The New York Sun
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Arts and Letters

Mensch of Letters


October 10, 2007

It is not a slight, though it may sound like one, to say that Edmund Wilson's best book the one that most perfectly captures his mythic place in American literature is his "Letters on Literature and Politics." Wilson's essays and reviews, his book-length studies of Marxism and the Civil War, are of course the substance of his achievement. But it is in his letters ingeniously edited by his widow, Elena Wilson that Wilson's literary personality is most fully revealed. For those letters make clear that, in a period when modernism was making literature a capital-M Mystery, Wilson approached it as a profession: something to be worked at, day in and day out, until mastery was honestly earned. In his correspondence, we can see Wilson debating Proust with John Dos Passos and Pushkin with Vladimir Nabokov; but we also find him sending books out for review as an editor at The New Republic, and negotiating his next assignment from William Shawn at the New Yorker. The menial and the sublime form a harmony, and reflect glory on one another. Wilson was a better critic for being a working journalist, and a more sensitive historian of ideas because he lived so pragmatically in the world.
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