Trilling's Sandbags: Lionel Trilling's Critical Essays
When he goes on to begin a sentence with such an iteration of self-evidence as "In the equipment of the moralist and therefore in the equipment of the novelist," we know we are on home ground. Authoritative asides along the way reinforce the sense that we are in a rhetorical universe not afraid of wise saws and sententiousness: "The form, that is, is not the result of careful 'plotting'--the form of a good novel never is," or "What underlies all success in poetry...is the poet's voice." Nor is there any shrinking from the high notes in his praise of the "voice" of Fitzgerald the novelist: "It is characteristically modest, yet it has in it, without apology or self-consciousness, a largeness, even a stateliness, which derives from Fitzgerald's connection with tradition and with mind, from his sense of what has been done before and the demands which this past accomplishment makes." Trilling's own "voice" was perhaps neither so modest nor so free from self-consciousness, but otherwise the element of identification is surely clear. When, having quoted a longish passage, he says that it exemplifies "the habitual music of Fitzgerald's seriousness," the warmth of the commendation is palpable. But Trilling's prose also incorporates a recurring note of self-criticism: "I am aware that I have involved Fitzgerald with a great many great names," he writes at one point, catching himself, and changes the register. This is rather like what Arnold called Burke's "return upon himself," and such arrests are part of the appeal of Trilling's writing, a style expressive of his balanced, dialectical mind.
Later scholars have offered various explanations for the remarkable success of The Liberal Imagination. These explanations have included: Trilling's subtle blending of the authority of the academic scholar with the address of the freelance critic; the stage reached in the growth of an educated reading public not yet cut off from the accelerating specialisms of the universities; the cold war context in which even subtle or disguised critiques of Stalinism were assured of a ready welcome; the peculiar position of the New York Intellectuals in the cultural demography of the United States in these years, at once outsiders who intellectually outranked most insiders and insiders claiming the license of outsiders. But if for a moment we take an even wider view and consider the book's success in an international perspective, it is the prestige of literary criticism in these years, certainly in the United States and Britain, that seems such a remarkable historical phenomenon. What Randall Jarrell called "the Age of Criticism" may have stretched only from the late 1930s to the mid-'60s, at most--the decade after 1945 was its true heyday--but the activity enjoyed a remarkable standing among a bookish public eager to find guidance about life in the meditations of critics on irony in John Donne or self-realization in George Eliot, a public mostly not, or not yet, disposed to fret too much about the kinds of cultural homogeneity on which such acceptance of a narrow literary canon depended.
Reviewing The Liberal Imagination in The Hudson Review in 1950, R.W.B. Lewis shrewdly remarked that Trilling's "noble sadness" provided "sandbags for the will." The essays are marked, though not disfigured, by the pathos of stoicism, that slightly stagy bracing of the brow for a buffeting from an indifferent universe that had been raised to an art form by Arnold. In Trilling's sensibility, stoicism is the natural partner to tragedy, not the least of their value being the way they convict more cheerful or more optimistic sensibilities of existential shallowness. Another reviewer, Clifton Fadiman, writing in The New Yorker, spoke of the way Trilling rehabilitated "the Big Words that Hemingway's generation thought it had choked to death," and it's true that his readiness with terms like "love," "the imagination," "the will" and so on is one of the things that gives Trilling's prose an oddly archaic air. But the value that his work, early and late, speaks up for most convincingly is "intelligence" (he liked to quote, as have many since, the line of his Columbia teacher John Erskine on "the moral obligation to be intelligent"). In the 1930s and '40s, with radical progressivism in the ascendant among the intellectuals of Trilling's Manhattan, this entailed being a dissenter "from the orthodoxies of dissent." But although he could be allergic to the coerciveness of intellectual or political fashion, his was never the facile and purely reactive identity of the "contrarian." Rather, his critical essays enact the effort to see the topical and the transient through the optic of a rich, subtle cultural tradition that has attempted to take the measure of the divided and frustrated nature of human experience. The result is sometimes merely portentous--as when he says of the Kinsey report, with not quite enough self-irony, that "the best thing about the Report is the quality that makes us remember Lucretius"--but at its best his writing makes the critical essay seem like the genre in which a kind of wisdom is most naturally at home.
