James Baldwin, Lionel Trilling, American Studies, and the Freudian Tragic

in James Baldwin Review

The intellectual connection between James Baldwin and Lionel Trilling, and the resonances across their criticism, are more substantial than scholarly and biographical treatments have disclosed. For Trilling, Baldwin’s writings were notable for their deviation from most humanistic inquiry, which he considered insufficiently alert to the harms and depredations of culture. Baldwin’s work became for Trilling a promising indication that American criticism could be remade along the lines of a tragic conception of culture deriving from Freud. This essay concentrates on a relevant but neglected dynamic in American letters—the mid-twentieth-century tension between Freudian thought and American humanistic inquiry evident in fields like American Studies—to explain the intellectual coordinates within which Trilling developed an affinity for Baldwin’s work. The essay concludes by suggesting that the twilight of Freud’s tragic conception of culture, which figured centrally in the modernist critical environment in which Baldwin and Trilling encountered one another, contributed to an estrangement whereby the two came to be seen as unrelated and different kinds of critics, despite the consonance of their critical idioms during the 1940s and 1950s.

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