Lionel Trilling and the Critics: Opposing Selves

By John Rodden | Go to book overview

35
“An Urgent Awareness,” The New York Times Book Review
February 1955

Harry Levin

Harry Levin (1912–94) taught English and comparative literature at Harvard University from 1939 until his retirement in 1983. He was the author of James Joyce: A Critical Introduction (1941), Contexts of Criticism (1957), and Why Literary Criticism Is Not an Exact Science (1968), among his dozen books of literary criticism on British, American, French, and classical authors.

Trilling and Levin were sometimes paired, given that they were the first Jews to receive tenure in major university English departments. By the time of Levin’s review of The Opposing Self in 1955, Levin and Trilling were generally regarded, along with M. H. Abrams at Cornell, as the leading Jewish literary academics in the United States.

A scholarly genius fluent in the major European languages and a brilliant, erudite interpreter of specific literary texts, Levin introduced the work of Joyce to the American academy. Not only was Levin the moving force behind the development of Harvard’s comparative literature program, he played a central role in the development of comparative literature as an academic discipline. Like Trilling, Levin was an early champion of literary modernism whose writing and teaching helped institutionalize a modernist canon in postwar American literary studies.

Trilling and Levin were personally acquainted. But their relationship was not warm, partly due to a sense of rivalry between them. Their relationship cooled even further after Steven Marcus wrote a severe critique of Levin’s work in Partisan Review, in an essay titled “Three Obsessed Critics” (1959). Levin and several Harvard colleagues believed that Trilling was behind the attack, since Marcus was his student and protégé.

Most of these essays were written and first published during the past five

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