In Critical Condition; No Place for an Edmund Wilson in New, Egalitarian Literary Culture

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), October 12, 2007 | Go to article overview

In Critical Condition; No Place for an Edmund Wilson in New, Egalitarian Literary Culture


Byline: Kelly Jane Torrance, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Jay Nordlinger, a music critic and managing editor of National Review, once named Eduard Hanslick and Julius Korngold the most important and famous music critics in history: "Most people have never heard of them - but they have heard of the composers whom they were most closely associated with: Brahms and Mahler. That's the point."

Edmund Wilson certainly isn't as famous as the writer he introduced to American audiences, Vladimir Nabokov. But the name of the greatest literary critic of his generation - and perhaps in all of 20th-century American letters - is well known to anyone with more than a passing interest in the history of literature.

His status is confirmed with the publication this month of two volumes of Mr. Wilson's criticism in the Library of America: "Literary Essays and Reviews of the 1920s & 30s" and "Literary Essays and Reviews of the 1930s & 40s." Mr. Wilson now joins some of the authors he championed, such as Mr. Nabokov, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Edna St. Vincent Millay, in the closest thing we have to an authoritative American canon.

It's only fitting. Mr. Wilson not only shaped that canon, but he also came up with the idea of the library in the first place - the volumes are in honor of the publishing project's 25th anniversary.

Some will peruse these volumes curious about early appraisals of T.S. Eliot and James Joyce; others will wonder if the critic's judgments hold up (was he too hard on Robert Frost?).

Their publication also provokes another question: Why does the 21st century have no Edmund Wilson? It seems clear that there is no contemporary critic who serves, as Mr. Wilson undeniably did, as the pre-eminent arbiter of literary merit.

There are, to be sure, eminent critics working today. While lovers of literature bemoan the fact that newspapers across the country are cutting their book review sections, there remains a strong tradition of long-form literary journalism in magazines like those for which Mr. Wilson himself wrote. Yet none of these critics have the influence Mr. Wilson wielded, for good and for ill.

Authors may fear the power a review in a place like the New York Times. But the power to destroy a reputation is also the power to make a reputation. In his book "Axel's Castle," included in the first Library of America volume, Mr. Wilson gave wide American exposure to literary modernism, with probing pieces on Eliot, Proust and Joyce.

Mr. Nabokov (who later fell out with the critic over the latter's treatment of his masterpiece, "Lolita") wasn't the only beneficiary of his early support: Mr. Wilson was the first American reviewer of Ernest Hemingway. He even inspired artists; W.H. Auden once said he wrote for Mr. Wilson alone.

A few names get bandied around now as greatest living critic. Harold Bloom, of course, is one. Early in his career, the Yale professor resuscitated the reputation of the Romantic poets, in books on Keats and others.

Playwright Tony Kushner names Mr. Bloom as an inspiration, but the critic is best known as a champion of the old, not the new: He became something of a household name with his 1994 book, "The Western Canon."

In fact, the 77-year-old seems out of touch with contemporary literature these days. Just a few years ago, he named only four American novelists, all men, "still at work and who deserve our praise": Thomas Pynchon, Philip Roth, Cormac McCarthy and Don DeLillo. Important names all, but not one of them is under the age of 70. Mr. Bloom offers us little guidance in discerning the best of the rising generation.

The British-born James Wood, a man in his early 40s whom many have called the best critic of his generation, seems to be following a career trajectory similar to Mr. …

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