Happy Birthday to History's Great Critic-Gossip, Edmund Wilson

Edmund Wilson, the noted critic and public intellectual, was born on this day in 1895. (He died in 1972.) Wilson had the kind of come-to-New-York-and-pal-around-with-writer-celebrities life that quite a lot of people still dream of. He was also a notorious gossip.

First, a catalogue of the glitter: Wilson was close to F. Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway and the rest of that glittering coterie of mid-century writers. They called him "Bunny," a nickname his mother had given him. Wilson's photos reveal a bald man looking rather grim and unapproachable, but he seems to have had a certain magnetism nonetheless: he married Mary McCarthy (though that marriage was troubled from the start and involved, among other things, physical abuse) and reportedly had an affair with Anaïs Nin.

Wilson was eulogized as not just a great but the greatest critic of the 20th century when he died, and he pretty indisputably was one, though not one without blind spots and opinions others (particularly academics, who hated him) would find arbitrary. In between magisterial books on the history of socialism (To the Finland Station) and a close reading of some of the great works of modernism (Axel's Castle), he managed to hate Don Quixote and Lolita.

All of Wilson's admirers and biographers admit that the man was an inveterate gossip. Wilson left behind what he remembered in a series of memoirs, named for decades: The Twenties, The Thirties, The Forties, The Fifties, and The Sixties. The memoirs, which Wilson himself very much wanted published and arranged for an editor before his death, are notable in part for the large amount of biographical information they contain. Not all of it is cruel, to be sure: Personally, I have always liked this little bit from The Sixties, in which Wilson goes to visit an old and ailing Dorothy Parker, who had pulled him out of the slush pile at Vanity Fair back in the day:

She lives with a small and nervous bad-smelling poodle bitch, drinks a lot, and does not care to go out. I found her, when I came in, so much in the phase of difficult utterance that I despaired of getting her to write on the pane. She complemented Helen's complexion and told me three times about a remark of hers at luncheon. I had said that Dorothy had discovered me as a writer, and H. had piped up: "But he married Mummy." She gave me a number of drinks, as was inevitable in this atmosphere of the twenties, and later we seemed to talk more sensibly. I asked if it were true that Seward Collins were dead: "Why, I think so — there was nothing else for him to do."

Not many could have been quite so gentle, I think, in their portrait of a woman slowly drinking herself to death.

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