From Louis Menand’s essay on Edmund Wilson in the current New Yorker:
Wilson did not engage well with literature at the level of the text. He was also not at ease or reliable at the meta-level. He had a journalist’s suspicion of abstractions, and he did not think theoretically. When he tried for the broad view–when he undertook to explain the demise of verse as a literary technique, or to describe the alternation of periods of realism with periods of romanticism in modern literature, or to interpret art as compensation for a psychic “wound”–his criticism got reductive very quickly. But he was unsurpassed at the level of the writer and the work. When he gives his tour through “Das Kapital” or “Finnegans Wake” (a book he was excited by) or “Doctor Zhivago” (which he also admired extravagantly), it is as though the book’s interior had suddenly been lit up by a thousand-watt bulb. Even readers who thought they already knew the book can see things that they missed, and they realize how partial and muddled their sense of it really was. And the hyper-clarity of the description is complemented by a complete grasp of the corpus, each of the writer’s strengths and flaws laid out with juridical precision, no matter how large or problematic the body of work. The result is something better than microscopic analysis; anyone can look through a microscope. The result is a satellite picture….
One of the reasons why I like this description so much (other than that it’s perfect) is that it also sums up some of the things I try to do in my own writing, which was deeply influenced by Wilson’s back in the days when I was setting up shop as a critic a quarter-century ago. I don’t read him much anymore, partly because I once read him so closely that I remember his work too well. But Menand’s essay has created in me a fresh appetite for revisiting Wilson, which strikes me as one of the essential attributes of a great piece of literary journalism.
Read the whole thing here, by all means.