Lionel Trilling was not completely happy about being Lionel Trilling. “I have one of the great reputations in the academic world,” he wrote in his journal after being promoted to full professor in the Columbia English Department, in 1948. “This thought makes me retch.” Two years later, he published “The Liberal Imagination,” a book that sold more than seventy thousand copies in hardcover and more than a hundred thousand in paperback, and that made Trilling a figure, a model of the intellectual in Cold War America. He represented, for many people, the life of the mind. Trilling was baffled by the attention. “I hear on all sides of the extent of my reputation—which some even call ‘fame,’ ” he wrote in the journal. “It is the thing I have most wanted from childhood—although of course in much greater degree—and now that I seem to have it I have no understanding whatever of its basis—of what it is that makes people respond to what I say, for I think of it as of a simplicity and of a naivety almost extreme.”
He hated being regarded as a paragon of anything. In 1955, he complained to his analyst about “the effect on my emotional and sexual life of my sense of my prestige” and “my feeling of disgust with my public ‘noble’ character.” He became a University Professor at Columbia, but he did not consider himself a scholar: he had no languages except English and he didn’t see the point of the systematic study of literature. He did not consider himself a critic, either, and was surprised when he heard himself referred to as one. His ambition was to be a great novelist; he regarded his criticism as “an afterthought.” He disliked Columbia; he disliked most of his colleagues; he disliked teaching graduate students—in 1952, after a routine disagreement over the merits of a dissertation, he refused to teach in the graduate school again. He was depressive, he had writer’s block, and he drank too much. He did not even like his first name. He wished that he had been called John or Jack.
But although he may not have wanted what he had, and he may not have understood entirely why he had it, he appreciated its value and tended it with care. This meant cultivating a discreet distance from any group with which he might be too quickly identified—professors, public intellectuals, liberals, Jews. He was all of those things, of course; he would never have denied it. But he resented being understood under the aspect of anything so insufficiently nuanced as a category. Around the time “The Liberal Imagination” was published, he gave an enthusiastically received lecture at Princeton. He registered his reaction in the journal:
Feeling of total alienation from the academic profession and that I must not any more identify myself with it at such occasions. But I must in all things declare myself and go on being “brilliant,” and wrong if necessary, extreme. The sense that I fall between the two categories, of the academic and the man of genius & real originality, but better to make a full attempt toward “genius.”—To learn to make no concessions of a personal social kind toward the academic, but also not to signalize in a personal way my separation from it.
He wanted to feel superior without betraying to others his sense of superiority. A lot of psychic energy went into the care and maintenance of this persona. It was the price he paid for a small but subtle and distinctive body of criticism.
Trilling was forty-four when “The Liberal Imagination” came out, and he had already acquired a mystique among literary intellectuals. “With the deep-sunk colored pouches under his eyes, the cigarette always in hand like an intellectual gesture, an air that combined weariness, vanity, and immense caution, he was already a personage,” Alfred Kazin wrote about meeting Trilling for the first time, in 1942. “He seemed intent on not diminishing his career by a single word.” Trilling’s doctoral dissertation, on Matthew Arnold, had been published in 1939 and reviewed with approval by Edmund Wilson and Robert Penn Warren. His study of E. M. Forster, in 1943, was the occasion for a seven-page article in Time. A novel, “The Middle of the Journey,” appeared in 1947; it had a less happy reception and disappointing sales, but it was widely noticed. Trilling had taught at Columbia since 1932; he was a regular contributor to the Times and The New Yorker. Still, “The Liberal Imagination” was a phenomenon. It did something that very few books have ever done: it made literary criticism matter to people who were not literary critics.
“The Liberal Imagination” was a Cold War book. It appeared at the same political moment as Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.,’s “The Vital Center” (1949), George Orwell’s “1984” (1949), and Richard Crossman’s “The God That Failed” (1950)—books that helped make the case for liberal anti-Communism. Trilling was certainly a liberal anti-Communist. Orwell was one of his heroes: he reviewed “1984” in The New Yorker, and called the book “momentous.” And he was prominently associated with Partisan Review, which had been the journalistic home of the anti-Communist left since 1937. Five of the sixteen essays in “The Liberal Imagination” first appeared in Partisan Review; a sixth is about Partisan Review. (The book is being reprinted this fall by New York Review Books.)
