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In the American Grain | The Nation

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In the American Grain

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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:

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Ilan Stavans
Ilan Stavans is Lewis-Sebring Professor of Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College. His latest book is On...

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There is a tendency in the scholarly writing done by professors and composers of theses that sometimes becomes rather exasperating to the reader outside the college world. This tendency may be briefly described as an impulse on the part of the professors to undermine their subjects or explain them away. An expert on Byron, say, will prove, on purely documentary grounds, that there is no reason to believe that Byron ever had anything to do with women; an authority on Whitman will attempt to show that Whitman had no originality, since everything to be found in his work has already been found in someone else.

Trilling, on the other hand, spent his lengthy career at Columbia University. It was with the help of students that he came to terms with his talent as teacher and critic. His essays, while neither preachy nor didactic, have nevertheless a donnish quality to them. They are delivered from the instructor's pulpit, with one hand on the blackboard and the other on a sacrosanct tome by the author analyzed, be it Wordsworth or Henry James. Trilling also exhibits a far more patient mind than Wilson, perhaps the result of a more cloistered focus and of his conscious decision to spend a career within campus walls. He saw Wilson as a model; Wilson, in turn, encouraged him to broaden his horizons and persuaded him to finish his study of Matthew Arnold, which Trilling had started as a doctoral dissertation. The two established a relationship and engaged in a correspondence that lasted many years. Trilling refers to Wilson in his essays and does so more often, and far more admiringly, than Wilson does of him. He makes use of him in his essays on Hemingway and William Dean Howells. And he is particularly infatuated with Wilson's idea, in The Wound and the Bow, that "effectiveness in the arts does depend on sickness." Actually, it could be argued that Trilling's essay "Art and Neurosis," so indebted, as much of his oeuvre, to Freud, is an indirect invocation of Wilson.

The Moral Obligation to Be Intelligent includes many of Trilling's best literary essays, from "Manners, Morals, and the Novel" to the piece he was drafting at the time of his death, "Why We Read Jane Austen." The latter, although unfinished, is fascinating in that it places Trilling in the context of the multicultural debate. He discusses the growing interest in Austen in the seventies and the responses he got in a class he gave on her work. But the most insightful parts of the piece are those in which he reacts to a lecture the anthropologist Clifford Geertz delivered in 1974 about Javanese, Balinese and Moroccan cultures. Trilling contrasts the quest of the anthropologist and that of common Western readers. The Austen discussion signals the insertion of literary studies in the context of a larger debate on ethnography and epistemology that acquired, after Trilling's death, much relevance throughout the humanities.

Trilling's famous 1955 essay that served as an introduction to Isaac Babel's stories, which remains a most important study on the Russian author of Red Cavalry, is here too, as well as pieces on Eliot, Kipling and Twain. Wieseltier's selections also include, as appendixes, the prefaces to The Liberal Imagination and Beyond Culture (1965), the latter a volume that was also drawn from substantially. The style, unlike Wilson's, is meticulous in its explorative drive, but it can also be exasperating in its needless side routes and exhausting in its "drill approach": embodying the assumption that the longer one ruminates around an argument, the more convincing it will be. The prose often lacks urgency, in part because Trilling wrote most of his essays with more than a little time on his hands and without length constraints, for quarterlies such as Partisan Review. And yet, there is a sensibility that makes them very appealing. I'm tempted to attach such sensibility to his Jewish identity, with which Trilling contested his entire life. He was not a polymath like Wilson, whose curiosity threw him in all manner of directions, from Vico's philosophy to Marxism to the Iroquois and the Dead Sea Scrolls, traveling far distances (the Soviet Union, the Middle East) and learning various tongues (Russian, Hungarian, Hebrew) in order to better tackle a topic. Instead, Trilling's cosmopolitanism is well circumscribed: From Joyce to Frost to Orwell, the English language and its literatures in England and the United States--and only the whiteness of it, for that matter--are his prison. If he ventures beyond, it is to explore Flaubert or the world of the Talmudic rabbis, and there he is hesitant in his knowledge. Still, unlike the modern literature professor, he doesn't strive to be a specialist. His mind wanders as he wonders, to borrow from Langston Hughes. Not accidentally, he is often attached critically to the classic postwar circle of New York Jews--among them Delmore Schwartz, Isaac Rosenfeld, Irving Howe and Daniel Bell--who saw the world as a marketplace of aesthetic and political ideas, and literature as a stock exchange of sorts.

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