It is not often that a literary critic receives the crown of a collected edition, and if he does he is probably something more than a literary critic. So it is with Lionel Trilling, whose complete works are now appearing from the Oxford University Press. There is indeed a novel, and a few short stories, besides the works of literary history and criticism, but it is not chiefly by these that he exceeds the limits of the man of letters. It is as a critic of culture, habits of thought and feeling, extending on occasion to the borders of politics, that Trilling has chiefly presented himself. 'My own interests,' he says, 'lead me to see literary situations as cultural situations, and cultural situations as great elaborate fights about moral issues.' He speaks of his 'cultural and non-literary method', and defines as his first concern 'the animus of the author, the objects of his will, the things he wants or wants to have happen'. This brings Trilling a good deal nearer to the Victorian sage than to the 20th-century New Critic; and, as has often been said, his purposes, his relation to the life around him, were close in spirit to those of the subject of his first book - Matthew Arnold.
LRB 6 May 1982 | PDF Download