Scathing Honesty

Edna St. Vincent Millay
Edna St. Vincent Millay

‘ve been reading two biographies simultaneously: Edmund Wilson by Jeffrey Meyers  and Savage Beauty: Edna St. Vincent Millay by Nancy Milford. It’s a truly fascinating study. The scion of an upper-middle-class family in Red Bank, NJ, and the genius child of an impoverished single mother from Rockland, Maine, who became, far and away, America’s most famous poet.

She gave readings to sold-out crowds all across the country, and her broadcasts were as popular as FDR’s fireside chats.

To Millay, Wilson was little more than a dalliance that happened to advance her career. For Wilson, she was the raw flame-live wire that transformed his world utterly and completely. She took a prim and proper Princeton boy and made him into an indefatigable satyr, who bedded every woman he possibly could and wrote about it in detail in his memoirs.

To be sure, Wilson was a brilliant literary critic who first brought attention to innumerable great writers: Hemingway, Faulkner, Dos Passos, T.S. Eliot, W.S, Auden, Robert Lowell, and many, many others. But he was not above extolling the work of any woman willing to give him a little nooky. In fairness, he only chose those with real talent.

Edmund WilsonWhat amazes me is how much luck this stodgy, short, pot-bellied guy had with great-looking women. And he wasn’t even very nice. When your own children call you “Monstro”, you have to wonder if you have a drinking problem. His marriage to Mary McCarthy was an all-out battle between two literary alcoholics who represented each other in their fiction.

That’s the other thing I’ve taken away from this study: Fitzgerald, Hemingway, McCarthy, Wilson — they invariably modeled their characters on people they knew. The people Hemingway depicted in The Sun Also Rises, and those Fitzgerald depicted in Tender is the Night, had their lives transformed forever.

I had not known before that Wilson, my grandmother’s cousin, published a work of fiction that was banned in New York, Memoirs of Hecate County. The offending passages, of course, were taken right out of his journals. They would seem pretty tame today, and I will produce them if a single person asks.

But this brings me to my point: Wilson insisted that his memoirs be published without changing a single word. I can only imagine how difficult this was for his (surprisingly) devoted third wife, Elena, and her daughter Helen, to allow the publication of his infidelities, even in his seventies!

But they did, and I applaud them, and I applaud Cousin Bunny, for their devotion to truth. In his literary criticism, Wilson always discussed an author’s work in relation to his life, and in directing his own literary legacy he showed the same commitment to truth.