Lionel Trilling and the Critics: Opposing Selves

By John Rodden | Go to book overview

Foreword
A Man Nobody Knew:
Lionel Trilling Remembered

Morris Dickstein

In recent years the climate of opinion surrounding a writer has come in for almost as much attention as the work itself; indeed, for some who see the meaning of literary texts as prismatic and unstable, this shifting spectrum is the work itself, the sum of how it has been perceived, assimilated, and reimagined. Since the 1960s, collections of articles devoted to individual writers have multiplied as teaching and research tools but their purpose has changed. Once focused on close reading, they now reflect the historical interests of teachers and scholars. Books like this show us how a writer’s reputation evolved but also serve as lessons in the time-bound nature of interpretation, documenting how received ideas, cultural assumptions, and subjective preferences color our understanding of all we read. Lionel Trilling and the Critics: Opposing Selves, edited by John Rodden, is almost unique because its subject is not a poet or novelist but a critic, Lionel Trilling, who only occasionally tried his hand at imaginative writing. Neither Edmund Wilson, whom Trilling warmly admired, nor F. R. Leavis, with whom he shared many literary assumptions, has as yet been the subject of such a historical record, though Wilson’s work was more wide ranging and Leavis’s more controversial than Trilling’s.

One reason is that Wilson, with the famous transparency of his writing, and even Leavis, with his far knottier, more Jamesian manner, always made clear exactly what they wanted to say. Trilling, on the other hand, despite the uncommon grace and felicity of his style, was often seen as elusive, even enigmatic, and his essays evoked a broader range of critical response. This perplexing quality of Trilling’s work, especially its uncertain political thrust, drew the attention of some outstanding literary minds, from R. P.

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