Lionel Trilling and the Critics: Opposing Selves

By John Rodden | Go to book overview

30
“Beyond Liberalism,” Commentary
August 1950

Stephen Spender

One of Britain’s prominent men of letters in the twentieth century, Stephen Spender (1909–95) was a poet, playwright, critic-essayist, editor, and translator. Often associated with the circle around W. H. Auden, Spender gained fame as a poet in the early 1930s, when he experienced his poetical and political comings-of-age, embraced communism, and began writing committed left-wing poetry such as the collection Poems (1933). By the time of Ruins and Visions: Poems, 1934–42 (1942), Spender had distanced himself from communism, a move that evolved into a complete break and issued forth in Spender’s contribution to Richard Crossman’s famous collection of anti-communist testimony from former communists, The God That Failed (1950). Spender’s poetic achievement is best represented by his Collected Poems, 1928–85 (1985).

As the following review suggests, the arc of Spender’s relationship to the liberal imagination thus resembled, even if the trajectory were indeed longer and more extreme and burdened, that of Trilling on the topics of communism, ideology, and collectivist panaceas. Spender and Trilling were personally acquainted as a result of their active participation in London—New York intellectual circles and their contributions to magazines such as Commentary, Partisan Review (on which Spender served as a consulting editor), and Encounter (which Spender co-edited for several years). In this review, written at the time of Spender’s own reconsideration of his political evolution in The God That Failed, Spender faults Trilling for failing to go “beyond” his liberal Partisan Review circle and fully appreciate the conservative critique of liberalism.

This is a difficult book to review. The difficulty is that Mr. Trilling has a single theme—a critical examination of the influence of liberal ideas on

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