Take heart, Reader, old or new: These essays—their premises, arguments, conclusions, triumphs, and shortfalls—are still well...

Returns to print 32 tough-minded discourses, written from 1938 to 1975, from one of American literature’s most exacting cultural critics.

Positioning Trilling (1905–75) for unfamiliar readers, editor Wieseltier (Kaddish, 1998) presents him as “a distinguished enemy of his time.” Repute aside, how fare these writings today? Trilling’s abiding concern: how literary situations embody cultural situations—those moral struggles about personal choice, which in turn determine literary treatment. He prizes how James’s anarchist study The Princess Casamassima does not shirk the price civilization exacts, nor our duty to protest extortion at “the dark and bloody crossroads where literature and politics meet.” Fellow feeling imbues reconsiderations of Huck Finn (as “a friend to man”) and Keats’s “heroic” letters and “The Immortality Ode” (commemorating not the death of inspiration but the birth of adulthood). Reflections on love, not lust, as Lolita’s ruling theme still sizzle. But Santayana proves himself the prig Trilling claims he is not; advocacy for Howells dotes on the critic’s extrapolations; Austen’s mischievous deep-founded skepticism in Mansfield Park outflanks the sober professor. Despite his Partisan Review allegiance, his essays (The Liberal Imagination, 1950; Beyond Culture, 1965; etc.) toe no party line, though few pass unsanctified by Freud or “dialectic.” Others, tied to their times, are grave markers, not eternal flames: Revisiting the Leavis-Snow “Two Cultures” tongue fight is like chewing sawdust. Trilling consistently pits “spontaneity, complexity, and variety” against the propensity to commiserate with, then condescend to, then coerce our peers. Not tragic, never droll, this successful lecturer—instantly understood while sparking further thought—makes the “complex and difficult and exhausting” moral life sound less empowering than burdensome. Does all good literature wag a moral like a tail?

Take heart, Reader, old or new: These essays—their premises, arguments, conclusions, triumphs, and shortfalls—are still well worth grappling with.

Pub Date: May 1, 2000

ISBN: 0-374-25794-9

Page Count: 576

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2000


If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

The authors have created a sort of anti-Book of Virtues in this encyclopedic compendium of the ways and means of power.

Everyone wants power and everyone is in a constant duplicitous game to gain more power at the expense of others, according to Greene, a screenwriter and former editor at Esquire (Elffers, a book packager, designed the volume, with its attractive marginalia). We live today as courtiers once did in royal courts: we must appear civil while attempting to crush all those around us. This power game can be played well or poorly, and in these 48 laws culled from the history and wisdom of the world’s greatest power players are the rules that must be followed to win. These laws boil down to being as ruthless, selfish, manipulative, and deceitful as possible. Each law, however, gets its own chapter: “Conceal Your Intentions,” “Always Say Less Than Necessary,” “Pose as a Friend, Work as a Spy,” and so on. Each chapter is conveniently broken down into sections on what happened to those who transgressed or observed the particular law, the key elements in this law, and ways to defensively reverse this law when it’s used against you. Quotations in the margins amplify the lesson being taught. While compelling in the way an auto accident might be, the book is simply nonsense. Rules often contradict each other. We are told, for instance, to “be conspicuous at all cost,” then told to “behave like others.” More seriously, Greene never really defines “power,” and he merely asserts, rather than offers evidence for, the Hobbesian world of all against all in which he insists we live. The world may be like this at times, but often it isn’t. To ask why this is so would be a far more useful project.

If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 1998

ISBN: 0-670-88146-5

Page Count: 430

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 1998



This a book of earlier, philosophical essays concerned with the essential "absurdity" of life and the concept that- to overcome the strong tendency to suicide in every thoughtful man-one must accept life on its own terms with its values of revolt, liberty and passion. A dreary thesis- derived from and distorting the beliefs of the founders of existentialism, Jaspers, Heldegger and Kierkegaard, etc., the point of view seems peculiarly outmoded. It is based on the experience of war and the resistance, liberally laced with Andre Gide's excessive intellectualism. The younger existentialists such as Sartre and Camus, with their gift for the terse novel or intense drama, seem to have omitted from their philosophy all the deep religiosity which permeates the work of the great existentialist thinkers. This contributes to a basic lack of vitality in themselves, in these essays, and ten years after the war Camus seems unaware that the life force has healed old wounds... Largely for avant garde aesthetes and his special coterie.

Pub Date: Sept. 26, 1955

ISBN: 0679733736

Page Count: 228

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Sept. 19, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 1955

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