Book Review

Trilling Matters

The title of this new, slim, and welcome book by Adam Kirsch prompted me to remember not why but how Lionel Trilling mattered to me; so I begin with myself as a twenty-year-old graduate student in philosophy at Columbia University.[1] It took but a little while for me to realize I was in over my head, not cut out for the philosophy game, especially as Logic or Philosophy of Science played a part in it. In the attempt to take advantage of my university surroundings (after provincial Amherst College), I began to drop in on various classes given by members of the English department. Most of them seemed fairly conventional, even humdrum, after the lively and provocative courses in literature I’d taken or audited at Amherst. But there was a great exception to this rule, which became immediately evident after fifty minutes in an undergraduate class of Lionel Trilling’s. It was only three years after The Liberal Imagination, Trilling’s first collection of essays appeared, and it had been just that fall republished as one of the earliest Anchor paperbacks, the notable venture whose first batch of titles included D. H. Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature, Edmund Wilson’s To the Finland Station, and Conrad’s The Secret Agent, available for 75¢ or 95¢ apiece.

I soon purchased The Liberal Imagination but by then had acquired the habit of showing up three times a week for Trilling’s course: in the fall term, Jane Austen, Dickens, and D. H. Lawrence; in the spring, Wordsworth, Keats, and Yeats. I would learn later that he was about to publish his essay on Austen’s Mansfield Park and that a selection of Keats’s letters, with a long, masterly introduction by him, would soon follow. But the class didn’t know that, nor did its two auditors, another philosophy grad student and close friend, and myself. The room was filled with Columbia undergraduates, all males, some of them quite outspoken, all, it seemed, paying attention to Trilling on the podium who frequently engaged them in questioning and teasing. Three memories of such engagements: discussing Austen’s Persuasion, he talked about Mrs. Musgrove’s “large, fat sighings” over her dead son, as a possible instance of Jane Austen’s cruelty. What did they think about that? In the succeeding term, when the subject was Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey,” in which the poet assures his sister Dorothy that “Nature never did betray the heart that loved her,” Trilling stopped and declared, referring to Dorothy’s physical and mental enfeeblement in her later years, “She betrayed Dorothy Wordsworth, didn’t she?” By way of bringing out the assault D. H. Lawrence made on our sensibilities if we were properly responding to him, he said, “When somebody throws a stone through your window, you don’t remark ‘What a pleasant tinkle.’” His manner was firm, somewhat distant as he drew on his cigarette (in its holder), also affectionate and respectful of the young minds he was helping to form. By the end of the year, through with graduate study of philosophy, I was bound, partly on the wings of Trilling’s impetus, to study English at Harvard, where I would meet no one his equal as a pedagogue.[2]

The above account debars me from giving any sort of objective account of why Lionel Trilling matters, since he so obviously did for me decades ago. Adam Kirsch has of course no such baggage, and his book consists of eight chapters about different aspects of Trilling’s work. Kirsch proposes to consider him “not just as a cultural or political figure, but as an interpreter of his own experience.” What matters most to Kirsch about his subject is Trilling’s “demonstration of what it means to create one’s self through and against the books one reads.” Some of the varied topics through which Kirsch presents his subject include the relation of Trilling’s criticism to his brief career as story writer and novelist (he is quoted as saying he did not start out to be a critic but a “writer”; why The Liberal Imagination is more than just a Cold War book; Trilling’s conflicted relation with the great modernist texts as books to teach in the university; his attempt to make cases for less adversarial, “affirmative” writers (William Dean Howells, for example); and his relations with his onetime student Allen Ginsberg, who figures in Trilling’s story “Of This Time, Of That Place.”

