Edward Mendelson is Lionel Trilling Professor in the Humanities at Columbia. His latest book is Early Auden, Later Auden: A Critical Biography.
 (March 2019)

IN THE REVIEW

Reading in an Age of Catastrophe

Facing the Abyss: American Literature and Culture in the 1940s

by George Hutchinson
George Hutchinson’s Facing the Abyss has bracing and revelatory things to say about American culture in the 1940s; also, by contrast and implication, about American culture today. The book brings into focus intellectual and emotional realities of the decade during and after World War II that current historical memory largely occludes behind heroicizing or condescending stereotypes.

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, …

NYR DAILY

Auden on No-Platforming Pound

Ezra Pound composing pro-fascist commentaries on stationary emblazoned with Mussolini’s motto “Liberty Is a Duty, Not a Right,” Italy, 1940

In 1945, when Bennett Cerf of Random House was preparing to send to the printer An Anthology of Famous English and American Poetry, he omitted twelve early poems by Ezra Pound included in a 1927 anthology on which the new book had been based. In the years since those poems, Pound had become notorious for his fascist politics and florid anti-Semitism. W.H. Auden, one of Cerf’s authors at Random House, wrote Cerf some letters about Cerf’s action and its consequences that may still be clarifying today. “I think your very natural abhorrence of Pound’s conduct has led you to take the first step which, if not protested now, will be followed by others which would horrify you,” he wrote.

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.