Two Mid-Century Critics. (Comment)

By Faulkner, Steven | Modern Age, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

Two Mid-Century Critics. (Comment)


Faulkner, Steven, Modern Age


PLACING THESE TWO BOOKS side by side, you see the two black-and-white photographs. In each, a man holds a lighted cigarette. On the dust jacket of Allen Tate's Essays of Four Decades, the poet, critic, novelist, Southern Agrarian rests his elbow on the arm of his wooden chair, holding the cigarette between thumb and forefinger. The smoke rises into darkness. Behind the seated figure are books, a couch, a 1950s desk lamp. A winter light falls through a trailing vine set near a window and onto the puckish profile of a man lost in thought. It is the image of a scholar at home.

On the dust jacket of The Moral Obligation To Be Intelligent, Lionel Trilling, Columbia professor, critic, novelist, self styled "progressive liberal," has taken his cigarette to his mouth and is gazing solemnly into a middle distance, his hair white, his eyes dark, his expression contemplative. It is a face (using a description Trilling himself made of a photograph of Isaac Babel) "very long and thin, charged with emotion and internality.... an intellectual's face, a scholar's face." Behind him, an abstract light fades into darkness.

The cigarettes date them. Who now would sit for his portrait smoking a cigarette? It has been nearly thirty years since Lionel Trilling wrote his last essay. It has been more than thirty years since Allen Tate's Essays of Four Decades was first printed. Both men were publishing essays as far back as the 1930s. Why would these two collections of their essays appear now? Who reads Trilling now? Who reads Tate? Are their intellectual battles our own?

In some cases no. The Stalinism infecting American liberals in the 1950s is gone. Few literary laymen concentrate much attention these days on William Dean Howells, John Peale Bishop, or Herbert Read, or are caught up in the Leavis-Snow controversy. When Tate assumes his readers are acquainted with Elder Olson, T.R. Henn, and Samuel H. Monk, twenty-first-century readers may shake their heads and think these men and their remarks antique at best. Why should we read old critics?

We should read Trilling and especially Tate for at least two reasons. First, they predate much of the reductive folly that characterizes literary criticism in our time. In these two volumes, we see two scholars who still love literature for its proper purposes, who see good literature as a catalyst of careful thinking, who see poems and novels as means of understanding humanity, as an invitation to self-examination, as a quest for reality: "the look and feel of things, how things are done and what things are worth and what they cost and what the odds are," as Trilling puts it. More than this, literary criticism for Allen Tate is "the intelligence trying to think into the moving world a rational order of value."

A second reason to take up these two gifted critics is to see them take up arms against a sea of troubles. A half century ago, these critics were defending language itself, the value of universals, of moral discernment, of authorial intention. It is refreshing to hear Trilling say that his first concern was to discover "the animus of the author, the objects of his will, the things he wants or wants to have happen." It is encouraging to hear Tate defend poetry as a way of knowing, and words as a necessary completion of human experience. In a few cases, their battles have been won, in others they were fighting the initial skirmishes of later battles.

Perusing a book catalogue from the Modern Language Association or the offerings of a major university press, one sees immediately that the modern critic of literature is caught up in identity politics, gender wars, or various ideological conflicts--all of which are attempts to shape literature to one's own ideological agenda. Instead of being a pilgrim in quest of meaning and truth, the critic sets up as a kind of power broker. Tate saw this coming and called it intellectual pride, where the critic assumes a "dubious superiority to the work as a whole. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Two Mid-Century Critics. (Comment)
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.