Though he wrote at least one masterful short story, a timely and respected novel, and books on two major authors, Lionel Trilling may be strongest in the essay form. His strong sense of “self” is suited to the compact and intense first-person expression of the essay. His first-person point of view is characteristically plural for the reasons he selfconsciously outlines in the preface to his third collection, Beyond Culture (1965), and the compactness of his essays often embraces extensive complexity. Nevertheless, the short
form geared to strong statements about modern culture, rather than strict literary criticism or theory, is Trilling’s hallmark. Further, despite his embracing the trendy Freudian thought of mid-century and his frequent evoking of the vaunted liberalism of New York intellectuals (the jeremiahs of our time), Trilling as essayist and cultural critic is strangely anachronistic. He is best at his version of Matthew Arnold’s moves toward general ideas of humanness. He is even reminiscent of a moralist like the Samuel Johnson whose mentors had advised “first get general principles.” Hence Trilling is often dismissed both by more practical liberals and by more incisive critics of modern literature as oldfashioned and even stuffy. But his several dozen strong essays remain in print as a voice for the old human values of opposition and struggle.
Learning again from Arnold and maybe even from Dr. Johnson himself, Trilling consciously analyzes his own high seriousness of both intent and rhetoric when he talks about his use of “we” in the short prefatory essay to his third collection. He gently wants to nudge what he calls “the temper of our age” toward the serious contemplation of selfhood and value. Similarly, in the important preface to his first collection The Liberal Imagination (1950), which won him immediate fame as a cultural critic, Trilling defines the nature of and the reasons for another key characteristic of his style—his continual folding back on himself with qualification and complexity. He points out that one role for the liberal thinker is to simplify issues in order to move toward progress; but it is that move to simplification and system that he continually opposes. His essays as a whole, as well as the separate parts of essays, demonstrate the reality for Trilling of variety and complexity and of the heroic benefits derived from oppositions, even within the self, so that in the end any first-person plural consensus becomes buried in time and complexity.
In other words, Trilling’s old-fashioned commitment to broad human values, with a full awareness of how complex those might be, places him in constant opposition to the practical movements of his own time.
One of Trilling’s heroes of selfhood is the poet John Keats, but his essay on Keats that heads his second collection, The Opposing Self (1955), is not about the poetry but rather the letters. Similarly, his exciting early essay on Wordsworth’s “Intimations of Immortality,” which has helped many with the ode over the years, strangely is not much about the poetry itself but rather about ideas. Trilling admitted that he preferred the 19thcentury novel, in which social ideas are more important than the language experimentation of Modernist novels; this preference is more evidence of his commitment to a general humanism.
Finally, then, there is an abstractness and, perhaps, an honest and self-conscious anachronism at the heart of Trilling’s work with the essay. He is at odds with himself. If he were primarily known for his fiction, or even as a crafty poet (and Trilling is capable of very crafty writing), he might seem more concrete and fixed to his readers. Instead Trilling achieved fame in the essay by acknowledging the essay almost as a secondary form. He qualifies and opposes himself at the same time that he insists on our need to commit to society and to literature. Thus, somewhere between the poignancy of a personal essayist such as Lamb and the practicality of a new thinker such as Freud, Trilling’s several collections of essays waver as the cultural criticism of a qualified and qualifying man. For him this civility is part of being a gentleman. He was indeed a gentle man.
Born 4 July 1905 in New York. Studied at Columbia University, New York, 1921–26, B.A., 1925, M.A., 1926, Ph.D., 1938. Worked for the Menorah Journal, New York, 1923–31; taught at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, 1926–27, Hunter College, New York, 1928–34, and Columbia University, 1932–75; visiting professor or Fellow, Oxford University, 1964–65, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1969–70,
and All Souls College, Oxford, 1972–73. Married Diana Rubin (i.e. the writer Diana Trilling), 1929: one son. Member of the editorial board, Kenyon Review and Partisan Review.
Awards: Mark Van Doren Award; Thomas Jefferson Award; Brandeis University Creative Arts Award; honorary degrees from eight universities. Member, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1951. Died in New York, 5 November 1975.
Essays and Related Prose
The Liberal Imagination: Essays on Literature and Society, 1950
The Opposing Self: Nine Essays in Criticism, 1955
A Gathering of Fugitives, 1956
Beyond Culture: Essays on Literature and Learning, 1965
Sincerity and Authenticity (lectures), 1972
The Last Decade: Essays and Reviews, edited by Diana Trilling, 1979
Prefaces to the Experience of Literature, 1979
Speaking of Literature and Society, edited by Diana Trilling, 1980
Other writings: the novel The Middle of the Journey (1947), short stories, and books on Matthew Arnold and E.M.Forster.
Collected works edition: Works (Uniform Edition), edited by Diana Trilling, 12 vols., 1978–80.
Barnaby, Marianne Gilbert, “Lionel Trilling: A Bibliography, 1926–1972,” Bulletin of Bibliography (January–March 1974): 37–44
Leitch, Thomas M., Lionel Trilling: An Annotated Bibliography, New York: Garland, 1993
Anderson, Quentin, Stephen Donadio, and Steven Marcus, editors, Art, Politics, and Will:
Essays in Honor of Lionel Trilling, New York: Basic Books, 1977
Boyers, Robert, Lionel Trilling: Negative Capability and the Wisdom of Avoidance, Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1977
Chace, William M., Lionel Trilling: Critidsm and Politics, Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1980
French, Philip, Three Honest Men: Edmund Wilson, F.R.Leavis, Lionel Trilling: A Critical Mosaic, Manchester: Carcanet, 1980
Krupnick, Mark, Lionel Trilling and the Fate of Cultural Criticism, Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1986
Scott, Nathan A., Jr., Three American Moralists: Mailer, Bellow, Trilling, Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1973
Shoben, Edward Joseph, Jr., Lionel Trilling, New York: Ungar, 1981
Tanner, Stephen L., Lionel Trilling, Boston: Twayne, 1988
Trilling, Diana, The Beginning of the Journey, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1993
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