Lionel Trilling and the Critics: Opposing Selves

By John Rodden | Go to book overview

27
“Lionel Trilling and the Party of the Imagination,”
The New Yorker
April 1950

Clifton Fadiman

(See no. 12 for biographical information about Fadiman.)

Lionel Trilling bears, doubtless with fortitude, the most aggressively euphonious name of any writer since Edna St. Vincent Millay. He also, it seems to me, owns and operates one of the most adequately equipped critical intelligences in the country. Many readers, trailing his essays through the magazines during the last ten years, must have suspected that this might be so. Now that sixteen of his best pieces are united in “The Liberal Imagination” (Viking), we can be surer of it. This is a pleasant thing to be sure of. We have a plethora of learned critics, a crowd of perceptive critics, and a few entertaining critics. Perhaps not since the days before Mr. Mencken mellowed have we had, however, one who could talk to the generality of educated rather than merely literary Americans. Mr. Trilling may just conceivably turn out to be our man, once he has learned to raise his voice a few decibels (he puts too much energy into undercharging his prose) and to give looser rein to the wit, fancy, and playfulness he conscientiously rations.

Though a professor of English literature at General Eisenhower’s university,1 he does not write as if his cloister were the world. Nor is he imprisoned within that narrowest of cells, the contemporary. He is neither specialist nor popularizer, having too great an affection for ideas to be the first and too great a respect for people to be the second. Rather, he seems linked to that gleaming chain of English and American critics that starts in glory with Ben Jonson and connects, through Dryden, Dr. Johnson, Hazlitt, Coleridge, Emerson, and Matthew Arnold, with T. S. Eliot in our own day. I do not

-143-

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