On Why Trilling Matters

Reviewed in this essay: Why Trilling Matters, by Adam Kirsch. Yale University Press, 2011.

Lionel Trilling

Lionel Trilling was a major figure in his times: revered, loathed, and full of contradictions. He was—with perhaps only the exception of Edmund Wilson—the most well-known and respected American literary critic throughout the nineteen fifties and sixties. He was the first Jewish member of the English faculty at Columbia University, eventually becoming the star of the department. He was in many ways a reluctant academic: most of his essays first appeared in small magazines like The Partisan Review, and he had scant interest in literary theory. Yet to a younger generation he was largely viewed as a stuffy professor—cloaked, as the critic Alfred Kazan put it, in “glossy respectability.” He was a teacher and mentor to Allen Ginsberg, but also dismissive of the young poet’s work, calling Howl “dull.” He aspired to be a novelist, but the only novel he completed, The Middle of the Journey, was widely considered a failure. The most concrete element in his life was his dedication to the idea that one’s self can be created through what and how one reads. And he left behind a body of literary criticism that, as Adam Kirsch writes in his informative and impassioned slim volume, Why Trilling Matters, “offers what literature alone offers: an experience.”

Kirsch—himself a distinguished literary critic and senior editor at The New Republic—outlines the trajectory of Trilling’s thought in eight short chapters, with the underlying argument that serious contemplation of literature is still as relevant and necessary today as it ever has been. Beginning with Trilling’s doctoral dissertation on the English poet Mathew Arnold, and moving through the collection of essays that made him famous, The Liberal Imagination (1950), we learn how Trilling’s chronic uneasiness with his position—as an academic, not a man of the streets; as a critic, not a novelist—gave his writing such a unique and skeptical perspective. He wrote from the moral standpoint of a responsible citizen, but with the insight of an artist.

Why Trilling Matters not only serves as a valuable introduction to an important twentieth century critic: it is also an appeal for the enduring worth of the literary imagination. As Trilling wrote in his essay “Manners, Morals, and The Novel,” great literature suggests “to the reader that reality is not as his conventional education has led him to see it. It [the novel] taught us, as no other genre ever did, the extent of human variety and the value of this variety.”

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