Trilling’s books and essays had been an inspiration to the neoconservative movement, of which he was pointedly not a member.
Lionel Trilling, Edited by Adam Kirsch, Life in Culture: Selected
Letters of Lionel Trilling (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018), 464 pp., $35.00.
LIKE HIS wife Diana, who wrote her memoirs The Beginning of the Journey in 1993, Lionel Trilling was a charter member of the New York intellectuals. In his collection of essays, The Winding Passage, Daniel Bell anointed both Trillings as elders, along with Sidney Hook, Elliot Cohen, Meyer Schapiro, Hannah Arendt, Philip Rahv and William Phillips. Bell sought to distinguish this generation of Jewish American intellectuals from later ones by stressing that “there was a pride in the group that what was important was really ideas and one should not talk about people as celebrities.”
Lionel Trilling’s eminence was so great, however, that he reached near celebrity status as a literary critic. His 1950 essay collection, The Liberal Imagination, is surely among the most influential volumes of literary criticism ever released in the United States. Towards the end of his life, he published his probing study Sincerity and Authenticity, which championed the eighteenth-century ideal of sincerity by casting a skeptical eye on the quest for an authentic self, a pursuit Trilling associated with the Far Left of the 1960s. An evangelist for serious literature and a public intellectual if ever there was one, Trilling was a moralist who lived in New York City and who had read Marx and Freud. He was as avowedly modern and sophisticated as he was priestly and professorial.
Born in 1905, Trilling came from an Eastern European Jewish immigrant family that was just affluent enough to send him to Columbia College. (His father was a furrier.) At Columbia, Trilling was among the first cohorts of students to take in the great-books curriculum, mounting the arduous ladder from undergraduate to professor. It was a very close call: thanks to the intervention of the college’s president, Nicholas Murray Butler, Trilling overcame the English department’s reservations about him. As with many American universities, the department’s anti-Semitism militated against a Jew and a child of immigrants teaching English literature to Ivy League students. Trilling’s achievement of tenure was a seminal moment for the New York intellectuals, as Sidney Hook recounts in his memoir Out of Step.
Trilling’s truest wish was to be a novelist. He published his only novel, The Middle of the Journey, in 1947. More than a novelist or a conventional scholar, Trilling was a supple essayist in the tradition of Matthew Arnold, about whom he wrote his first book. Trilling was a natural Anglophile. As Bell noted,
“It is no accident, I suppose, that the best writings of Trilling are those on Matthew Arnold or E. M. Forster or Jane Austen, because that was the kind of life—a life of manners, a life of society, a life of culture—which gave a great sense of coherent social structure or of nuanced relationships.”
Like Arnold, Trilling could unite observation with opinion in a manner that was subjective and objective, emotional and urbane, instructive and mysterious.
Trilling never wrote directly about public or foreign policy. He spent no time in Washington, DC. He was literary to the core. Yet his was a life in politics. This was in part a consequence of timing. He was twenty-four years old at the time of the stock market crash, and like many in his generation he was drawn to communism in the 1930s. He did not join the Communist Party. He admired the Soviet Union from afar until Stalin robbed him of his admiration. As with many in his generation, though a bit earlier, Trilling became an anti-communist, the intellectual canary in the political coal mine. His essays narrated the story of communism and anti-communism, and by doing so, they outlined the imperative of anti-communism.
Then came the 1960s. Through this decade Trilling walked an exquisitely fine line. He dined at the White House with John and Jackie Kennedy. His very name was associated with the word liberal, and that was the problem in the sixties. Trilling was the kind of centrist Cold War liberal against whom the decade’s radicals defined themselves. It was Trilling’s peculiar destiny to protect and defend the novels and poetry of the Victorians, among others, in the Age of Aquarius. When the Columbia campus rose up in protest in the spring of 1968, Trilling symbolized the liberal old guard.
Meanwhile, several of Trilling’s friends and one of his students, Norman Podhoretz, rebelled against the reigning rebellion and launched the neoconservative movement in the 1970s. (One of these friends, Irving Kristol, founded The National Interest in 1985 as a realist counterweight to Commentary.) Trilling’s books and essays had been an inspiration to the neoconservative movement, of which he was pointedly not a member. He died a liberal in 1975. He, as an individual who voted for Democrats, who saw little role for religion in American politics and who wanted the United States to oppose the Soviet Union on the international stage. To the end, he was convinced that the proper medium of a liberal culture was literature.