Like many liberal anti-Communists in the nineteen-forties, Trilling had once been a fellow-traveller. At the time he wrote the essays in “The Liberal Imagination,” his politics were, as he put it, “ultimately” leftist—meaning that his progressivism was tempered by pessimism about the limits of political action—and he always acknowledged the importance of Marx to his thought. But he despised the advocates of a dictatorship of virtue. “I live with a deep fear of Stalinism at my heart,” he wrote to the theatre critic, and his future Columbia colleague, Eric Bentley in March, 1946—before the Truman Doctrine, before the Berlin blockade, before the Hiss case. “I think of my intellectual life as a struggle, not energetic enough, against all the blindnesses and malign obfuscations of the Stalinoid mind of our time.”
Bentley wrote back with the thought that an uncompromising anti-Stalinism might risk replicating the intolerance of an uncompromising Stalinism. Trilling declined to split the difference. “I am sure that Stalinism is corrupt and dangerous,” he replied.
What revolts and disgusts me . . . is the hideous involvement of ideals, feelings, social indignations, exhibitions of martyrdom, self-pity. I expect a quantum of injustice in any imperium, expect contradictions as the price of order—what brings me to the puking-point is the fine feelings. And what brings me to the fighting-point is the increasingly sure sense that Stalinist power aims at the annihilation of anything that does not contribute to power. There has never been a power-ideology that so wished to destroy every human quality that did not add to itself.
The letters to Bentley are uncharacteristically direct. There is nothing so personal or quite so belligerent in “The Liberal Imagination.” Most people who picked up the book in 1950 would have understood it as an attack on the dogmatism and philistinism of the fellow-travelling left, but the term “liberal” is never defined in “The Liberal Imagination.” And there are, as a matter of political theory, very different types of liberals. There is, in Isaiah Berlin’s famous distinction, the liberal who believes in negative liberty, “freedom from,” and the liberal who believes in positive liberty, “freedom for.” There is the classical liberalism of free markets and individual rights, and the left liberalism of state planning and class solidarity. In Trilling’s time, many liberal anti-Communists insisted that membership in the Communist Party was a disqualification for teaching or for joining a labor union, and many liberal anti-anti-Communists vehemently disagreed. So when, in the preface, Trilling says, “In the United States at this time liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition,” he is indicating, in the elliptical manner that is characteristic of his prose, that he is treating all liberals alike.
In Trilling’s view, the faith that liberals share, whether they are Soviet apologists, Hayekian free marketers, or subscribers to Partisan Review, is that human betterment is possible, that there is a straight road to health and happiness. A liberal is a person who believes that the right economic system, the right political reforms, the right undergraduate curriculum, and the right psychotherapy will do away with unfairness, snobbery, resentment, prejudice, neurosis, and tragedy. The argument of “The Liberal Imagination” is that literature teaches that life is not so simple—for unfairness, snobbery, resentment, prejudice, neurosis, and tragedy happen to be literature’s particular subject matter. In Trilling’s celebrated statement: “To the carrying out of the job of criticizing the liberal imagination, literature has a unique relevance . . . because literature is the human activity that takes the fullest and most precise account of variousness, possibility, complexity, and difficulty.” This is why literary criticism has something to say about politics.
A key perception of “The Liberal Imagination” is that most human beings are not ideologues. Intellectual coherence is not a notable feature of their politics. People’s political opinions may be rigid; they are not necessarily rigorous. They tend to float up out of some mixture of sentiment, custom, moral aspiration, and aesthetic pleasingness. Trilling’s point was that this does not make those opinions any less potent politically. On the contrary, it’s the unexamined attitudes and assumptions—things that people take to be merely matters of manners or taste, and nothing so consequential as political positions—that need critical attention. “Unless we insist that politics is imagination and mind,” as Trilling put it, “we will learn that imagination and mind are politics, and of a kind we will not like.”
With a few exceptions, such as his essay on Wordsworth’s Immortality Ode, Trilling was not a close reader of texts. He thought that literary critics took style and aesthetics more seriously than writers themselves did. He was interested in big abstractions—mind, self, reality, will, pleasure, genius, sincerity, authenticity—and he used literature to assess the status of concepts like these in the minds of his readers. He was made fun of for his free deployment of “we”—“We are not likely to feel this,” “We are inclined to think that.” It was almost a trademark. But he was speaking to people like himself, liberal, educated people who wanted to be right-thinking. Why, for example, did these people find the heroines of Jane Austen’s “Mansfield Park” and Charles Dickens’s “Little Dorrit” unappealing? The answer had something to do with their notion of will. Why did they respect Theodore Dreiser and Sherwood Anderson and condescend to Henry James and William Dean Howells? It had something to do with their conception of reality. Why did enjoying Kipling make them feel guilty? It had something to do with changing assumptions about loyalty and the nation. Trilling thought that people’s literary preferences tell us something about their conception of what he called “the sentiment of being”: about the kind of people they wish to be and about the way they wish others to be—that is, about their morality and their politics.