Kirsch accurately notes a “curious ambivalence” in responses to Trilling’s writings and personality that is different from what his contemporaries (the Partisan Review/New York intellectual crowd) elicited. The ambivalence expresses itself in a simultaneous desire both to “honor and humble Trilling.” Alfred Kazin’s recently published journals are full of this ambivalence; in fact on balance Kazin’s entries tilt toward the negative, as he calls Trilling “the pompously respectable professor . . . the Jew’s dream of literary England, of surpassing his servile state by culture.” More personally, Kazin admits to being “sore and insulted” at the difference between Trilling’s eminence as a Columbia professor and his own job at the “poor prestige” State University of New York at Stony Brook. He also feels that Trilling “snubbed” him. In Kazin’s New York Jew, he quotes with relish Harold Rosenberg’s declaration: “When I first encountered the style of Lionel Trilling, I looked for the joke and discovered there wasn’t any.” Yet how limited a critic Rosenberg now looks compared to Trilling, and how embarrassing Kazin sounds in his “personal” confession of insult and hurt.

Trilling’s formidable, elliptical style can best be illustrated by the opening two paragraphs from a talk he gave at Kenyon College in 1947, “Manners, Morals, and the Novel,” later included in The Liberal Imagination:

The invitation that was made to me to address you this evening was couched in somewhat uncertain terms. Time, place, and cordiality were perfectly clear, but when it came to the subject our hosts were not able to specify just what they wanted me to talk about. They wanted me to consider literature in its relation to manners—by which, as they relied on me to understand, they did not really mean manners. They did not mean, that is, the rules of personal intercourse in our culture; and yet such rules were by no means irrelevant to what they did mean. Nor did they quite mean manners in the sense of mores, customs, although, again, these did bear upon the subject they had in mind.

I understood them perfectly, as I would not have understood them had they been more definite. For they were talking about a nearly indefinable subject.

Surely this is the most graceful and reassuring opening to a lecture-essay that has ever been crafted. That fancy word “crafted” seems appropriate to the manner, right down to its punctuation with its concessive qualification—“although, again”—in the final sentence of the first paragraph. But the masterstroke is the short, second paragraph, which puts the inviters entirely at their ease, since the lecturer understands their difficulty so perfectly. I presume the more blunt Harold Rosenberg and Alfred Kazin were driven up the wall by such a style.[3]

In an excellent essay occasioned by the publication of a novelistic fragment Trilling abandoned (Sept. 29, 2008), Louis Menand put his finger on perhaps the central absence in the Trilling style, whether critical or “creative.” Menand quotes a letter in which Trilling laments to his Columbia colleague Eric Bentley his lack of a sense of comedy: “I can imagine some wonderfully gifted comic writer who sees the sadness and avoids having to say anything explicitly.” He could imagine this figure, but there is precious little comedy or even humorous sense in Trilling’s Style. Freud didn’t help things on the comic front: in rereading Trilling I have found myself skipping topics like “Neurosis and the Health of the Artist,” and the many separate occasions he considered Freud’s life, work, and influence. No chance for the humorous to flourish there, and even when the artist or book in question might have offered opportunities for describing and acknowledging its comic performance, Trilling neglected to seize the opportunity. The lack, which he himself was conscious of, played an important part in his relation to twentieth-century modernist writers, his (to use the word again) “ambivalence” toward them and the work they produced. This motive, which Kirsch devotes some intelligent pages to, was mainly expressed and anatomized in two of Trilling’s essays from his 1965 collection, Beyond Culture: “On the Teaching of Modern Literature” and “The Two Environments: Reflections on the Study of English.”

In the former essay he writes of his decision to offer a course in modern literature, on major writers such as Yeats, Eliot, Joyce, Proust, Kafka, D. H. Lawrence, Mann, Gide. Trilling insists that after the teacher has had his say about “formal matters” in the work of these writers, “he must confront the necessity of bearing personal testimony”; in other words, he must put himself in relation to a literature of poems, stories, and novels that shows a “bitter hostility to civilization,” a disenchantment with culture by “culture” itself. Further, he declares that these writers, this project, is “betrayed by the pedagogy of the subject” that results in examination questions like the following: “Compare Yeats, Gide, Lawrence, and Eliot in the use which they make of the theme of sexuality to criticize the deficiencies of modern culture.” He proposes that after the student dutifully answers such a question, or one, say, about the “alienation” of the artist from modern culture, he can never again feel the force of the writers about whom he has answered the question. Trilling’s odd solution was to teach the course by assigning texts which could serve as “background” for the themes and ideas he proposed to deal with, rather than deal directly with the modernist works themselves.

