Literature’s Superego

In 1971, when I was beginning my academic career and Lionel Trilling was at the height of his fame, I sent him my essay “The Politics of Forster’s A Passage to India.” Challenging his view of this aspect of the novel, I wrote that “even Lionel Trilling states ‘its data were gathered in 1912 and 1922 before the full spate of Indian nationalism.’” Instead of ignoring or crushing me, he quoted Samuel Johnson and courteously replied: “Of course it is right. How I could have blundered as I did, I can’t conceive—Ignorance, sir, sheer ignorance.... I am moved by the kindness of your ‘even’ before my name.” His letter convinced me that there could be a community of scholars dedicated to discovering the truth.

It’s heartening to read Why Trilling Matters, Adam Kirsch’s spirited defense of Trilling, whose reputation has declined in recent years partly because of the hostility of his own family. After Trilling’s death in 1975, his wife Diana turned bitterly against him in her memoir The Beginning of the Journey (1993), and his son James—in the spring 1999 issue of the American Scholar—absurdly claimed that his father suffered from attention deficit disorder. Both mother and son were opposed to a biography.

Trilling was a brilliant teacher, influential critic, and major figure in American intellectual life. He seemed to lead a charmed existence. But he was blocked throughout the 1930s with his dissertation on Matthew Arnold and spent illicit afternoons at the movies instead of at the library. He drank heavily and had years of psychoanalysis.

For decades Trilling influenced students and teachers with his perceptive comments on the poems and stories in his textbook-anthologies The Experience of Literature (1967) and (with Harold Bloom as coeditor) Romantic Poetry and Prose (1973). With W. H. Auden and his Columbia University colleague Jacques Barzun, he founded the Reader’s Subscription and Mid-Century book clubs, which lasted from 1951 to 1963. His shrewd comments on the high-quality books they offered also influenced the wider reading public.

Kirsch persuasively argues that Tril-ling was “literature’s superego”:

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.

The authority of his judgments and elegance of his prose made his essays belong to literature itself.

Trilling was a liberal anti-Communist. In his most important critical book, The Liberal Imagination (1950), he defined liberal as “an emotional tendency, a literary value, an intellectual tradition, and a way of being in the world.” He wrote in order “to educate the middle class, insist on the cultivation of mind, and defend the autonomy of literature.” He not only advocated variousness and complexity, but also used “these virtues to structure and animate the book.”

Kirsch tells us that in Trilling’s only novel, The Middle of the Journey (1947), the Columbia professor invented “characters as representatives of ideas rather than as free creations. In Arthur and Nancy Croom, Trilling portrays the ‘advanced,’ fellow-travelling leftism of the mid-1930s, with its combination of guilt and privilege; in Gifford Maxim, the memorable character based directly on former Soviet spy Whittaker Chambers, Trilling portrays the ex-Communist who has turned into a religious reactionary.”

Writing about the brilliant Russian stories of Isaak Babel, Trilling described Jewishness as “a way of being that is ‘pacific and humane,’ and that stands opposed to a seemingly more attractive way that is ‘fierce’ and ‘militant.’” One of Trilling’s key texts is Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents (1930). There Freud argued that the price of civilization is the inevitable repression of aggressive and sexual instincts, which diminishes happiness and causes neurosis. Characteristic modern heroes like Mr. Kurtz in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899) and Gustav von Aschenbach in Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice (1912) refuse to renounce these vital instincts and are destroyed by them.

Kirsch could have strengthened his argument for Trilling’s relevance to twenty-first-century literature by more substantial discussion of crucial works and moments in his life. He ignores Trilling’s “George Orwell and the Politics of Truth,” written in 1952 as the introduction to the first American edition of Homage to Catalonia (1938), Orwell’s account of fighting for the Loyalists in the Spanish Civil War. In the most influential essay ever written on Orwell, Trilling stated that “Homage to Catalonia is one of the most important documents of our time.... It is a testimony to the nature of modern political life. It is also a demonstration on the part of its author of one of the right ways of confronting that life.”

Kirsch merely mentions Trilling’s admirable role in the student demonstrations at Columbia in April 1968. Trilling was characteristically detached, slow to perceive the gravity of the crisis, and shocked by the hostility of the administration. But once actively engaged on the three-man faculty committee appointed to deal with the student demands, he offered effective political strategies and shrewd perceptions about the role of the university and its place in society. When I interviewed Jacques Barzun, Trilling’s closest friend, in San Antonio about ten years ago, he described Trilling as a “gentle, charming, lovable creature.” Barzun said Trilling was not engaged in departmental politics, but would express his forthright opinion of those unworthy of tenure and make harsh personal judgments about students who failed to meet his high standards. He was never a soapbox orator, but could talk to the student demonstrators and was an effective mollifying force.

Kirsch discusses Trilling’s analyses of William Wordsworth, John Keats, Jane Austen, and William Morris. Kirsch is an acute critic, but makes some serious factual errors. According to Trilling’s wife, his father manufactured fur-lined coats, and his family was not “humble” but solidly middle-class. E. M. Forster did write another novel after A Passage to India, but did not publish Maurice in his lifetime. The eminent critic Irving Howe did not repudiate his Jewishness: he edited three anthologies of Yiddish literature and wrote an important and influential book, The World of Our Fathers: The Jews of Eastern Europe (1976).

A passage from The Liberal Imagination, not quoted by Kirsch, gives the best summary of Trilling’s intellectual credo: “For our time the most effective agent of the moral imagination has been the novel of the last two hundred years.... Its greatness and its practical usefulness lay in its unremitting work of involving the reader himself in the moral life.... It was the literary form to which the emotions of understanding and forgiveness were indigenous, as if by the definition of the form itself.”

Published in the 2012-05-04 issue: 
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Thirty-two of Jeffrey Meyers’s books have been translated into fourteen languages and seven alphabets. He’s recently published Remembering Iris Murdoch (2013), Thomas Mann’s Artist-Heroes (2014), Robert Lowell in Love and The Mystery of the Real: Correspondence with Alex Colville (2016).

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