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.