Lionel Trilling and the Critics: Opposing Selves

By John Rodden | Go to book overview

57
“On Lionel Trilling: ‘Continuous Magical Confrontation, ‘”
The New Republic
March 1976

Irving Howe

(See no. 29 for biographical information about Howe.)

This selection, which focuses on Trilling’s influence upon postwar American culture and also reflects Trilling’s personal influence on his colleagues and acquaintances, constitutes Howe’s final statement about Trilling. His praise is lavish: “With the exception of Edmund Wilson,” writes Howe, “Lionel Trilling was the most influential literary critic in America these past few decades.” Howe’s review appeared as he himself was about to experience the height of his own influence in American intellectual-cultural circles with the publication of World of Our Fathers (1976), his story of the history of the East European immigrant Jews to America, which reached the bestseller lists and earned him the National Book Award for 1977.

It would be foolhardy in a few paragraphs to try for an inclusive portrait of Lionel Trilling’s career as critic and writer; and now that we have the admirable summary description by Steven Marcus in the Times of a few weeks ago, it would be superfluous. I propose here to write about a single aspect of Trilling’s work, but the aspect that seems to me crucial for a grasp of his extraordinary prestige in our culture.

With the exception of Edmund Wilson, Lionel Trilling was the most influential literary critic in America these past few decades. By “influential” I mean something simple: that a critic’s essays be read by a public extending beyond the limits of the academy. Some literary people might argue, though they would have trouble persuading me, that we have had better critics than

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