The book that Trilling would have had in mind when he put the essays in “The Liberal Imagination” together was Arnold’s “Culture and Anarchy” (1867), also an attempt to chasten the liberalism of its day, and Trilling used “literature” in the same way that Arnold used “culture”: as a generic term that actually refers to an extremely select canon. Watching over the canon is one of the critic’s chief duties. He or she is a kind of health inspector, and the job is not a simple one, since a book’s overt politics may be quite different from its political effects. “The contemporary authors we most wish to read and most wish to admire for their literary qualities,” Trilling said, “demand of us a great agility and ingenuity in coping with their antagonism to our social and political ideals.” The critic lets us know which angels are worth wrestling with.
The business of criticism is therefore a perilous one. You do not want to make a mistake; much hangs in the balance. As Trilling warned, “Dreiser and James: with that juxtaposition we are immediately at the dark and bloody crossroads where literature and politics meet. One does not go there gladly, but nowadays it is not exactly a matter of free choice whether one does or does not go. . . . The liberal judgment of Dreiser and James goes back of politics, goes back to the cultural assumptions that make politics.” The business about the dark and bloody crossroads (possibly it’s the place where the ignorant armies clash?) is dramatic but obscure. No actual blood has ever been spilled in disputes over Henry James or T. S. Eliot or Robert Frost, and it is not obvious what metaphorical blood Trilling had in mind. But his disciples loved the phrase, for it assigned to criticism a mortal mission. “The Liberal Imagination” belongs to the age of (it feels a little funny just typing the words today) heroic criticism. It sent literature into battle.
Trilling was less of an anomaly than he liked to imagine. He was not the first English professor to feel alienated from his discipline, and he was certainly not the last. Anti-academicism is part of the culture of English departments. And there were plenty of congenial public intellectuals at Columbia during Trilling’s years there, starting with John Dewey, who admired Trilling’s book on Arnold, and Mark Van Doren, who was Trilling’s teacher, and including Jacques Barzun, Meyer Schapiro, Richard Hofstadter, and Daniel Bell. But Trilling did dream of being a famous novelist. He published a number of short stories—two of them, “The Other Margaret” and “Of This Time, of That Place,” were especially well regarded—and he had hopes for “The Middle of the Journey.”
The context for that novel is the split over Communism among middle-class progressives in the nineteen-thirties; the setting is a Connecticut village where a group of them are spending the summer. It’s a solid piece of fiction in the style of what Trilling called “moral realism”—the style of Austen, James, and Forster. Some reviewers criticized the novel for being idea-driven, but it is no more idea-driven than “A Passage to India,” and a lot less than “Hard Times.” Its weakness, which is a weakness in Trilling’s writing generally, is its difficulty with humor. (“When I first encountered the style of Lionel Trilling,” the art critic Harold Rosenberg once said, “I looked for the joke and discovered there wasn’t any.”) The dust jacket promised “a flashing comedy of manners,” which is what the pastoral setting suggests—writers and professors playing at being rustics. But, as he acknowledged to Bentley, Trilling did not have an ear for comedy. “I can imagine some wonderfully gifted comic writer who sees the sadness and avoids having to say anything explicitly,” he complained.
If “The Middle of the Journey” had been funny, it might have outlived its topical moment. Even as it was, the timing was unlucky. One of the main characters is based on Whittaker Chambers, whom Trilling had known when they were undergraduates at Columbia. When Trilling’s novel came out, in 1947, Chambers had broken with the Communist Party and was a well-known anti-Communist, but he did not make his spectacular accusation against Alger Hiss until the late summer of 1948. By then, the novel was nearly forgotten. Trilling tried for years to persuade Viking to reprint it, but it was not republished until 1975, the year Trilling died. It proceeded to sell fifty thousand copies in six months.
Until this year, it was not generally known that Trilling worked on another, untitled novel and got about a third of the way through it. This aborted enterprise, published as “The Journey Abandoned” (Columbia; $26.95), has been edited by Geraldine Murphy, who found the manuscript in Trilling’s papers, and who provides an excellent introduction. The unfinished book is populated with more complicated characters and relationships than “The Middle of the Journey,” but it’s not clear where the story is headed. Notes left by Trilling indicate that he was counting on inspiration, and inspiration evidently failed.
