Lionel Trilling (born Lionel Mordecai Trilling, 4 July 1905 – 5 November 1975) was an American literary critic, author, and teacher. With wife Diana Trilling, he was a member of the New York Intellectuals and contributor to the Partisan Review. Although he did not establish a school of literary criticism, he is one of the leading U.S. critics of the twentieth century who traced the contemporary cultural, social, and political implications of literature. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he has been a subject of continued interest.
Lionel Trilling was born in Queens, New York City, to a Jewish family. In 1921, he graduated from DeWitt Clinton High School, and, at age sixteen, entered Columbia University, thus beginning a perpetual association with the university. In 1925, he graduated from Columbia, and, in 1926, earned a Master of Arts degree. He taught at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and at Hunter College. In 1932, he taught literature at Columbia University. In 1938, he earned his doctorate with a dissertation about Matthew Arnold, that he later published. In 1939, he was promoted to assistant professor — the first tenured Jewish professor in the English department; in 1948, he was promoted to full professor. In 1965, he became the George Edward Woodberry Professor of Literature and Criticism. Trilling was a popular instructor, and for 30 years taught, with Jacques Barzun, Columbia’s Colloquium on Important Books, a course about the relationship between literature and cultural history. His students included Lucien Carr, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, John Hollander, Cynthia Ozick, Carolyn Gold Heilbrun, Louis Menand, and Norman Podhoretz. From 1969 to 1970 he was the Norton professor at Harvard University. In 1972 he was selected by the National Endowment for the Humanities to deliver the first Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities, described as "the highest honor the federal government confers for distinguished intellectual achievement in the humanities." Trilling served as a Senior Fellow of the Kenyon School of English and subsequently as a Senior Fellow of the Indiana School of Letters.
Read Regrets Only :Lionel Trilling and his discontents, by Louis Menand.
Partisan Review and the "New York Intellectuals"
In 1937, he joined the recently revived magazine Partisan Review, a Marxist, but anti-Stalinist, journal founded by William Philips and Philip Rahv in 1934.
The Partisan Review was associated with the New York Intellectuals — Trilling, his wife Diana Trilling, Alfred Kazin, Delmore Schwartz, William Phillips, Clement Greenberg, Harold Rosenberg, Dwight Macdonald, Mary McCarthy, F. W. Dupee, Paul Goodman, Lionel Abel, Irving Howe, Saul Bellow, Leslie Fiedler, Elizabeth Hardwick, Richard Chase, William Barrett, Daniel Bell, Hannah Arendt, Isaac Rosenfeld, Susan Sontag, Steven Marcus, Norman Podhoretz, and Hilton Kramer — who emphasised the influence of history and culture upon authors and literature. As such, the New York Intellectuals distanced themselves from the New Critics, by concentrating upon the socio-political ramifications of the discussed literature.
In the preface to the essays collection Beyond Culture (1965), he defends the New York Intellectuals: As a group, it is busy and vivacious about ideas, and, even more, about attitudes. Its assiduity constitutes an authority. The structure of our society is such that a class of this kind is bound by organic filaments to groups less culturally fluent, which are susceptible to its influence.
Critical and literary works
Trilling wrote one novel, The Middle of the Journey (1947), about an affluent Communist couple's encounter with a Communist defector. (Trilling later acknowledged that the character was inspired by his Columbia College compatriot and contemporary Whittaker Chambers). His short stories include “The Other Margaret.” Otherwise, he wrote essays and reviews, in which he reflected on literature’s ability to challenge the morality and conventions of the culture. Critic David Daiches said of Trilling, “Mr. Trilling likes to move out and consider the implications, the relevance for culture, for civilization, for the thinking man today, of each particular literary phenomenon which he contemplates, and this expansion of the context gives him both his moments of his greatest perceptions, and his moments of disconcerting generalization.”
Trilling published two complex studies of authors Matthew Arnold (1939) and E. M. Forster (1943), both written in response to a concern with “the tradition of humanistic thought and the intellectual middle class which believes it continues this tradition.” His first collection of essays, The Liberal Imagination, was published in 1950, followed by the collections The Opposing Self (1955), focusing on the conflict between self-definition and the influence of culture, Freud and the Crisis of Our Culture (1955), A Gathering of Fugitives (1956), and Beyond Culture (1965), a collection of essays concerning modern literary and cultural attitudes toward selfhood. In Sincerity and Authenticity (1972), he explores the ideas of the moral self in post-Enlightenment Western civilization. He wrote the introduction to The Selected Letters of John Keats (1951), in which he defended Keats’s notion of Negative Capability, as well as the introduction, “George Orwell and the Politics of Truth”, to the 1952 reissue of George Orwell’s book, Homage to Catalonia.
In 2008, Columbia University Press published an unfinished novel that Trilling abandoned in the late 1940s. Scholar Geraldine Murphy discovered the half-finished novel among Trilling's papers archived at Columbia University. Trilling's novel, titled The Journey Abandoned: The Unfinished Novel, is set in the 1930s and involves a young protagonist, Vincent Hammell, who seeks to write a biography of an elder, towering figure poet - Jorris Buxton. Buxton's character is loosely based on the nineteenth century, romantic poet Walter Savage Landor. Writer and critic Cynthia Ozick praised the novel's skillful narrative and complex characters, writing that The Journey Abandoned is "a crowded gallery of carefully delineated portraits, whose innerness is divulged partly through dialogue but far more extensively in passages of cannily analyzed insight."
Trilling's politics have been strongly debated, and like much else in his thought may be described as "complex." A much-quoted summary of Trilling's politics is that he wished to:
"[remind] people who prided themselves on being liberals that liberalism was ... a political position which affirmed the value of individual existence in all its variousness, complexity, and difficulty."
Politically, Trilling was a noted member of the anti-Stalinist left, a position that he maintained to the end of his life.
In his earlier years, Trilling wrote for and in the liberal tradition, explicitly rejecting conservativism; from the preface to his The Liberal Imagination, 1950, emphasis added to much-quoted last line:
In the United States at this time Liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition. For it is the plain fact that nowadays there are no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation. This does not mean, of course, that there is no impulse to conservatism or to reaction. Such impulses are certainly very strong, perhaps even stronger than most of us know. But the conservative impulse and the reactionary impulse do not, with some isolated and some ecclesiastical exceptions, express themselves in ideas but only in action or in irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.
Some, both conservative and liberal, argue that Trilling's views became steadily more conservative over time, and Trilling has been embraced as sympathetic to neoconservativism by neoconservatives (such as Norman Podhoretz, editor of Commentary), though this embrace was unrequited, Trilling criticizing the New Left (as he had the Old Left), but not embracing neoconservativism. The extent to which Trilling may be identified with neoconservativism continues to be contentious, forming a point of debate in (Rodden 2000).
Trilling has alternatively been characterized as solidly moderate, as evidenced by many statements, ranging from the very title of his novel, The Middle of the Journey to a central passage from the novel:
"An absolute freedom from responsibility – that much of a child none of us can be. An absolute responsibility – that much of a divine or metaphysical essence none of us is."
Along the same lines, in reply to a taunt by Richard Sennett, "You have no position, you are always in between," Trilling replied "Between is the only honest place to be."