Mark Goble reviews Mark Greif's The Age of the Crisis of Man : Thought and Fiction in America, 1933–1973 in The LA Review of Books.
I DOUBT I’M ALONE in confessing that my earliest awareness of “literary criticism” as an enterprise and institution comes from Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan. You know the scene: earnest, middle-class Tom Townsend makes his move on Audrey Rouget with some exquisitely awkward name-checking of Lionel Trilling. Their exchange turns on Audrey’s disagreement with Trilling’s notion that, as she says, “nobody could like the heroine of Mansfield Park.” But Tom is not really interested in Austen, or in Audrey’s response to Fanny Price. “I like her,” Audrey insists, yet Tom is unpersuaded. “She sounds pretty unbearable,” he continues to declare, “but I haven’t read the book.”
With this remark, Tom signals many things — his arriviste awkwardness with works of culture, despite his intellectualism; his slightly condescending insecurity in the face of class pretensions he desires for himself. But more importantly, in the context of Mark Greif’s new book, Tom’s preposterous and charming bit of ventriloquism invokes the talismanic power of “ideas,” taken in their abstracted form. Novels and novelists that is, might have ideas, but critics seem better at delivering them for consideration, or put more plainly, for consumption. When Audrey presses Tom to justify his strong opinions in his readings of the text, he will have none of it, at least in part because that’s how many Jane Austen novels he has read: “None. I don’t read novels. I prefer good literary criticism. That way you get both the novelist’s ideas as well as the critic’s thinking.”
The Age of the Crisis of Man: Thought and Fiction in America, 1933-1973 is good literary criticism in this respect — and others too. In its emphasis on abstracted ideas, as much or more than the fiction that delivers them, it recalls the great critics that Tom Townsend brings to life in Metropolitan, even as it expresses a knowing appreciation for the limits and the aspirations of the language they once spoke.