As Murphy says, the model for the book is one of Trilling’s favorite Henry James novels, “The Princess Casamassima,” the subject of a famous essay in “The Liberal Imagination.” Trilling took “The Princess Casamassima” to be an example of what he called the story of the Young Man from the Provinces, in which a bright but naïve young man (or woman; there are, after all, some well-known female protagonists in the tradition) decides to conquer, by sheer exertion of will, sophisticated society, to enter into the gates of power and knowledge. Some demon of circumstance hands this young person a chance, and the result is always the same. Illusions perdues. “The Red and the Black” belongs to this tradition; so do “Great Expectations,” “Sentimental Education,” and “The Portrait of a Lady.”
In Trilling’s novel, the naïve young man is an aspiring literary critic called Vincent; the chance he is handed is an appointment as the authorized biographer of a man who, after a worthy career as a writer and artist, has a much more distinguished career as a scientist. This improbable eminence—his name is Buxton—is still alive; sadly, soon after we’re introduced to him and the circle of intellectual power brokers around him (one of whom is based on Mary McCarthy), the manuscript breaks off. Some tragic choice or temptation must lie in the hero’s path, but there is no indication of what the crisis was going to be.
Unlike “The Middle of the Journey,” where the prose is modulated almost to flatness, the unfinished novel has passages that are close to Jamesian pastiche:
She saw the shadow cross his face. With how many starts and stops, with what a superabundance of doubts and false imaginings and searches for hidden significances, with how many attempts to master its own inchoateness would this young mind of his move toward such an idea as her mind had just so simply conceived. The basic trouble with the book, though, is that the character of Buxton is impossible. He was evidently intended as some sort of transcendent culture hero, wise beyond worldliness:
As the white beard wagged with the words Buxton was speaking, Buxton’s eyes were involved in some other activity. Under the heavy brows, the eyes lived with the life of the contemplating mind. . . . For the eyes showed, or so Vincent felt, a life beyond the words that Buxton was speaking. And, far more than the words, it was the eyes that were giving Vincent his strange new sense of well-being. According to Trilling’s notes, Buxton was inspired partly by the nineteenth-century poet Walter Savage Landor; Murphy thinks that Trilling may have had J. Robert Oppenheimer in mind. The descriptions, though, are reminiscent of Gloriani, the supremely successful sculptor in “The Ambassadors,” in whose garden Lambert Strether tells Little Bilham to “Live all you can.” James’s description of Gloriani:
He was to recall in especial, as the penetrating radiance, as the communication of the illustrious spirit itself, the manner in which, while they stood briefly, in welcome and response, face to face, he was held by the sculptor’s eyes. He was not soon to forget them, was to think of them, all unconscious, unintending, preoccupied though they were, as the source of the deepest intellectual sounding to which he had ever been exposed.
He is one of James’s less plausible inventions.
The unfinished novel doesn’t have much literary interest, but it does have a lot of biographical interest, because it lets us see Trilling imagining his own world—the world of ambitious young critics, resentful middle-aged professors, pompous publishers and compromised foundation heads, intellectual femmes fatales, and the megalomaniacal editors of little magazines—as a nineteenth-century novel. (In his journal, in the late nineteen-forties, Trilling notes that his friend and contemporary Irving Howe, on the basis of some critical pieces in Partisan Review and The Nation, has been offered a job at Time: “How right for my Vincent!”) The Young Man (or Woman) from the Provinces novel is built on an irony, which is that although the world that glitters inside the gates is mostly a sham, you can lose your soul trying to get there. Something real is at stake in the pursuit of an illusion. It would have been interesting to learn how Trilling made things turn out for Vincent.
“The Middle of the Journey” is the last work of fiction that Trilling published. The explanation usually given is that he was wounded by the reviews, particularly one in Commentary, by Robert Warshow. Warshow was a likable man, but he was a coldhearted critic, and he knew where to slip in the knife. Among many other things, he complained that none of the major characters in “The Middle of the Journey” are Jewish, even though “the middle class which experiences Stalinism was in large part a Jewish middle class.” The insinuation was that Trilling was trying to conceal his own Jewishness. “Mr. Trilling might have come closer to the ‘essence’ of the experience,” as Warshow dryly put it, “if he had been more willing to face his own relation to it.” The sting was that Trilling knew Warshow, they had the same politics, and he knew the editors at Commentary. He must have felt that this was family.
