Trilling’s Sandbags: Lionel Trilling’s Critical Essays

Trilling’s Sandbags: Lionel Trilling’s Critical Essays

Trilling’s Sandbags: Lionel Trilling’s Critical Essays

Re-reading a literary critic who regarded intelligence as a moral imperative.


There is, for many of us, something vaguely oppressive about the thought of having to reread Lionel Trilling now. His elegant periods, always in danger of sliding into sonorousness; his confident, familiar invocation of the great names of modern European thought and literature; his cultivated superiority to all that might be tainted by provincialism or pragmatism, which, he concedes with the stoical air of the dutiful mourner at a funeral, amounts to most of American life; and above all, that elusive but pervasive note that runs through his prose–the note of a mind taking stock of its resources and finding that they are, despite their fragility, adequate to its tasks. We can’t help feeling that we should be improved by reading Trilling, and this feeling itself is inevitably oppressive.

The previous paragraph, as will have been evident to those familiar with Trilling’s writing, deliberately blends characterization with homage and pastiche. His liberal use of the first-person plural to suggest a community of the like-minded was a much criticized mannerism, as was his unembarrassed recourse to cultural name-dropping as a substitute for argument. Then there was the too ready suggestion of rereading, signaling his great storehouse of literary experience. And finally, there was the characteristic structure of a Trilling sentence, with the clauses queuing up to make their restraining or amplifying comment on their predecessors. The blending of homage and pastiche in my tribute may be expressive of the ambivalence Trilling excites. We, I might imitatively say, admire him; we may even sense that we need him; yet it remains true that we have ever so slightly to brace ourselves for a prolonged spell in his company. Reading him keeps us up to the mark, but we can’t help but be aware that the mark is set rather higher than we are used to.

All this may seem puzzling to those for whom Trilling is little more than a name, especially those who have grown up since his death, in 1975. It may be hard to understand why he was, a couple of generations ago, one of academia’s most cherished culture heroes, one of the few saints of modern literary criticism. It may be harder still to make the case for why Trilling, in his antique, mannered way, might matter now. But if so, there can be few better places to start than with a reconsideration of his most celebrated book, The Liberal Imagination (first published in 1950), reissued with a brief, deft introduction by Louis Menand, thought by some to come as near as anyone can to being Trilling’s successor today.

The scale of the book’s success on first publication seems scarcely credible today. It belonged, after all, to a genre most present-day publishers shun as utterly unsalable. It was a collection of essays; the essays had all been previously published in some form; and perhaps most unpromising of all, they were essays in literary criticism. Yet the hardcover sold an initial 70,000 copies, and then the paperback a further 100,000. Menand remarks that the volume “made literary criticism matter to people who were not literary critics,” which is true enough but may understate its reach. A similar work that sold, say, 20,000 copies would already be doing that. The Liberal Imagination made Trilling’s version of literary criticism matter to a readership that was in search of something more than criticism, perhaps more than literature itself. His essays spoke to a cultural or political moment in a way that is now hard to reconstruct and surely impossible to repeat. But why does it seem unimaginable that any work by a literary critic might have a similar impact now? Has “the culture” changed too much? Has “literary criticism”? Have “we”?

Trilling, we should begin by remembering, was a native of a peculiar and distinctive territory just off the Eastern Seaboard of the United States. Born in New York in 1905 to first-generation Jewish immigrants, he spent almost his entire life in Manhattan and was as closely identified with the peculiar hothouse intellectual life of that skinny island as any avatars of Bloomsbury or the Latin Quarter ever were with that of their own geographically circumscribed milieus. He was Columbia, man and boy, and perhaps no figure better represented that university in its heyday in the first couple of decades after 1945. But he was also, from his earliest adult years, a contributor to the serious end of the literary and intellectual journalism that has thrived so abundantly in that fertile cultural soil. In his early 20s, exploring his Jewishness, he wrote for The Menorah Journal; in his early 30s, sharing in a broader political radicalism, he became a stalwart of Partisan Review (once it had sloughed off its initial Stalinist identity); by his early 40s, cultivating his critical voice, he was one of the contributors most sought after by all the leading journals of opinion, including The Nation, as well as by the premier literary-critical journals like The Kenyon Review. The sixteen essays collected in The Liberal Imagination were mostly revised versions of pieces that had appeared in these last three periodicals, all initially published between 1940 and 1949.

