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Mrs Trilling’s account of her husband’s experience of student insurrection was more sanguine than his own. He could never say clearly what his own feelings about the Columbia situation had been. “It’s amazing to me how difficult I find it to answer that question . . . I scarcely know what mine now are, or even if I have any at all . . . Very likely my present neutralised state is one of fatigue.” One of the more remarkable facts about his actions during the riots and occupation was that he — who in both his fiction and his essays had relentlessly criticised liberal condescension towards the poor and minorities — called for amnesty for black students only, “which was a rather strange proposal for me to make.”

But Trilling did return, powerfully, to the subject of the 1968 uprising in 1972, by which time it had found its expression in a revolt against literature itself, a revolt led by professors of literature. In the late Sixties the same New Leftists who had revived the Stalinist theory of “social fascism” now revived the Stalinist conception of literature as an instrument of revolution.

This lethal combination of Stalinism and native American know-nothingism had found a cosy reception within the universities, especially the English departments. The powerful professional organisation of college teachers, the Modern Language Association, elected as its president one Louis Kampf, a well-known spokesman for “leftist” literature professors. He had come to provide teachers of language and literature who never cared much for literature in the first place a rationale for their hostility: literature and study of it are both a result and an instrument of class oppression.

And how did Kampf arrive at his revelation about the frivolity (and worse) of literary studies? Trilling answered that question, with precise sarcasm, in his 1972 Jefferson lecture entitled Mind in the Modern World: “The year was 1968, the occasion was the campus uprisings which, in Professor Kampf’s view, at long last forced social and political reality upon the consciousness of students and teachers alike.”

Kampf’s own revelation came while he was teaching a seminar on Proust at MIT, in Boston. His “head was getting scrambled “by Proust’s subtle nuances, and boredom reigned in his class until salvation came in the form of a student takeover of a campus building , to which “liberated” territory Kampf quickly transferred his seminar. Suddenly, he recounted, “the reading of Proust . . . became intimately tied to the goings-on in the hall . . . Proust’s sensibility became politicised for us . . .”

Thus did the advocates of know-nothingism and (somewhat later) that form of cultural deprivation called “multiculturalism” return Lionel Trilling, decades after publication of The Liberal Imagination, to the dark and bloody crossroads where literature and politics collide.
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Edward Alexander
October 12th, 2018
4:10 PM
Lionel Trilling: America's Matthew Arnold

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