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Axel's Castle: A Study in the Imaginative Literature of 1870-1930

4.09  ·  Rating Details ·  320 Ratings  ·  27 Reviews
If great writers are hard to find, then it's safe to say great literary critics are as rare as wild white tigers who can juggle plates. Edmund Wilson (1895-1972) was one of America's most important critics, and Axel's Castle was the book that put him on the map. Few people outside graduate school read serious literary criticism, but a look into Wilson's intense thought and ...more
Published (first published 1931)
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Feb 03, 2010 Conrad rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: owned, philosophy, poetry
I'm in what I hope is the middle of a long period of incuriosity. Books don't really interest me these days, because most of the time when I pick one up, I think, what's the point, anyway? My inner devil likes to whisper that books haven't made a material difference in my own life besides maybe a slight air of well-read-ness, and maybe not even that. Depression isn't like having a raincloud over you all the time, it's more like a hangnail, annoying you whenever you try to do something you normal ...more
Dec 15, 2012 AC rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
(5-stars was too much; corrected)

Wilson’s essay on the nature and origins of Modernism in literature is lucid, clear, and direct, and is worth familiarizing oneself with. After an initial, very brief discussion of Romanticism – seen as a revolt against the mechanistic rationalism of the 17th and 18th cen., in which the universe (man included) were viewed as a clock-like mechanism (there is a good discussion of all this in J.B. Bury’s, The Idea of Progress), and god as the clock-maker who, once h
Dec 18, 2012 James rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: criticism
Axel’s Castle was an early and highly influential study of the Symbolist movement in poetry and literature. Like Romanticism at the close of the 19th Century, it was formed largely in reaction to a preceding tradition of classicism and realism. For the symbolists the target was naturalist writers like Anatole France for whom the world was a detached rationalistic system best portrayed in realistic terms. The symbolists, on the other hand, turned inward and argued for a method of suggestion which ...more
Dr. Carl Ludwig Dorsch

Essays on Yeats, Valery, Eliot, Proust, Joyce, Stein, Rimbaud and Auguste de Villiers de l'Isle-Adam (author of the 1890 drama ‘Axël’).

Before its publication in “Axel’s Castle” a fair amount of this material was evidently published in the New Republic where Wilson wrote until 1931, the year “Axel’s Castle” was released. In that year Wilson was 36, only 7 years younger than Eliot, for whose ‘The Waste Land’ Wilson was the first American reviewer. Wilson is also said to be one of the first to rev
A lot of the connections that Wilson draws seem somewhat obvious now, but I have to think that this was truly revolutionary criticism at the time it was written. The tie between the narrative of the author's life and their conceptions, as well as between symbolism and everything that followed is now Lit 101, but it's still interesting to revisit this idea in its earliest incubation, especially with as charming a guide as Edmund Wilson. It doesn't compare to To the Finland Station, but it's still ...more
Russell Bittner
I am, virtually without qualification, a huge fan of Edmund Wilson’s essays, if less so of his fiction. While perhaps not at the level of a Macaulay, a Montaigne, a Johnson, a Benjamin, an Emerson, or even an H. L. Mencken, Wilson has written both eloquently and persuasively on a variety of topics. The Triple Thinkers and To the Finland Station come immediately and memorably to mind, even though I read both some thirty years ago.

I can’t express anything like the same kudos for Axel’s Castle
William Dearth
Apr 04, 2013 William Dearth rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: multi-national
It is so refreshing to read literary criticism where the writing is concise and to the point. Edmund Wilson has done a masterful job on the essays on symbolism, Marcel Proust, James Joyce and Gertrude Stein. The summary portion of Proust’s A la Recherche du Temps Perdu is the best I have read. I am not as familiar with the some of the authors covered in this book, so I will reserve comment.

Nothing is more disheartening than to read a great piece of literature, delve into some of the criticism an
Sherwood Smith
It's fascinating on so many levels. I first read it in the late seventies, as part of my "alien minds" project--to try to see through the eyes of minds utterly unlike mine, but with one sharing point (after I made an attempt with the Marquis de Sade, and was just repulsed, but I do not like horror). In this case, the touch point--I thought--was fantasy.

The full title includes the phrase "Imaginative Literature" but Wilson's six writers are not who I would have chosen to represent fantasy. I was
Feb 22, 2010 James rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Axel's Castle: A Study in the Imaginative Literature of 1870-1930 is a 1931 book of literary criticism by Edmund Wilson on the Symbolist movement in literature. It includes a brief overview of the movement's origins and chapters on W. B. Yeats, Paul Valéry, T. S. Eliot, Marcel Proust, James Joyce, and Gertrude Stein. The book's title refers to Axël, a prose poem by Auguste Villiers de l'Isle-Adam which is discussed along with the works of Arthur Rimbaud in the concluding chapter. Axel's Castle, ...more
Oct 25, 2010 David rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: read-in-2010
Oh well, this kind of stuff is way too smart for a country boy like myself. I got something from the chapters on Eliot and Joyce, very little from the chapter on Yeats, and the whole argument about the importance of Symbolism as a unifying influence on the whole gang sailed right over my head. Even Mary Gordon's enthusiastic introduction didn't help.