Thus, forty-three years after his death, Trilling is doubly an anachronism. The academic world has dismissed the great books foundation on which his career was built. Its preferred politics challenge the establishment to which Trilling belonged and the assertive foreign policy he preferred. English departments have replaced the personalized essay at which Trilling excelled with the impersonal apparatus of theory and jargon, and whatever the agenda of the humanities in the academy they are fading away in the culture at large. The political world has moved on as well. Almost no bond exists between literature and politics in 2018, at least not from the political side of the equation. The Trump White House is no haven for literati. It may have been a conceit of Trilling’s to believe in this bond back in the 1950s and early 1960s. Now it would be an obvious absurdity.
Not all anachronisms are equal. Some are museum pieces. Some are objects of desire, some of regret, some of indignation. By definition, anachronisms illustrate the distance between past and present by not conforming to the present. The recent publication of Life in Culture: Selected Letters of Lionel Trilling, wonderfully edited by Adam Kirsch, puts a new Trilling before us. In this book, he is not the Olympian essayist. His voice is not perfectly modulated and polished as it was in his essays, an author happy to hide behind the veil of literary criticism. In his letters, Trilling is caustic and affectionate, self-assured and vulnerable. He is tersely and revealingly himself. He is very much an anachronism and one with a great deal to say at the present moment.
The revelation of Life in Culture lies less in its extraordinary recreation of the past than in Trilling’s preferred combination of literature and politics. In the winter of our discontent, Trilling emerges as a partisan of the liberal polity, which is to say of political pluralism, tolerance, rationalism and secularism, of the moderation on which liberal polities depend. The origin of self-government, Trilling teaches us in his letters, is as much the self as it is the citizen, and for self-government to prosper the self needs privacy. The self is created in privacy. That is the function of education and literature alike. The cultivated, healthy self is none other than the ideal citizen, since in a democracy the public and private spheres shape one another. To see how far we have fallen from this model of the self and of self-government we need only open a newspaper or, better yet, turn on cable news or open a social media news feed. The epistolary Trilling is salient circa 2018 for his not thinking and for his not being like us.
IN THE tangle of literature and politics in which Trilling lived literature always came first. He read himself into the nineteenth century as a boy. His Anglophilic parents instilled a love of English literature in him. At Columbia, he fell in with a group of astonishingly precocious, erudite and literary fellow students. In a 1968 letter to H.J. Lang, Trilling recalled that “I have never had Columbia students who knew as much as some of my friends did or who took so much pride in knowing. Very likely the European, especially the Jewish European, influence was still at work.” These students added the modernism of Kafka, Joyce and Proust to Trilling’s standard diet of Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and Henry James.
Trilling rose to literary prominence in the 1940s. His positive and negative ideal of literature comes out best in the letters he wrote to a then unknown student of his, Allen Ginsberg. “I am very largely an old-fashioned humanist,” he explained to Ginsberg in September 1945. Secular though he was, Trilling sought humanistic values in literature—duty, honor, sincerity—literature as an available guide to life or a guide to the good life. When Ginsberg sent him a copy of his poem, “Howl,” a protest against the alleged conformities of the early Cold War, Trilling wrote back in May 1956 with a protest of his own. “I don’t like the poems at all,” he confessed to their author. With subtle touches of coyness and mirth, he wrote that the poems
“are all prose, all rhetoric, without any music… There is no voice here. As for the doctrinal element of the poems, apart from the fact that I of course reject it, it seems to me that I heard it very long ago and that you give it to me in all its orthodoxy, with nothing new added.”
Different as they were, Ginsberg the radical poet and Trilling the less-than-radical critic agreed and shared an extreme belief in literature. His teacher’s student, Ginsberg was a revolutionary of the written word: as went literature so would society go. The doctrinal element of a poem or the orthodoxy of a cultural position outlined the principles people were choosing to live for. The battles of literary criticism, then, were battles over the direction in which society and politics were tending.
Another of Trilling’s students from the 1940s, Norman Podhoretz, went from Columbia and from Trilling’s supervision to the editorship of Commentary magazine. It was self-evident to Trilling that the literary education he had given Podhoretz was all that Podhoretz needed for journalism, for advocacy and for the political fray. Trilling’s letters to Podhoretz have literature as their shorthand for everything. Taking the measure of the cultural scene, Trilling wrote to Podhoretz in August 1959 that “I smell a situation, the odor being of gunpowder.” In the calm twilight of the Eisenhower era, Trilling had intuited a political realignment from the discussion of literature. The gunpowder he smelled was of course real.
Only toward the end of Trilling’s life did literature seem to recede in stature. As Trilling often did, he discerned a cultural barometer in his students. In a May 1972 letter, he shared his impression that
“the relation of students to literature has undergone a radical change. This takes the form which cannot be described as an antagonism to literature but, rather, as a developing insensitivity to it—students seem less and less able to understand its cognitive value or to find that it has the exemplary force it once had.”
The cognitive value of literature is not less than it used to be, but the appreciation of this cognitive value is diminishing. From the students of the 1920s to the students of the 1970s something crucial had been lost.
