Why Edmund Wilson Saw Judaism as the Key to America’s Cultural Survival

Why Edmund Wilson Saw Judaism as the Key to America’s Cultural Survival


The great New Yorker and New Republic critic discovered F. Scott Fitzgerald and Vladimir Nabokov and despised the federal income tax. He was also a passionate and erudite champion of the Hebrew language, Jewish culture, and the Jewish state..


From the early 1930s to the late 1960s Edmund Wilson was among the most influential literary critics in the English-speaking world. In the pages of The New Yorker, The New Republic, and The Nation, (and in scores of lesser journals and newspapers) Wilson addressed his learned and engaging criticism to what he termed “the intelligent skeptical reader.” But, while Wilson strove for an accessible writing style and endeavored to tackle subjects with wide appeal (the Civil War, the Dead Sea Scrolls) he did not intend for his readers to sit back and simply absorb the material. If you were a faithful and constant reader of Edmund Wilson, you were expected to work at the task: Read the book or books under discussion, see what other critics were saying about those books, and learn something about the history of the controversy that Wilson was either addressing or fomenting.

Wilson was famous for immersing himself deeply in the topics he wrote about, often taking up the study of foreign languages to write authoritatively about national literatures unfamiliar to American readers. In the early 1950s he took up the study of biblical Hebrew.

Edmund Wilson’s formal study of Hebrew began in 1952 at Princeton Theological Seminary. His interest in the Jews as a people had long preceded this linguistic endeavor. Wilson’s narrative of his initial involvement with the Hebrew language takes him back to his colonial American origins. On his mother’s death in 1951 he returned to the family home in Talcottville, New York, to go through her belongings. Rummaging in the attic he found the divinity school textbooks used by his paternal grandfather, Thaddeus Wilson, a prominent 19th-century Protestant clergyman. Among the books were Hebrew study texts, a Bible, and a grammar. As he described this moment of discovery in On First Reading Genesis, “I had always had a certain curiosity about Hebrew, and I was perhaps piqued a little at the thought that my grandfather could read something that I couldn’t, so finding myself one autumn in Princeton, with the prospect of spending the winter, I enrolled in a Hebrew course at the Theological Seminary, from which my grandfather had graduated in 1864.” That Wilson’s grandfather studied Hebrew was not at all unusual. All candidates for the Presbyterian ministry had to study Hebrew and Greek, a situation that remains today at some Presbyterian seminaries.

This rediscovery of a family legacy, and Wilson’s subsequent decision to study Hebrew language and literature merged two family intellectual traditions: his paternal grandfather’s preparation for the Presbyterian ministry at Princeton Theological Seminary, and his mother’s descent from the Mather family with its tradition of vast scholarly erudition, and a specific affinity for Hebrew studies. Cotton Mather’s Harvard thesis was on the question of whether Hebrew was the “original language.” His many works (50 books and pamphlets) were peppered with Hebrew words and phrases and he delighted in describing Harvard College as one of the “batei midrash” (the Talmudic study halls) of New England. At the death of his brother Nathan, Mather mourned the loss of a promising young scholar of Hebrew. But he was consoled in the certainty that Nathan’s knowledge of Hebrew would “ease his way into heaven.”

Edmund Wilson visited Israel twice: in 1954, on assignment from The New Yorker to research the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls; and in 1967, on the eve of the Six-Day War. Both visits left a deep impression on him. His visit with S.Y. Agnon and his essay on that novelist and short story writer introduced Agnon to the American literary world. On the 1954 publication of Agnon’s collected works, Schocken Publishers issued a Hebrew language brochure in Agnon’s honor. The only non-Israeli included in the list of 14 literary luminaries who praised Agnon was Edmund Wilson.

The philosopher Isaiah Berlin, a close friend of Wilson’s, told the following delightful story about Wilson in Israel. “He went to Jordan and when he came back he had to pass through the Mandelbaum Gate. The Israeli passport officer looked at his passport, noticed it was Edmund Wilson, then said: ‘I think your dating of the Dead Sea Scrolls is not quite right. I think it should have been fifty years before.’ Wilson answered, and the supervising officer said: ‘Stamp Mr. Wilson’s passport. You can’t discuss the Scrolls here, not on the Government’s time.’ He talked to me about that afterward, saying, ‘Only in Israel would I find a passport officer who wished to question the date of the Scrolls!’ That amused him. It pleased him.”

