Skip to main content

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).


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.)]

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Trilling, Lionel." Encyclopaedia Judaica. . 14 Aug. 2018 <>.

"Trilling, Lionel." Encyclopaedia Judaica. . (August 14, 2018).

"Trilling, Lionel." Encyclopaedia Judaica. . Retrieved August 14, 2018 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.