Lionel Trilling and the Critics: Opposing Selves

By John Rodden | Go to book overview

28
“Lionel Trilling and the New Stoicism,” Hudson Review
spring 1950

R. W. B. Lewis

R. W. B. Lewis (1917—), professor emeritus of English at Yale University, is chiefly a historian of ideas and a critic of American literature. Lewis is the author of The American Adam: Innocence, Tragedy, and Tradition in the Nineteenth Century (1955) and The Picaresque Saint: Representative Figures in Contemporary Fiction (1959), among other books. His greatest success came with Edith Wharton: A Biography (1976), which received the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Bancroft Prize. Lewis also wrote or edited books on Hart Crane, Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, Andre Malraux, and Graham Greene.

In the following laudatory review, Lewis considers Trilling’s criticism to be a dialectics without transcendence, a centrist “doctrine of sustained tensions” amounting to a “new Stoicism.”

The words we encounter most frequently in the essays of Lionel Trilling are: flexibility, variety, difficulty, possibility, modulation. They are the marks of Mr. Trilling’s mind, which is capable at once of more range and more exactness than almost any other critic in America today; they are also, one may say, the burden of his song. For variety and complexity are Mr. Trilling’s defining terms for a liberal society in good political health, and the sense of them is an earnest of the liberal imagination in good working order. In his disciplined inspection of literature, old and new, we find Mr. Trilling irresistibly drawn toward any writing in which tensions serve to expand the world. He admires those minds (James, for example, and Mark Twain) who have “contained both the yes and the no of their culture”; he prizes the ability, which Scott Fitzgerald found in himself, “to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time”; he believes the most valuable insights of our

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