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The recent publication of a selection of letters by Lionel Trilling — chosen out of thousands available to an editor in the archives — affords an opportunity to reflect on the importance of this grand master of the Age of Criticism in the middle of the last century.
Trilling rose to prominence in with the publication of his third book, The Liberal Imagination: Essays on Literature and Society. It sold in numbers unprecedented for a book of criticism — 70, copies in hard cover, and , in paperback — and made Trilling the most influential mind in the culture of the Fifties. Like many a Jewish student of English after him, Lewisohn was told that he should not or could not proceed in his studies because the prejudice against hiring Jews in English departments was insuperable.
I heard the very same story of rejection decades later from Irvin Ehrenpreis, who recovered sufficiently to become the consummate biographer of Jonathan Swift, but never got a PhD in English. This hampers my work and makes me unhappy. They must have been poor readers, for Trilling had contributed 24 articles and stories to The Menorah Journal.
Arnold, father of the poet, headed the Broad or Liberal branch of the Established Church. As for the accusation that Trilling worked with ideas, it was of course justified, provided that Neff and other Columbia English faculty remembered what a literary idea is. It did not always make difficulties for the critic, and that it now makes so many is a fact which tells us much about our present relation to literature. We are rather the people of ideology, which is a very different thing.
Ideology is not the product of thought; it is the habit or ritual of showing respect for certain formulas to which, for various reasons having to do with emotional safety, we have very strong ties of whose meaning and consequences we have no clear understanding.
The letters published by Kirsch show that, as early as , he considered communism a mistake of his past. The revolutionary heroes were disgusting. Russia was disgusting. Perhaps every revolution must betray itself.
My feeling about the situation is not only rational. A long review of his critical study of E. Trilling also came to the conclusion that liberalism was responsible for the debasement of American literature. And this is generally true of all our literature of social idealism, from its centrist generality to its leftist, Stalinist specificity.
But his stringent anti-communism did not mean that he became an uncritical apologist for modernism, whose leading figures — Dostoeveky, Yeats, Eliot, Pound — were either hostile or indifferent to liberal ideas.
These made him the preeminent critic in an age when literary critics were held in such high esteem by the learned in America that graduate students in English would sometimes get critics to preside at their weddings in place of clergymen. In England too critics like F.
Leavis, T. Eliot, and I. Richards exercised influence and authority unimaginable today. Leavis lives. My novel was, for me, only a very, very moderate success and yet it gives me the only satisfaction I can get out of years of writing. The students were eager to become victims of police violence and also to turn the university into a training centre for revolutionaries. The most radical students were expressing their doctrinaire alienation from. He was sixty-two years old at this time but I never saw him less tired or in better spirits, and in the next weeks.
He was at last sampling the life of action which had always been denied him. Ruefully he told me how much he liked it. He could never say clearly what his own feelings about the Columbia situation had been. I scarcely know what mine now are, or even if I have any at all. Very likely my present neutralised state is one of fatigue. But Trilling did return, powerfully, to the subject of the uprising in , by which time it had found its expression in a revolt against literature itself, a revolt led by professors of literature.
This lethal combination of Stalinism and native American know-nothingism had found a cosy reception within the universities, especially the English departments. He had come to provide teachers of language and literature who never cared much for literature in the first place a rationale for their hostility: literature and study of it are both a result and an instrument of class oppression. And how did Kampf arrive at his revelation about the frivolity and worse of literary studies?
Until recently, it was assumed that Trilling had written only one long fiction, The Middle of the Journey Now, thanks to Geraldine Murphy we know that Trilling was a third of the way through another novel, begun years earlier. The ornithologist W. Hudson sought wilderness in the city. It is as if he was writing for us today. Or might the closure of so much business, and the cleaner air that results from planes not flying and factories not working, give us extra years to gain control of our environment?
Rappers have found a role in lockdown: chronicling coronavirus with topical tunes. Most people, though, are rushing to the safety of the past. Edward Alexander. Slice 1. What to read next standpoint-logo. The healing power of birdsong The ornithologist W. Jason Wilson. Ray Monk. Will the green agenda be killed off by the pandemic? Vanora Bennett. Bright Green. Why T. Douglas Murray.
Follow the Author
Lionel Mordecai Trilling July 4, — November 5, was an American literary critic , short story writer, essayist, and teacher. He was one of the leading U. In , he graduated from DeWitt Clinton High School , and, at age 16, entered Columbia University , thus beginning a lifelong association with the university. He joined the Boar's Head Society and wrote for the Morningside literary journal. In he married Diana Rubin, and the two began a lifelong literary partnership.
Lionel Trilling: America’s Matthew Arnold
MOST Americans who respond seriously to books and ideas seem to agree that Lionel Trilling became in the postwar years and remains today our most influential, most admired, and at the same time most controversial and perplexing literary critic. He could not match Edmund Wilson's mastery of a vast range of European and American writing. He did not report the contemporary scene with anything like the passion and thoroughness of Irving Howe and Alfred Kazin. He developed no grand theories about literature comparable to those of the deconstructionists who now dominate the English departments of major universities -- and who place the critic's interpretation above the mere text of the unsuspecting author.
The Last Great Critic