Sooner or later, the great men turn out to be all alike. They never stop working. They never lose a minute. It is very depressing.
—V. S. Pritchett on Edward Gibbon
“The Age of Criticism,” Randall Jarrell called the literary life of his own day, in an essay of that title written in the early 1950s. Jarrell used the phrase in derogation: there was too much criticism, from his point of view, and too much of it was extravagant in its pretensions. From the standpoint of today, however, that age is beginning to look more and more admirable. At the time T. S. Eliot, Edmund Wilson, F. R. Leavis, and Lionel Trilling were working at the critic’s trade; so were John Crowe Ransom, William Empson, Yvor Winters, and Randall Jarrell himself, and to these one could, without too much strain, add another score or so of fairly impressive names.
Although born in 1900, and very much in...