Why Trilling Matters

  • Review
By – November 29, 2011

In this remark­able con­tri­bu­tion to Yale Uni­ver­si­ty Press’s Why X Mat­ters” series, Adam Kirsch traces the growth of Trilling’s career in edu­ca­tion and crit­i­cism, mus­ing along the way on the titles of Trilling’s works as sign posts of his devel­op­ment. Trilling’s own respons­es to his life, its dis­ap­point­ments as well as its suc­cess­es, pro­vide, in the Dan­tesque sense, a jour­ney, in the mid­dle of which (The Mid­dle of the Jour­ney, 1947 ) he had gone, not so much astray as afield, into imag­i­na­tive writ­ing, and need­ed to find his greater tal­ent in crit­i­cism, as had his dis­ser­ta­tion mod­el, Matthew Arnold.

Trilling engaged mid-cen­tu­ry mod­ernism, but rarely mid-cen­tu­ry authors. He want­ed to under­stand their pre­de­ces­sors, those who had fash­ioned the lib­er­al spir­it that his own age took for grant­ed. And he read them as peo­ple, not new-crit­i­cal­ly, as name tags on tex­tu­al arti­facts, or as biogra­phies or rep­re­sen­ta­tives of –isms. What they had seemed to say about his own life made them worth reread­ing to see if they real­ly had. As a boy in shul, he had pon­dered not the prayers, but the Pirke Avoth, which he would lat­er incor­po­rate into his essay Wordsworth and the Rab­bis” (1950). As a young man he had leaned toward com­mu­nism, but recoiled from its polit­i­cal excess­es; he plumbed Freud, who appre­ci­at­ed poet­ry as a medi­um of thought, and learned that non-utopi­an civ­i­liza­tion required a chas­ten­ing of urges, at the price of dis­con­tent, which could be wres­tled with in lit­er­a­ture and life. As a lit­er­ary crit­ic it was not the lib­er­al intel­lect that Trilling probed — this was evi­dent all around him and sure­ly embed­ded in the pre­vail­ing read­er­ship — but The Lib­er­al Imag­i­na­tion (1950). What made Huck Finn shun rit­u­al civil­i­ty for the peace of the riv­er, what made Wordsworth seek in nature a wise pas­sive­ness,” what fas­ci­nat­ed the weak-eyed Jew­ish Isaac Babel about Cos­sack bru­tal­i­ty could make the read­er ques­tion his own moral and polit­i­cal assump­tions with­out read­ing lec­tures on pol­i­tics. Trilling died eleven years after the polit­i­cal rout­ing of Gold­wa­ter and five years before the ascen­dan­cy of Rea­gan, believ­ing that con­ser­vatism was a lurk­ing but humane­ly bank­rupt alter­na­tive to the lib­er­al spir­it, but one that could rear its head as it had in Europe if lib­er­als did not con­stant­ly chal­lenge them­selves

As for Trilling’s Jew­ish­ness, after it near­ly cost him his appoint­ment in the all-gen­tile Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty Eng­lish depart­ment, he wore it open­ly though light­ly. But his doc­tri­nal faiths, both in Judaism and in Marx­ism, gave over to a human­is­tic faith, con­nect­ing Arnold and Freud, that saw this life as the only life; saw human aging not only as loss, but as ful­fill­ment “[i]In the faith that looks through death” by an eye / That hath kept watch o’er man’s mor­tal­i­ty;” (Wordsworth, The Immor­tal­i­ty Ode,” reeval­u­at­ed in The Lib­er­al Imag­i­na­tion); saw in Keats’s let­ters, human life not as a vale of tears” but as a vale of soul mak­ing” that school[s] an intel­li­gence and makes it a soul” (“The Poet as Hero: Keats in His Let­ters”). For Keats’s soul read self, immor­tal only in what it leaves as a con­tri­bu­tion to life on earth. Our age, flit­ting from likes to dis­likes, has lost this spir­it of crit­i­cism. That’s why Trilling mat­ters. Adam Kirsch has brought him back to us with a bal­ance that his sub­ject would appreciate.

Alan Coop­er teach­es Eng­lish at York Col­lege, CUNY. Notable among his numer­ous con­tri­bu­tions to peri­od­i­cals, reviews, and books is his Philip Roth and the Jews (SUNY Press, 1996). His lat­est book is the young-adult nov­el Prince Paskud­nyak and the Giant Bats.

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