Lionel Trilling and the Critics: Opposing Selves

By John Rodden | Go to book overview

3
“Uncle Matthew,” The New Republic
March 1939

Edmund Wilson

Edmund Wilson (1895–1972), one of the leading American literary/cultural critics of the twentieth century, was the author of Axel’s Castle: A Study in the Imaginative Literature of 1870–1930 (1931), To the Finland Station: A Study in the Writing and Acting of History (1940), The Wound and the Bow (1946), and Patriotic Gore: Studies in the Literature of the American Civil War (1962), among numerous other critical works. Wilson also published novels, poetry, plays, autobiography, and journals.

Wilson and Trilling were slightly acquainted. Trilling wrote reviews for The New Republic during the late 1920s and early 1930s, when Wilson served as literary editor; and Wilson was also acquainted with members of the circle around Partisan Review, eventually marrying Mary McCarthy, an associate editor at Partisan Review before and during the war. (With sardonic humor and perhaps also with a slight touch of anti-Semitism—even though the majority of its editors were non-Jewish—Wilson referred to the magazine condescendingly as “Partisansky Review.”) After the war, Trilling testified for the defense at the obscenity trial of Wilson’s controversial story collection, Memoirs of a Hecate Country (1946); he also favorably reviewed Wilson’s The Shores of Light: A Literary Chronicle of the Twenties and Thirties (1952) in The Griffin (collected in A Gathering of Fugitives). In his posthumous memoir of Trilling, Irving Howe wrote that, “with the exception of Edmund Wilson,” Trilling was “the most influential American literary critic of the century.” This judgment has been echoed by other intellectuals.

Trilling, who in 1929 moved to a Greenwich Village apartment located just across the street from Wilson, received encouragement in the early 1930s from Wilson about the value of writing a book about Matthew Arnold. The vote of confidence from Wilson, whom Trilling then admired as a model of the radical intellectual whom he sought to become, helped

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