The Last Great Critic

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

Hadley Hooper

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."

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."

TRILLING'S first book played a crucial role in drawing international attention to his intellectual gifts and marking him as, in Rodden's phrase, "a rising star." The extreme, almost unanimous praise for his 1939 biography of Matthew Arnold, the dominant figure in English criticism in the late nineteenth century, surprised everyone, including Trilling himself. One of England's leading men of letters, the novelist, critic, and editor John Middleton Murry, opened his review on a mock note of hurt national pride.

Mr. Trilling, who is an American professor, has written the best -- the most comprehensive and critical -- book on Matthew Arnold that exists. It is a little saddening to us that this particular glory should fall to the United States.

Another British reviewer called the book "the most brilliant piece of biographical criticism issued in English during the last ten years."

But it was the review by Edmund Wilson that pleased Trilling most. Wilson was at the time indisputably America's leading critic, regarded by Trilling as a model for joining literary, political, and social commentary with an enviable lucidity of style. At one point Trilling had become despondent about writing on a subject so remote from the Great Depression and the impending war. Wilson, then only a casual acquaintance, urged him to finish the book, insisting that the subject was a worthy one. On its publication Wilson, notoriously not given to easy praise, called it "one of the first critical studies of any solidity or scope by an American of his generation."

The biography succeeded in large part because Arnold offered Trilling a particularly sympathetic subject: an author who combined the roles of creative artist (poet rather than novelist), literary critic, and social-political thinker. Both men knew the internal tension felt by those who were at the same time cultural conservatives and political liberals. And Arnold's brooding meditation on the displacement of religious faith by science, in his famous poem "Dover Beach" ("we are here as on a darkling plain ... Where ignorant armies clash by night"), anticipated a similar disposition toward melancholy and fatalism which surfaced in Trilling's later work.

The Arnold biography won for Trilling the tenure at Columbia University that the English-department faculty had earlier withheld because some believed that a Jew could not properly appreciate English literature. After the university's president, an ardent Anglophile, declared himself deeply impressed by the book, the faculty reversed itself; ultimately Trilling became one of only two department faculty members to receive the prestigious title "university professor." By the 1950s, as a former student recalls in Rodden's collection, "Trilling was already something of a legendary figure, the intellectual conscience of the undergraduate English Department ... a link to the turbulent world of the New York intellectuals." His next book, a study of E. M. Forster's novels (1943), provided Trilling with an occasion to test the approach to literature that he later developed more fully in The Liberal Imagination. Forster was at the time moderately admired in England but little known in the United States. Trilling's enthusiastic portrait stimulated a reissue of Forster's novels and a new assessment of his importance. The book's famous opening sentence has a deceptive simplicity that startles the reader into sudden attention.

E. M. Forster is for me the only living novelist who can be read again and again and who, after each reading, gives me what few writers can give us after our first days of novel-reading, the sensation of having learned something.

In recent years moviegoers could experience a similar sensation without actually reading the novels. Four of the five, written from 1905 to 1924, have been made into fairly faithful films: A Room With a View, Howards End, and A Passage to India. (The Longest Journey has not yet reached the screen.) What Trilling found compelling in Forster's novels was their distinctive approach to moral issues. He wrote,

All novelists deal with morality, but not all novelists ... are concerned with moral realism, which is not the awareness of morality itself but of the contradictions, paradoxes and dangers of living the moral life.

Trilling admired Forster because he was a liberal who resisted liberal shibboleths. For example, his novels often touch on the idea of class, but class is not defined primarily in terms of income. In Howards End especially, Trilling wrote, Forster "shows the conflicting truths of the idea -- that on the one hand class is character, soul and destiny, and that on the other hand class is not finally determining." But here class tensions operate within the middle class on three levels: at the extremes are the wealthy businessman disdainful of art and weakness and the lowly clerk with a taste for poetry, and between them are the two intellectual sisters. The scene at the novel's end of the happy child of the clerk and the younger sister playing in a hayfield symbolized for Forster the secret of the good life: "Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height." This sudden mood of transcendence, bursting out of Forster's otherwise unpretentious conversational style, shows the novelist, as Trilling approvingly put it, "content with human possibility and content with its limitations."

WE now know, from parts of his diaries, posthumously published, that Trilling hoped to be thought of primarily as a novelist rather than a literary critic. An editor at The New Yorker once showed him a letter Hemingway had sent in 1933, to which Trilling's response was passionately confessional.

A crazy letter written when he was drunk -- self-revealing, arrogant, scared, trivial, absurd: yet felt how right such a man is compared to the "good minds" of my university life -- how he will produce and mean something to the world.... And how far-far-far I am ... from being a writer.

When Trilling's first and only novel, The Middle of the Journey (1947), appeared, it received mixed notices and a small readership. A year later, however, after Whittaker Chambers accused Alger Hiss of being a Soviet spy, the novel acquired an extra-literary fame and wider popularity. An important character in the novel, Gifford Maxim, turned out to be based on Chambers, whom Trilling had known as a fellow student at Columbia in the 1920s.

The novel is essentially an intellectual and moral dialogue among three political positions, represented by the major characters. Arthur and Nancy Croom are affluent young fellow-travelers who take no responsibility for the consequences of their unwavering loyalty to the Soviet Union or of their romanticized view of a local worker who is also a feckless drunkard. In contrast, Maxim, a former spy, who could be a character out of Dostoevski, has embraced an intense religious hostility to any kind of secular society. Rejecting both extremes, John Laskell, who is closest to Trilling's temperate disposition, reflects, in a formulation that several reviewers quoted as Trilling's central point, "An absolute freedom from responsibility -- that much of a child none of us can be. An absolute responsibility -- that much of a divine or metaphysical essence none of us is."