Two observations occur to me: first, that the question inviting students to compare four writers in their treatment of sexuality, is a terrible question (although Trilling appears to think it a perfectly reasonable one), even as it “betrayed” its subject. Second, that the hiving off of formal matters of “technique” from the “themes” and “ideas” it presumably conveys, is a bad way to go about dealing with any literature, not just the literature of modernism. To take two specific examples: is not Joyce’s Ulysses a great comic work whose extravagant styles ask to be investigated as memorable examples of that comedy? Should not Lawrence’s Women in Love be “taught” by inviting students to test themselves against some of the aggressive, often maddening formulations about the relation between the sexes as declaimed by the book’s male hero, Rupert Birkin? If the teacher must bear personal witness to such texts, can it not be done by classroom and writerly engagements with such matters, in the face of which the professor’s “testimony” will necessarily take a back seat?

Kirsch deals with this matter by contrasting Trilling with Edmund Wilson, who in Axel’s Castle and elsewhere had his full say about most of these modernist writers. By contrast, Kirsch notes, “The reader will look in vain for Trilling’s thoughts on Mann or Kafka or Gide, and his pieces on Eliot and Joyce . . . do not engage with their most important work” (the pieces are short reviews of Eliot’s Idea of a Christian Society and Joyce’s Letters). Kirsch sees, both in Trilling’s classroom and writings, the effort “not to expound modernism but to put it into question” by challenging “the assumptions and beliefs of readers like himself” who both admire the modernists but distrust many of the things they praise. Further, Kirsch finds Trilling’s uniqueness as a critic to lie in his always being “less concerned with writers than with readers, less interested the way novels work than in the way we put them to work in our own lives.” Somehow I doubt that Trilling would be happy with such a summing-up of his interests. To take a single example: his long, patient essay on James’s The Princess Casamassima, in The Liberal Imagination, is concerned on a number of levels to demonstrate how richly and complicatedly the novel works. Just how we put it to work in our lives is not a consideration addressed—and how on earth would one address it anyway?

The single passage from Trilling’s writing that most gracefully and cogently figures as a motto for his “approach” to literature, occurs in another brief and not much commented on essay from The Liberal Imagination, “F. Scott Fitzgerald.” He is discussing The Great Gatsby and, at one point, steps back to speak about literature, the reading of literature, in larger terms:

What underlies all success in poetry, what is even more important than the shape of the poem or its wit of metaphor, is the poet’s voice. It either gives us confidence in what is being said or it tells us that we do not need to listen; and it carries both the modulation and the living form of what is being said. In the novel no less than in the poem, the voice of the author is the decisive factor. . . . In Fitzgerald’s work the voice of his prose is of the essence of his success. We hear in it at once the tenderness toward human desire that modifies a true firmness of moral judgment. It is characteristically modest, yet it has in it, without apology or self-consciousness, even a stateliness. . . .

He proceeds to quote the famous passage from the end of Gatsby about Long Island as the “fresh green breast of the new world.” Whether one judges the terms too extravagant or (après Deconstruction) naive, it has seemed to me for many years a sort of talisman, a without-which-not that is the beginning, maybe even the end of all critical reading.

Circling back from here to Trilling’s hesitations about teaching the modernist classics, it may be that he couldn’t find such a relatively stable address as Fitzgerald’s in the work of Joyce, or Eliot, or Pound—though why not in Yeats, in Proust, and in D. H. Lawrence most especially? The impulse to dramatize his teaching situation in the Modern Literature essay may have been a way of looking for trouble and contestation. He found such “trouble” in the undergraduate classroom and curriculum, significantly not in his graduate courses, where he was rumored to be detached to the point of near indifference. There is also in his work a certain blindness to twentieth-century comic writers like Waugh or Beckett, or a satirist like Wyndham Lewis. It took him a long time, he admits in the celebrated talk he delivered on Robert Frost’s eightieth birthday, to get round to discovering Frost’s virtues. When he discovered them, they showed Frost to be a tragic poet, like Sophocles and (whisper the name) D. H. Lawrence. He said nothing about Frost as a splendid comic writer in the tradition perhaps of Ben Jonson. And what about Wallace Stevens, the poet whose “message” is impossible to put into words and for whom bearing personal testimony on the part of the professor won’t get anyone very far?

