Monday, May 15, 2023

This Day in Literary History (Edmund Wilson Sr., Disappointed Supreme Court Hopeful and Dad of Literary Critic, Dies)

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 enveloping. 

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 prosecuted.

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 unease.

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 law.”

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