Why Trilling Matters Adam Kirsch

Yale, pp.188, 20

In 1971 looking back over his life, Lionel Trilling (1905-1975) declared himself surprised at being referred to as a critic. Certainly his plan when young had been the pursuit of the literary life, ‘but what it envisaged was the career of the novelist. To this intention, criticism, when eventually I began to practise it, was always secondary, an afterthought: in short, not a vocation but an avocation.’

As Adam Kirsch comments, in his timely, incisive, succinct study, this admission was made when Trilling was ‘the most famous and authoritative literary critic in the English-speaking world.’ His volumes of critical essays, beginning with The Liberal Imagination (1950) — which sold 70,000 hard-cover copies and 100,000 paperback, and whose very title became cultural currency — were cherished by the intelligentsia with a firmness of regard, a loyalty, hard to parallel before or since.

Trilling read literary works closely, but mindful of the cultural circumstances that had brought them about and which they in turn illuminated, thus defying the edicts of New Criticism with its quasi-religious insistence on the words on the page. He knew, and stated, that literature, while indubitably one of the arts, could not be divorced from politics, yet refused to diminish it by harnessing works to ideologies, let alone to factional disputes of public/political life. And he knew that literature not only served the psyche, but actually manifested its complex existence.

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In one of his most impassioned and durable essays, ‘Freud and Literature’, he wrote:

Indeed the mind, as Freud sees it, is in the greater part of its tendency exactly a poetry-making organ . . . .The unconscious mind in its struggle with the conscious always turns from the general to the concrete and finds the tangible trifle more congenial than the large abstraction. Freud discovered in the very organisation of the mind those mechanisms by which art makes its effects.

The Seventies now seem a different age, and Trilling’s achievements have long lost that staunchly held regard, their security of place. We’re not even certain what they  amount to (hence the challenging, exhortatory nature of Kirsch’s title). A recent reissue of The Liberal Imagination proclaimed it a Cold War book. Hard to disagree, but was it the production of a Cold Warrior (not the same thing)? Can Trilling be considered, as his former student Norman Podhoretz of Commentary would wish, the progenitor of the neo-cons? Though unequivocal about being Jewish, why was Trilling so reluctant to engage with Jewish issues, even literary ones? (Kirsch writes trenchantly here.) And the work itself — are the essays with their infectiously discursive style essentially belletrist (with obvious exceptions, like his attentive and original reading of Wordsworth’s ‘Immortality Ode’)?

‘On the Teaching of Modern Literature’ brilliantly discusses his pedagogical difficulties as Professor at Columbia University when confronting students with the modernists: ‘No literature has ever been so shockingly personal as that of our time — it asks every question that is forbidden in polite society.’ But Trilling never wrote full-frontally on any modernist writer. Later, faced with the tumult of Sixties’ counter-culture, he presented principally a sad, grave bemusement.

Kirsch has written his study in the belief — which I share — that above all Trilling’s writings are invitations to enter a mind — one benevolent, inquiring and formidably well-stocked — as it engages with other minds whose intricacies it always respects, whether these are expressed in single works — above all in richly ambiguous classical novels from the 19th century, Little Dorrit, The Princess Casamassima — or in cultural tendencies and dialogues.

Harm, not good, is done by co-opting Trilling into debates of decades he didn’t live to witness, by post-programming him. Kirsch thinks the compelling personal engagement of the criticism derives from Trilling’s renunciation of his ambitions as a creative writer, following the disappointing reception of his novel, The Middle of the Journey (1947). Very possibly, but it’s a sad truth if so. For me The Middle of the Journey, with its honest portrait of a young
man caught up with, and yet ultimately distancing himself from, Communist/fellow-travelling friends, is one of the 20th century’s indispensable novels.

Conceived as a study of a group of ideologues’ attitudes to death, it evolved into a moving presentation of autonomous individuals artistically observed by a razor-sharp yet compassionate intelligence. And Trilling’s unfinished novel, The Journey Abandoned (first published 2008) is not significantly its inferior. Both his fiction and his criticism — insightfully disinterested, morally astringent, mindful of human limitations — matter hugely today. More than ever, indeed! 

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: Book review, Literary criticism, Literature, Non-fiction