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Magoosh TOEFL Reading Practice: The Legacy of Edmund Wilson

Here’s a reading exercise to help you prepare for your TOEFL. Read the passage, and then answer the 5 questions that follow. No peeking at the answers below!

 

The Legacy of Edmund Wilson

The novelists of the “Lost Generation” are well remembered and well loved, even nearly a century after the height of their fame: Ford Maddox Ford, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein. However, one of the most talented Lost Generation writers, while well-­‐known in his day, has been nearly forgotten: Edmund Wilson. An essayist, literary, and social critic, Wilson played a vital role both in promoting his fellow writers and in instituting social change in the United States.

A classmate of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s at Princeton, graduating in 1916, Wilson served in the military before he made his name in literary circles. It is therefore stunning that he became managing editor of the venerable magazine Vanity Fair in 1920 and 1921, within five years of his graduation. After his stint there, he would hold various positions for other publications, including The New Republic, The New Yorker, and The New York Review of Books. Wilson began to become known for his insightful, sometimes sharp, criticism of contemporary writing. His books included work on the literary movement Symbolism and, as he got older, commentary on the course of European socialism.

In his day, Wilson was known best for his assessment of his peers. While Wilson did make some enemies in his time (for example, for his comments that H.P. Lovecraft’s stories were “hackwork” or that J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings books were “juvenile trash”), he had a larger circle of friends. Still, he didn’t hesitate to criticize his friends’ work when he thought it deserved it; he was an outspoken critic of Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Lolita, and the latter broke off their friendship for good after Wilson publicly criticized what he thought was a strange translation of Pushkin by Nabokov. Nevertheless, he didn’t hesitate to reward his friends with favorable reviews, either —when they were merited. Fitzgerald, for example, referred to Wilson as his “intellectual conscience.” Moreover, Wilson was intelligent, and self-­‐ confident, enough to admit when he didn’t understand some of the complex, sometimes indecipherable, prose of his time. Of Modernist poet Wallace Stevens, he wrote “even when you don’t know what he is saying, you know he is saying it well.” Similarly, he reviewed James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake with an understanding of its complexity, remarking that it was “for all its excesses…a great work of literature.”

Wilson’s writings were important in establishing what would become the twentieth-­‐ century canon of English language literature, including works from the nineteenth century. For example, he brought works by Charles Dickens and Rudyard Kipling back into the public eye, emphasizing their worth and importance. However, his most important work was undoubtedly on behalf of fiction writers of his own generation, which included F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, John Dos Passos, and Vladimir Nabokov.

In terms of politics, Wilson became more politically active from the 1940s onward. He was a critic of the United States’ Cold War policies at a time when it was dangerous to be one. In fact, in protest of these policies, he refused to pay his income taxes for almost a decade. This led, eventually, to an IRS investigation that ended with a $25,000 fine; that, in turn, led Wilson to write another book, The Cold War and the Income Tax: A Protest, in 1963. Wilson would eventually be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom under President John F. Kennedy, which he accepted in absentia; however, when invited to the White House under President Johnson, of whom he did not approve, Wilson apparently issued a brusque ejection.

Despite all of his accomplishments, Wilson is not widely remembered for them today. Instead, readers know his work—if they know his work at all—only as an editor of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s posthumous work. As executor of Fitzgerald’s literary estate, Wilson had the herculean task of preserving and presenting his friend’s work for future generations. He did so in exceptional style, editing and finding a publisher for the unfinished novel The Last Tycoon, as well as sorting through hundreds of Fitzgerald’s papers, letters, notebooks, and essays to create the lauded collection The Crack-­‐Up.

 

1. All of the following are examples of the types of writing Edmund Wilson did, EXCEPT

a. literary criticism
b. fiction
c. social commentary
d. essays

 

2. Which of the following can be inferred about Wilson’s view of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake?

a. Wilson found it intellectual, but lacking a conscience.
b. Wilson could not understand it, and so was impressed.
c. Wilson found the writing wordy but important.
d. Wilson believed the length of the book to be excessive.

 

3. All of the following are examples of literature of which Wilson disapproved, EXCEPT

a. Lord of the Rings
b. H.P. Lovecraft’s stories
c. Lolita
d. Wallace Stevens’ poetry

 

4. The author of the passage implies that the relationship between F. Scott Fitzgerald and Edmund Wilson

a. led to the downfall of Wilson’s career.
b. remains more famous than the work of either author individually.
c. dominates Wilson’s literary legacy.
d. was troubled by Fitzgerald’s conscience.

 

5. All of the following are examples of books that Wilson worked on, EXCEPT

a. The New Republic
b. The Last Tycoon
c. The Cold War and the Income Tax: A Protest, in 1963
d. The Crack-­‐Up

 

Answers

1. b
2. c
3. d
4. c
5. a

 

Explanations

1. b. fiction.

Make sure that you don’t choose an answer to an “except” question that’s actually mentioned in the text! It can be tricky to remember that you’re looking for what DOESN’T appear, since this is a different kind of task than we’re usually asked to do on tests.

Here, we find that the answer lies in paragraph 4, which tells us that Wilson’s “most important work was undoubtedly on behalf of fiction writers.” Remember that “on behalf of” means “for,” not “as.” In other words, that means that Wilson helped fiction writers, not that he was one.

