Lionel Trilling and the Critics: Opposing Selves

By John Rodden | Go to book overview

40
“Lionel Trilling and the Conservative Imagination,” in The
Widening Gyre {originally published in Sewanee Review}
1963 {spring 1956}

Joseph Frank

Joseph Frank (1918—), professor emeritus of comparative literature at Princeton University and currently a professor at Stanford University, is the author of The Widening Gyre: Crisis and Mastery in Modern Literature (1963) and The Idea of Spatial Form (1991), among other books. His masterwork has been his definitive biography of Dostoevsky, of which four volumes have thus far appeared. Frank received the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1984 for the second volume of the biography, F. M. Dostoyevsky: The Years of Ordeal (1850–59). In the early postwar era, Frank wrote occasionally for Partisan Review, Commentary, and other journals to which the New York intellectuals frequently contributed.

Frank’s influential 1956 essay-review, “Lionel Trilling and the Conservative Imagination,” was republished in 1978 with an appendix. The essay posits that The Opposing Self represents Trilling’s step away in the mid-1950s from the “liberal” imagination toward “the conservative imagination.” In The Opposing Self, argues Frank, Trilling “reject{s} the political imagination” by “endow[ing] social passivity and quietism as such with the halo of aesthetic transcendence.”

The career and reputation of Lionel Trilling as a literary critic pose something of an anomaly. Not, we should hasten to add, that Mr. Trilling does not deserve all the encomiums that have been lavished on him or the considerable influence he enjoys as a spiritual guide and mentor. But Mr. Trilling is by no means the kind of critic who has dominated the American literary scene since the end of the Second World War. His concern with literature

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