps, is Uncle Reuel, the dedicated diagnostician periodically laid low by liquor. When Wilson's mother said, "These brilliant men always had something wrong with them," she made her son fear that fate and strengthened the drive to prove her wrong. Implicit in his interpretation of Sophocles' play is the wish to have reached out to his father sooner, somehow drawing him from his isolation. "In taking the risk to his cause which is involved in the recognition of his common humanity with the sick man," he writes of Neoptolemus in the last sentence of The Wound and the Bow, "he dissolves Philoctetes' stubbornness, and thus cures him and sets him free, and saves the campaign as well."
Copyright © 2005 by Lewis M. Dabney