Giltinan reaches the limitations of his frazzled intellect and beats his wings in frustration, pawing at the ground and snorting.

(yes, I'm Pegasus,
Jan 11, 2009 Keith rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Hard to imagine so lucid and commonsensical a critical stance brought to bear on difficult art with so little middlebrow condescension. Wilson accepts the challenging rationales of the modernist masters, yet calls them out -- and convincingly so -- when their inscrutability lacks aesthetic justification.
Excellent and enlightening. I learned quite a bit, since this literary period was never my focus in school. Though I think what interested me most was Wilson's ability and willingness to expound on the best and worst of each author. Thus Wilson finds Gertrude Stein to be "a literary personality of unmistakable originality and distinction" who possesses a "masterly grasp of...human personalities," but at the same time he finds much of her writing "boring," repetitive, or "unintelligible," so that ...more
Aug 22, 2015 Greg rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: litcrit
In this 1931 work, Wilson focuses on the Symbolist movement in literature, particularly the works of Yeats, Valéry, Eliot, Proust, Joyce, and Gertrude Stein. Eliot was in the prime of his career, and Remembrance of Things Past and Ulysses less than a decade old.

Wilson's writing is crystalline clear (though his use of huge block quotes is sometimes awkward), and it's refreshing to read a contemporary's thoughts on Yeats, Proust, Joyce and Eliot. Because I am reading Remembance of Things Past now
J. Alfred
Feb 27, 2016 J. Alfred rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A very important critical commentary on the modernist movement written just after the height of modernist dominance in 1931, this is a book that will help you not to say a bunch of dumb things about the writers discussed. It also posits a pretty interesting point about the tendency of most of the moderns to retreat into their private worlds of art so as not to need to deal with the world of politics and the like, and is sort of an implicit condemnation of art that doesn't help common people to l ...more
Mar 25, 2012 Lysergius rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
"Axel's Castle" provides a good introduction to modern literature and its sources in the Symbolist movement. The book is a bit uneven, some writers receive more attention than others; Getrude Stein for example, is covered in only ten pages. It is clear that Wilson views Joyce and Proust as the two most significant modern writers, and the two chapters dealing with them are accordingly the most insightful of the book (and worth the price of the entire volume). Addionally, the book will provide an ...more
Nov 06, 2007 lisa_emily rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: modernists fans, intellectual historians, Symbolist junkies
Published in 1931, Wilson takes a look at some of his writer contemporaries (Yeats, T.S. Eliot, Valery, Stein, Proust, and Joyce) and draws out how their works uses Symbolist theories. It is a good introduction to these writers and the techniques they employ. Since I am also quite interested in the Symbolists, I found some enlightening perspectives, such as how the Symbolists differ from the Romantics and bridge over to the Modernists, how the Symbolists turn away from the outside world to focus ...more
Peter Crofts
Jan 03, 2016 Peter Crofts rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Lots to muse over in this work of literary criticism. Is French Symbolism in some measure the French equivalent of the poetic practices of Shakespeare and the Metaphysical Poets? Bet that never occurred to you. The book begins with an introductory essay laying out an argument for what precisely Symbolism is and why it occurred and then goes on the explore its' influence on Valery, Proust, Joyce, Yeats, Eliot and Stein. Wilson is a very good writer and the book is not remotely dry. I've read it s ...more
Danny Byrne
Classic contemporary survey of high modernism as seen through the prism of Yeats, Valery, Eliot, Joyce, Proust, Stein. Sees modernism as fusion of symbolism and naturalism. Limited and slightly dated, but interesting and well written accounts of individual authors, particularly Joyce. Also astute criticism of symbolism's more solipsistic tendencies, and a hilarious diss of Valery's prose (amidst more general praise).
Prooost Davis
May 16, 2012 Prooost Davis rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Clear and concise overview of "symbolist" literature, including Yeats, Valery, T.S. Eliot, Proust, Joyce, Gertrude Stein, and Rimbaud. I've read "Ulysses" and "In Search of Lost Time," and really don't expect to do that more than once, and Wilson gives a very clear overall picture of both works.
Steve Schoenbeck
I still can't say I understand the French "Symbolist" movement much better, but Wilson does an excellent job of deepening one's appreciation for Proust's "Remembrance of Things Past." [I read this primarily for the connection with Debussy].
Jan 22, 2013 Feliks rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: criticism
Really wonderful display of criticism. Lucid; succinct; well-rounded. All the more hard to fathom how Roger Ebert can dare to cite this intellectual as a 'mentor'.
Jul 31, 2014 jyh rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Prophetic. If you care about this sort of thing, I imagine you'll find something to chew on if not admire.
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Edmund Wilson was an American writer and literary and social critic. He is considered by many to have been the 20th century's preeminent American man of letters.
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“He believes, but he does not believe: the impossibility of believing is the impossibility which he accepts most reluctantly, but still it is there with the other impossibilities of this world which is too full of weeping for a child to understand.” 2 likes
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