Despite all the claims and complaints to the contrary, it now looks as if the 1950’s will go down as one of the most barren decades in American criticism. For nearly ten years the intellectual energy and artistic commitment of our critics have been diminishing. While the sheer quantity of criticism has been prodigious, there has been a fundamental decline in seriousness. The last book of any real, intellectual urgency was Lionel Trilling’s The Liberal Imagination, published in 1950 but essentially a document of the forties—the most brilliant document we have of the cultivated liberal mind recoiling from its radical inclinations in the face of the Cold War. Trilling himself could not improve on it; in the fifties he has only succeeded in polishing his style, widening his influence, and refining his distaste for avant-garde literature in the European sense (for that, too, was considered a form of radicalism). Our criticism at large has degenerated into a helpless confession of boredom with the present condition of literature, or, what is worse, an undisguised effort to exploit the postures of criticism in the interests of middlebrow careerism.
Criticism has thus conformed to the general literary decline of the period. It shares with most of the serious fiction and poetry of the decade a diminished sense of the power of art, and a sense of politics so relaxed as to be indistinguishable from lassitude. Frightened perhaps by the demands which celebrated generations of avant-garde writers allowed art to make on their lives, the writers of the fifties have domesticated their sense of literary mission to a neat, manageable size. It makes few demands on them, and with a tactful reciprocity, they in turn make very few demands on art. As for politics, they have sociology instead— a literary sociology which invites no social action and which is second only to psychoanalysis in providing moral alibis.
Without conviction in the power of art or the reality of politics, criticism has given itself over to “culture.” The concept of “culture” has now become the last refuge of the liberal mind. A lively “cultural” approach to literature is now the favored practice among those bright younger critics who have seen at a glance that the mileage has run out on the close reading of texts. And unlike the explication of texts, the “cultural” approach has obvious advantages—namely, a career in middle-brow journalism. The distance between Trilling’s Columbia seminars and the pages of Harper’s is now a straight line.
But what is this “culture” which is so fondly invoked, so handsomely worried over, and in the end so utterly supported by the liberal critics? Fending its way among political shibboleths, psychoanalytic cant, and works of literature and sub-literature; shopping for objects of interests—up-todate, but not too demanding—like a housewife putting to...
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