Edmund Wilson

By: Brian Berger
May 8, 2012

In the Spring of 1962, writer and journalist EDMUND WILSON (1895-1972)’s eight-hundred plus page Patriotic Gore: Studies In The Literature of the American Civil War burst like canister shot upon the Centennial landscape. Unexpectedly prefaced by a free-ranging jeremiad against Cold War pieties that seemed to repudiate parts of his earlier intellectual history epic, To The Finland Station (1940), Wilson begins with Harriet Beecher Stowe’s brilliant 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin and continues through dozens of authors whose qualities posterity had mislaid. Among them: Illinoisan Francis Grierson, author of the Lincolnian historical fiction, Valley of the Shadows (1909); Ulysses S. Grant (his memoirs being a favorite of Gertrude Stein); Frederick Law Olmsted, author of three superb Southern travelogues before achieving greater renown as a landscape architect; abolitionist, Emily Dickinson correspondent, and black Army regiment commander Thomas Wentworth Higginson; South Carolina diarist Mary Chestnut; Louisiana novelists George Washington Cable and Kate Chopin; the list goes on, with Wilson offering surprise, challenge, and wry humor in abundance. Still, concerns remain. His understanding of Reconstruction-era politics was shaky. He undervalues Herman Melville’s poetry and seems unaware of The Confidence Man’s (1857) wracked prescience. While Wilson’s empathy for Alexander Stephens — frail Georgia Congressman and anti-secessionist turned Confederate Vice President and inexhaustible states’ rights ideologue — nods from one “impossibilist” to another, how could he ignore the likewise irrepressible Frederick Douglass? Perhaps in describing Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Wilson found his own virtue and error, an “unshakeable self-confidence, his carapace of impenetrable indifference to current pressures and public opinion.”


On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Tristan Jones, Gary Snyder, Roberto Rossellini, Don Rickles, Thomas Pynchon.

READ MORE about members of the Hardboiled Generation (1894-1903).


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