American Literature, American Culture

By Gordon Hutner | Go to book overview

PART III
POSTWAR ERA, 1945-1970

The years following the Second World War witnessed a dramatic change in the tradition of American cultural critique. Critics of American literature moved more thoroughly into the mainstream, surrendering their connection to the Emersonian tradition of oppositionalism--i.e., anti-institutional, anti-essential, and anti foundational convictions--that had animated the first half of the century. Some critics, like Leslie Fiedler, Alfred Kazin, Mary McCarthy, and James Baldwin, did preserve an antagonistic edge, demanding of American literature old and new something deeper and more radiant than the consolations of a corpse-cold "vital center." So had Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., described the consensus politics in the postwar era, which associated a middle course with the new peace and the new prosperity, a vision easily enough understood as (some would say confused with) a renewed commitment to democratic virtues.

By and large, critics of American literature fell into this new line, offering ingenious, spirited interpretations of liberal humanism to be found in The Scarlet Letter, Moby-Dick, and Huckleberry Finn, three of the era's favorite occasions for arguing the expansiveness or tragic limits of the American character. In this pursuit, many were self-consciously following the path of F. O. Matthiessen American Renaissance ( 1941), a magisterial study of antebellum writing, a decade of profound and furious composition that gave us the major works of Hawthorne, Emerson, Melville, Whitman, and Thoreau. The studies generated by Marthiessen's tome were legion, and perhaps no other single book in its time was understood to define so decisively the course American scholarship was to take for the next twenty or thirty years. In the revisionist age that has followed, none has seemed more responsible for obstructing the recognition, perhaps even negating the presence, of the literature it excludes.

Yet as powerful as Matthiessen's example was, it was not the only influential one. Indeed, the "vital center" could not retain its illusion of vitality without summoning a critic capable of testing its pieties. That critic was to prove equally authoritative: Lionel Trilling, a professor of modern literature at Columbia. While Trilling wrote on a number of writers--British, American, and continental authors, novelists and poers alike--his most profound effect has been on the study of American fiction, which he reviewed regularly throughout his career. Trilling's success depended on negotiating his outsider status into that of the liberal critic par excellence. Told in the 1930s that he could expect no future at Columbia--for being a Marxist (a brief partisanship), a Freudian, and a Jew-- Trilling defied and eventually overcame his university antagonists. Once secure in academe as the author of a critical study of Matthew Arnold, he also capitalized on his associations in the New York magazine world of literary politics and emerged as a distinguished man of letters. His essays in such collections as The Liberal Imagination ( 1950), Opposing Self ( 1956), and Beyond Culture ( 1965) often seemed to define the agenda of much of America's intellectual life in their time. Trilling's preeminence was achieved through

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