The Critic as Amateur


In his memoir essay, “Edmund Wilson in Benares,” Pankaj Mishra records a unique intellectual failure: his inability to write an original piece on Edmund Wilson, a critic who had enthralled him for several years. This failure took place in 1995, the year of Wilson’s centenary, which had prompted Mishra to try and write something about the American critic, ideally an “exposition of Wilson’s key books.” But he could not, he felt, come up with anything original: “What I wrote seemed to me too much like a reprise of what a lot of other people had already said about him.” It becomes intriguingly clear that if Mishra had succeeded in writing the other piece, we would have never had his essay “Edmund Wilson in Benares,” a product of this very failure. A key reason for his inability to write the essay he had planned about Wilson, Mishra felt, was that he was “trying to write about him in the way an American or European writer would have.” The essay he produced evokes, slowly but vividly, the meaning and the genealogy of this failure. But what does it offer instead?