Why We (Should) Read Trilling

by Adam Kirsch Published Fall 2011
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But this kind of semi-Oedipal rebellion against Trilling only makes sense for those readers and writers who remember him as a stern presence in the world of letters. By now, 36 years after his death, that is a shrinking group. Like most readers under the age of 40 or even 50, I have no personal memory of Trilling, or 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 that conveys those judgments. When he writes, in “Manners, Morals, and the Novel,” that “the novel . . . is a perpetual quest for reality, the field of its research being always the social world, the material of its analysis being always manners as the indication of the direction of man’s soul,” we can sense the ambition and precision of his mind at work. Indeed, Trilling’s authority, like all genuine literary authority, is itself a literary achievement. It is 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 was surprisingly uninterested in the traditional prerogatives and responsibilities of criticism. In his major essays, he does not bring news of important new writers or teach us how to read difficult new works — the way that, for instance, Edmund Wilson did. 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. 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. 

It is a kind of experience that today’s serious readers and writers are hungry for. Over the last 10 or 15 years, many of the institutions that once sustained literature in America have changed or disappeared, including independent bookstores and newspaper book reviews. In the last couple of years, this process has reached its ultimate conclusion with the disappearance of the book itself, the site and symbol of literature for 500 years. Margaret Atwood expressed the anxiety of many readers at this development: “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.”

Over the same period, literature itself began to suffer a crisis of confidence. Poetry, of course, was the first to go. Already in 1991, in his essay “Can Poetry Matter?” Dana Gioia declared that “American poetry now 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.” 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.” 

At such a moment, readers and writers could be forgiven for thinking that “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.” But, in fact, it was Lionel Trilling who made this complaint, some 60 years ago, right in the midcentury moment that we remember now as a golden age. And this suggests why Trilling, in particular, has so much to say to us today. 

“Generally speaking,” he pointed out, “literature has always been carried on within small limits and under great difficulties.” What sustains writers and readers under those difficulties is, above all, the consciousness of one another’s existence. This is, in fact, the consolation that Franzen finds at the end of “Perchance to Dream”: “In a suburban age, when the rising waters of economic culture have made each reader and each writer an island, it may be that we need to be more active in assuring ourselves that a community still exists.” 

The name of the activity by which readers and writers communicate, by which they make the private experience of reading into the common enterprise of literature, is criticism. And Trilling is the critic who best demonstrates what it means to read seriously — how the encounter with the ideas and attitudes we find in books can help us create our selves. As he wrote in “Manners, Morals, and the Novel,” one of his most famous essays, “For our time the most effective agent of the moral imagination has been the novel of the last 200 years. . . . Its greatness and its practical usefulness lay in its unremitting work of involving the reader himself in the moral life, inviting him to put his own motives under examination. . . . It taught us, as no other genre ever did, the extent of human variety and the value of this variety.” 

Trilling’s criticism shows what it means for a book to involve a reader in the moral life. When Trilling reads Henry James’s novel The Princess Casamassima, he confronts the ethics of political violence and the psychology of radicalism; when he reads Mansfield Park, he wonders about the nature of virtue in a post-religious society; when he reads the letters of Keats, he takes courage from the poet’s trust in the world’s sensual abundance. Again and again in his essays, Trilling shows that the literary life is really the same enterprise that Keats called “soul-making.” Now that Trilling is no longer such a name to conjure with, it is possible that a new generation of readers will find that he matters more than ever. 

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