Edmund Wilson

| | January 15, 2024

Four miles north of Boonville on state route 12D, just over the Lewis County line, a small cluster of homes and buildings looms amid rustic farms and fields. Not quite a village, Talcottville with its one hundred or so inhabitants rests between Tug Hill and the Adirondack Mountains. It is but one of scores of tiny nondescript hamlets scattered throughout New York like so many pebbles on a shoreline.

Among the settlement’s modest frame homes, a large house of native limestone with multiple chimneys, red roof and pillared two-story front porch catches one’s eye. Its wooded surroundings slope toward the adjacent Sugar River and a picturesque waterfall. The rugged stone house invites curiosity. In this rural spot, who might have once lived in this imposing home? Is there a story within its walls?

As a youth, some fifty years ago, I often visited a swimming hole gouged in the flat-rock bed of Sugar River at the base of that waterfall. While I always noticed the commanding stone house, the name Edmund Wilson, its owner, would have meant nothing to me at the time. Since then, I’ve often thought that he was likely in residence—may even have glanced down at the youthful swimmers, perhaps recalling his own youthful exploits there.

Many academics consider Edmund Wilson (1895–1972) the preeminent American literary critic of his era, although Louis Menand writes that he thought of himself as a journalist, disliking the critic label. Perhaps, in Wilson’s mind, overemphasis on his significance as a critic lessened recognition of him as a creative writer, something to which he aspired. Nonetheless, over a long career, Wilson’s prolific writing, criticism, and social commentary explored all aspects of American literary life, including the works of his many eminent contemporaries.

Born in Red Bank, New Jersey, and educated at Princeton, Wilson was a brilliant student who early on showed a devotion to good writing, his own and that of others. Princeton Dean Christian Gauss wrote that Wilson “bubbled with ideas and threw them out by the handful.”

After graduation in 1916, he began his writing career with the New York Sun. Following a stint in the army during World War I, he served at various times on the staffs of Vanity Fair, the New Republic, and The New Yorker. From the very beginning of his career Wilson insisted on the pursuit of only those subjects he wished to write about, only that which interested him, and he strove to make those subjects engaging to intelligent readers.

For the next several decades Wilson wrote numerous books, immersing himself in his many and varied areas of interest: modernist literature, the Depression, satirical stories about bohemian New York, Marxism, the Iroquois Confederacy, literature of the American Civil War, the Dead Sea Scrolls. A voracious reader, he could speak and read several languages.

Wilson’s literary relationships and personal friendships embraced the celebrated writers of his times. At Princeton he befriended F. Scott Fitzgerald, who ever afterward called Wilson his “intellectual conscience.” He later shared bouts of drinking and conversation with Fitzgerald and satirical writer Ring Lardner, among others. Wilson corresponded extensively with Vladimir Nabokov and helped introduce his friend’s work to American audiences. A longtime camaraderie with John Dos Passos included a flow of letters between the two, including Wilson’s incisive criticism of Dos Passos’s work.

Wilson circulated on the periphery of the celebrated Algonquin Round Table as well, spending time with Alexander Woollcott, Dorothy Parker, George S. Kaufman, and the rest. Able to handle their legendary barbed wit with ease, he referred to them as an “all-star literary vaudeville.”

Friends often called him “Bunny,” a name fondly given him as a baby by his mother. But a stern countenance in most photos from his adult years shows the incongruity of the nickname. One writer described Wilson’s appearance as “solid and beefy” with the “look of an ancient Roman senator.” Although admired for his intellect, erudition, and significant impact in American letters, many have called attention to his personal foibles. Wilson had four marriages, many affairs, and has been described in various essays on his life as tempestuous, arrogant, demanding, alcoholic, unreliable, and even curmudgeonly.

Edmund Wilson’s last book, Upstate: Records and Recollections of Northern New York, was published in 1971. “Is the writing of this Talcottville book a last effort to fill a vacuum?” he asks. “I find it difficult to break the habit—which goes back for me, it must be, seventy years—of returning to this place in the summer.” Written largely in diary form, Upstate relates the history of the Talcottville house, his life there, and includes insights into his literary career. Along the way Wilson introduces us to his family; we meet some relatives and local folk, and benefit from noteworthy comments on writers he has known.

The old house in Talcottville, built of thick local limestone, was completed about 1800. It had been in the possession of Wilson’s forebears from about 1875, and he visited there often during his youth. It was passed on to him upon the death of his mother in 1951. From then, until his death in 1972, Wilson split his time between a home in Wellfleet on Cape Cod and the stone house.

