Book Review

“The Last Survivor of the Old Culture”

The letters of creative people offer two obvious enticements. On the one hand, as readers, we are granted the privilege of watching from a private vantage point as aesthetic ideas are invented and worked out (Keats) or high emotions and life crises are dealt with (Beethoven). On the other, we usually learn a lot about the quotidian realities of those same people: firing the daughter’s piano teacher (Debussy), sorting out what the parts of a car are properly called (Flannery O’Connor), or worrying about losing manuscripts amid domestic chaos (Goethe). From published letters we learn that Mozart’s wife-to-be, Constanze Weber, knitted him a pair of mittens as a gift during their courtship, of the infinite pains Pound took in helping Joyce to free up time for writing, that Flaubert’s mistress, Louise Colet, wore pink fingernail polish, and that John Lennon was invited to Robert Graves’s eightieth birthday party in Mallorca. (He was unable to attend.) In an otherwise agonized and heartbreaking letter to the mother of his future wife, Virginia Clemm, we are told by Poe that he had recently spent fifty cents to have his laundry done. The real-life agony helps us to understand Poe as a writer, while the detail about his dirty clothes makes him seem, well, human and just like us.

It is seldom that critics or cultural historians have had their letters selected (or collected) and published, so the appearance of Life in Culture, an extensive sampling of Lionel Trilling’s letters, is notable.[1] Trilling was one of Columbia University’s most famous teachers and was a central figure in the circle of New York intellectuals who dominated literary and political criticism in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. (He was also a contributor to this magazine.) Trilling died in 1975, and almost all of the recipients of his letters brought together in the book are also now dead, with occasional exceptions like Norman Podhoretz, a Trilling student, and Daniel Doron, the Israeli translator and writer. The earliest letter in the collection is addressed to Elliot Cohen, later the founding editor of Commentary, and was written when Trilling was just nineteen years old. The penultimate letter was written exactly three months before Trilling’s death and sent to Jacques Barzun, appropriately enough, his colleague at Columbia and a lifelong friend. (The last letter in the book was written by Trilling’s secretary to I. Bernard Cohen, who had apparently asked for news of Trilling’s health. It is dated just six days before Trilling died from pancreatic cancer on November 5, 1975.) Trilling was born, raised, and educated in New York, and apart from a short period of early teaching in Madison after he obtained his PhD and a couple of years spent in England much later, where he attended the occasional conference and was a fellow at Oxford University, he rarely left the City apart from holidays. In certain letters he complains about life in New York—its hothouse atmosphere and high stress, the “factitious intensity in the people I know”—and even occasionally muses about the attraction of relocating to England. He and his wife Diana considered retiring there as well. But such a move never occurred, and New York was his base of operations throughout his entire life. Most of his closest friends lived there as well, but his circle of correspondents was wider: former students who had left to take up teaching posts elsewhere, readers from various walks of life, and colleagues and friends in foreign countries, not to mention book and journal publishers and editors in New York and elsewhere. Apart from E. M. Forster, Saul Bellow, Allen Ginsberg, and Irving Feldman, he seems to have had few novelists or poets as friends. This is not especially surprising. He freely admitted in more than one letter that he had no sympathy for contemporary poetry. Indeed he seems to have thought of the poets as a kind of secret society who, like the Masons, did each other favors whenever they could. Thom Gunn he dismissed as “a neat-minded bore.” His interest in the novel largely ended with World War II, Bellow’s oeuvre notwithstanding, although—another exception—he recognized the talent of James Baldwin from the very beginning. Ginsberg, who had been his student at Columbia and whom he helped to get out of a serious scrape involving stolen property, he treated largely like an errant child: disapproving of his interests and achievements but willing to give him his unconditional love just the same. Howl and Other Poems, when sent to him in 1956, he rejected as lacking authenticity and voice: “all prose, all rhetoric, without any music” was his dismissive opinion of the book.

