In the end, Eric Wilson's love for his daughter saved his life, but her birth almost caused his suicide.
Wilson is Thomas H. Prichard professor of English at Wake Forest University, where he teaches English and American Romanticism. In "Against Happiness" (2008), he argued that our "obsession with joy without pain" was doomed to frustration, that we could experience the sublime only if we first plumbed the depths of despair.
This book recounts his personal journey through this same terrain.
Wilson's father was a demanding, self-made man. Though Eric was a "model youth," praise for his accomplishments always seemed to raise expectations that he could never satisfy. He would return home from a day of outstanding achievement in the classroom and on the practice field and injure himself to atone for his failures.
After graduating from high school he threw himself into the study of literature and philosophy, becoming a "workaholic of the worst kind." The model youth became the model professor, widely published, promoted ahead of schedule, named to an endowed chair, but his depression became deeper and more threatening. Suicide seemed increasingly appealing as an escape from hopelessness.
At first the birth of his daughter made him feel trapped and desperate, but ultimately the desire not to ruin her life, along with counseling and medication, gave him strength to reject depression's lure. He realized that blaming depression for his shortcomings was an attempt to escape responsibility for them.
Wilson's odyssey is harrowing and, he acknowledges, far from finished, but his passage from despair to "grace" is hopeful in the end, and it is profoundly enriched and illuminated by the Romantic poets and philosophers he teaches. Wilson was never completely isolated by his depression; his literary companions illuminated a path to grace, and his daughter.
Clyde Frazier teaches political science at Meredith College in Raleigh.