Lionel Trilling and the Critics: Opposing Selves

By John Rodden | Go to book overview

20
Excerpt from “The Legacy of the Thirties,” in The Immediate
Experience {originally published in Commentary}
1962 {December 1947}

Robert Warshow

Robert Warshow (1913–55), managing editor of Commentary from 1947 until his death from a heart attack eight years later at the age of forty-one, was a critic of film and the popular arts. An innovative and influential commentator about Hollywood film in the early postwar era, Warshow’s most important essays dealt with social questions in film: “The Gangster as Tragic Hero” and “The Westerner.”

The Immediate Experience: Movies, Comics, Theatre, and Other Aspects of Popular Culture (1962) is a collection of Warshow’s popular art essays, to which Trilling contributed an introduction. As Trilling recounts in his introduction (originally published in Commentary in 1961), he declined an invitation to join the advisory board of Commentary in 1945, which created tensions between him and Warshow. The relationship was further strained by Warshow’s negative review of The Middle of the Journey in Commentary.

Titled “The Legacy of the Thirties,” that review of Trilling’s novel argues that the burdensome inheritance of the 1930s for intellectuals such as Trilling was a disabling preoccupation with Stalinism, which left him “unable to realize and respond to his experience.” Warshow contrasted The Middle of the Journey with the work of Forster and, briefly, Edmund Wilson, judging Trilling inferior. Some intellectuals in New York have speculated that Warshow’s review damaged Trilling’s confidence in his capacities as a fiction writer, indeed that it may have so deeply wounded him that he stopped writing fiction altogether. (Trilling never completed a projected second novel.)

Although Warshow never publicly withdrew his harsh judgment of The Middle of the Journey, the rift partly healed in subsequent years; shortly before

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