We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.


Believe it or not, being a critic used to be a good gig. Edmund Wilson didn’t get rich doing it, but he did shape American culture and world literature, as Lewis M. Dabney demonstrates in his new critical biography, Edmund Wilson: A Life in Literature. That, of course, was in the days before electronic distractions, two-thumbs-up reviews, and the instant expertise of amazon.com commentators. Wilson, who died in 1972, started writing at an ideal moment to be a champion of challenging books: James Joyce and T.S. Eliot arrived on the scene around the same time, which was also an era of social tumult. In addition to lit, Wilson wrote about the American labor movement and the Russian Revolution, and as his reputation grew, so did his scope. Dabney, who met Wilson a few times and edited his 1960s journals for publication, concludes that his subject was “a unifying force through fifty years of literary and intellectual culture in the United States.” Of course, Wilson was every bit as hedonistic as the fiction writers of his time, leaving plenty of broken marriages—the split with Mary McCarthy was particularly ugly—and empty gin bottles behind him. This leads Dabney to a different sort of accolade, such as his judgment that “Wilson was the only well-known literary alcoholic of his generation whose work was not compromised by his drinking.” Now that’s the kind of distinction that could earn Wilson a new audience in this more distracted age. Dabney reads at 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 6, at Olsson’s Books and Records, 418 7th St. NW. Free. (202) 638-7610. (Mark Jenkins)