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Reading Practice: The Legacy of Edmund Wilson Part 1 — Answer

Announcement! As of August 1, 2019, the TOEFL Reading, Listening and Speaking sections will be shortened. The TOEFL will also make changes to its prep materials and scoring system. Because of this, some of the info in our blog posts may not yet reflect the new exam format. We cover all the changes here.

Welcome to more TOEFL reading practice! In our last series, we took a look at two of the most common TOEFL reading question types, vocabulary and detail questions. To put those questions in context, each TOEFL reading passage has between 12 and 14 questions, of which 4-6 will be vocabulary questions and 2-6 detail questions. If you’d like to practice those, take a look at our Paul Revere passage.

Today, though, we’ll be turning to the second most common questions, “except” and inference questions. You can expect to see up to 2 “except” questions per passage and up to 4 inference questions per passage, so these are also important to getting those top scores! As with the Paul Revere passage, this series of posts will provide five questions, each followed by its answer and explanation, wrapping up with all the questions together in a convenient PDF for you to review.

Let’s take a look at our passage, and then go on to the answer from our previous question, #1: an “except” question.

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 rejection.

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.

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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



b. fiction.


Why this answer?

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.


Why not the other answers?

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.


How can I use this practice in my test-day strategy?

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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