Lionel Trilling and the Critics: Opposing Selves

By John Rodden | Go to book overview

47
“A Literary Gathering,” Commentary
April 1968

Denis Donoghue

(See no. 39 for biographical information about Donoghue.)

The Experience of Literature (1967) was a thirteen-hundred-page introductory anthology of poetry, drama, and short fiction, published by Doubleday, which included substantial commentaries on fifty-two of the selections. It reflected Trilling’s own tastes and interests, and it was largely restricted to British and American literature. Unlike the New Critics, whose anthologies (e.g., Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren’s Understanding Poetry and Understanding Fiction) emphasize formal questions of interpretation, Trilling stresses, as his title suggests, the general reader’s “experience of literature.”

In the review below, Donoghue lauds Trilling’s social orientation, pronouncing The Experience of Literature “a significant document in contemporary American culture,” an “attempt to assemble … a Sacred Book of the Arts.”

In Lionel Trilling’s short story, “Of This Time, Of That Place,” a college instructor, Dr. Howe, is teaching a composition class, English IA, at Dwight College. The text for the course is Jarman’s Modern Plays, revised edition. Two members of the class are particularly engaging; Theodore Blackburn, because his stupidity is invincible and sinister; Ferdinand R. Tertan, because he is mad. Their colleagues are predictable; DeWitt is a straight A, no problem; Johnson a B; Arthur J. Casebeer is a B-minus or a C-plus; Stettenhover was born to get a C-minus. I forget what grade Hibbard got; he sounds C to me. But the chief interest of the story is in Tertan. Mad, yes, but it cannot be said of him, as Polonius said of Hamlet, that he is “nothing else but mad.” The story implies that he is the most significant member of the

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