Wilson described Talcottville and its surrounding countryside as ” … a place where one was perfectly at home. I felt after many years of almost total absence, that I was visiting a foreign country but a country to which I belonged.” His old friend John Dos Passos teased Wilson’s rustic residency with a limerick:

He says he’s the Talcottville squire
But the facts will prove him a liar
He don’t plow, he don’t harrow
He don’t push no wheelbarrow
He juss sits and holds forth by the fire.

Wilson’s diary entries in Upstate, written in his clear and precise style, run the gamut from an idyllic description of awakening and peering out his bedroom window:

Then the light came … drenching everything: big green elms, a field of yellow clover, and beyond it a field of brown ploughed earth, the growth of foliage along the little river, the low blue hills in the distance. Bracing, even exalting—rich and fresh and brilliant landscape now blazing with light.

To reflections on his summer reading:

H.L. Mencken—Minority Report. I have been trying to read this posthumous book of notes, but I doubt whether I’ll ever get through it. Some of the paragraphs are effective: characteristically clear and crackling; but his ideas, stated baldly, are very often quite stupid. It is only when he embroiders them, sets them to music, that, as (James Branch) Cabell says, one no more thinks to ask whether what he says is true than one asks whether a symphony is true.

To more routine concerns:

The side of the stone barn has fallen out, as Fred Berger, the builder, has warned me it would do, and I could not bear to sit outdoors with those ruins near me. I have had Bob Stabb rebuild it, and it is costing me quite a lot.

Even to a mention of the swimming hole I had once visited:

Here I am in the northern countryside, still beautiful but now somewhat empty, incapacitated physically now for bicycling, fishing, and exploring—I was in the habit, in my youth, of walking every afternoon to a swimming hole called Flat Rock in the Sugar River.

Life in Talcottville was not for everyone. Wilson’s wife spent little time there, much preferring to stay at Wellfleet. He writes, “Elena cannot make herself at home here, and she has a most dismal time.” Neither did his offspring take to the place as he had done in his youth. “My children do not much like it here because they do not have the swimming or the companionship of the beaches of Cape Cod.”

“I, on the contrary, am quite at home here—the only place, perhaps, that I feel I belong,” Wilson wrote. He returned summer after summer, gradually making improvements on the old house, taking short walks and trips around the area. In Talcottville there was time to read, write, and think. “Here I attend to everything and am free to make my own routine. I drink less and get more work done.”

Wilson ascribed a unique use for some of the house’s windows. “Elena gave me a diamond-point pencil for Christmas, something I have long wanted, and I have been having my poet friends write verses with it on the panes of glass.” Over the years he was visited in Talcottville by old companions and writers—Nabokov and Dorothy Parker among them—who took up the task of etching favorite passages.

Edmund Wilson was at home in Talcottville when he passed away on the morning of June 12, 1972. His brass bed was brought to the first floor of the old stone house and there his body lay in state. A short service took place that evening with a few friends and family members present.

In most academic discussions today, the name Edmund Wilson is not as familiar as it might be. But during the decades of his greatest prominence and success, Wilson’s advice and assistance were sought repeatedly, so much so that he began to reply sardonically with a standard postcard:

Edmund Wilson regrets that it is impossible for him to: Read manuscripts, write articles or books to order, write forwards or introductions, make statements for publicity purposes, do any kind of editorial work, judge literary contests, give interviews, take part in writers’ conferences, answer questionnaires, contribute to or take part in symposiums, or “panels” of any kind, contribute manuscripts for sales, donate copies of his books to libraries, autograph works for strangers, allow his name to be used on letterheads, supply personal information about himself, or supply opinions on literary or other subjects.

Rather than his message having the expected deterrent effect, Wilson was perplexed to find that his correspondence increased—people simply wanting to acquire a copy of the unique postcard.

In addition to Wilson’s own Upstate, Richard Hauer Costa’s Edmund Wilson: Our Neighbor from Talcottville (Syracuse University Press, 1980) offers exceptional insight into Wilson’s later life in the tiny New York hamlet. Costa’s memoir of the author’s final decade living in the old stone house provides an engaging portrayal. Recounted are the activities, habits, and opinions of Edmund Wilson, “the eminent man of letters, profoundly joined to the region by ancestry and memories of youth.”

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