Why Trilling Matters

Why Trilling Matters

by Adam Kirsch


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The distinguished poet and critic argues for the abiding relevance of a great literary mind of the twentieth century

Lionel Trilling, regarded at the time of his death in 1975 as America's preeminent literary critic, is today often seen as

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300187823
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 02/05/2013
Series: Why X Matters Series
Pages: 192
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 7.50(h) x (d)

About the Author

Adam Kirsch is a senior editor at the New Republic and a columnist for Tablet magazine. He is the author of several books of poetry and criticism, and most recently of a short biography of Benjamin Disraeli. He lives in New York City.

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why trilling matters

By adam kirsch

yale university press

Copyright © 2011 Adam Kirsch
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-15269-2

Chapter One

does literature matter?

"We are all a little sour on the idea of the literary life these days.... In America it has always been very difficult to believe that this life really exists at all or that it is worth living." To anyone who has been paying attention to the morale of American writers lately, such a diagnosis will come as no surprise. Hardly a year goes by without a novelist, poet, or critic coming forward to confess this sense of sourness, which is actually a compound of despair and resentment. Despair, because every department of literature seems to be undergoing simultaneous crisis, a multiple organ failure of the kind that inevitably leads to death; resentment, because of the contemporary American writer's sense that he has been like the final investor in a Ponzi scheme, having bought into the venerable enterprise of literature only to discover that it is on the verge of default.

Poetry, of course, was the first to go. Already in 1991, in his essay "Can Poetry Matter?" Dana Gioia declared that "American poetry belongs to a subculture. No longer part of the mainstream of artistic and intellectual life, it has become the specialized occupation of a relatively small and isolated group." As a poet, Gioia looked covetously at the attention and esteem given to fiction: "A reader familiar with the novels of Joyce Carol Oates, John Updike, or John Barth may not even recognize the names of Gwendolyn Brooks, Gary Snyder, or W. D. Snodgrass." But five years later, Jonathan Franzen lamented in his essay "Perchance to Dream" that whatever attention the novel continued to receive was just "consolation for no longer mattering to the culture." The poet might envy the novelist, but the novelist has his own jealousies: "there are very few American milieus today in which having read the latest work of Joyce Carol Oates or Richard Ford is more valuable, as social currency, than having caught the latest John Travolta movie or knowing how to navigate the Web."

In the last few years, technological change and economic recession have combined to accelerate this long-term crisis. First local bookstores disappeared, victims of the chain stores and Amazon: since the 1990s, more than half of America's independent bookstores have closed. The newspaper book review was next: in the 2000s, the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, and many other major papers shrank or eliminated their book sections. Cynthia Ozick, in her 2007 essay "Literary Entrails," performed the same kind of obsequies for literary criticism that Gioia and Franzen had done for poetry and fiction: "What is missing is an undercurrent, or call it, rather (because so much rests on it), an infrastructure, of serious criticism."

University English departments are suffering: as long ago as 1999, in an essay titled "The Decline and Fall of Literature," Andrew Delbanco observed that "Literature is a field whose constituency and resources are shrinking." Even as it lost students to more pragmatic disciplines, English was also losing its intellectual identity: "it has become routine to find notices in the department advertising lectures on such topics as the evolution of Batman ... alongside posters for a Shakespeare conference." Reading itself, according to a 2004 study by the National Endowment for the Arts, is in "dramatic decline, with fewer than half of American adults now reading literature ... [and] the steepest rate of decline ... occurring in the youngest age groups."

For many readers and writers, all these anxieties find their ultimate focus in a fear that the book itself, the site and symbol of literature for the last five hundred years, is about to disappear, replaced by the Kindle or iPad or something equally suspect. Margaret Atwood expressed the fears of many readers over the age of, say, thirty when she wrote, "This is crucial, the fact that a book is a thing, physically there, durable, indefinitely reusable, an object of value ... electrons are as evanescent as thoughts. History depends on the written word."

At such a moment, how could we not be "a little sour on the idea of the literary life," or find it hard "to believe that this life really exists at all"? It may be surprising to learn that this complaint was made in 1952, just at the midcentury moment to which Franzen and Ozick look back so enviously. But the greater surprise is that it was Lionel Trilling who made it. For in the last twenty years, when writers have lamented the decay of literature's confidence and authority, they have often turned, as if by instinct, to Trilling as the emblem of those lost virtues. More than any twentieth-century American intellectual, Trilling stood for the principle that society and politics cannot be fully understood without the literary imagination. In his own career, he combined the traditional authority of the academic—he was a professor of English at Columbia for four decades—with the new authority of the freelance intellectual—some of his most important essays were written for "little magazines" like Partisan Review. His best-known book, the essay collection The Liberal Imagination (1950), continues to define an epoch in American intellectual history. When he died in 1975, at the age of seventy, the critic Steven Marcus paid tribute to his "spiritual heroism" on the front page of the New York Times.

