Edmund Wilson dies on the first page of Frederick Exley’s mad masterpiece, Pages From a Cold Island, and Exley spends chapter three waiting for Walter Cronkite to get around to bringing it up, while Ben Gazzara goes on and on about why Americans should vote for McGovern – triggering the greatest excoriation of Gazzara in American literature.

As far as Exley can tell, Wilson’s death hardly registers at all on the national consciousness, and one fears that 35 years later the publication of the great writer’s literary criticism and reviews (by the Library of America, in volumes covering 1920-1930, 1930-1940) will not raise many eyebrows, either. This is to our great loss.

In these two volumes, a sliver of Wilson’s contribution to American literature, are riches upon riches. The pages wait patiently to be discovered.

Take Wilson’s wonderful essay “Houdini” (“Houdini is a short strong stocky man with small feet and a very large head”); or “Edith Wharton” (“Her novels about New York are written with a corrosive scorn which sees the soul and intelligence of men ground down and finally destroyed by the weight of material possessions and the pressure of money-getting”); or try “Pope and Tennyson” (“Do we not reject much of Tennyson – and of so many of his contemporaries – because we suspect them of exaggerating the dignity of their emotions?”)

But it’s in “Dickens: the Two Scrooges,” the opening essay of The Wound and the Bow (1941), in his rehabilitation of Charles Dickens, who had suffered years of condescension and abuse (especially at the hands of the Bloomsbury group), that Wilson rises like a terrifying god to set the record straight.

“It is the purpose of this essay to show that we may find in Dickens’ work today a complexity and a depth to which even Gissing and Shaw have hardly, it seems to me, done justice – an intellectual and artistic interest which makes Dickens loom very large in the whole perspective of the literature of the West.”

He proceeds to do that very thing, and modern Dickens scholarship is born.

Grade: A

Both Edmund Wilson: Literary Essays and Reviews of the 1920s & 1930s and 1930s & 40s are currently available.