In the American Grain

In the American Grain

After his death in 1975 at the age of 70, Lionel Trilling underwent something of an eclipse.


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:

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.

Overall, the collection’s editorial choices are sound. Left out, for instance, is the text of the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures delivered at Harvard University in 1970, which are dull and verbose. Among the pieces selected, the ones I find most thought-provoking are those in which Trilling tackles pedagogical issues. In other words, the material that allows us to see how Trilling the academic combined duties with Trilling the public intellectual. In “The Leavis-Snow Controversy,” published in Commentary in 1962, he explores the always timely schism that separates the sciences and the humanities, one that, in many ways, inhabited Trilling’s heart ever since he embarked on his study of Matthew Arnold’s legacy. Today one might say that the schism has been aggravated by the stage entrance of a third actor, technology. How are these three major areas of knowledge to be combined in the classroom and beyond? Trilling discusses the clash, played out in England, between F.R. Leavis and C.P. Snow. Its implication for the curriculum, from Trilling’s essay, is tangential. But at the heart of it he is really debating the continuing challenge that art faces in the scientific age.

This reminds me of a conversation I had last year in London with Eva Hoffman, author of Exit Into History, in which she told me that, if ever invited to have dinner with half a dozen luminaries of her choice from the end of the twentieth century, she doubted any she would select would be writers. Her rationale: The fields that truly matter nowadays, the ones that are revolutionary, are biology, genetics, astronomy. How many of our literati have the magnetic standing of a Cervantes or a Dostoyevsky? she asked. Almost forty years earlier, Trilling understood the challenge: Art has become something of a casualty in the quest for progress; science leads the way as eye-opener in an age of reconfiguration of human society. He defends literature, but he knows it is an uphill battle because the grounds of its importance are subjective.

Trilling’s view of the prickly marriage between academia and intellectual life is best defined in “On the Teaching of Modern Literature,” reprinted in The Moral Obligation to Be Intelligent but published originally in Partisan Review in 1961. It addresses the time, not too distant from us, when Columbia students complained that the English department taught only the work of dead writers. His colleagues had, in Trilling’s words, an eccentric, obscurantist and reactionary approach to literature. The next generation wanted change, and it fell on Trilling to teach the course on the modern–Yeats and Eliot, Joyce and Proust, Kafka and Lawrence, Mann and Gide. In the essay he discusses the anxiety that overwhelmed him at first. Could he summarize the impact of the modern at a time when their contribution to letters wasn’t yet fully digested? He sidetracks one too many times as he delves into James Frazer’s The Golden Bough and Nietzsche’s The Genealogy of Morals, among other books. But in the end Trilling makes a point worth listening to, one in which he compares the teacher with the critic. The two disciplines “are one and the same,” he says. Yet “there are some points at which the functions of the two do not coincide, or can be made to coincide only with great difficulty.”

Of criticism, Arnold has told us that “it must be apt to study and praise elements that for fullness of spiritual perfection are wanted, even though they belong to a power which in the practical sphere may be maleficent.” But teaching, or at least undergraduate teaching, is not given the same license–cannot be given it because the teacher’s audience, which stands before his very eyes, as the critic’s audience does not, asks questions about “the practical sphere.” Since teaching is an interactive activity, one cannot but consider the social situation of the students to place the course material in a context. Trilling believes that modernity is about “surrendering oneself to experience without regard” to “conventional morality,” and that the teacher who offers a course on modern literature must place that “unrealized” thought in the mind of his or her students. That is, it is absurd to use the classroom to isolate literature–its message–from its surroundings. To live up to the task of introducing it to a younger audience, one has to embrace it wholeheartedly, to make its pulse one’s own, to live by its mission.

Trilling’s argument is about commitment, about teaching literature with the heart. Therein, I’m persuaded, is the use of Trilling for us today: in part, to stop the dissociation of the academic and the public intellectual from the rest of society. We forget that the humanities, and literature especially, are about emotion, about love and hatred, about life and death. In the classroom now these themes seem tame, even innocent. What is missing is the sense that, to live up to the standards of literatures ancient and present, we ought to be ready to incorporate something of them into our lives, accept their messages as life-or-death issues. Our graduate schools are too often factories turning out “experts” who want to know every possible thing about a topic so minute it vanishes before us like a shadow at noon. Frequently the controversies between professors in the humanities are loud, but what is at stake is of little consequence. We are the ones, of course, who have made it so insignificant. In the time of the Internet, the challenge of public intellectuals is far more complex, yet also less daunting: It is faster and easier to democratize information. But readers, serious and popular, have a shorter attention span and are not eager to follow intellectual debates. For how long will academics be reactive, not active, in regards to the binding paste of society? Can the campus cease to be a fortress of isolation? The moral obligation is not, as the title of Wieseltier’s selections suggests, to be intelligent, but to bring passion to intelligence so as to make it consequential, as Lionel Trilling did in life.

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