It was family, and so there is a back-story. Commentary had been founded by the American Jewish Committee two years before, in 1945. Its editor was Elliot Cohen, and Trilling was invited to join the advisory board. He declined. He didn’t want to be associated with a magazine that approached issues from a self-consciously Jewish perspective, and he was suspicious of the editor’s motives. “Elliot’s invitation to join the contributing board of editors of his Jewish magazine—not made in good faith—impulse to ‘degrade’ me by involving me in a Jewish venture,” he wrote in the journal. His refusal was not taken well by the editors, and Warshow’s review was evidently payback. Soon after it appeared, Trilling had a dream in which he watched three adolescents murder a bus driver: they pat him gently on the neck while they explain that they are going to kill him. “No emotion on the part of leader or his two followers except cruel intent—my sense that I was witnessing the cruelest possible thing,” Trilling described it in the journal. He associated the dream with Warshow’s review; he thought that the bus driver must be Cohen.
The question that Warshow raised about Trilling’s relation to his Jewishness was raised many more times after Trilling became a public figure. There were rumors that he had changed his name from Cohen, and remarks about his Anglophilia and his genteel manners. The case is not complicated. Trilling’s father, David Trilling, was an immigrant from Bialystok. His mother, Fannie Cohen, was born in London; her parents were Polish and Russian immigrants. The family was middle class when Trilling was a student, but the parents suffered during the Depression and afterward, and Trilling had to help support them. Most of his early short stories and reviews were on Jewish themes, and a lot of them appeared in a magazine called The Menorah Journal, which he wrote for frequently between 1925 and 1931, and where he was an editorial assistant from 1929 to 1930.
The Menorah Journal focussed, as one might expect, on subjects of interest to Jews. But when it came to “the Jewish present,” as Trilling described the editorial policy many years later, the magazine “undertook to normalize it by suggesting that it was not only as respectable as the present of any other group but also as foolish, vulgar, complicated, impossible, and promising.” The editors regarded it as a provincialism, a limitation on their intellectual freedom, to assume that there must be something called “the Jewish point of view”; the writers made fun of Jewish pieties about Jewishness without losing their feeling of solidarity as Jews.
“It is never possible for a Jew of my generation to ‘escape’ his Jewish origin,” Trilling explained, in a symposium on Jewish writers in 1944. Still, he said:
I cannot discover anything in my professional intellectual life which I can specifically trace back to my Jewish birth and rearing. I do not think of myself as a “Jewish writer.” I do not have in mind to serve by my writing any Jewish purpose. I should resent it if a critic of my work were to discover in it either faults or virtues which he called Jewish.
Around the same time, Trilling was asked to address Jewish students at Columbia. There is no innate quality of Jewishness, he told them. The culture of an American Jew is not Jewish; it’s American. Jewishness exists only because of “the belief of non-Jews that Jews constitute a racial entity and a certain kind of action on the part of non-Jews based on this belief.” Without this prejudice against the Jews, “the idea of Jewishness would largely disappear.”
Sartre was criticized for making the same argument, a few years later, in “Anti-Semite and Jew,” but there are always non-Jews who have ideas about “the Jews,” and so there are, on Trilling’s theory, always good reasons for Jews to feel Jewish. Even at Columbia, Trilling was not talking in a vacuum. When he was a graduate student there, he was advised by his professors to leave the English Department on the ground that it was not a congenial place for someone who was, as they put it, “a Freudian, a Marxist, and a Jew.” He was the first Jew to become an assistant professor in the department; he was appointed by the autocratic president of the university, Nicholas Murray Butler, during the summer vacation, so that the faculty would not have to be consulted. Afterward, his former dissertation adviser, Emery Neff, paid a visit to him and his wife, Diana, to explain that he should not understand his promotion to mean that the department would welcome any more Jews. The Trillings were not the kind of people to trim their style to suit the prejudices of people like Emery Neff. They had a mild scorn for Jews who, in their view, wallowed in Yiddishkeit, as they thought Kazin did in his memoirs; but Trilling was offended when a Jewish critic, Robert Alter, characterized his relation to Judaism as “honorable.” “What nonsense,” he wrote in his journal, toward the end of his life. “It had always—almost always—been a positive pleasure, an excitement.”
The oddest part of the Commentary episode is that the editor of The Menorah Journal when Trilling wrote for it was Elliot Cohen. Cohen had been a brilliant English major at Yale, but he had decided not to pursue an academic career because of anti-Semitism. Thus Trilling’s suspicion that Cohen was trying to “degrade” him: Trilling thought that Cohen resented his academic success. Eventually, Trilling did become a contributor to Commentary, and he and Warshow became good friends. After Warshow died, of a heart attack, in 1955, at the age of forty-one, Trilling wrote an introduction to his collected essays, “The Immediate Experience” (1962). He did not ask the publisher for a fee, out of friendship for Warshow.