This unspoken comment, affirming Laskell's allegiance to the moderate center, recalls an anecdote told by Richard Sennett in a fascinating memoir included in Lionel Trilling and the Critics. Once, when Trilling was talking about the need to come to terms with the conflicting influences of man-made culture on the one hand and unchangeable biology on the other, the youthful Sennett taunted him: "You have no position, you are always in between." "Between," Trilling replied, "is the only honest place to be." Sennett sees this response as a clue to Trilling's larger statement on the moral life. Trilling warned against the temptation of fervent heroism, with its danger of excess, and counterposed the recognition of life's limits, which implies an acceptance of rational thinking as the only decent means of dealing with political and cultural issues.

Trilling's next three major books were collections of essays, often critical introductions to new editions of famous books. In these -- The Liberal Imagination, (1955), and Beyond Culture (1965) -- we find the unique character of his treatment of particular novels. Whether he was dealing with Tolstoy's Anna Karenina or Dickens's Little Dorrit or Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn or Henry James's The Bostonians or Jane Austen's Emma, Trilling always moved from plot and character and style to larger ideas about morality or psychology. Even more appealing than this compulsion to explore the wider implications of a work is the sheer passion with which he responded to it. Morris Dickstein's foreword -- the most thorough, personal, and balanced essay in Trilling and the Critics describes Trilling's approach to literature vividly.

What meant most to him was to be possessed by a book, to be disoriented and changed by it.... Trilling talked about books as if they might rise up and attack him; he was especially fond of quoting Auden's remark that books read us as much as we read them.

Even more colorful is Irving Howe's inventive image.

Trilling would circle a work with his fond, nervous wariness, as if in the presence of some force, some living energy, which could not always be kept under proper control -- indeed, as if he were approaching an elemental power.

Several critics choose Trilling's introduction to The Selected Letters of John Keats as his most brilliant, most original portrait (included in The Opposing Self). The introduction was called "The Poet as Hero,"and it responded to the person revealed by the letters in a way that can best be described as intellectual hero worship.

The charm of Keats's letters is inexhaustible.... [His] wisdom is the proud, bitter, and joyful acceptance of tragic life which we associate pre-eminently with Shakespeare.... [Despite his] mature masculinity ... he had an awareness, rare in our culture, of the female principle as a power, an energy.... He with his intense naturalism that took so passionate an account of the mystery of man's nature, reckoning as boldly with pleasure as with pain.

This is not the tone or savor of most literary criticism. Trilling wrote with similar though not equal ardor about Jane Austen and Henry James and Charles Dickens. Even if we find his language excessive, he nevertheless engages us and compels our attention. It is this heightened emotional and intellectual force, contained behind a serene and genial manner, that explains Trilling's popularity with students and his remarkable influence, through generations of students and readers, in the English departments of universities across the country and, to a lesser degree, in England.

I have no room to discuss Trilling's deep involvement with the writings of Sigmund Freud, whom he admired enormously for his forceful recognition of the dark side of life and for his courage in discovering and telling unpalatable truths. However, the essay included here by the psychotherapist Bruno Bettelheim offers a superb account of the interaction of Trilling, psychoanalysis, and literature. Nor do I have room to explore Trilling's ambivalent feelings about teaching the great modern writers -- D. H. Lawrence and Franz Kafka, Yeats and Eliot, Joyce and Proust, Mann and Conrad -- all of whom he believed offered an adversarial, indeed a subversive, attitude toward the basic tenets of liberal democracy. Trilling asked his students to look into the abyss of terrors and mysteries gaping before them in this literature and found them passively interested, displaying neither wonder nor fear. Was the effect of teaching such works, under the respectable auspices of a university course, simply to legitimize and defang the subversive?

I CANNOT close this review without noting two contributions by the editor. John Rodden's introductory survey of the contents of this collection is richly but casually informative; it is also lively, witty, opinionated, and fair-minded. His other essay, "Trilling's Homage to Orwell" is adapted from Rodden's book The Politics of Literary Reputation (1989). Rodden argues here that Trilling's single piece on Orwell, his introduction to a 1952 reissue of Orwell's Homage to Catalonia, was largely responsible for establishing Orwell's reputation in the United States as a "virtuous man" who never faltered in his pursuit of "the politics of truth." When the book was originally published, it was either disregarded or dismissed, because Orwell's firsthand report on the treacherous role played by the Stalinists during the Spanish Civil War was anathema to leftist orthodoxy at the time. Trilling found Orwell to be an exemplary figure because of "his simple ability to look at things in a downright, undeceived way." Trilling went on to draw this remarkably chastening lesson from Orwell's character:

He is not a genius -- what a relief! What an encouragement. For he communicates to us the sense that what he has done any one of us could do.

Or could do if we but made up our mind to do it, if we but surrendered a little of the cant that comforts us, if for a few weeks we paid no attention to the little group with which we habitually exchange opinions, if we took our chance of being wrong or inadequate, if we looked at things simply and directly.... He liberates us.... he frees us from the need for the inside dope.... he restores the old sense of the democracy of the mind.... He has the effect of making us believe that we can become full members of the society of thinking men.

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

The Atlantic Monthly; July 2000; The Last Great Critic - 00.07 (Part Two); Volume 286, No. 1; page 86-90.