Politics was most three-dimensional for Trilling when it concerned the 1930s. In a 1932 letter to the art historian Meyer Schapiro and his wife Lillian, Trilling emphasized his support for miners in Kentucky—a window into the mind of Trilling the philo-communist. A year later, another Trilling was in evidence. This was the Trilling who defended free speech on the Columbia campus. He defended, that is, that merits of having the ambassador from Hitler’s Germany speak on campus. Fully aware of Nazism, Trilling was adamant
“that it is wiser for the University to adhere to the principle of free speech on all occasions with all its possible anomalies than to reject the principle of free speech on any occasion because of any of its anomalies.”
In 1933, the Bolsheviks had other ideas about free speech.
The anti-communist Trilling is visible in 1936. As if writing out a précis for his later work, Trilling reviewed his feelings about the Soviet Union in an August 1936 letter. He had arrived at the irony and the complexity that would be the buzzwords of his later criticism, the inversions endemic to political maturity:
“I must always have a reservation of faith in anything. The revolutionary heroes—and they were certainly that—were disgusting; Russia was disgusting. Perhaps every revolution must betray itself. Perhaps every good thing and every good man has the seeds of degeneration in it or him.”
Skeptical reason triumphs over faith. Heroism issues in disgust, and a brave new world has grown from the “seeds of degeneration,” a signature Trilling oxymoron. But if there can be seeds of degeneration then decay can lead to regeneration. If the good can engender the bad, the knowledge of the bad can engender the good.
In the 1940s and 1950s, politics has less definition in Trilling’s letters than it did in the 1930s. His cause was clear, “a struggle, not energetic enough, against all the blindness and malign obfuscations of the Stalinoid mind of our time,” as he wrote in March 1946. Perhaps by this stage he was airing his views in his published work and did not need to go over them in his letters. Perhaps he was closer to the mainstream, closer to the policies of the Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations, and that made anti-communism no less necessary but less interesting than it had been in the Red Decade. Perhaps nothing quite reached the drama of the 1930s for him, the drama of a depression at home, of fascism in continental Europe and of the Soviet experiment under the Stalinist star. The gunpowder Trilling alluded to in 1959 exploded in the 1960s, and Trilling watched it explode, but neither the details of the Civil Rights Movement or of the Vietnam War captivated Trilling—at least not in the letters.
More than literature as such and more than politics per se, Trilling was beguiled by politics-in-literature or literature-in-politics. The relationships were determined by Trilling’s notion of liberalism, which was uniquely his. He wrote to the editor of the New Republic, Bruce Bliven, in March 1957 that “nothing could be more useful to a liberal political point of view than the fostering of a strong interest in literature.” Trilling associated liberalism with America’s educated classes: it was an idealistic spirit of democracy, in his view, which to endure had to be balanced, self-aware and civilized. It could not succumb to the authoritarianism that characterized conservatism for Trilling, a force out there somewhere in the body politic but not, in Trilling’s estimation, a malady of the educated classes. Nor could liberalism succumb to the extremism of the Left, the blindness and malign obfuscations that had encouraged some liberals in the 1930s to applaud the crimes of Joseph Stalin.
To avoid imbalance of one kind or another, and to avoid the technocratic sterility to which the liberal mind was prone, the liberal point of view was in need of literature. A strong interest in literature had to be fostered. Trilling offers no formula for this in his letters (or in his essays). Better than providing a formula, his letters provide an example of literature as a stimulus to the liberal point of view. Literature is a resource, a reservoir of examples and problems and juxtapositions that the mind steeped in literature can turn to when articulating a political point, formulating a question and fashioning an argument. Good literature curbs wishful thinking. It frames an awareness of what is humanly possible and what is impossible. Good literature offers no precepts on ethical behavior, no etiquette, no enumerated commandments. In the matrix of good literature, however, ethical behavior can be grasped and grasped by the reader as relevant to the reader’s life. If literature is relevant to the reader’s life, it must be relevant to the society and polity in which the reader lives.
The essential example for Trilling was the poetry of William Wordsworth. The Marxist critics of the 1930s wanted to believe that Wordsworth was an excellent poet when he supported the French Revolution and a mediocre poet when he opposed it. They wanted a straight line between literature and politics. “But it must be noted,” Trilling wrote in a 1935 letter,
“That this same reactionary political philosophy [of Wordsworth’s] was largely instrumental in producing the poetry of his great period. Because his effectiveness came only after his rejection of the rationalism which had been one of the components of his revolutionary sympathy.”
Fascists and communists might force literature to do politics’ bidding, but the liberal cannot use literature as a mirror created to reflect back the loveliness of liberal pieties.
