Among major 20th-century critics who wrote in English, Edmund Wilson (1895-1972) is still by far the most readable - readable anywhere and at any time. Only professionals are likely to find his style, and even his methods, entirely too informal and amateurish - absence of footnotes, personal tone etc. But I can testify to being able to read him with pleasure and for no particular reason at home, on a bus, in an office, a hospital waiting-room, a hotel. I cannot recall that he was ever an assigned author in any of the many literature classes I took, both as an undergraduate and as a graduate student, but he was always a significant presence, for my teachers as much as for myself. His vast output stretched over an enormous expanse of literature, and history, over a great range of cultures, East and West, North and South. His voice remained the same: engagingly chatty, effortlessly well-informed, always interested in the human side of books and histories, a side he rendered in the form of chronological narratives, none more gripping and interesting than those deft plot summaries which he combined with biographical detail and perspicacious literary judgment. His model was Sainte-Beuve who, as F.W. Dupee, another remarkable American Sainte-Beuvian, used to say, enabled Wilson not only to be a literary portraitist but also to give you the impression that he was discovering books and authors as if for the first time. This sense of excitement and, yes, egotism - Wilson communicates a proprietary ease, with no book or idea too out of the way or difficult for him to have ferreted out - still makes for great pleasure, despite the many cranky likes and dislikes.
LRB 7 July 1994 | PDF Download