From his first visit to Israel in 1954, to his death in 1972, Wilson was an enthusiastic supporter of the Jewish state, and often found himself defending its policies against the attacks of Jewish associates on the literary left. Literary biographer Leon Edel recounted a furious exchange in early 1967 between Wilson and Jason Epstein concerning Israel’s military situation. If the Israelis are in trouble, Epstein contended, it was because “they had a talent for causing trouble by being where they didn’t belong.” Wilson was shocked by Epstein’s response. Though Wilson’s support of Israel was nuanced, it was also powerful enough to arouse the ire of Edward Said and other supporters of the Palestinian cause.

Wilson was undeterred. A bannerlike inscription in biblical Hebrew hung over his desk in Wellfleet, Massachusetts, and it was this phrase, Hazak Hazak Venithazek (“be strong and be strengthened” in Wilson’s translation), that is engraved on the base of his tombstone. Wilson was also known to use the phrase as a short grace before meals.

The Hebrew exhortation, to be strong in one’s studies, had application across the full range of Wilson’s interests throughout the critic’s lifetime. Apparent in his literary essays is a sense of struggle with the historical material out of which a particular review or essay was crafted. In the Jewish intellectual tradition, he saw methods with which such a struggle might be conducted. His wife, Elena, noted that “to the very end of Edmund’s life, he would be found at his desk surrounded by Bibles and dictionaries, keeping with the new developments, deciphering the Old Testament and facsimile of fragment of the scrolls.” For Wilson, the centrality of the Bible, its cadences and its powerful images, were, as he noted, “part of the texture of our language: the culture of no other Western people seems so deeply to have been influenced by these: something in the English character, something mystical, tough and fierce, has a special affinity to Hebrew.”

Some of Wilson’s Christian friends, amused and bewildered by his obsession with Hebrew and Jewish history, often kidded him about it. After an article of Wilson’s was published in Commentary, John Dos Passos wrote him to say that he thought Wilson was “carrying out his role of uncircumcised rabbi very well.”

What Wilson saw in the Jewish intellectual tradition was an affirmation of the scholarly, and an openness to criticism. As a representative of an American cultural world that he believed was disappearing, he sought allyship in the Jewish tradition. In his mind, what was noble about the American tradition was its “Hebraic” element. In Jewish culture he saw the possibility of American renewal or, at the very least, cultural preservation.

Wilson was therefore all the more disappointed when he encountered American Jews who knew little about their own traditions. The Sixties, the last volume of his memoirs, is peppered with references to Jewish acolytes and visitors who knew woefully little about the Bible, the Hebrew language, or Jewish religious customs. Even close friends came in for criticism. Critic Alfred Kazin noted that “Wilson took every area for his own. He knew more Hebrew than I’ve learned since my Bar Mitzvah.”

Wilson, whose intellectual staying power was legendary, stayed with the study of the “sacred tongue” and achieved a degree of competence, if not mastery. It was his interest in Hebrew that led The New Yorker to send Wilson to Israel. An outsider who saw many aspects an insider could not see, Wilson brought a degree of detachment to the subject of the Dead Sea Scrolls that partisans of religious or academic dogma could not. Two testimonies illustrate this point. The first is from Israeli archaeologist and former IDF Chief of Staff Yigal Yadin on Wilson’s contribution to popularizing the discovery and implications of the Dead Sea Scroll. The second is from Hebrew University professor David Flusser on Edmund Wilson’s contribution to the comparative study of Judaism and Christianity.

In a review in The Times Literary Supplement, Yadin had this to say about Wilson’s New Yorker articles on the scrolls: “The Dead Sea Scrolls were not discovered by archaeologist but by the Bedouin, and their importance was brought to the knowledge of the world at large, again not by an archaeologist, but by a very scholarly amateur, Edmund Wilson.”

