Lionel Trilling: America’s Matthew Arnold

The great critic’s letters reveal his struggles with anti-Semitism and disillusion with Marxism

Edward Alexander

Lionel Trilling: The most influential mind in the culture of the Fifties (© Gjon Mili/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

The recent publication of a selection of letters by Lionel Trilling — 270 chosen out of thousands available to an editor in the archives — affords an opportunity to reflect on the importance of this grand master of the Age of Criticism in the middle of the last century. Trilling rose to prominence in 1950 with the publication of his third book, The Liberal Imagination: Essays on Literature and Society. It sold in numbers unprecedented for a book of criticism — 70,000 copies in hard cover, and 100,000 in paperback — and made Trilling the most influential mind in the culture of the Fifties.

But Trilling’s importance in the development of American literary culture and the place of Jews in that culture goes back to the time when he was a doctoral candidate at Columbia University in New York and to a now unremembered predecessor there named Ludwig Lewisohn. Lewisohn, a Berlin-born Jew who made himself into a southern Christian gentleman in Charleston, had to leave Columbia in 1903 without his doctorate because he was, in the eyes of Columbia’s English Department faculty, irredeemably Jewish. Like many a Jewish student of English after him, Lewisohn was told that he should not (or could not) proceed in his studies because the prejudice against hiring Jews in English departments was insuperable. Two decades later, reflecting on the appointment of a number of Jewish scholars in American colleges, he noted that in one discipline alone the old resistance remained firm: “Prejudice has not . . . relented in a single instance in regard to the teaching of English.” Perhaps this was because the study of English, unlike that of science or philosophy, was intimately bound up with the particularities of culture, for it was precisely the study of the mind of Western Christianity. What Bernard Berenson called the “Angry Saxons” who ran English departments were determined to protect Tennyson’s “treasure of the wisdom of the West” from barbarous Eastern (European) invaders. (I heard the very same story of rejection decades later from Irvin Ehrenpreis, who recovered sufficiently to become the consummate biographer of Jonathan Swift, but never got a PhD in English.)

Almost nothing of this part of Trilling’s story appears in this volume of letters (Life in Culture: Selected Letters of Lionel Trilling; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $35, edited by Adam Kirsch). But Trilling did tell it, and very sardonically, in his notebooks of April and May of 1936, when Columbia’s English faculty tried to discontinue his appointment. “The reason for dismissal is that as a Jew, a Marxist, a Freudian, I am uneasy. This hampers my work and makes me unhappy.” His colleagues would undertake to cure his unhappiness by dismissing him before he could complete his degree and thereby strengthen his claim on a tenured position.

Trilling, never one to avoid a fight, confronted his professorial “accusers,” indeed “made date to annihilate [them],” and particularly his dissertation supervisor Emery Neff, who reportedly complained that Trilling had “involved himself with Ideas,” that he was overly “sensitive,” and didn’t really “fit [in] because he was a Jew.” This was not the last time that Trilling’s mentor would abandon him. Twenty-three years later, after Trilling had given a famously “heretical” lecture about Robert Frost’s poetry that aroused a storm of controversy, he wrote to me as follows: “Since we speak of teachers and scholarship, you will readily understand that the startling — and grotesque — part of the incident was that my old teacher Emery Neff, who taught me most of what I know about scholarship, denounced me with no knowledge of the text of what I had said.”

Trilling won his fight to remain at Columbia as an assistant professor, and was probably helped by the fact that Columbia’s then president Nicholas Murray Butler intervened with the “angry Saxons” by remarking that Columbia would not follow the example of the University of Berlin, which had just refused to receive a Jewish visiting professor from Columbia: “Columbia recognises merit, not race.” Trilling, it is worth noting, claimed that, in his conferences with opponents of his tenure, he demonstrated that they were unable to identify a single example of Jewish, Marxist, or Freudian influence in his writings. (They must have been poor readers, for Trilling had contributed 24 articles and stories to The Menorah Journal.)

Neither was he a stranger to “Ideas” or to Jewish troubles at universities whose foundations were set, as King’s College/Columbia’s had been in 1754, by the Church of England. To this day most of Columbia’s colleges display three crosses in the traditional crown. With Victorian England’s controversy over Jews and universities Trilling had dealt at length in his magisterial biography of Matthew Arnold, originally his doctoral dissertation, later published as a book in 1939. It included a detailed account of Dr Thomas Arnold’s fierce opposition to the admission of Jews to London University. Arnold, father of the poet, headed the Broad or Liberal branch of the Established Church. He insisted that England is the land of Englishmen, “not of Jews” or “lodgers,” and that admitting Jews to the university would be “the first time that England was avowedly unchristianised for the sake of accommodating Jews.”

As for the accusation that Trilling worked with ideas, it was of course justified, provided that Neff and other Columbia English faculty remembered what a literary idea is. Years later, “The Meaning of a Literary Idea,” first published in 1949 in The American Quarterly, would become the culminating essay of The Liberal Imagination. “The question of the relation which should probably obtain between what we call creative literature and what we call ideas is a matter of insistent importance for modern criticism. It did not always make difficulties for the critic, and that it now makes so many is a fact which tells us much about our present relation to literature.” Calling into question T.S. Eliot’s famous remark that “Henry James had a mind so fine that no idea could violate it,” Trilling took pains to distinguish ideas from ideology:

Ideas . . .  if they are large enough  . . .  are not only not hostile to the creative process, but are virtually inevitable to it . . . to call ourselves the people of the idea is to flatter ourselves. We are rather the people of ideology, which is a very different thing. Ideology is not the product of thought; it is the habit or ritual of showing respect for certain formulas to which, for various reasons having to do with emotional safety, we have very strong ties of whose meaning and consequences we have no clear understanding.

