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Trilling, Lionel

TRILLING, LIONEL

TRILLING, LIONEL (1905–1975), U.S. author, critic, and public intellectual. Born in New York City, Trilling attended Columbia University and then began teaching there. He eventually was appointed as the first Jewish assistant professor of English at Columbia University in 1939, receiving full professorship in 1948. Trilling was part of a group of largely Jewish New York intellectuals who dominated American culture and letters in the 1940s and 1950s. He brought a nearly religious devotion to his study of literature and thought, and through his writings revived interest in many neglected authors and works. He was praised for his erudition, the elegance, clarity, and care of his prose, and his high moral thoughtfulness. He was particularly interested in the Victorian poet Matthew Arnold, whose works he examined using the methods of modern psychology. His first published book, Matthew Arnold (1939), gave new insight into Arnold's character. The same critical methods were evident in E.M. Forster (1943), The Liberal Imagination (1950), The Opposing Self (1955), A Gathering of Fugitives (1956), Beyond Culture: Essays on Learning and Literature (1965), and Sincerity and Authenticity (1972). Trilling's books and his essays in various journals and reviews were highly influential in intellectual circles, with his most influential book being The Liberal Imagination, an attempt to complicate and redeem liberalism with the addition of the imagination, ethical stoicism, and new-found ironies. His work also includes several short stories and a novel, The Middle of the Journey (1947), which introduced themes found in his criticism. He edited The Portable Matthew Arnold (1949) and The Selected Letters of John Keats (1951), and wrote Freud and the Crisis of Our Culture (1955). He often returned to studies involving Freud, and later co-edited with Steven Marcus The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud (1961).

Trilling did not often deal with Jewish subjects in an overt manner, and many other Jewish American scholars of the period, including Irving Howe and Alfred Kazin, believed that he was uncomfortable with his Jewish origins. However, early in his career, in the 1920s, Trilling wrote short stories focused on Jewish American identity for the humanist Menorah Journal, and he continued to write on Jewish writers and Jewish themes throughout his career. In "Wordsworth and the Rabbis" (1955), he explored what he saw as a common quality in Wordsworth's thought and Rabbinic Judaism: namely, devotion to a divine object – Nature for Wordsworth and Torah for the rabbis. In an essay on the Russian-Jewish writer Isaac *Babel (in the introduction to Babel's Collected Stories, 1961), he observed that Babel, the Jew who wrote about a Jew among the Cossacks, was painfully aware of the dialectic of Cossack and Jew, body and mind, society and self. Trilling was also interested in the problems of antisemitism facing American Jews, but only as far as these problems worked to exclude Jews from public life. He also served at Columbia as a supportive mentor to numerous important Jewish writers, including Allen *Ginsberg, John *Hollander, Steven Marcus, and Norman *Podhoretz. Trilling's wife, the literary critic Diana (Rubin) *Trilling (1905–1996), wrote Claremont Essays (1964) and edited works by D.H. Lawrence. She headed the American Committee for Cultural Freedom (1955–57).

bibliography:

H.R. Warfel, American Novelists of Today (1951), 430; D. Daiches, in: Commentary, 24 (1957), 66–69; S.J. Kunitz (ed.), Twentieth Century Authors, first supplement (1955). add. bibliography: J. Rodden (ed.), Lionel Trilling and the Critics (1999).

[Irving Malin /

Craig Svonkin (2nd ed.)]

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