The Last Great Critic

Glick, Nathan. “The Last Great Critic.” The Atlantic, July 2000.


I CANNOT close this review without noting two contributions by the editor. John Rodden’s introductory survey of the contents of this collection is richly but casually informative; it is also lively, witty, opinionated, and fair-minded. His other essay, “Trilling’s Homage to Orwell” is adapted from Rodden’s book The Politics of Literary Reputation (1989). Rodden argues here that Trilling’s single piece on Orwell, his introduction to a 1952 reissue of Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, was largely responsible for establishing Orwell’s reputation in the United States as a “virtuous man” who never faltered in his pursuit of “the politics of truth.” When the book was originally published, it was either disregarded or dismissed, because Orwell’s firsthand report on the treacherous role played by the Stalinists during the Spanish Civil War was anathema to leftist orthodoxy at the time. Trilling found Orwell to be an exemplary figure because of “his simple ability to look at things in a downright, undeceived way.” Trilling went on to draw this remarkably chastening lesson from Orwell’s character:

He is not a genius — what a relief! What an encouragement. For he communicates to us the sense that what he has done any one of us could do

Or could do if we but made up our mind to do it, if we but surrendered a little of the cant that comforts us, if for a few weeks we paid no attention to the little group with which we habitually exchange opinions, if we took our chance of being wrong or inadequate, if we looked at things simply and directly…. He liberates us…. he frees us from the need for the inside dope…. he restores the old sense of the democracy of the mind…. He has the effect of making us believe that we can become full members of the society of thinking men.

The Atlantic