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Trilling would come to fear "the socialisation of the anti-social . . . the legitimation of the subversive,” accredited revolutionism, professors categorised as “guerrillas with tenure.” He recognised that the tired progressive prescription to “think for yourself” had come to mean “to think in the progressive pieties rather than in the conservative pieties (if any of the latter still exist).”

Although Trilling disliked being referred to as “the modern Matthew Arnold,” he was profoundly influenced by Matthew Arnold’s declaration, in the introduction to Culture and Anarchy (1869), that he was “a Liberal, yet . . .  a Liberal tempered by experience, reflection, and renouncement, and  . . . above all, a believer in culture.” He had been even more moved by Arnold’s argument in “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time” (1864) that — as much of the work of Samuel Johnson and even Wordsworth demonstrated — criticism might be as valuable an activity as creation. True, “the critical power is of lower rank than the creative.” But “Is it true that Johnson had better have gone on producing more Irenes instead of writing his Lives of the Poets; nay, is it certain that Wordsworth himself was better employed in making his Ecclesiastical Sonnets than when he made his celebrated Preface, so full of criticism, and criticism of the works of others?” The creative power, Arnold insisted, can only work with ideas, with the best ideas; if those are not current — which is just what Trilling asserted in “The Meaning of a Literary Idea” — creative literary genius cannot flourish.

And so book after book of Trilling’s critical essays came forth in abundance year after year: all of them informed by what Irving Howe called his unique credo: “Trilling believed passionately — and taught a whole generation also to believe — in the power of literature, its power to transform, elevate, and damage.” His range was immense: he wrote about Austen and Dickens and Keats and Wordsworth, and Henry James, and Orwell, and Flaubert and Babel and Tolstoy.

Among his many books were The Opposing Self (1955); A Gathering of Fugitives (1956); Beyond Culture (1968); Sincerity and Authenticity (1972); Mind in the Modern World (1972).

These made him the preeminent critic in an age when literary critics were held in such high esteem by the learned in America that graduate students in English would sometimes get critics to preside at their weddings in place of clergymen. In England too critics like F.R. Leavis, T.S. Eliot, and I.A. Richards exercised influence and authority unimaginable today. (I recall an incident in the Sixties when I was on British Rail en route to Cambridge for library work, and an undergraduate seated opposite me insisted on showing me “the house where F. R. Leavis lives.”)

Going against the grain of an age that had surrendered itself to determinisms of many kinds as the source of literature, Trilling believed in its living power, its potency as “a criticism of life,” not in a didactic utilitarian sense but by virtue of its transcendent powers of coherence, brightness, and energy. His relation to a text was what Keats had called “continuous magical confrontation.” He assumed that literature was as much a producer as a product of its society, and his prose was at once, as Cynthia Ozick observed, “complex and scrupulous.”
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Edward Alexander
October 12th, 2018
4:10 PM
Lionel Trilling: America's Matthew Arnold

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