Edward Mendelson is Lionel Trilling Professor in the Humanities at Columbia. His latest book is Early Auden, Later Auden: A Critical Biography.
 (September 2017)

IN THE REVIEW

What Is the Critic’s Job?

A.O. Scott, Brooklyn, October 2015

Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth

by A.O. Scott

This Thing We Call Literature

by Arthur Krystal
Two lucid and intelligent books, A.O. Scott’s Better Living Through Criticism and Arthur Krystal’s This Thing We Call Literature, explore the same complex theme: criticism as a public art and a public service, performed, however, by critics who speak for themselves, addressing individual readers, not a collective public. Both books …

The Genius and Generosity of Jimmy Merrill

James Merrill, Stonington, Connecticut, June 1973; photograph by Jill Krementz

James Merrill: Life and Art

by Langdon Hammer
James Merrill began his public career as a poet at twenty-five, four years after he graduated from Amherst, with the exquisitely crafted, tautly controlled lyrics in his First Poems (1951). His style gradually relaxed over the next twenty-five years, but he remained committed to his early elegance and virtuosity. Then, …

In the Depths of the Digital Age

Attendees of the Qingdao International Beer Festival taking a selfie with a smartphone, Shandong province, China, August 2015

Pressed for Time: The Acceleration of Life in Digital Capitalism

by Judy Wajcman

Exposed: Desire and Disobedience in the Digital Age

by Bernard E. Harcourt
Virginia Woolf’s serious joke that “on or about December 1910 human character changed” was a hundred years premature. Human character changed on or about December 2010, when everyone, it seemed, started carrying a smartphone. For the first time, practically anyone could be found and intruded upon, not only at some fixed address at home or at work, but everywhere and at all times. Before this, everyone could expect, in the ordinary course of the day, some time at least in which to be left alone, unobserved, unsustained and unburdened by public or familial roles. That era now came to an end.

NYR DAILY

What Thucydides Knew About the US Today

Philipp Foltz: Pericles’s Funeral Oration, 1877

Historians argue among themselves whether Thucydides is a moralizing philosopher or, in a common phrase, “the first scientific historian.” What is radical about him, and gives him his unerring clear-sightedness, is that he is both. He understands morals, not as a set of arbitrary rules imposed or wished upon reality, but part of the fabric of reality itself, in the same way that Greek philosophy had begun to understand physical laws as inseparable from reality. Thucydides came to the same insight that Ludwig Wittgenstein recorded centuries later when he wrote that ethics “must be a condition of the world like logic.” In the two years since the 2016 US election, it seems ever more clear that Thucydides is the greatest historian not only of empire but also of contemporary politics.

Obama as Literary Critic

Barack Obama at Occidental College, 1981

In a letter to his college girlfriend, Barack Obama writes with strikingly suggestive insight into Eliot’s literary and religious tradition and his special relation to it. Instead of isolating Eliot in some social, ethnic, or sexual category, instead of hearing in him the voice of political or ideological error, Obama finds a deep ambivalence that might be felt by anyone.

Escape from Microsoft Word

When I work in Word, for all its dazzling prowess, I can’t escape a faint sense of having entered a closed, rule-bound society. When I write in WordPerfect, with all its scruffy, low-tech simplicity, the world seems more open, a place where endings can’t be predicted, where freedom might be real.