There is in Trilling’s writing much of what Arnold called “the Hebraic”—a concern with right conduct. But you don’t have to be Jewish to love Hebraism. If there is a religious analogue to the spirit of Trilling’s criticism, it is one that he shares with most modern American thinkers: the Protestant Reformation. From his break with Communism and the Popular Front to the end, his work was about fighting the evils of institutionalized authority. The recessional at his memorial service, in St. Paul’s Chapel on the Columbia campus, was Martin Luther’s great hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”
Still, the reason that Trilling published no more fiction after 1947 probably had more to do with inner doubts than with mean reviews. (Mean reviews by one’s “friends” came with the territory in New York intellectual life. Writers in Trilling’s circle were continually “breaking” with one another over matters of political or moral punctilio.) A few years after he published “The Middle of the Journey,” Trilling had a conversation with Allen Ginsberg, a former student whom he had ministered to during various adventures with university, medical, and legal authorities. They talked about a novel that Jack Kerouac, who had also been a student at Columbia, was finishing. Kerouac had once been involved in a murder committed by another Columbia student, Lucien Carr: he was arrested for helping Carr conceal the murder weapon. Trilling insisted to Ginsberg that a novel by Kerouac could not be any good. “But later I saw with what bitterness I had made the prediction,” he wrote in his journal, “not wanting K’s book to be good because if the book of an accessory to a murder is good, how can one of mine be?—The continuing sense that wickedness—or is it my notion of courage—is essential for real creation.”
If you could get Trilling on the couch in some analyst’s office in the sky, this is the place you would want to take out your notebook. Trilling’s ambivalence about his own success was not strategic. It was neurotic. He knew this himself: it’s why he blamed his prestige for his sexual difficulties. (His analyst suggested that, feeling guilty for being intellectually superior, Trilling might have chosen not to be superior in all things.) In 1951, Trilling made some notes on a conversation with David Riesman, who had just published “The Lonely Crowd”:
The evening with David Riesman in which with absolute precision he laid his finger on my literary trouble, although he did not know it the thing that has kept me from writing—my admiration of a commitment to what I have called the fierce and charismatic writers—as he said, my greater respect for Dostoevsky than Tolstoi. He was enormously perceptive, very brilliant, on the point. . . . I could not fail to see that my impulse for the fierce and charismatic is connected with all the confused tendencies that I have been discovering in my psn [personality]—which a month ago the perception of seemed so liberating—the meaning of the sadistic ideal in its character as representative of the superego.
Trilling desired success, but he dreaded his motives for succeeding. He seems to have associated ambition with the need to dominate or humiliate other people—with “wickedness” (which is a hint about what he might have wanted to have happen in the unfinished novel). In the Commentary dream, he does not identify with the victim, with the bus driver; he identifies with the killers. Trilling ended his notes on the conversation with Riesman with a resolution: “My sense that from now on I could be content to be quiet, that this was my own thing to do.”
And that is what he did. He became an apostle of acquiescence, of what he called “the refusal to be great.” It was a position that had always appealed to him; it’s one of the things he admired about Forster. But now he seemed convinced that every social and personal pathology, from revolutionary violence to narcissism, comes from the refusal to accept that life is conditioned—by the capacities we inherit, by the circumstances we are born into, by the people whose desires conflict with ours, by death. It was an interesting turn for a man who resented any institutional claims, who found even the obligation to teach graduate students and to haggle with colleagues an intolerable constraint on his genius. “The relaxed will,” as he named it, using Forster’s term, did not come naturally to Trilling; it required (to be Trillingesque) a strenuous exertion of the will. Trilling put on a face of dutifulness and deference because he mistrusted his own instincts.
When Freud published “Civilization and Its Discontents,” in 1930, Trilling wrote a review dismissing the book as absurd. But the magazine he wrote it for, The New Freeman, folded, and the review never appeared. That was when Trilling was still a Marxist. After 1950, he became infatuated with “Civilization and Its Discontents,” and especially with Freud’s notion of a “death drive.” The death drive is one of the most fantastic creatures in the Freudian menagerie, and Trilling took the concept exactly as Freud intended it: as naming an innate, biological resistance that people have to being made better. The death drive was designed to discredit the claim, made by renegade Freudians like Wilhelm Reich and, later on, Herbert Marcuse, that the right kind of political and economic change would do away with “discontent,” with neurosis. Freud’s argument, Trilling wrote in his last major work, “Sincerity and Authenticity,” “may be thought to stand like a lion in the path of all hopes of achieving happiness through the radical revision of social life.”