It was during that decade that Trilling secured his academic career and began to build a scholarly as well as literary-journalistic reputation. In the late 1920s and right through the ’30s, he had struggled to make ends meet with a series of temporary or part-time appointments, held back by the economic circumstances of the Depression, his failure to finish his PhD and his being Jewish. But in 1938 he finally completed the dissertation, and its publication in 1939 as Matthew Arnold brought immediate recognition as well as appointment as an assistant professor (at 34). Trilling became the first Jew to obtain a permanent position in Columbia’s English department, and thereafter his promotion was relatively rapid. A short book on E.M. Forster followed in 1943; the choice of Arnold and Forster as subjects indicated deeper intellectual and political affinities as well as a lifelong Anglophilia.

Trilling brought academic authority to his forays into literary journalism, though his learning was by no means confined to English literature. The names he invokes so freely in his essays tend to be continental European more often than English, and many of them were not writers of “literature” in any narrow sense. In common with others of that loose grouping known as the New York Intellectuals (such as Philip Rahv, Clement Greenberg and, slightly later, Irving Howe), Trilling drew upon Romantic and post-Romantic literature and thought, and especially his intense engagement with European Modernism, in his efforts to shame parochial Americans and redress the narrowness of radical politics. His range, as well as his name-dropping, are most strikingly illustrated by the opening pages of the essay in The Liberal Imagination titled “Freud and Literature.” By the second page there has already been mention of Diderot, Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Goethe and Shaw; the next page brings Rousseau, Blake, Wordsworth, Burke, Coleridge, Arnold and Schiller; followed on the next by Mill, Shelley, Schlegel, Sand, Ibsen, Tieck and Stendhal; and quite soon thereafter by Dostoyevsky, Poe, Baudelaire, Nerval, Rimbaud, Proust, Eliot, Kafka, Mann and Joyce. Most of his essays do not attempt to mass the cultural cavalry on this scale, but his writing always implies that he is on familiar terms with the great names of the Old World who could be called upon to make up for the failings of the New.

Trilling explains in his “Preface” that his essays are linked by their concern with “the ideas of what we loosely call liberalism, especially the relation of these ideas to literature.” Notoriously, he nowhere defines what he means by his rather idiosyncratic use of “liberalism.” Occasionally, he suggests a lineage stretching back to Bentham and Mill; more frequently he associates the term with the broadly radical or progressive political impulse prominent in American life in the 1930s and into the ’40s; later he would claim that he had chiefly had in mind the fashionable enthusiasm for Stalinism. Perhaps his most interesting, as well as illuminating, comment on the subject comes in his essay, “The Function of the Little Magazine”; he appears to be glossing his sense of “liberalism” when he writes: “Our educated class has a ready if mild suspiciousness of the profit motive, a belief in progress, science, social legislation, planning, and international cooperation, perhaps especially where Russia is in question.”

However, as the cumulative effect of the essays comes to be felt, the target expands until it seems to be the narrowness of practically any politics that is being chided and corrected. Trilling takes his place in the long line of cultural critics, Arnold pre-eminent among them, but stretching from Coleridge and Carlyle to Eliot and Leavis (to cite only some of the most obvious names), who have sought in literature an antidote to the mechanical and instrumental tendencies of political and economic reason–literature understood as (in Trilling’s much-quoted phrase) “the human activity that takes the fullest and most precise account of variousness, possibility, complexity, and difficulty.” The character (and presumably much of the impact) of The Liberal Imagination comes from his use of the genre of the critical essay to dramatize this conflict and to gesture toward some of the ways our sense of “variousness, possibility, complexity, and difficulty” is extended and given content by great writers, above all by the novelists of the previous 150 years.

In these essays Trilling writes as a literary critic, but so much of what he writes is not literary criticism, at least not in any of the stricter forms of that activity made familiar by Eliot, Empson and the New Critics. The essay in the collection that is sometimes referred to as Trilling’s most extended exercise in close reading, on Wordsworth’s “Immortality Ode,” is still far from being any kind of New Critical exercise in the detection of tensions and paradoxes in the verbal texture of the poem. Its energies are focused on the attempt to identify and translate “what the poem says,” and so even this, his most purely exegetical essay, concludes by telling us that the “Immortality Ode” is about “something common to us all, the development of the sense of reality.” Even here, and a fortiori in the more discursive essays, literary criticism serves the purposes of moral instruction. More generally, it is striking how little he quotes compared with most critics; nor does he have a great deal to say about the formal properties of particular literary works. “The moral life” is really Trilling’s home turf. Quite a lot of his writing is a kind of natural history of the moral life, a characteristic that comes most clearly into view in his last book, Sincerity and Authenticity (1972).

Trilling’s use of literature for the purposes of moral pedagogy, and the drawbacks of such an exercise, are notably illustrated in his celebrated essay on Henry James’s The Princess Casamassima. The novel is not normally regarded as one of James’s finest, and Trilling does not sufficiently attend to the details to be likely to convert any resistant reader to a more positive view. Yet he manages to deploy aspects of James’s tale to underwrite a probing, at times moving, meditation on the moral or human limitations likely to attend upon any overzealous commitment to radical political change. The novel might be said to dramatize–or at least, more creakingly, to stage–the conflict between the claims of culture and social justice, and its portrait of those who pursue the latter by extreme (anarchist) means is far from flattering. Tough-minded progressives scorned the book accordingly as an example of the inherently reactionary tendency of James’s elaborate filigree work and his lack of attention to the “realities” of social and political conditions. In his essay, Trilling triumphantly turns the charge of “unrealism” on its head. The novel, he argues, provides “a brilliantly precise representation of social actuality.” But it does more than this, and more (and other) than its radical critics ever do: it understands and captures the essence of tragedy, the irresolvable conflict of fundamental values. This he calls, in a favored phrase, “moral realism.” It is “the informing spirit of The Princess Casamassima and it yields a kind of social and political knowledge which is hard to come by.” It is not clear that this rather flawed James novel is actually as good as Trilling needs it to be to sustain his larger case, and this is not the only instance where one wonders whether Trilling’s magnificent moral edifice has not been built on rather shaky literary foundations. Nonetheless, the essay, moving out from literary criticism, becomes a powerful secular sermon.

Writing that is this high-toned is also high-risk. At times Trilling’s characteristic emphasis on ethical education can seem out of proportion to the literary subject matter, banging the drum too loudly in order to disguise the lack of rewarding melody. Consider, for example, his explanation of why Huckleberry Finn is a “subversive” book: “No one who reads thoughtfully the dialectic of Huck’s great moral crisis will ever again be wholly able to accept without some question and some irony the assumptions of the respectable morality by which he lives, nor will ever again be certain that what he considers the clear dictates of moral reason are not merely the engrained customary beliefs of his time and place.” One response to this might be to say that anyone capable of this kind of “thoughtful” reading is not likely to be a prisoner of social convention in the first place, and vice versa. The passage risks both patronizing the imagined reader and imputing an unrealistic power to Twain’s book. In such passages, the adjective “moral” appears overworked, now indicating the merely conventional social codes, now referring to the wider human vision offered by the critic.

The half-dozen best pieces in the volume are among Trilling’s most admired writings, and justly so: “Reality in America,” “The Princess Casamassima,” “Huckleberry Finn,” “Manners, Morals, and the Novel,” “The Kinsey Report,” “The Meaning of a Literary Idea”–these are all essays that stay in the reader’s mind and work there more fruitfully than do whole books by most other critics. But if, to recommend him to a new generation of readers, one wanted to take a representative example of Trilling at work, one could hardly do better than the rather slighter essay on F. Scott Fitzgerald, the bulk of which appeared as a review in The Nation in 1945.

Fitzgerald may at first seem a surprising enthusiasm, but the basis for it becomes clear in the first paragraph, in which Trilling invites us to admire “the moral force of the poise and fortitude which marked Fitzgerald’s mind.” The essay proves to be yet another example of Trilling’s propensity to use literary criticism as a vehicle for ethical reflection. Fitzgerald, we are told, “really had but little impulse to blame, which is the more remarkable because our culture peculiarly honors the act of blaming, which it takes as the sign of virtue and intellect.” A casual reading of this sentence might suggest the perspective of a relaxed post-Freudian moralist, pardoning all because understanding all; but it is in fact Trilling who, characteristically, is adopting the more strenuous position. Real “virtue and intellect,” he is suggesting, require something at once more discriminating and less immediately gratifying than the slack disposition to confirm one’s self-righteousness by so readily apportioning blame.

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.”

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