Trilling rather disliked the label “literary critic” and was pleased when Étienne Gilson suggested, in 1955, that he was not one. (Just what Gilson proposed him to be is not made clear.) All the same, twenty years after the Gilson exchange, Trilling would write to someone, who had sent him some offprints, to aver that he should “best refer to me as a critic of literature.” He did not much care for the New Criticism of Allen Tate, William Empson, and Cleanth Brooks, calling it snide and restrictive. Leon Edel, more a literary historian than a critic to be sure, he thought dull-witted (“a very stupid man”). One would not expect the life of a literary critic to be full of high adventure and derring-do, and the composite portrait of a critic’s life as painted in Trilling’s letters appears a largely unruffled if not a completely serene one. He married young and stay married to the same woman for his entire life. If there were any occasions of extramarital desire, much less action, they are not even intimated here. There is only a single rather explicit letter, to his wife, Diana, in which he talks about sex, and he never once swears and rarely uses slang. (When he writes in a letter to Norman Mailer that sex should be a subject for novelists for “ten, maybe twelve years; then everybody shut up,” it is a bit of a shock.) The Trillings had just one child, a son, James, who is mentioned a few times and seems to have grown to adulthood largely untroubled. Trilling’s whole life seems to have taken place around books. If he liked going to movies or watched television or ever went to a baseball or football game, he did not mention it in his correspondence. Art did not particularly move him, and food was apparently of little interest. In his journal, he may well have recorded details about his daily life—grocery shopping or grading student essays or the brand of cigarettes he smoked—but there is almost nothing like this in his letters. What is more of a surprise is his lack of reference to current political events, given the close relationship of literature and politics in New York intellectual circles during most of his lifetime. The Depression, World War II, Korea, and Vietnam all receive almost no mentions, and the politics of the United States during the tumultuous 1960s gets barely a nod, apart from the student revolt at Columbia in 1968. Kennedy’s assassination forms the subject of a brief but intense letter written three weeks after the event.

Trilling’s lack of sympathy for popular culture is amusingly registered in one of his letters to Allen Ginsberg, in which he asks plaintively, “What is Batman?,” before going on to tell Ginsberg that he does not admire Hart Crane, whose poetry he found too sacramental. He did admit occasionally to middlebrow indulgences. He liked Currier and Ives prints and even thought that Norman Rockwell should be taken seriously, and in 1955 he wrote to thank two editors at Doubleday for sending him a copy of—of all things!—Herman Wouk’s novel Marjorie Morningstar. He wondered aloud whether it was “one of my secret vices that my better nature is overcome by books like this.” One rather wishes to know more about his secret vices, even if they were as modest and lacking in danger to himself and others as reading second-rate fiction and enjoying it. While music is rarely mentioned, and popular music or rock and roll never, Trilling does allude in a letter written in 1964 to writing a song called “Oh, the psyche and the soma should be friends.” It makes one wonder whether he had a smidgeon of Tom Lehrer in him that he kept assiduously under wraps in his correspondence. We do learn that Trilling was in analysis for most of his life, but given his deep interest in Freud and his connections in the New York psychoanalytic community, that comes as no surprise. He wrote an extended review of the Kinsey report and published a famous essay on “Freud and Litera­ture,” both collected in The Liberal Imagination (1950). In letters to very close friends like Jacques Barzun, he can be quite brutally honest about his state of mind. From Athens in the late spring of 1962, he wrote to Barzun about a sense of detachment he felt, which he described in a compelling analogy:

I have been feeling for these weeks like some sort of hollow capsule shot into space with all sorts of sensitive gadgets inside it to observe and record things, and no imagination of its own.

(Trilling may not have known about Batman in 1944, but he clearly was aware of the space program in 1962.) Ten years later, Trilling was writing to his analyst, once again from overseas, where he enjoyed perhaps a more than normally productive perspective on his life, about how “things don’t go well within, haven’t for some time,” and he characterized his difficulties again as “detachment.” Since literary criticism itself requires a certain detachment from works of art, this complaint when he was in his late sixties is in no way shocking. He as much as tells us in a long and fascinating letter to someone named John Vaughan, composed a few months later, that Columbia’s emphasis on “intelligence” deeply modified his youthful preference for what was “intuitive, perceptive, sensitive etc.” This fits well with the sense one gets in this book of a never-ending battle within Trilling’s imagination between the critic and the fiction writer. His only published novel, The Middle of the Journey, appeared in 1947; thereafter and until the end of his life, his letters are full of complaints about how he cannot find the time or the right frame of mind to finish another novel. (An incomplete second novel was published after his death.) He tells Ginsberg, in a letter written after his only novel came out, that he had been informed by some readers (he does not say who) that its prose was “too well-written” and “enervated.” It was obviously difficult for him to leave behind the suave and attractive style of his literary essays in favor of a style for his fiction that might be more compelling and appropriate for the stories he wanted to tell. One can see that ingrained style in his letters as well, which are rarely written in anything but lucid, well-planned sentences. There is almost never a sentence fragment to be found.

