Edmund Wilson’s review of T. S. Eliot’s “Waste Land” appeared in The Dial one month after the poem was published. His first reading of the poem occurred on a brisk September day in 1922 on the upper deck of a Fifth Avenue bus headed for Greenwich Village. The Jazz Age was tuning up, the Village was enjoying one of its periodic Bohemian revivals, and, at twenty-seven, Wilson was on the brink of his career as one of the twentieth century’s most influential American literary critics.

In his review, Wilson took careful note of the poet’s enormous erudition, “piling up stratum upon stratum of reference, as the Italian painters used to paint over one another.” But then, characteristically, he argued that Eliot’s harrowing vision of “strained nerves and shattered institutions” did not require the reader to grasp every arcane illusion. Wilson would hate it said of him, but,...


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