I have focused on Trilling and the modern literature issue rather than other problematic matters,[4] because the very excessiveness of his essay brought out in me, and I suspect in others, concerns and disagreements that less highly charged essays, however useful and sensible, fail to do. For all the perceptiveness and acuteness found in New York City contemporaries like Kazin, Irving Howe, and the Partisan writers generally, none of them was interested in or able to dramatize the situation of a teacher of literature the way Trilling did, and not just in the essay but in his fine story “Of This Time, Of That Place.” Perhaps the “creative” Trilling, who wrote one good novel and a couple of memorable stories, found an outlet in his dramatization of the English teacher’s situation vis-à-vis literature and the students. It’s no accident that more than once he wrote about F. R. Leavis, not only in his lengthy and just appraisal of the now-forgotten controversy between Leavis and C. P. Snow, in which Trilling rightly finds both their positions inadequate, but earlier in a review of Leavis’ book on the English novel, The Great Tradition. Leavis’ most challenging declaration of correct procedures in the teaching of “English” may be found in his chapter “Literary Studies” (in Education and the University), and though his prescriptions are much more absolute than any Trilling ever laid down, both the writers are similar in the ability to provoke: to provoke a reader interested in such matters into active thinking about what goes on in the humanities and what a professor of literature might be doing about it. It is also the case that fifty years later their once fresh voices and issues must be read as “literature,” rather than as declaring principles to be agreed or disagreed with. But as Adam Kirsch’s book makes abundantly clear, it is still possible to pick up and read Trilling—as Leavis once said about a poem of Donne’s—“as we read the living.”

[1] Why Trilling Matters, by Adam Kirsch. YaleUniversity Press. $24.00.

[2] Not exactly pedagogy, but when my friend and I showed up for a Trilling class where there were no available seats, the professor stepped down from the podium, went into the hall and came back with two chairs. There is also an anecdote, I hope not apocryphal, in which Trilling is teaching a group of elite Columbia honors students, the subject being Dickens’ Bleak House. He effects a skillful introduction to the novel, then begins to ask questions about it. Minimal response, if that. “How many of you have read the novel?” he asks. No one has except a Mr. Greenberg. “You’re not worth teaching,” Trilling declares and leaves the classroom. Class sits in stunned, embarrassed silence. Door opens, and it is Trilling again: “You’re worth teaching, Mr. Greenberg,” he says, and beckons the (surely terrified) Greenberg to follow him.

[3] So, to some degree, was Roger Sale when he wrote in the pages of this magazine (Spring 1973) that reading Trilling in bulk bore “certain affinities with eating a meal consisting entirely of Thousand Island dressing.” Sale’s essay may be found in Lionel Trilling & the Critics, ed. by John Rodden (Lincoln, 1999). The volume contains many valuable reviews of Trilling’s books, including a sharp, respectful one by Denis Donoghue in which Donoghue charges that Trilling, unlike the best of the New Critics, “has no interest in language itself” (“The Critic in Reaction,” pp. 214–333). But in the same volume, Donoghue calls Trilling’s massive anthology The Experience of Literature, with its substantial commentaries on the individual writers, “remarkable” and “a significant document in American culture” (“A Literary Gathering,” pp. 283–287).

[4] Especially the political Trilling, his complex relations with communism, liberalism, conservatism. His political career along with that of his Columbia classmate, Whittaker Chambers (on whom Trilling wrote an essay), is intelligently traced in Michael Kimmage’s The Conservative Turn (Cambridge, 2009).