In Why Trilling Matters, from Yale University Press’s Why X Matters Series, Adam Kirsch makes a compelling argument for why mid-century American literary critic Lionel Trilling might matter thirty-six years after his death. Yet the importance of a literary critic rests on the more fundamental question of the importance of literature, and just as Kirsch’s book is a statement on why Trilling matters, we might read Trilling’s oeuvre as a statement on why literature matters at all.
As a professor at Columbia, Trilling defended the value of literature to several generations of students, teaching “Important Books” in tandem with his colleague Jacques Barzun as part of Columbia’s developing core curriculum. In the public sphere, the essays Trilling published in The Nation, The New York Times Book Review, and elsewhere demonstrated the way that, in Kirsch’s words, “Trilling was the rare kind of writer for whom an idea is itself an experience.”
For Trilling, literature was far more than entertainment or even art. Rather, literature was a window into the most complex human behaviors and desires, and thus, the words he found on the page furnished the key to understanding everything going on outside of the library. In short, “More than any twentieth-century American intellectual, Trilling stood for the principles that society and politics cannot be fully understood without the literary imagination.”
Trilling was known for his liberal, anti-Stalinist politics, which, rather than being accessory to his literary works, were intimately entwined with them. As Kirsch puts it, “Trilling, thinking through the medium of literature rather than history or political philosophy,” came to “the same kinds of conclusions that can be found in the work of Isaiah Berlin and Hannah Arendt.” In spite of their status as fictions, Trilling found justice and virtue in the novels of Henry James; from authors and their characters, he drew wisdom about the real world in which we live.
Kirsch rejects the popular interpretation of Trilling’s biography as the life of a “great literary critic, but a failed novelist, and therefore an unhappy, unsatisfied man,” an interpretation evoked by Louis Menand in his 2008 New Yorker profile, which begins with the sentence, “Lionel Trilling was not completely happy about being Lionel Trilling.” Regardless of Trilling’s own opinion of his success, Kirsch argues that we must learn from what Trilling did accomplish rather than pitying him for that he did not do. Besides, Trilling’s work as a writer provided him with insight into the writing process that could only be useful to a critic, so that although his 1947 novel The Middle of the Journey was not everything Trilling had imagined, it is by no means an embarrassment to a man who was, by 1971 “the most famous and authoritative literary critic in the English-speaking world.”
Trilling spent almost his entire academic life at Columbia, beginning as an undergraduate there in 1921, completing his doctorate in 1938, and later, becoming the first Jewish professor in the department to receive tenure. He made brief jaunts to Oxford, Harvard, and elsewhere, and was selected by the National Endowment for the Humanities to give the first ever Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities in 1972. Yet a look at Trilling’s academic career offers only a partial perspective on his legacy—in addition to being a professor, Trilling was, of course, both a critic and a public intellectual.
Indeed, Trilling was an incredibly prolific writer of critical essays and cultural commentary; according to the Columbia University library, “Bibliographies have been begun and abandoned due to the “sheer size of his oeuvre.”” His books, among them The Liberal Imagination (1950), The Opposing Self (1955), Beyond Culture (1965), and Sincerity and Authenticity (1972), were more widely read than most literary criticism before or since.
One reason for this, Kirsch asserts, is that his essays, rather than belonging to the genre of literary criticism, “belong to literature itself.” In this capacity, Trilling’s writings are “something more primary and more autonomous…Like poems, they dramatize the writer’s inner experience; like novels, they offer a subjective account of the writer’s social and psychological environment.” Whereas most criticism is secondary to the literature to which it refers, Trilling’s essays are ends in themselves.
In an essay Kirsch wrote for the New York Times on “Why Criticism Matters,” he refers to Trilling as an example of a tradition of critics whose “books are classics of criticism because they each show a mind working out its own questions — about psychology, society, politics, morals — through reading.” Such works of criticism, Kirsch continues, “show us what reading can be: a way of making one’s self, one’s soul.” This, of course, is why Trilling matters, for even though Cold War politics may not bear the same weight as they did in the 1950s, selves, souls, and reading are as relevant as ever.