This is the first in a new series of interviews about the art of criticism. More to follow soon.
Adam Kirsch is one of America’s most distinguished literary critics. Still only 37, over the past decade he has written extensively for the New Republic, the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books. He is the author of two collections of poetry, a biography of Benjamin Disraeli, and, most recently, Why Trilling Matters (Yale University Press).
For Prospect he has written on a wide variety of subjects, including 9/11, fairy tales, Nietzsche’s influence on American thought and, in the latest issue, a new generation of African writers who are helping to reinvent the modern immigration novel. I spoke to Kirsch earlier in the month about his work, influences and the future of literary criticism.
When you were growing up did you read much criticism?
It’s definitely something that was in the air in my house because my father is, and my grandfather was, a book reviewer for the Los Angeles Times. I think my own desire to do it started when I began reading TS Eliot’s essays as an English major at Harvard in the mid-90s. That was the first time I encountered criticism as literature. From there I was led to read Matthew Arnold and Samuel Johnson and the tradition of criticism.
What was it that struck you reading Eliot’s essays for the first time?
I suppose it was the idea of the intellectual drama of criticism, the idea that you’re responding to texts not just in terms of personal taste but in terms of what they say about the history of ideas, about society, about how literary ideas connect to political and ethical ideas. Those things made Elliot’s essays exciting to me, even though my personal tastes and politics are different from his.
After college you started working at the New Republic. How did that come about?
I started as a summer intern and the person who was then the assistant literary editor was leaving at the end of the summer. I was asked if I wanted to stay. At the time I had a scholarship to go to Cambridge but I decided that after doing a…