Liberal pieties must be tested against the stringent non-political truths of literature, preferably of an illiberal literature. (Trilling relished the fact that most of the great modernist writers, from Kafka to T.S. Eliot, were not political liberals.) This does not weaken the liberal reader, nor does it undermine the rationalism and pluralism of a liberal political order. Rationalism, pluralism and tolerance are not givens. They are elusive goods more likely to flourish when literature’s moral rigor is allowed to have its effect. They are achieved in the cultural interaction, the cultural struggle between a reader and a great work of literature. Liberal arts yield a liberal education and the imagination on which political liberalism ultimately rests.
This would be the thesis statement of Trilling’s major books, from The Liberal Imagination to The Opposing Self and Beyond Culture. The letters add a quality to Trilling’s political-cultural thesis statement that is missing from the books. This is the premium Trilling placed on privacy. Letters are private by definition, but even so Trilling’s letters form an homage to privacy. He was a famous man, sought after at Columbia, in New York, nationally and internationally. He enjoyed fame and enjoyed his achievements, and he resisted them at the same time. Letter after letter chronicles Trilling’s penchant for privacy, his saying no to invitations, his desire to get away from his reputation, from New York, from his public duties and from the demands of his own ego. When saying no to an offer to teach at Harvard, as he explains in a March 1958 letter to David Riesman, “what I most wanted at this point in my life was a greater measure of privacy.”
Trilling’s cherished privacy was strangely social. Privacy gives the self time and reason to write, while the writing is for the culture just as it is enabled by the culture. As Trilling argued in an April 1969 letter,
“Writing well—I don’t mean writing ‘creatively’—has to begin with an ideal of the self: it means wanting to be a certain kind of person, the kind of person who sounds a certain way, who has a certain relation to language. If that desire isn’t instilled by the general culture—if, that is, the general culture doesn’t value that kind of person—no amount of pedagogy will make a student write well.”
Trilling’s cherished privacy was more civic than social. For him, the relation to language stemmed from the ideal of the self, which is instilled by the general culture. The ideal of the self begins in private and in privacy. It develops—or should develop—in dialogue with art. Along the way, self becomes citizen with the responsibility of political choice. The citizen’s polity is grounded in these choices, but it is the general culture that dictates the ideal of the self. Politics is downstream from culture, though culture is also downstream from politics. Politics and culture are either healthy together or they are unhealthy together. In the case of health, the public sphere and the private self are in balance.
IN THE case of ill health, the public sphere and the private self are out of balance. This diagnosis applies all too readily to our political moment. An innovation of social media has been to erase the distinction between the public sphere and the private self. Privacy is cultivated—curated—for the purposes of public display, making it something other than privacy. The devices of social media, the portable phone especially, impose the burlesque of the public sphere on the private self. The public sphere or news from it are everywhere and at all times accessible. The public sphere colonizes privacy, and the self is immersed in politics less as potential citizen with rights and duties than as a beleaguered or bemused observer, a witness to the omnipotence of events that are both obstreperously public and oddly, often uncomfortably private.
Trilling’s letters come to us in 2018 without nostalgia. Now and then he glanced respectfully back at the Victorians. He liked their energy and many of their moral priorities, but he never proposed a return to their values and surely did not believe such a return was possible regardless of who proposed it. In his seventy years, he was a witness to countless political and cultural wrong turns. His rarely happy letters identify no golden age—not the low, dishonest 1930s, not the strained 1950s and certainly not the riotous 1960s and 1970s. Enthusiast of Freud that he was, Trilling approached the dilemmas of the self as psychological and therefore as eternal. They burdened Freud’s Vienna and Trilling’s New York. The Victorians failed to solve them. The moderns would fail to solve them. The dilemmas would recur and recur. That was the point of his perfectly titled book, The Opposing Self.
Trilling’s letters come to us as a specimen—an artefact perhaps—of the literary self in a liberal polity. They remind us of the alertness literature can give its devotees, the skill of scrutiny (not least of self-scrutiny) and of the magisterial powers and beneficence of privacy, of the novel’s patient, meticulous slowness and of literature’s innate hostility to dogma. They remind us that good literature’s resistance to conservatism and liberalism and radicalism, its provocations to the absolutes of political pride and fury, is the very stuff of tolerance and pluralism. From today’s vantage point, Trilling’s letters are triumphant. Through literature he learned to live with—not to escape, not to want to escape—the dilemmas of self, culture and politics. Thus he showed himself, his imagination, his students and his readers a way forward. His twenty-first century readers will also find themselves in his debt.
Michael C. Kimmage is a professor and department chair of history at Catholic University of America. He is the author of the forthcoming book, The Decline of the West: An American Story, on transatlantic relations and U.S.-Russian relations from the 1890s to the present.