The Columbia faculty’s uneasiness about Trilling’s supposed Marxism in 1936 was mainly a cover for anti-Jewish prejudice. The letters published by Kirsch show that, as early as 1933, he considered communism a mistake of his past. In a letter of April that year he feigns surprise that the Writers’ Committee of the John Reed club has blocked his participation in a symposium, alleging that “[Trilling] is our enemy.” In August 1936 Trilling told an English department colleague that “I must always have reservation of faith in anything. The revolutionary heroes were disgusting. Russia was disgusting. Perhaps every revolution must betray itself.” In June 1937 he complained to Columbia colleague Jacques Barzun of “a polite vulgar Marxism which goes down with intellectual liberals so easy and which I conceive it my job in future to destroy.”

The unrelenting attacks on liberalism in Trilling’s private correspondence should put an end to the view that The Liberal Imagination is primarily an attempt to rescue it from its own excesses, its tendency to become dogmatic and dictatorial. In 1942, eight years before its publication, he was calling into question “a great many of the liberal assumptions which have been unquestioningly accepted by so many, and especially by intellectuals. My feeling about the situation is not only rational  . . .  it is very personal and passionate.”

Nor had Trilling’s turn away from liberalism gone unnoticed. A long review of his critical study of E.M. Forster in 1943, he noted with satisfaction, had “set liberal tongues fussily wagging, and even illiberal eyes open with surprise . . . the piece makes my book a Republican campaign document.” In the same year he told Newton Arvin: “Having escaped from a foolish affirmation — I meant the whole dreadful Stalinoid flummery, which I consider one of the most immoral events of intellectual history — I find it terribly hard to find new points of positive attachment.”

Trilling also came to the conclusion that liberalism was responsible for the debasement of American literature. “It isn’t merely that I believe that our liberal culture doesn’t produce great art and lacks imagination — it is that I think it produces horrible art and has a hideous imagination . . . And this is generally true of all our literature of social idealism, from its centrist generality to its leftist, Stalinist specificity.” Later, in the 1960s, Trilling was dismayed when his own favorite Columbia student, Norman Podhoretz, the new editor of Commentary magazine, was diluting the magazine’s strenuous anti-communist position.

But his stringent anti-communism did not mean that he became an uncritical apologist for modernism, whose leading figures — Dostoeveky, Yeats, Eliot, Pound — were either hostile or indifferent to liberal ideas. In a seminal Partisan Review essay of 1961 called “On the Teaching of Modern Literature,” later reprinted in Beyond Culture, Trilling dwelt uneasily on the paradox whereby a literature whose most distinctive mark was its “bitter line of hostility to civilisation” in its entirety was now (in response to student demand years earlier) an entrenched part of the English curriculum at Columbia and the many colleges that followed its lead. A literature whose most salient characteristic was “its discovery and canonisation of the primal, non-ethical energies” was being assimilated and made routine in syllabi, term papers, examinations. Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground was becoming the seminal work of modernism, “so radical and so brilliant was its negation of our traditional pieties and its affirmation of our new pieties.”

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.”

Yet Trilling was never able to accept his own premises about the value of criticism compared with “creative” writing, and until his last days was beset by the feeling that his real vocation was fiction, even though he published just one novel, The Middle of the Journey (1947), and several short stories. In a lengthy letter of 1948 he tells John Crowe Ransom, one of the chief practitioners of “New Critical” close reading of poetry, that he feels “impatience with myself in the role of critic” and that his “unconscious is requiring [him] to get back to fiction, from which I’ve been away a very long time . . . My novel was, for me, only a very, very moderate success and yet it gives me the only satisfaction I can get out of years of writing.”

In 1968 Trilling was suddenly catapulted back to the subject of The Liberal Imagination: namely “the dark and bloody crossroads where literature and politics meet.” Leaders of the Columbia University “revolution” posted a large photograph of Trilling with the legend WANTED DEAD OR ALIVE. FOR CRIMES AGAINST HUMANITY. The steady escalation of the Vietnam war, racial turmoil, the inadequacy of President Johnson, the murder of Martin Luther King on April 4, were among a host of other “issues.” Still more were invented by leftist hysteria and university students who were virtually unteachable because (or so they thought) they already knew everything and were constantly being told by their elders that they were “the best informed, the most intelligent, and the most idealistic the country had ever known.” Trilling, by contrast, said that they were “much less literate, much less intellectually curious, and much less intelligent” than their student predecessors.

On April 23, 1968 Columbia students rebelled against the school’s administration, supposedly a microcosm of American society. The SDS and Students’ African-American Society occupied Hamilton Hall, which housed the college’s administration and also the English Department, including Trilling’s office. The students were eager to become victims of police violence and also to turn the university into a training centre for revolutionaries. Trilling said that “the actual issue . . . was — is . . . a cultural issue. The most radical students were expressing their doctrinaire alienation from . . . the whole of American culture.” According to Diana Trilling, her husband disapproved of the uprising but enjoyed it, especially in its early days. He was appointed to a three-man faculty committee to reassess the university’s disciplinary procedure.

“For three days,” his wife observed, “he was on campus around the clock; when he finally came home for an hour or two of sleep, the police insisted upon escorting him — rumor had it that Harlem [inhabited mainly by blacks] was about to march on the university. He was sixty-two years old at this time but I never saw him less tired or in better spirits, and in the next weeks . . . he was full of appetite for the emergency. He was at last sampling the life of action which had always been denied him. Ruefully he told me how much he liked it.”

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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