Lionel Trilling and the Critics: Opposing Selves

By John Rodden | Go to book overview

49
“On the Birth and Death of the Individual,” The Spectator
October 1972

Shirley Robin Letwin

Born of Russian Jewish immigrant parents and educated in the United States, Shirley Robin Letwin (1924–93) moved to Great Britain in 1963 after completing a Ph.D. thesis at the University of Chicago on British political philosophy from Hume to Beatrice Webb: The dissertation was eventually published as The Pursuit of Certainty (1965); Letwin subsequently became a philosophy lecturer at the London School of Economics and member of the Centre for Policy Studies, a conservative think-tank.

Well-known in British intellectual circles as a Tory philosopher, a conservative economist devoted to monetarism and privatization, and a strong admirer of Margaret Thatcher, Letwin also published The Anatomy of Thatcherism (1992), which celebrated “Thatcherism” as a heroic attempt to restore “the vigorous virtues” (thrift, providence, self-reliance, individualism) that she ascribed to Britain’s glorious past.

Letwin was also interested in literature and the history of ideas. One understands her admiration for Sincerity and Authenticity by looking at her study The Gentlemen in Trollope: Individuality and Moral Conduct (1982), in which she examined Trollope’s novels to explain the moral strength of nineteenth-century England (such as the code of The English Gentleman), an approach broadly similar to (if rather more doctrinaire than) Trilling’s novel criticism. Like Trilling, though with a sharp right-wing ideological edge and far less sensitivity to questions of literary aesthetics, Letwin took an internal, textual approach to fiction, assumed it to be a text representative of its time, and excavated it for large generalizations about history and ideas.

If we wish to be ‘authentic,’ must we rebel against all social authority? Professor Trilling’s answer is, No, and he supports his answer with a rich

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