May 15, 1923—Edmund Wilson Sr., a former Attorney
General of New Jersey and father of his namesake, the preeminent “Lost
Generation” public intellectual (pictured here), died at age 59 in Red Bank, N.J., in the home that had given him and his only son little psychic comfort.
The influence of fathers on their famous literary
progeny could comprise a book in itself. The relationship of Wilson, father and
son, was especially fraught. Though the father won great recognition and financial rewards in his life, his fame has been completely overshadowed by that of his only child (to such a point that, while there are few useful photos of the father, there are quite a few--including the one I have here--of the son.)
Through much of a career that in which he was universally
recognized as America’s leading literary and social critic, Edmund Wilson Jr.
(who dropped the suffix early on) rebelled repeatedly against his father.
Easier said than done.
Edward Sr. (whom I will designate as “Senior” from
here out to distinguish him from his son) and several brothers had attended
Princeton University in the 1880s and 1890s—which, when combined with his high
reputation in legal circles, virtually assured entrance to that Ivy League
school for his son.
But, if Senior furnished “Bunny” (the nickname given
the future literary titan in childhood by his mother) with a standard for
culture set very high, he also bequeathed him with a genetic and environmental
legacy that the young man tried but failed to shed: depression all
Though I had read works by and about the more famous Edmund Wilson for years,
I had never come across anything about his background until I read Christopher
Benfey’s 2007 New Republic review of a biography of the critic that
highlighted the filial relationship.
As I read about Senior’s late-life decline into
lassitude from his earlier peak, I was reminded of nothing so much as Richard
Simon, who, having been sidelined at the firm he co-founded, Simon and Schuster,
became increasingly sullen, remote and frail—an atmosphere of alienation and
emotional unavailability that daughter Carly memorialized in her first hit
song, “That’s the Way I Always Heard It Should Be.” (I wrote about this
psychodrama in this blog post from 13 years ago.)
Even at an early age, Senior’s achievements were
substantive. He lost only one case in his entire career, and that was early on.
Despite being appointed by a GOP governor (and being a Republican himself), his
reputation for integrity was burnished when he secured guilty verdicts against
200 members of the Republican political machine in Atlantic City, including the
boss himself, Louis “the Commodore” Kuehnle, Jr., in a case that Senior personally
The prestige accruing from this successful prosecution
was so significant that the recently elected Democratic governor, Woodrow
Wilson (no relation to the AG), seriously considered nominating him to the Supreme
Court after his victorious 1912 campaign for the White House.
Instead, Wilson chose three other men: John Hessin
Clarke, who only served on the court for six unhappy years; Louis Brandeis, the
first Jewish justice, and a leading liberal voice on the court for the next two
decades; and James McReynolds, an argumentative, racist, anti-Semitic blight on
the bench all the way into the FDR administration.
I was unable to discover why the President passed over
Senior. But already since his mid-30s, Senior had, according to an essay his
son wrote in the mid-1950s, “passed into the shadow.” Evidence of this “neurotic
distemper,” exhibited most obviously early on in hypochondria, became more
pronounced as time went on.
In his final years, as his bouts with mental illness
became longer and more frequent, Senior shuttled back and forth from home to sanatoria
that he would check himself into in the vain hope of relief.
At some point early on, “Bunny” became aware of his
parents’ profoundly dysfunctional union. (His mother had become deaf after
doctors told her that the mentally unbalanced senior would probably not return
to his old routine.)
The knowledge profoundly discomfited him. In an early
skit he wrote, “The Sane Tea Party,” his father is depicted as “hopeless
hypochondriac” Elgrim Sexton, whose face is ‘lined with the worry and anxiety
of dying many deaths.” His uneasiness grew until, in his mid-30s, he had “an
unexpected breakdown”—the same age that his father began to exhibit profound
Two decades later—and especially after “Bunny”
inherited the old stone house in Talcottville, NY, that his father had regarded
as a refuge—Wilson’s feelings towards his father softened.
For one thing, he may have begun to identify with his
father’s sense that, like Hamlet, “The time is out of joint; O cursed
spite!/That ever I was born to set it right!” Senior was dismayed by the
excesses of the Gilded Age following the Civil War, and loathed serving as an
attorney for railroads, the epitome of corporate corruption in that era.
Bunny, who served as a nurse and as a translator at
General Headquarters in WWI, felt acutely the postwar malaise that gripped
other writers of his generation such as Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald
(a classmate of his at Princeton). The Roaring Twenties, much like the Gilded
Age, profoundly disappointed those who had hoped for a better world.
Second, Bunny realized that, though he exhibited the
same melancholy that had undone his father, he also possessed an openness to people
with different points of view, and a similar searching, restless intelligence.
Though a Republican, Senior would talk to anyone—including, unusually for
someone in the business circles he frequented, Socialists.
Bunny’s biographer called his dad “a kind of
instinctual Jeffersonian Democrat with a Tory coloring—a libertarian who had
little faith in either big government or big business. His greatest desire was
to be left alone.” In the same light, Wilson—who had briefly embraced Marxism
during the Great Depression—arrived at a fundamental distrust of the uses of
government, perhaps best expressed in the title of a cantankerous later piece, “The
Cold War and the Income Tax: A Protest.”
Leon Edel, the editor of Bunny’s diaries, linked the
habits of mind shared by father and son when he wrote of the “taproots of the
son's imagination, his ability to live himself into the past as few historians
have done, while maintaining a cool detachment (as his father had done); his
supreme power of summary and utterance—qualities of both literature and the