Why Trilling Matters
Yale University Press, $24, 208 pp.
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...