Two Mid-Century Critics. (Comment)

Article excerpt

PLACING THESE TWO BOOKS side by side, you see the two black-and-white photographs. In each, a man holds a lighted cigarette. On the dust jacket of Allen Tate's Essays of Four Decades, the poet, critic, novelist, Southern Agrarian rests his elbow on the arm of his wooden chair, holding the cigarette between thumb and forefinger. The smoke rises into darkness. Behind the seated figure are books, a couch, a 1950s desk lamp. A winter light falls through a trailing vine set near a window and onto the puckish profile of a man lost in thought. It is the image of a scholar at home.

On the dust jacket of The Moral Obligation To Be Intelligent, Lionel Trilling, Columbia professor, critic, novelist, self styled "progressive liberal," has taken his cigarette to his mouth and is gazing solemnly into a middle distance, his hair white, his eyes dark, his expression contemplative. It is a face (using a description Trilling himself made of a photograph of Isaac Babel) "very long and thin, charged with emotion and internality.... an intellectual's face, a scholar's face." Behind him, an abstract light fades into darkness.

The cigarettes date them. Who now would sit for his portrait smoking a cigarette? It has been nearly thirty years since Lionel Trilling wrote his last essay. It has been more than thirty years since Allen Tate's Essays of Four Decades was first printed. Both men were publishing essays as far back as the 1930s. Why would these two collections of their essays appear now? Who reads Trilling now? Who reads Tate? Are their intellectual battles our own?

In some cases no. The Stalinism infecting American liberals in the 1950s is gone. Few literary laymen concentrate much attention these days on William Dean Howells, John Peale Bishop, or Herbert Read, or are caught up in the Leavis-Snow controversy. When Tate assumes his readers are acquainted with Elder Olson, T.R. Henn, and Samuel H. Monk, twenty-first-century readers may shake their heads and think these men and their remarks antique at best. Why should we read old critics?

We should read Trilling and especially Tate for at least two reasons. First, they predate much of the reductive folly that characterizes literary criticism in our time. In these two volumes, we see two scholars who still love literature for its proper purposes, who see good literature as a catalyst of careful thinking, who see poems and novels as means of understanding humanity, as an invitation to self-examination, as a quest for reality: "the look and feel of things, how things are done and what things are worth and what they cost and what the odds are," as Trilling puts it. More than this, literary criticism for Allen Tate is "the intelligence trying to think into the moving world a rational order of value."

A second reason to take up these two gifted critics is to see them take up arms against a sea of troubles. A half century ago, these critics were defending language itself, the value of universals, of moral discernment, of authorial intention. It is refreshing to hear Trilling say that his first concern was to discover "the animus of the author, the objects of his will, the things he wants or wants to have happen." It is encouraging to hear Tate defend poetry as a way of knowing, and words as a necessary completion of human experience. In a few cases, their battles have been won, in others they were fighting the initial skirmishes of later battles.

Perusing a book catalogue from the Modern Language Association or the offerings of a major university press, one sees immediately that the modern critic of literature is caught up in identity politics, gender wars, or various ideological conflicts--all of which are attempts to shape literature to one's own ideological agenda. Instead of being a pilgrim in quest of meaning and truth, the critic sets up as a kind of power broker. Tate saw this coming and called it intellectual pride, where the critic assumes a "dubious superiority to the work as a whole. …