It is so hard, today, to imagine this kind of honor being paid to a literary critic—perhaps to any writer—that Trilling's name is often invoked as a reproach to the fallen present. According to Delbanco, the cure for the decline and fall of literature is a return to Trilling's ideal of literary education, as set forth in his essay "The Uncertain Future of the Humanistic Educational Ideal": an "exigent experience," in which "an initiate ... became worthy of admission into the company of those who are thought to have transcended the mental darkness and inertia in which they were previously immersed." Ozick contrasts Franzen's longing for a mass audience with Trilling's recommendation, in "The Function of the Little Magazine," that a writer "direct his words to his spiritual ancestors, or to posterity, or even, if need be, to a coterie." This is what she describes as Trilling's "self-denying purity; purity for the sake of a higher purity."

Yet how can this help sounding like a little too much purity —like what Milton, in the Areopagitica, calls "an excremental whiteness"? "Assuredly we bring not innocence into the world, we bring impurity much rather; that which purifies us is trial, and trial is by what is contrary," the poet writes, and there has always been a tendency, among Trilling's critics, to rebel against an elevation which they construe as mere abstemiousness. "He never gives the impression of having read anything for the first time, of being surprised, confused, delighted, enraged, or captivated by anything he has read," Roger Sale complained in 1973. Stefan Collini, writing thirty-five years later, catches the same tone: "There is, for many of us, something vaguely oppressive about the thought of having to reread Lionel Trilling now. We can't help feeling that we should be improved by Trilling, and this feeling is itself inevitably oppressive.... Reading him keeps us up to the mark, but we can't help but be aware that the mark is set rather higher than we are used to."

In all these descriptions, whether their intention is laudatory or the opposite, it is clear that Trilling is being assigned the role of literature's superego. As a student of Freud, Trilling himself would have known what must follow: for if the superego is the savage enforcer of unattainable cultural ideals, then the ego's health and happiness require that the superego be humbled. This need simultaneously to honor and humble Trilling is responsible for the curious ambivalence with which he is usually written about today. In the last ten years, much of Trilling's work has been brought back into print: The Moral Obligation to Be Intelligent, the generous selection of essays edited by Leon Wieseltier; the new editions of The Liberal Imagination and The Middle of the Journey, from New York Review Books; even the manuscript of his unfinished novel, published as The Journey Abandoned. And each of these publications has been greeted with considerable attention, in the form of reviews by leading critics—even if those reviews are largely defensive and skeptical in tone. Trilling is, apparently, still close enough, still authoritative enough, to need to be reckoned with, which sometimes means rejected and mocked.

There could be no more Oedipal gesture than Louis Menand's, when he marked the publication of a new edition of The Liberal Imagination by suggesting that Trilling was basically a pathetic figure. "He was depressive, he had writer's block, and he drank too much," Menand wrote in The New Yorker in 2008. "He did not even like his first name. He wished that he had been called John or Jack." All this is meant to cut Trilling down to size, preparatory to cutting his work down to size:

But the idea that people have some sort of moral obligation to match up their taste in art and literature with their political opinions exercised a much more powerful appeal in Trilling's time than it does today.... Since the 1960s, cultural taste has largely been liberated from politics.... educated people tend to be culturally promiscuous and permissive. They don't use the language of approval and disapproval in their aesthetic responses; they simply like some experiences and dislike other experiences.

During the culture wars of the 1970s and 1980s, Trilling was often attacked from the right and the left for being insufficiently adaptable to their respective purposes. There was a nice symmetry to this abuse: Cornel West condemned Trilling as the "Godfather of Neo-Conservatism," while Norman Podhoretz complained that "almost always he fought against being called a conservative." But such attacks at least implied that Trilling's allegiances mattered, that he was a writer whose legacy had to be claimed or disclaimed. To critics like Menand, on the other hand, Trilling is simply out of date, and like everything obsolete in our present-minded culture, he carries a faint odor of the absurd. Why did Trilling worry so much about these things? Why couldn't he "simply like some experiences and dislike other experiences," in the passionless, unassuming way of the consumer who prefers one brand to another?

On the one hand, a literary culture suffering from a crisis of weightlessness, a feeling that literature has ceased to matter in the way it did for Trilling and his age; on the other, a critical consensus that regards Trilling as a suffocating ghost, because he believed that literature mattered too much. These mixed feelings are both a sign of how much Trilling continues to matter today—critics like Irving Howe or Alfred Kazin, once Trilling's peers in the circle of New York intellectuals, do not provoke the same kind of confused passion—and a symptom of how his achievement has been misunderstood.

In making my own arguments for why Trilling matters, I hope that I can benefit from what might seem like a disadvantage. Unlike the critics I've quoted, I have no memory of Trilling personally, or even of a literary culture in which he was a figure of authority. On the contrary, when I was an undergraduate English major in the mid-1990s, I don't believe Trilling was ever assigned or discussed in any of my courses. I first came to him on my own, and though I found people to encourage my enthusiasm, I always read Trilling for pleasure, not from obligation.

