Literary Lights

Two American men of letters

Adam Kirsch, until recently senior editor of The New Republic and columnist for the Jewish magazine Tablet, has a new book out: Rocket and Lightship: Essays on Literature and Ideas (W.W. Norton, £17.02). I have never met Mr Kirsch, who is not yet 40, but his work strikes me as serious, erudite and deserving of notice. How does he compare with the chief critic of the New Yorker, James Wood, who is a decade older? They have much in common, but the contrasts, too, are striking: Kirsch’s background is Jewish, Wood’s Evangelical Anglican; Kirsch is from Los Angeles, Wood from Durham. Both have now established themselves in the company of America’s most senior arbiters of taste: the likes of Leon Wieseltier, Cynthia Ozick or Harold Bloom.

Kirsch and Wood slightly remind me of Lionel Trilling and Edmund Wilson, friends and rivals who dominated American literary criticism in the middle decades of the last century. As it happens, Kirsch has written a short (and excellent) book on Trilling, Why Trilling Matters (Yale University Press), and clearly identifies strongly with him. Indeed, the impressive intellectual scope of Rocket and Lightship is reminiscent of Trilling’s great collections of essays, beginning with The Liberal Imagination in 1950. Wood has a similar regard for Wilson’s “clear-running judgment” and “erotic curiosity for knowledge”, on whom so many Modernist writers relied. He clearly hopes to surpass Wilson’s “massive” career; for, if that career “exposes the limits of literary journalism”, Wood seems confident of storming the heights of academic criticism too by adding to his New Yorker pulpit a chair at Harvard. Kirsch, who joined December’s mass exodus from The New Republic, will doubtless be snapped up soon as well.

Looking back on the colossal prestige that Wilson and Trilling enjoyed as public intellectuals, it is hard to imagine any literary critic successfully emulating them today. It is too glib to say that we live in a post-literary culture, but it has become apparent that future generations will no longer exalt the “function of literary criticism” as a Matthew Arnold or a T.S. Eliot could once do.

Yet Kirsch still seems to carry on as if bookishness were as natural a disposition as it ever was, as if one could still with Milton see the book as a form of immortality: “the precious life-blood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life.” In the title essay of Rocket and Lightship, Kirsch reinvents the aphorism — a form ideally suited to our age of short attention spans. “Today, finding a good used bookstore is like finding Friday’s footprint — evidence of a fellowship that is ordinarily invisible.”

The greatest critics are usually also poets or novelists. Both Trilling and Wilson tried their hands at fiction, with limited success. Memoirs of Hecate County, Wilson’s 1946 satirical stories about suburban America, achieved notoriety when the book was banned for obscenity, fought over in the Supreme Court, and eventually republished in 1959. Trilling wrote a political novel, The Middle of the Journey, and a few short stories, of which one — “Of This Time, of That Place” — achieved true greatness.

Their younger successors are also creative writers: Kirsch has published two volumes of poetry, Wood an  autobiographical novel, The Book Against God. Both critics are now in their prime. Wood, who used to write for the Guardian, is already well-known in London, but Kirsch has yet to make an impact on this side of the Atlantic. I very much hope that he will. As George Weigel writes on page 29, Washington is bereft of political leadership. But America also needs men and women of letters of the quality of Adam Kirsch.

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