For most of his career, certainly its early decades, Trilling was reluctant to classify himself as a "critic" or, less appealing still, a "scholar": the self-image he craved and nurtured, in the face of an increasingly discouraging lack of achievement, was "writer," which meant, above all, "novelist." By the mid-1940s he had published several short stories, including the much anthologized "Of This Time, of That Place," and his one novel, The Middle of the Journey (1947). That book, essentially a "novel of ideas" about the demands of maturity in politics and personal life, received a rather grudging reception, with several reviewers opting for the predictable complaint that the heavy load of the "ideas" weighed down and eventually capsized the fragile narrative craft in which they were carried. Trilling never published another novel, and it has usually been assumed that the chilly reception of his firstborn deterred him from further efforts in the genre. But among his papers deposited at Columbia is the typescript of what seems to be the first third or so of an unfinished and untitled novel, apparently written shortly after he completed The Middle of the Journey. Geraldine Murphy has now edited this text for publication, giving it (alluding also to his wife Diana Trilling's memoir of their shared lives, The Beginning of the Journey, published in 1994) the title The Journey Abandoned.
The 154 printed pages are full of interest, testifying to Trilling's gifts as a social observer and recorder of the eddies and velleities of the inner life and to his difficulty in subduing his reflectiveness to the demands of adequately pacey and dramatic action. There are overtones of Forster and James in this story of the anxieties and temptations of the literary life--the expression of character through the niceties (and brutalities) of social exchange is one of its strengths. It is impossible to say what fate the completed novel might have assigned to its central protagonist--a variant on one of Trilling's favored types, "the young man from the provinces"--but the indications are that, with the follow-up to The Middle of the Journey, Trilling was struggling with a less directly political working-out of such characteristic themes as the corruption of ambition and the betrayals of desire.
For that reason, the appearance of this fragment may seem to support the view that Trilling's later career, with his fastidious disdain for the inevitable crudities of politics, signaled a move in an increasingly apolitical direction. Trilling clearly did become culturally more conservative, especially in reaction to the perceived excesses of the 1960s, but he surely remained too political an animal to countenance any aestheticist withdrawal. The obligation to be intelligent included being intelligent about politics, and he knew that a lofty disdain for the difficult business of managing the conditions of collective life was crassly unintelligent.
Some writers who invoke "complexity" are in practice as bleakly schematic as those they criticize. In their hands "complexity" just means "my simplicity rather than your simplicity." But that is not the case with Trilling. There is enough ambivalence and conflict in him to make the movement of his mind naturally dialectical. Diana Trilling later spoke of "the grave energy" of her husband's middle years, and that almost oxymoronic phrase nicely captures something about the stretched tension discernible not exactly "beneath" the polish of his Augustan periods but actually within them, preventing them from slipping into weakly mock-Augustan imitation. And this sense of him is deepened when we read in Diana Trilling's memoir about his anxieties and depressions, his long, drawn-out but inconclusive analysis, and the difficulties this effortlessly polished writer sometimes had in writing anything at all. Trilling, it seems, was a divided character, as would perhaps have to have been partly true of someone from his background who had turned himself into a facsimile of a courtly English gentleman at home in the tweedy world of Ivy League English departments in the 1940s and '50s. "The return of the repressed" would be an inaccurate as well as overdramatic figure to describe this tension, but Trilling's prose benefits from those moments when a more bohemian, Greenwich Village voice threatens to disrupt the donnish calm of the Morningside Heights seminar room.
One anxiety that only rarely surfaces in these essays becomes more visible in his work in subsequent decades, the anxiety that, in drawing back from expecting too much from politics, we might end up expecting too much from literature. This is not quite the view commonly associated with the later Trilling--namely, that in installing the masterpieces of modern literature in the curriculum, we routinize them and deprive the experience of reading them of its personally disorienting intensity. It is, rather, a more interesting "return upon himself" in which he raises doubts about the efficacy of what he had once seemed most eagerly to propose. Perhaps Trilling the writer intermittently felt the need to rescue the anarchic energies of literature, the purposeless purposiveness of the aesthetic impulse, from the worthy ambitions of Trilling the moral pedagogue.
"Mind," "culture," "the moral life"--these Big Words make us a little uncomfortable nowadays, and we have difficulty using them other than in a knowing, allusive way. But they are the notes that make up the habitual music of Trilling's seriousness. In allowing him the last word, I choose a passage from his great essay "Manners, Morals, and the Novel" in which he reaches for the highest of high notes and holds it, unwaveringly, for just long enough: "Some paradox of our natures leads us, when once we have made our fellow men the objects of our enlightened interest, to go on to make them the objects of our pity, then of our wisdom, ultimately of our coercion. It is to prevent this corruption, the most ironic and tragic that man knows, that we stand in need of the moral realism which is the product of the free play of the moral imagination."