Yadin’s admiration for Wilson was reciprocated. Edmund Wilson met Yadin on his 1967 journey to Israel and described him as having “an extraordinary combination of high intelligence, informed authority and almost hypnotic persuasive charm.” On that same trip to Israel, Wilson met the “man he admired most in Israel,” David Flusser, professor of comparative religion at Hebrew University. According to Flusser, an expert on Christian-Jewish relations in the formative periods of Rabbinic Judaism and early Christianity, “Wilson’s book about the Dead Sea Scrolls raised questions which the scholars were forced to answer, and so it changed profoundly the course of research into Essenism and had an important impact upon the study of both ancient Judaism and the beginnings of Christianity. Wilson compelled the scholars to think … he has written a book which is from many aspects a turning point in the research of the history of religion.”

While many other scholarly reviewers expressed indignation that Wilson had “blundered” into their territory and made errors of judgment, Flusser was able to see the significance of Wilson’s contribution. A “scholarly amateur” could bring insights to the discussion that seasoned experts might overlook or deliberately ignore. One biblical scholar who revised his thinking about Wilson’s contribution to the conversation about the Scrolls was James Sanders of Claremont College. “On first reading [The Scrolls From the Dead Sea] essays forty years ago,” Sanders wrote, “I recall thinking that he did not get it quite right. By contrast, when read today his work seems not only engrossing and enthralling but also amazingly balanced and fair, given the fact that he was a self-avowed anti-religionist.”

In his occasional excursions into short fiction, Wilson also took up Jewish themes. In Encounter, Wilson published a short story, “The Messiah at the Seder.” In that story the Messiah appears in mid-20th-century Manhattan on the eve of Passover. He is invited to a Seder on the Upper West Side. There he discovers that the fractious and contentious participants at the Seder—which include a Freudian, a Marxist, and a religious thinker—are unable to accept that he is the Redeemer. Nor are they able to agree on anything else. And, when they come to terms with the reality of his mission to the world, they want to deny their ideological opponents a “share in the world to come.” This satire on the multiplicity of opinions in the Jewish world is anything but savage. The satirical effect is achieved with considerable subtlety and verve.

In the 1960s Wilson was dismayed at what he saw as the decline of reading and the shrinking of an audience for serious and accessible literary criticism. He was especially dismayed to meet Jews who knew little of their own culture, and found it difficult to accept that American Jewish intellectuals might be ignorant of their own cultural traditions. On making the acquaintance of American intellectuals of Jewish origin he would assume, often mistakenly, that they had some innate knowledge of Hebrew and Judaic lore. Jason Epstein remarked that Wilson “had convinced himself, completely inaccurately, that I knew Hebrew and could teach him something about it. I knew nothing about Hebrew, but whenever I saw him in those years, he would ask me whether I knew Hebrew or not. I suppose he assumed that in the interval between each occasion I had learned it, but that is what he was like.”

Wilson’s interest in the Bible, Hebrew, and the Jews persisted until the end of his life. Alfred Kazin, visiting the declining Wilson at his Cape Cod home, has left us this literary snapshot: “Edmund Wilson, the perfectionist, always correcting a word, a fact. Still obsessed with the word in his old age, bitterly disillusioned with America and shakily confronting the end. In his Wellfleet kitchen he (with more Hebrew than I could ever master) asked me—me!—what the Jewish religion could offer a man in his situation.”

Wilson left instructions for his funeral, requesting that Old Testament readings be central to the service. At the funeral, in June of 1972, several Psalms were read, as well as the concluding chapter of Ecclesiastes. Despite his frequent anticlerical statements and his declaration that he was “not a Christian,” Wilson requested that at his funeral there be the full ritual of the Presbyterian church in which he had been baptized. The church ceremony also had its Judaic aspects. Wilson’s cousin Charley Walker, the eminent Yale labor historian, opened his eulogy with the phrase “Shalom, Dear Edmund.”

Shalom Goldman is Professor of Religion at Middlebury College. His most recent book is Starstruck in the Promised Land: How the Arts Shaped American Passions about Israel.

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