Why We (Should) Read Trilling

by Adam Kirsch Published Fall 2011
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Why We (Should) Read Trilling / photo: Sylvia Salmi / Bettman / Corbis

In one of his last essays, left unfinished at his death in 1975, Lionel Trilling tried to understand “Why We Read Jane Austen.” Trilling started wondering about Austen’s lasting appeal, he writes, because of the extraordinary popularity of a seminar on Austen that he offered at Columbia in 1973. There was room for 20 students in the class, but on the first day, “to my amazement and distress,” 150 showed up. Trilling could only explain this enthusiasm as a sign that Austen had become one of that select group of writers who “can be called ‘figures’ — that is to say, creative spirits whose work requires an especially conscientious study because in it are to be discerned significances, even mysteries, even powers, which . . . bring it to as close an approximation of sacred wisdom as can be achieved in our culture.”

Trilling ’25CC, ’38GSAS was too modest to suggest, or maybe even to recognize, another reason for the interest in his Austen seminar: that he himself had become a figure in American culture. To generations of students at Columbia, where he spent almost his entire career, starting as an undergraduate in the 1920s, and to many more who knew him through his essays and books, Trilling was more than a great literary critic: He was a symbol of the life of the mind in America. Like a handful of other professors in midcentury Morningside Heights — Jacques Barzun, Richard Hofstadter, Meyer Schapiro — Trilling wrote at the intersection of the academy and the wider culture, in the belief that literary and critical ideas mattered to society at large. 

His best-known book, The Liberal Imagination (1950), collected his essays on subjects ranging from Henry James to the Kinsey Report, demonstrating how the kind of intelligence cultivated by the study of literature, with its virtues of “variousness, possibility, complexity, and difficulty,” was essential for the health of democracy. For Trilling, true liberalism often meant resisting the certainties of right-thinking liberals, whether the pro-Soviet views of the 1930s Popular Front or the antinomian spirit of the 1960s. 

“Liberal intellectuals have always moved in an aura of self-congratulation,” he wrote. “They sustain themselves by flattering themselves with intentions and they dismiss as ‘reactionary’ whoever questions them. When the liberal intellectual thinks of himself, he thinks chiefly of his own good will and prefers not to know that the good will generates its own problems, that the love of humanity has its own vices and the love of truth its own insensibilities.” That is why Trilling was especially drawn to writers like Matthew Arnold and E. M. Forster, the subjects of his first two books, who criticize liberalism from within. He was also a great, though not uncritical, admirer of Freud, whose work he read less as science than as “grim poetry” about the contradictions of human nature.

Yet the very things that made Trilling so compelling to his original readers have conspired, in the decades since his death, to turn much critical opinion against him. It wouldn’t really be fair to say that Trilling is a marginal figure today. Most of his work is still in print — the essays gathered in The Moral Obligation to Be Intelligent and his only finished novel, The Middle of the Journey. In 2008, Columbia University Press even published the incomplete manuscript of another novel, edited by Geraldine Murphy ’85GSAS, as The Journey Abandoned. Every time Trilling’s work is reissued, it is greeted with long, serious discussions in leading magazines.

The tone of these discussions tends to be a peculiar combination of nostalgia and disdain, with a strong undercurrent of “goodbye and good riddance.” Critic and University of Cambridge professor Stefan Collini, writing about Trilling in a deliberate parody of Trilling’s own style, captured the mood best: “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 reading Trilling, and this feeling itself is 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.” 

Clearly, Trilling has been assigned the role of literature’s superego. As a student of Freud, he could have predicted what must follow, for if the superego is the savage enforcer of unattainable cultural ideals, then the ego’s health and happiness require that it be humbled. That is why so much recent writing about Trilling focuses on the failure of his hope of becoming a great novelist, on his private doubts about his teaching and criticism, on the moments of unhappiness he confided to his journals. Pitying a writer is an excellent way of undermining his authority.

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