Part of the pleasure, certainly, came from the authority of Trilling's judgments, and of the prose which conveys those judgments. But Trilling's authority, like all genuine literary authority, is itself a literary achievement—not a privilege of cultural office or a domineering assertion of erudition and intellect, but an expression of sensibility, the record of an individual mind engaged with the world and with texts. This is true of all the best literary critics, but it seems especially true of Trilling, who is surprisingly uninterested in the traditional prerogatives and responsibilities of criticism. In his major essays, collected in The Liberal Imagination, The Opposing Self, and Beyond Culture, he does not bring news of important new writers or teach us how to read difficult new works, the way Edmund Wilson does. Nor does he offer a polemical revaluation of literary history, the way F. R. Leavis does. Nor, finally, does he try to push contemporary literature in the direction of his own ambitions, the way poet-critics like T. S. Eliot and Allen Tate were doing so influentially in his lifetime.

If Trilling's essays are not exactly literary criticism, it is because they are something more primary and more autonomous: they belong to literature itself. Like poems, they dramatize the writer's inner experience; like novels, they offer a subjective account of the writer's social and psychological environment. And like all literary works, Trilling's essays are ends in themselves—they are autotelic, to use a word that Eliot coined to describe what criticism could never be. This helps to explain why there has never been a Trilling school of criticism. He does not offer the reader findings or formulas, which might be assembled into a theory; he offers what literature alone offers, an experience.

This is, of course, an experience of a more restricted and abstract kind than the poet or the novelist can give. The drama of Trilling's essays comes from the reaction of a powerfully individual sensibility, not to emotions or human situations or the world as a whole, but to certain texts and ideas. This means it occurs at two removes from life, and can never have the immediacy or breadth of appeal that creative writing has. But it is a genuine drama, because Trilling was the rare kind of writer for whom an idea is itself an experience. He may have been exaggerating when he wrote that "Ideas and moral essences are, to all people, the most interesting things in the world"; but if they aren't that to all people, they certainly were to Trilling himself.

This helps to explain two of the most important, and sometimes controversial, aspects of Trilling's style. One is his cultivation of a short list of key words, which return again and again in his essays, to the point that they seem to bear his trademark: moral, liberal, will, mind, reality. These are large and general words, and so they are natural targets for skepticism. To Collini, Trilling's "Big Words make us a little uncomfortable nowadays, and we have difficulty using them other than in a knowing, allusive way."

It is true that Trilling's key words are momentous, and that he does not fear momentousness. But it is also crucial not to ignore the deliberately tentative and exploratory way he uses them. "Moral" and "liberal," in particular, recur in Trilling's work like themes in a piece of music or symbols in a poem: rather than becoming simpler with repetition, they accumulate dimensions and implications. "Liberal" means one thing to Trilling when writing about Matthew Arnold and E. M. Forster in the 1930s and early 1940s, and something very different, almost contradictory, when he praises "the liberal imagination" in the late 1940s. Trilling had an almost poetic interest in the unfolding of these master terms, which strike such a deep chord in his imagination.

The other feature of Trilling's prose, which readers have noticed and sometimes resisted from the very beginning, is his use of the first person plural—the famous Trilling "we." His essay "Reality in America," from The Liberal Imagination, offers a characteristic example:

We live, understandably enough, with the sense of urgency; our clock, like Baudelaire's, has had the hands removed and bears the legend, "it is later than you think." But with us it is always a little too late for mind, yet never too late for honest stupidity; always a little too late for understanding, never too late for righteous, bewildered wrath; always too late for thought, never too late for naïve moralizing.

Who, one might reasonably ask, is included in this "us"? In the preface to his 1965 book Beyond Culture, Trilling mentioned the objection of a reviewer who "said that when I spoke of what 'we' think or feel it was often confusing because sometimes it meant 'just the people of our time as a whole; more often still Americans in general; most often of all a very narrow class, consisting of New York intellectuals as judged by [my] own brighter students at Columbia.'" Trilling genially acknowledged that "this may well be an all too accurate description of my practice."

But at least readers who encountered Trilling's essays in the pages of Partisan Review, or were in the audience hearing him deliver a paper (some of his most important essays started out as lectures), could feel that they were undoubtedly being addressed by him—that they belonged to Trilling's "we." Today, the device can feel coercive: isn't Trilling demanding that the reader subscribe to a cultural diagnosis which, in fact, she may want to contest? (What if I don't feel that my clock has had its hands removed?) Worse, it can seem to exclude: if Trilling in this passage is chastising left-liberals of the 1940s, isn't he speaking about a local, long-vanished cultural pathology, which is now of merely historical interest?


Excerpted from why trilling matters by adam kirsch Copyright © 2011 by Adam Kirsch. Excerpted by permission of yale university press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


one Does Literature Matter?....................1
two "A Professor and a Man and a Writer"....................23
three Varieties of Liberal Imagination....................37
four Isaac Babel and the Rabbis....................71
five A Syllabus of Terrors....................91
six "Howl" and the Visionary Gleam....................111
seven The Arming Self....................129
eight The Reader as Hero....................151

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