WHEN EDMUND WILSON received his B.A. from Princeton in 1916, he graduated into a world of disillusionment and eventual despair. His was the generation--in the words of his classmate and friend Scott Fitzgerald--that "had grown up to find all Gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shaken". It was a generation not unlike our own.
Yet Wilson steadfastly avoided defeatist romantic posturings. Intending to become a political reporter, he worked briefly for the New York Evening Sun (though trained in literature, Wilson wanted "to try to get to know something of all the main departments of human thought"), but was forced to leave the job to work with an Army medical unit in order to avoid being drafted. In France, Wilson stoically endured the war, stacking dead bodies in their graves like so many cords of wood. He began his career as a literary critic upon returning to New York two years later but difficulties continued to dog him, and success as a novelist or poet evaded him. As the decade dissolved into a blur of smoke-filled soirees in overheated rooms, everpresent drinks and effervescent Follies girls, Wilson awoke one morning in 1929 to damn New York's literary life as "a babel of tongues, a round of disorderly parties, an exchange of malicious gossip and a blather of half-baked aspirations."
Over the next forty years, Wilson went about-- often single-handedly--rehabilitating American criticism. Wilson forced America to recognize her best talents. He was among the first to appreciate Hemingway, he counseled Fitzgerald and he championed Dos Passos. Led by a faith in the possibilities of the Republic which he inherited from his father, and sustained by the eclectic humanism of his Princeton mentor Christian Gauss, Wilson entered into journalism as if he were fulfilling a public trust. Within the pages of the New Republic and the New Yorker, Wilson presented subjects as diverse as poetry and symbolism, historiography and Marxism, the literature of the American Civil War and the Dead Sea Scrolls. "There is a serious profession of journalism," Wilson insisted. "You have to learn to load solid matter into notices of ephemeral happenings; you have to develop a resourcefulness at pursuing a line of thought through pieces on miscellaneous and more or less fortuitious subjects."
Before the New Journalism had been invented as a phrase. Wilson was one of its most accomplished practitioners. In his reportage and in his travel books, Wilson proved himself as vivid and dramatic a writer as any novelist while also demonstrating that literature need not shrink from confronting social crises. Later, when Wilson turned to autobiographical essays as a fresh way of exploring the meanings of American life, he did so with a dignity and thoroughness that would put present-day first-person confessionalists to shame.
Wilson despised the rise of beaurocratic technocracy. Its ugliness and violence threatened and isolated him. Nonetheless, to the end, Wilson continued to write and to travel. In March--returning to his home in Welfleet from a winter in Naples, Fla.--he insisted on traveling by car in hopes of once again seeing the South. Instead, he was offended by the "swiss cheese architecture" of ubiquitous Holiday Inns and equally inescapable Howard Johnson Restaurants where "music appears to emanate from the toilets." Crippled by age and pain, weighted down by his Churchillian frame. Wilson could still find the energy to laugh at it all, dismissing the landscape with a patrician arrogance that his energy and learning had long ago earned him.
Today's graduates might well envy such a spirit. Wilson knew the temptations of despair but he resolutely shunned them. Edmund Wilson's death must sadden us for it closes a chapter in our national cultural history that he himself helped write; but it also reinforces our own sense of purpose by throwing into relief a life of quiet heroism and insatiable curiosity.