(b. 4 July 1905 in New York City; d. 5 November 1975 in New York City), influential literary critic, novelist, and Columbia University professor whose mandarin-like prose and judgments cast a spell over the literary establishment.
The son of the Jewish immigrants David W. Trilling, a manufacturer of men's coats, and Fannie Cohen, Trilling attended New York's De Witt Clinton High School before entering, at the age of sixteen, Columbia University, from which he graduated with a B.A. in English in 1925 and an M.A. in English in 1926. On 12 June 1929 he married Diana Rubin, who also became a prominent literary intellectual. They had one child. After brief teaching stints at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and Hunter College, Trilling was offered an instructorship at Columbia in 1932. He remained at Columbia for the rest of his career. He received his Ph.D. in English literature from Columbia in 1938, following the completion of a dissertation on Matthew Arnold, which was published as his first book, Matthew Arnold, in 1939. Other critical books followed, and with such notable exceptions as E. M. Forster (1943) and Sincerity and Authenticity (1972), the majority of these came in the form of essay collections.
Resisting the tide of New Criticism, Trilling's engagement with literature was that of one especially interested in cultural and moral concerns. In the 1920s and early 1930s Trilling encountered intellectual socialism, which was centered in Greenwich Village. His interest in morality led him to rethink the prevailing dogmatic and political liberalism. He wrote in Matthew Arnold that liberalism should be thought of as an awareness "of the contradictions, paradoxes and dangers of living the moral life." It was a notion that finds its most articulate expression in The Liberal Imagination: Essays on Literature and Society (1950) and that came to be identified with the most influential period of Trilling's work.
Trilling experienced a vexed relationship with the 1960s and its upheavals. On the one hand his work helped lay the groundwork for the decade's adversarial spirit. On the other hand he was not especially pleased by what had been wrought; he openly wondered whether the 1968 campus uprisings at Columbia University and elsewhere might not be understood as evidence that civilization was now at the end of its tether. If it was, Trilling conceded, it was because thinking such as his own had helped to move it to that point. The note of concession is especially apparent in Trilling's influential 1965 collection of essays Beyond Culture: Essays on Literature and Learning. The phrase "beyond culture" suggests that individuals might "extricate themselves from the culture into which they were born." Doing so, in fact, was at the heart of modernism, a movement that Trilling saw as dating from the late eighteenth century, having "its apogee in the first quarter of the twentieth century," and continuing into Trilling's own day. He noted that a historian of this period "will take virtually for granted the adversary intention, the actually subversive intention, that characterizes modern writing—he will perceive its clear purpose of detaching the reader from the habits of thoughts and feeling that the larger culture imposes." Trilling argued that culture was hopelessly philistine but that one might pass beyond it by posing the questions, Is it true? Is it true for me? Living out the answers to those questions would not be easy, but success would find individuals living in harmony with their own truths.
Trilling's take on modernism would be eroded by a movement that began essentially with such Romantic artists as William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Percy Bysshe Shelley. The movement delineated "a situation in which the artist is alone and in which his audience is small and made up of isolate individuals." The adversarial impulse of modernism had become legitimized, and the old questions were displaced by new questions: Is it true? Is it true for us? Trilling did not believe the new questions would "yield the same results as the first question," and they might "even make it harder for anyone to ask the first question." Thus, when Trilling introduced his students to modernism's most individual, most abyss-fronting texts, they came away not terror struck but complacently satisfied, mindful that in enhancing their cultural capital, they were also enhancing their social capital, something that would serve them in the real world: "I asked them to look into the Abyss, and, both dutifully and gladly, they have looked into the Abyss, and the Abyss has greeted them with the grave courtesy of all objects of serious study, saying: 'Interesting, am I not?'"
To Trilling's great chagrin, he found not one but two philistine cultures. There was mainstream culture, "satisfied with its unexamined, unpromising beliefs," and there was a culture that defined itself as mainstream's opposite, professing an allegiance "to the imagination of fullness, freedom, and potency of life," but that was, in fact, as comfortably established and welcoming as the first. Moreover, as the intent to examine, embrace, and experience freedom became fashionable, civilization, which is predicated on acts of renunciation, became increasingly taxed. Trilling, acknowledging his debt to Sigmund Freud, wrote that fewer people were now prepared to suffer "the pain that civilization demands, … to say with Freud that the loss of instinctual gratification, emotional freedom, or love, is compensated for either by the security of civilized life or by the stern pleasures of the masculine moral character."
The belief that civilization had lost its mooring—itself symbolized for Trilling by the student revolts of the late 1960s—became a conviction in the critic's last works, Mind in the Modern World (1972) and Sincerity and Authenticity (1972). In the latter essays, first delivered as "The Charles Eliot Norton Lectures, 1969–1970," Trilling argued that the long tradition "of being true to one's own self" (that is, sincerity) now found itself "usurped by the darker and still more strenuous modern ideal of authenticity," which was defined by society's prescriptions. The consequence was a furthering of our sense of being fallen, or as Trilling wrote, "That the word [authenticity] has become part of the moral slang of our days points to the peculiar nature of our fallen condition, our anxiety over the credibility of existence and of individual existences." It was on the note of a "dying fall" that Trilling's career ended. He died of pancreatic cancer at the age of seventy.
Studies of Trilling's work include Robert Boyers, Lionel Trilling: Negative Capability and the Wisdom of Avoidance (1977); Mark Krupnick, Lionel Trilling and the Fate of Cultural Criticism (1986); D. T. O'Hara, Lionel Trilling: The Work of Liberation (1988); and John Rodden, ed., Lionel Trilling and the Critics: Opposing Selves (1999). An obituary is in the New York Times (7 Nov. 1975).
Christopher J. Knight