In the books published after 1950—“The Opposing Self” (1955), “Beyond Culture” (1965), and the posthumous collection “The Last Decade” (1979)—Trilling extended his criticism of liberalism to almost every tendency of modern art and thought. He continued to write nominally from inside the progressive camp, as a fellow-liberal and modernist casting a cool eye on liberalism and modernism; and he produced some significant essays—on the “two cultures” debate between C. P. Snow and F. R. Leavis, on Isaac Babel, on James Joyce’s letters. But he was accused of abandoning liberalism altogether. “He now feels that his urgent task is to defend not freedom but the virtues of acknowledging necessity,” Joseph Frank complained in an influential review in 1956. “From a critic of the liberal imagination, then, Mr. Trilling has evolved into one of the least belligerent and most persuasive spokesmen of the conservative imagination.”
Debate over the political implications of Trilling’s criticism continued long after his death. Irving Kristol called Trilling one of the two major influences on his neoconservatism (the other was Leo Strauss); Diana Trilling claimed that Kristol and his wife, Gertrude Himmelfarb, were mistaken in thinking that Trilling shared their views. “I am of the firmest belief that he would never have become a neoconservative,” she announced in her memoir of their marriage, “The Beginning of the Journey.” “Nothing in his thought supports the sectarianism of the neoconservative movement. Everything in his thought opposes its rule by doctrine.” It was possibly a just fate for a man who believed that, as Trilling once told the sociologist Richard Sennett, “between is the only honest place to be.” If you wrap yourself in enough nuance, people will understand you as they see fit. Few critics have spun more nuance than Trilling.
Trilling was a writer of many drafts, and his prose shows the trouble he took with it. It reads as though it had been written by a man who worried that an imperfectly balanced sentence could create an opening, however small, through which totalitarian impulses might creep. But balancing a thought was the essence of Trilling’s genius. His characteristic sentences turn on themselves. They can sometimes seem self-negating:
To suppose that we can think like men of another time is as much of an illusion as to suppose that we can think in a wholly different way.
The poet, it is true, is an effect of environment, but we must remember that he is no less a cause.
Perhaps only science could effectively undertake the task of freeing sexuality from science itself.
This intense conviction of the existence of the self apart from culture is, as culture well knows, its noblest and most generous achievement.
The cast of the mind that produced these sentences is not paradoxical. It’s dialectical. Trilling saw everything under a double aspect: as a condition and a consequence, a trend and a backlash, a pathway to enlightenment and a dead end of self-deception. He was a humanist who believed that works of literature can speak to us across time. That was what he had been taught as an undergraduate, in a pioneering Great Books course created by an English professor named John Erskine; it is still the educational philosophy of Columbia College. But he believed it with weakening conviction; he could see all the arguments for considering humanism a vain promise. In 1970, negotiating to write a book on Thomas Mann for the Modern Masters series, he told the editor, Frank Kermode, “What I have ultimately in mind is a statement about humanism, poor dear. Must its postures seem so beside the point? Is it right that I should now be made nothing but uncomfortable by E. M. Forster?”
Trilling’s anxieties were not merely theoretical. They arose from his experiences in the classroom, where he witnessed something that should not have been mysterious to a Marxist, which is that books mean different things in different periods. How can Jane Austen conceivably “speak to” late-twentieth-century American college students, for example? Isn’t what Trilling once called the “hum and buzz of implication” that constituted the culture of the British Home Counties at the time of the Napoleonic Wars impossibly remote from the hum and buzz of Morningside Heights at the time of the Vietnam War? To take another writer important to Trilling: D. H. Lawrence’s novels meant one thing when explicit discussions of sexuality were taboo; they mean something else in a sexually permissive time, when readers are likely to take them as ratifying the ideal of conscience-free sexuality. And this does not mean that Lawrence (who was certainly not a permissivist himself) has “won”; it means that one set of socially approved views about sexuality has been replaced by a different and opposite set. The dog catches up with its own tail, but it’s still the same dog.
