Lionel Trilling and the Critics: Opposing Selves

By John Rodden | Go to book overview

58
“The Elusive Trilling,” The Nation
September 1977

Mark Shechner

Mark Shechner (1941—), professor of English at the State University of New York at Buffalo, is the author of Joyce in Nighttown: A Psychoanalytic Inquiry into Ulysses (1974), After the Revolution: Studies in the Contemporary Jewish American Imagination (1987) and The Conversion of the Jews and Other Essays (1990). Most interested in postwar Jewish fiction and American intellectual life, Shechner has written on Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, Allen Ginsberg, and Philip Roth, among other authors. He has also edited Preserving the Hunger: An Isaac Rosenfeld Reader (1988).

Shechner is one of Trilling’s most perceptive critics. The following wideranging essay discusses Trilling’s inveterate “preference for defining himself by negatives” and constitutes an illuminating analysis of Trilling’s main ideas in the context of his New York intellectual scene.

A review of some of the commentary on Trilling by his contemporaries leads one to conclude that Trilling’s mind was one of those to which it is difficult to give assent without bouts of irritation and distrust. Yet from the tone of the eulogies that have followed his death it would be hard to know that his ideas encountered much opposition in his lifetime—and not just from New Critics, unrepentant Stalinists and unredeemed liberals—and that his voice was one of the more tormented, ambiguous and elusive of the postwar period. Recent efforts by Steven Marcus {New York Times Book Review, February 8, 1976] and Quentin Anderson [The New Republic, April 23, 1977] to press the claim for Trilling’s moral heroism give the impression that his greatest achievement was to embody a kind of clearsighted resistance—to be a leading stoic, a spokesman for “moral realism” and the conditioned life, and an expert in admonition who was instrumental in setting a wayward

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