After his death in 1975 at the age of 70, Lionel Trilling underwent something of an eclipse. This coincided with the propagation of schools of thought mainly from the French–Barthes, Foucault, Derrida–that spend much energy teaching people to think by means of empty categories. (American academia today is larded with jargon-driven essays that have devolved from the work of those men, decipherable and paramount to an audience numbering among them only the initiated.) But Trilling–whose teachings helped students to think clearly and write well instead–seems to be undergoing a revival of late. Is this a portent of better, more lucid times?
Last year, John Rodden edited Lionel Trilling & the Critics: Opposing Selves (Nebraska), a provocative volume of discussion of Trilling’s oeuvre, focusing on his legacy as a critic and a Jew, with contributions by Morris Dickstein, Leslie Fiedler, F.R. Leavis, Jacques Barzun and John Bayley, among others. Organized chronologically, it reprints archival material, mainly reviews and essays, on Trilling’s books as they were published, from his study of Matthew Arnold to Literary Criticism: An Introductory Reader, and beyond. Rodden included some weak pieces–for example, one by Cornel West published in New Politics in 1986 that portrayed Trilling as “an intellectual dead end.” And a few of the entries read like impromptu reactions. But the majority, regardless of their particular ideological shtick, were enlightening. Dickstein, in his foreword, summed up the book’s message: “[Trilling] was a reactive critic, attuned to each occasion, whose work cohered around shifting polarities rather than a single point of view.”
Now Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of The New Republic, has made the effort more elastic by selecting a collection of Trilling’s essays for reissue. A generous portion of these comes from The Liberal Imagination (1950), the book that established Trilling as a household name among public intellectuals on both sides of the Atlantic. A rather unfortunate, pedantic title has been chosen for this new volume, one that casts the content in poorer light than it deserves. It comes from one of Trilling’s teachers at Columbia College, John Erskine. Wieseltier argues in the introduction to The Moral Obligation to Be Intelligent that the phrase, invoked in a 1971 talk Trilling delivered at Purdue University, encapsulates Trilling’s need–apparent especially in his youth–to count himself among people “with a quick eye for behavior and motive and a feeling heart.” But that was when Trilling dreamed of becoming a novelist, early on in his career, when to his way of thinking, intelligence was a prominent feature of the novelist’s moral nature.
Eventually he chose the path of criticism, though, and for it he became famous. Wieseltier is right when he says that what makes Trilling endure is his commitment to the intellect. But it also has to do, to a large degree, with one of the pulpits from which he chose to spread his message: the classroom. From his other pulpit, the critic’s desk, much survives as well, in the form of engaging essays; but so do the passionate memories of his students, who adored him for an education in the humanities that was as insightful and panoramic as it was rigorous. Perhaps this collection can help serve as a referendum on the uneasy marriage between literature and the university.
Whenever I reread Trilling, and I’ve been doing it more often these days, I cannot help but invoke Edmund Wilson, who was ten years Trilling’s senior and whose corpus I also admire tremendously. Of course, the two were very different animals. A journalist and an essayist (although, like Trilling, he too tried his luck at fiction), Wilson spent some unhappy months teaching, at Chicago, among other places. But he made no secret of his impatience with academics. In a piece from 1944 called “Re-Examining Dr. Johnson” (to be found in Classics and Commercials), Wilson writes: