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Books The Last Great Critic

Illustration by Hadley Hooper

Lionel Trilling believed that politics needed the imaginative qualities of literature and that liberalism needed literature's sense of "variousness, possibility, complexity, and difficulty"

by Nathan Glick

(The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part two.)

Opposing Selves

edited by John Rodden.
University of Nebraska Press, 490 pages,

MOST Americans who respond seriously to books and ideas seem to agree that Lionel Trilling (1905-1975) became in the postwar years and remains today our most influential, most admired, and at the same time most controversial and perplexing literary critic. He could not match Edmund Wilson's mastery of a vast range of European and American writing. He did not report the contemporary scene with anything like the passion and thoroughness of Irving Howe and Alfred Kazin. He developed no grand theories about literature comparable to those of the deconstructionists who now dominate the English departments of major universities -- and who place the critic's interpretation above the mere text of the unsuspecting author. Nor did he cultivate disciples; he was, as a colleague at Columbia University wrote, "a sorcerer who took no apprentices."

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More on books and literature in The Atlantic Monthly and Atlantic Unbound.

From the archives:

"The Socialist Who Loved Keats," by Nathan Glick (January 1998)
The late Irving Howe -- literary critic, biographer, historian and teacher -- was a beacon of a certain kind of intellectual and moral possibility.

"The Well-Tempered Critic," by Charles Rolo (June 1950)
A brief review of The Liberal Imagination by Lionel Trilling.

"The Inner Crisis," by Charles Rolo (February 1948)
A brief review of Trilling's novel, The Middle of the Journey.

What made Lionel Trilling unique among literary critics was the way he applied the idea of the "moral imagination" to the writers he especially admired. In the course of discussing works by Henry James, E. M. Forster, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, George Orwell, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, among others, Trilling raised questions about how we live our lives, about the nature of good and evil, about the roles played by culture and biology, about our ambivalence in making moral choices. Readers came to look for something in Trilling that went beyond the insights of traditional literary criticism. They expected something closer to philosophical wisdom.

On the evidence of Lionel Trilling and the Critics, that is what the most discriminating readers of his work often found, even when they disputed his reasoning or his conclusions. The seventy essays and reviews gathered here represent a good cross-section of the finest critical minds in Anglo-American letters, reflecting the powerful response Trilling's work elicited in England as well as in the United States. John Rodden, the editor, is something of a pioneer in his field: we are accustomed to collections of critical essays about prominent novelists, but this volume is, to my knowledge, the first collection devoted to a literary critic -- in itself a tribute to Trilling's stature and reputation. It has also been put together with scrupulous attention to the needs of the non-academic reader. Every contributor is introduced with a pithy sketch; endnotes identify names and books and even lines of argument that may be unfamiliar to current readers. Because it was edited with uncommon good sense, Lionel Trilling and the Critics achieves Rodden's "dual aim: to illuminate the unfolding of Trilling's literary reputation and to recapture the lively debates in American cultural politics to which his writings contributed (and continue to stimulate in our own day)."

The liveliest controversy surrounding Lionel Trilling since his death centers on whether or how far he shifted his political thinking from an early liberalism to a conservatism (or neo-conservatism) that some of his friends embraced but to which he never gave any overt support. Advocates on both sides can find passages in Trilling's writing that seem to support their views. But a careful reading of those passages (and others) leads to the core of Trilling's outlook. His first notable statement about liberalism, literature, and politics appears in the preface to his most influential collection of essays, The Liberal Imagination (1950).

To the carrying out of the job of criticizing the liberal imagination, literature has a unique relevance, not merely because so much of modern literature has explicitly directed itself upon politics, but more importantly because literature is the human activity that takes the fullest and most precise account of variousness, possibility, complexity, and difficulty.

Earlier, in his introduction to The Partisan Reader (1946), Trilling issued this elegantly ominous caution: "Unless we insist that politics is imagination and mind, we will learn that imagination and mind are politics, and of a kind we will not like." The commentary included in Rodden's collection makes it clear that Trilling was criticizing liberalism from a special perspective. His target was not the liberals and radicals in his circle around the Partisan Review but the fellow-traveling Stalinists who judged literature primarily by its "progressive" stance and were indifferent to the more modulated, more imaginative sense of human experience found in great literature. A number of conservatives who were once close to Trilling, however, have argued that his political and also his cultural sentiments moved steadily in their direction.

Norman Podhoretz, the editor of Commentary during its turn to the right, claims that Trilling was really sympathetic to the magazine's campaign against the New Left in the late 1960s, but refused to join in public combat for fear of losing his "position of venerability." He bluntly accuses Trilling of a "failure of nerve" that was part of "an epidemic of cowardice" among liberal intellectuals. Podhoretz's speculations, besides being a disloyal deprecation of a former friend and mentor, have the scent of ideological self-serving. They come with particular ill grace from a writer who treats his own seven-year flirtation with the New Left as not only easily forgivable but also proof of his editorial flair for riding the tide of political fashion.

A more nuanced claim is made by Gertrude Himmelfarb, the distinguished historian of Victorian England and the wife of Irving Kristol, who is often called the godfather of neo-conservatism. Unlike Podhoretz, Himmelfarb pays unqualified and grateful tribute to Trilling's character and to his influence on her thinking.

He was able to resist the insidious ideological and political fashions of his time without the coarsening of mind that often comes with doing battle, and also without the timidity and equivocation that retreats from battle in an excess of fastidiousness.

But Himmelfarb does not recognize that the same impulse to resist ideological absolutes that made Trilling critical of doctrinaire Stalinoid liberalism would have made him immune to a doctrinaire market-based, often philistine, conservatism. She quotes a passage in an early (1947) essay which she finds, writing in 1992, "of the greatest pertinence today." This passage warns against the danger facing "us" as social reformers which 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."

Read in context, this warning was clearly an attack not on liberalism itself but on those self-proclaimed "liberals" who defended the coercive tyranny of Stalin's Russia. In a 1974 foreword to The Liberal Imagination, Trilling pointed out that his early essays were written "with reference to a particular political-cultural situation," which he identified as "the commitment that a large segment of the intelligentsia of the West gave to the degraded version of Marxism known as Stalinism. "He was simply reminding "people who prided themselves on being liberals that liberalism was ... a political position which affirmed the value of individual existence in all its variousness, complexity, and difficulty." That last phrase, often repeated, defined for Trilling the virtues he looked for not only in politics but also in the novels and poems he admired.

BUT before we come to his specifically literary criticism, we have to contend with an accusation made against Trilling from the left by several of the younger contributors to this volume. They agree with the view from the right that Trilling had moved toward a more conservative position on cultural matters and a weaker concern for social reform as a traditional element of liberal politics. For Mark Shechner, Trilling's critique of the liberal imagination, although couched in "powerful emotions ... limpid phrases and fine ideas," served mainly "to justify to himself his waning interest in the ruling passion of his generation: social justice." Born in 1941, Shechner fails to recognize how strongly and widely, in the wake of the West's wartime alliance with the Soviet Union, the cultural influence of fellow-traveling Stalinism had permeated publishing, theater, and cinema, or how necessary a corrective to its crudities Trilling provided.

Cornel West, a professor of African-American studies at Harvard University and a political activist, shows a more astute understanding of Trilling's aim: to spread "the cult of complexity" and promote "a liberal politics of moderation." In his sprawling, unbuttoned, and highly infectious essay, West ranges broadly over Trilling's work, locating brilliant nuggets of cultural insight but concluding that Trilling's indifference to the imperatives of political power led him to an intellectual "dead-end." West approvingly quotes another contributor, Joseph Frank, who criticizes Trilling for trying "to endow social passivity and quietism ... with the halo of aesthetic transcendence." Finally, West cites Trilling against his own temperamental aversion to polemics and to the kind of heated atmosphere that active politics encouraged.

Our fate, for better or worse, is political. It is not in itself a happy fate, even when it has an heroic sound. But there is no escape from it and the only possibility of enduring it is to force into our definition of politics every human activity and every subtlety of every human activity.

Indeed, early in The Liberal Imagination, Trilling declared his interest in what he called "the dark and bloody crossroads where literature and politics meet," except that for him "bloody" meant embattled rather than violent; and literature, because of its intrinsic humanism, had more wisdom to offer than the activist and morally troubling world of politics. It is this interplay of literature, politics, and ideas that gives Trilling's work a scope and a richness not found in most literary criticism. Still, it is as a literary critic that he gained his reputation and must be judged. John Rodden recognizes this priority by structuring his collection around Trilling's books chronologically, with a final section devoted to more general "Appreciations, Influences, Controversies, Reconsiderations."


(The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part two.)

Nathan Glick is a former editor of the U.S. Information Agency's quarterly journal, Dialogue.

Illustration by Hadley Hooper.

Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; July 2000; The Last Great Critic - 00.07; Volume 286, No. 1; page 86-90.