Lionel Trilling and the Critics: Opposing Selves

By John Rodden | Go to book overview

Introduction
Lionel Trilling’s Opposing Selves

The Reputation of Lionel Trilling

For the last quarter century of his life, Lionel Trilling was a reigning presence in the American literary academy. His death at the age of seventy in November 1975 was mourned on both sides of the Atlantic as more than the loss of a major critic: it was memorialized in wistful and even elegiac tones as the passing of an era, eliciting a front-page obituary in the New York Times and a poetic flight from Robert Conquest:

What weaker disciplines shall bind,
What lesser doctors now protect,
The sweetness of the intellect,
The honey of the hive of mind?1

The relations among literature, politics, and society were Trilling’s main preoccupation, with particular emphasis on problems of character, identity, and tragedy. Trilling was a cultural critic, stationed always near what he called “the dark and bloody crossroads where literature and politics meet,”2 and he produced the most influential body of American cultural criticism of the early postwar era. Indeed, along with H. L. Mencken, Van Wyck Brooks, Edmund Wilson, Lewis Mumford, Kenneth Burke, T. S. Eliot, F. R. Leavis, Raymond Williams, and Northrop Frye, Trilling stands as one of the most important English-language critics of the twentieth century. His Columbia University colleague Jacques Barzun has gone so far as to call him “one of the great critics” in the tradition of English men of letters, ranking him just behind Hazlitt, in the company of Coleridge, Bagehot, and Arnold.3

Six book-length critical studies of Trilling’s work have already appeared, and at least three biographies are presently under way.4 No event signified more clearly Trilling’s unique status than the almost immediate posthumous publication of a Uniform Edition of his oeuvre, edited by his widow,

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