One of the most influential man of letters in the twentieth century, Edmund Wilson commands a central position in the study of modern literature. Best known as a book reviewer and literary critic, Wilson did not limit himself to the boundaries set by the world of literature, and yet it is the world of literature which is a pervasive force in all his other writing. Wilson wrote poetry plays, and fiction; travelogues, biographies, and inquiries into the historical method, anthropological investigations, polemics on contemporary social consciousness and cultural myths, and reflexive studies of the critic’s role in a modern technological society. His interests ranged from Marxism to the Iroquois Indians, from the American jitters of the depression to the cold war and the income tax, from Europe without Baedeker to the patriotic gore of the Civil War. Despite the diversity of these interests, there was always a firm point of reference in the world of literature, the documents of a world’s consciousness. This is the world reflected in Edmund Wilson’s library, housed in the Department of Special Collections and University Archives at McFarlin Library.
Unlike Cyril Connolly, Wilson did not collect rare editions, though there are some in the collection. He was a voracious reader whose library reflects the broad nature of his interests. Languages, in particular, fascinated Wilson, and a number of the books in his library are in languages other than English. Of special note are the large number of volumes in Russian.
Nevertheless, literature was at the heart of Wilson’s achievement. As a literary critic. Edmund Wilson had the power to make a writer’s career, and two of the rarer items in his library bear out this point. During the Second World War as the publishing industry went through a difficult period, it was understandably reluctant to take a chance on a book which might not have wide, popular appeal. Anais Nin, a struggling author at the time who could not find a publisher willing to issue her work, self-published her first two American books, Winter of Artifice and Under a Glass Bell. Each book was hand-set in type by Nin herself and hand-printed in first editions of only three hundred copies. But it is difficult to establish a reputation much less earn a living on such limited editions without the recognition of a major review.
In the 1 April 1944 New Yorker Wilson wrote a favorable review of Under a Glass Bell, praising the quality of the prose, thus launching Nin’s career. Both of these early works, in the hand-printed first editions, are included in the Wilson library and are important documents of both Nin’s career and the history of the self-publishing impulse in literature.
The Wilson library is vast, comprising over 10,000 volumes. Any brief account of its holdings is bound to be incomplete, but a word must be said concerning the famous literary friendship and feud between Wilson and Vladimir Nabokov. As the Nabokov-Wilson Letters make clear, it was a relationship postulated on a transference of ideas, which were sometimes quite at odds. Contained in the library are Wilson’s copies of Nabokov’s books, many inscribed, including works published in Russia prior to Nabokov’s emigration to the United States.
It should be noted that there is a small collection of papers associated with these collections of books, some from materials that were laid in, and others that were later purchased. These include some manuscript materials and some etched windows from Wilson’s home.
– A Guide to Literary and Related Materials