Of This Time, Of That Place by Lionel Trilling, 1944
The magic trick:
Comparing the literary criticism of Howe with his actions and decisions as a professor
Much can and has been written about the character of Tertan in this story. I, instead, was most drawn to the way Trilling compares the literary criticism of Howe, related early in the story, with the professor’s actions and decisions of the story’s second half. Specifically, the critic writes of Howe’s poetry: “The Howes do no harm, but they do no good when positive good is demanded of all responsible men.” This is the key idea, as far as I can tell, in the story.
Howe does nothing particularly wrong, per se, in the way he deals with the ensuing classroom situations involving Tertan and Blackburn. But he is lazy, weak, maybe even a little scared, selfish, in the decisions he makes as a professor regarding those two students. Does he cause any great harm? No, perhaps not. But perhaps, in the bigger picture, yes. It’s a very interesting question to consider. And that’s quite a trick on Trilling’s part.
There was a silence between them. Both dropped their eyes to the blue-book on the desk. On its cover Howe had penciled: “F: This is very poor work.”
Howe picked up the blue-book. There was always the possibility of injustice. The teacher may be bored by the mass of papers and not wholly attentive. A phrase, even the student’s handwriting, may irritate him unreasonably. “Well,” said Howe, “let’s go through it.”