Unfortunately, “except” questions can be time consuming, because you have to eliminate each of the other answers not just to check your answer, but to get to the right answer in the first place. We have to find what is mentioned in the passage and eliminate those answers. Luckily, this is summarized for us in the first paragraph: Wilson was an essayist, literary and social critic. You may be tempted to eliminate C, but this question also has a vocabulary element in disguise: a critic can be somebody who writes commentary.

To select the correct answer for TOEFL “except” questions, make sure that you go through the text in a methodical and careful way. You want to be especially sure that you’re not just skimming for terms and taking them out of context—taking notes as you read can ensure that you’re getting the full meaning of each paragraph.

 

2. c. Wilson found the writing wordy but important.

The first step in solving an inference question is to locate the context of the subject it’s referring to. Here, that comes at the end of paragraph 3, where the author tells us that Wilson referred to James’s work as “for all its excesses…a great work of literature.” Interpret this in your own words: how could a book be excessive? It could be too long, but then “excesses” wouldn’t be plural. Instead, it is most likely wordy. Still, Wilson found the book “great.”

The other answers here either make the error in interpreting “excesses” as described above, or they misunderstand or confuse Wilson’s quotes on other authors’ works (or other authors’ comments about Wilson, in the case of A).

To select the correct answer for TOEFL inference questions, make sure that the inference you’re making is text-based. It should not be too different from what is directly stated, but will still require you to take the argument to its logical conclusion or next step. If the answer choice is too extreme, refers to something not mentioned in the passage, or refers to something mentioned in the passage but unrelated to the subject of the question, eliminate it!

 

3. Wallace Stevens’ poetry

Make sure that you don’t choose an answer to an “except” question that’s actually mentioned in the text! It can be tricky to remember that you’re looking for what DOESN’T appear, since this is a different kind of task than we’re usually asked to do on tests.

Luckily, a lot of the words we’re skimming for are either italicized or proper nouns with capital letters (or both), making them easier to find! When you come to the passage’s discussion of Wilson’s opinion of Wallace Stevens’ work (whew!), you’ll see that it tells us that Wilson wrote that “even when you don’t know what he is saying, you know he is saying it well.” While that’s not unbridled praise, it’s certainly more positive than what he writes about the other works.

Unfortunately, “except” questions can be time consuming, because you have to eliminate each of the other answers not just to check your answer, but to get to the right answer in the first place. We have to find what is mentioned in the passage and eliminate those answers. Luckily, we can skim as mentioned above and find these works mentioned in paragraph 3. Lord of the Rings? “Juvenile trash.” H.P. Lovecraft’s stories? “Hackwork.” In terms of Lolita, we don’t have a direct quote, but the passage does tell us that Wilson was an “outspoken critic” of the book.

Some of these vocabulary terms (e.g. “hackwork”) are very specific and complex; you could also get to this answer by looking at the structure of paragraph 3, in which these writings are discussed, to see that they are cited in terms of enemies Wilson made or friends he alienated.

 To select the correct answer for TOEFL “except” questions, make sure that you go through the text in a methodical and careful way. You want to be especially sure that you’re not just skimming for terms and taking them out of context—taking notes as you read can ensure that you’re getting the full meaning of each paragraph.

 

4. c. dominates Wilson’s literary legacy.

The first step in solving an inference question is to locate the context of the subject it’s referring to. Here, that comes at the beginning of the final paragraph, sentence 2, in which the passage tells us that “readers know [Wilson’s] work—if they know his work at all—only as an editor of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s posthumous work.” This shows that Wilson’s legacy, or how people remember his work, is thought of in terms of the work he did for Fitzgerald’s estate.

The other answers here either take the above characterization of Wilson’s work with Fitzgerald to an extreme (it did not, for example, lead to his “downfall”) or distort the meaning of other sections of the passage. Fitzgerald did call Wilson his “intellectual conscience,” but this is presented as a good thing; on the other hand, the passage shows us that Fitzgerald remains famous, and certainly more famous than Wilson.

To select the correct answer for TOEFL inference questions, make sure that the inference you’re making is text-based. It should not be too different from what is directly stated, but will still require you to take the argument to its logical conclusion or next step. If the answer choice is too extreme, refers to something not mentioned in the passage, or refers to something mentioned in the passage but unrelated to the subject of the question, eliminate it!

 

5. a. The New Republic

Make sure that you don’t choose an answer to an “except” question that’s actually mentioned in the text! It can be tricky to remember that you’re looking for what DOESN’T appear, since this is a different kind of task than we’re usually asked to do on tests.

Luckily for us, these words are all in italics, so we can skim the passage for them relatively easily! Unluckily for us, there are lots of italics in this passage. Still, paragraph 2 tells us that Wilson first worked for the magazine Vanity Fair and then went on to work for “other publications.” Because of the word “other,” we can infer that “publications” is being used here as a synonym for magazines—not books.

Unfortunately, “except” questions can be time consuming, because you have to eliminate each of the other answers not just to check your answer, but to get to the right answer in the first place. We have to find what is mentioned in the passage and eliminate those answers.

The last paragraph here tells us that Wilson edited both The Last Tycoon and The Crack Up, characterized as a novel and a collection of essays, both books. Skimming higher, you can see in paragraph five that he was the author of The Cold War and the Income Tax: A Protest, in 1963, a book.

To select the correct answer for TOEFL “except” questions, make sure that you go through the text in a methodical and careful way. You want to be especially sure that you’re not just skimming for terms and taking them out of context—taking notes as you read can ensure that you’re getting the full meaning of each paragraph.

 

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