Teaching literature, therefore, involves a serious problem of translation. Trilling took up the issue in his last, unfinished essay, called “Why We Read Jane Austen,” in which he compared the way a contemporary reader tries to understand Austen with the way an anthropologist tries to understand the culture of an unfamiliar tribe. For books, including the Great ones, are social products “all the way down.” They do not come from some place outside the system, and they do not represent an independent alternative to the way things are. They are among the things that are, even when they belong to what Trilling called “the adversary culture”—even when they reject conventional ways of thinking and behaving. The adversarial is part of the system; it helps to hold the other parts in place. Responsible liberal people feel better adjusted for having an appreciation of art and ideas that are contemptuous of the values of responsible liberal people. It helps the world seem round.
This is the subject of Trilling’s essay “On the Teaching of Modern Literature” (1961), in which he complained about the eagerness of his students “to engage in the process that we might call the socialization of the anti-social, or the acculturation of the anti-cultural, or the legitimization of the subversive”:
I asked them to look into the Abyss, and, both dutifully and gladly, they have looked into the Abyss, and the Abyss has greeted them with the grave courtesy of all objects of serious study, saying: “Interesting, am I not? And exciting, if you consider how deep I am and what dread beasts lie at my bottom. Have it well in mind that a knowledge of me contributes materially to your being whole, or well-rounded, men.”
He was watching the dog catch up to its tail.
In 2008, the critic Louis Menand wrote “Regrets Only,” an extended essay on Lionel Trilling, the pre-eminent literary intellectual of the 1950s. Published in The New Yorker, it depicted Trilling as the symbol of midcentury America, a time when art was placed on a pedestal and the earnest critic stood on a pedestal almost as high. Trilling’s best-remembered book, “The Liberal Imagination,” Menand wrote, “belongs to the age of (it feels a little funny just typing the words today) heroic criticism.” This was an age before the ’60s, before the old heroes had been retired and new ones put in their place, before the nostalgic condescension of “Mad Men.”
Menand drew a sharp distinction between 21st-century Americans and the readers of Trilling’s day. Most people now “don’t use the language of approval and disapproval in their responses to art,” he wrote. “They use the language of entertainment. They enjoy some things and don’t enjoy other things.” The decline of elitist seriousness was inevitable, Menand implied, and this decline is nothing terrible. High-minded Trilling matters because of the way he once mattered and no longer does.
Adam Kirsch opens his new book, “Why Trilling Matters” (Yale University, $24), by dissenting from this view and its dour picture of Trilling as “literature’s superego,” exiled from cultural relevance, important mainly to a coterie of self-appointed sons and daughters. For Kirsch, a poet, critic and senior editor at The New Republic who has also written prolifically for other publications, Trilling is less a father figure than an interlocutor and colleague conjured from the past. Trilling’s fall from fashion, Kirsch argues, should itself be made to fall from fashion.
Descended from a family of Eastern European Jewish immigrants, Trilling studied at Columbia, where he taught English for most of his adult life. He wrote a footnoted book on Matthew Arnold and a belletristic one on E. M. Forster, along with a novel and a few short stories. But his fame derived from his probing, elliptical essays. They were written in the first-person plural, released in small-circulation magazines and gathered into grandly titled collections — “The Liberal Imagination,” “The Opposing Self,” “Beyond Culture” — that sold tens of thousands of copies. Trilling’s essays typically evolved from literary analyses into meditations on culture and politics, and as Kirsch points out, they “belong to literature itself,” nonfiction with the unstable, many-sided character of fiction.
The essays trace Trilling’s journey from Ivy-educated bourgeois in the 1920s to Communist-leaning radical in the early 1930s to, finally, éminence grise of literary and liberal anti-Communism, which he continued to be until his death in 1975. As a liberal anti-Communist, Trilling aimed to temper the radical spirit in American culture and banish all traces of 1930s Popular Front agitprop, which he condemned by association with Stalin’s Soviet Union. More broadly, he wanted to save fellow liberals from all forms of ideology, from being as unimaginative and dogmatic as Communists had been and as conservatives might yet be.
As Kirsch writes, paraphrasing Trilling’s perspective, “Art is the form in which the writer, and through him the reader, can face down the intolerable contradictions of history.” The Russian short-story writer Isaac Babel was a case in point. In “Red Cavalry,” Babel anatomized the appeal of the Bolshevik Revolution, its cleansing aggression and ruthless ideals. Babel wrote as a Russian Jew conditioned to disavow violence yet enamored of the revolutionary struggle he witnessed. By pondering Babel’s stories, Trilling avowed, the reader builds an inner political decency. The calculated ambiguities of literature, rather than the false certainties of ideology, are its raw material.Continue reading the main story