The correspondence section in Trilling’s papers at Columbia University Library is reportedly very large. Adam Kirsch, in his short introduction to Life in Culture, quotes the writer as saying that, on average, he wrote 600 letters per year. That amounts to tens of thousands of letters over a lifetime. There are just 270 included in the book, but this merest fraction of the total nevertheless gives one the impression of a valid representation of Trilling’s vie en lettres. There are letters here which seem trivial—the single one to Jacqueline Kennedy, for example, or the three in which he nominated writers for the Nobel Prize in Literature (none of them would win)—and a small number which concern Columbia University politics don’t hold much general interest beyond documenting that, 600 letters a year or not, Trilling did have a demanding teaching life as well. It is indeed striking how very frequently he began a letter by apologizing for his tardiness in responding to the letter sent to him. “I am aghast when I see how long I have waited . . .” begins one early letter, and a version of that apology is repeated again and again over the course of the book. This is true equally of close friends and of strangers, of colleagues writing to ask a favor, and of people writing in response to something Trilling had published. Sometimes months separated his response from the original letter. In general, most of the letters have literary substance, and some are almost mini-essays on various subjects.

The letters of writers traditionally have been published by university presses, as their market appeal tends to be limited, and they often require subsidies to support small print runs and modest sales. The publisher of Life in Culture has chosen, however, to market the book as a trade publication, rather than as a scholarly book. The scholarly apparatus of the Trilling letters is therefore quite modest, and this is particularly noticeable in the case of the annotations. Annotation is an art as well as a scholarly endeavor. It requires, among other skills, a well calibrated instinct for knowing what readers will need help with and what they will not. Too much annotation risks annoying the informed reader. (Did I really need to be told who Geoffrey Chaucer was?) Too little might leave that same reader at sea. (Just who was Guillaume Lekeu?) It is tempting and easy to overburden a text with over-zealous annotation of minutiae as well as to expatiate on the obvious. Adam Kirsch is the first editor I have come across who, to some extent, has handed off his annotation responsibilities to the Internet. As he says in his introduction, “in the age of the Internet it is easy to find fuller information about people, books, and events than any footnotes could usefully provide.” This is true to some extent, but perhaps only for the easier and less obscure references. A reader can readily find out as much as he or she wants to know about William Faulkner, for example, to whom Trilling sent a letter in 1957 in answer to a request for his support of a “free Ezra Pound” initiative that Faulkner had written to him about. The Pound initiative is not explained in a note (Pound was still in St. Elizabeths Hospital at that time, and a number of writers were trying to get him released), but Faulkner is, oddly, identified in a footnote. I say oddly, because Kirsch explicitly states in his introduction that he will not attempt “to annotate the many canonical books and authors that appear in the letters.” It is easy enough, if slightly aggravating, for readers to interrupt their reading to check their computers for information about unidentified names or works, but less simple with thornier passages, such as one in a letter to the critic Steven Marcus that involves Dickens, George Eliot (“See George Eliot in the garden at Oxford?”), John Ruskin and his parents, the Meagles (the Internet will confuse with dog references anyone who looks this up), and Daniel Doyce, a character, like Mr. and Mrs. Meagle in fact, in Little Dorrit. The editor’s help in this passage would have been welcome, as elsewhere too where journal articles are not annotated, and even the names of the occasional correspondent are left mysterious. Who, for example, was Morikimi Megata, about whom the Internet is silent? What was “O’Connor’s piece” in the Sewanee Review that made Trilling out to be a “very dull type”? What was the “gossip about the rejection of Blackmur’s article on Wilson and me” to which Trilling refers in a 1952 letter to Delmore Schwartz?

While Trilling’s letters are short on details concerning a life lived, by contrast they are fascinating from a cultural point of view, being full of literary opinions—some cranky, some placid and deeply considered—as well as confessional moments and self-reflection. Indeed Trilling’s gift for self-reflection, based in intelligence and emotional skill and no doubt honed by a lifetime of psychoanalysis, is the most attractive aspect of Life in Culture, despite the title’s implication that it will be secondary. An example is furnished by a pair of letters written on consecutive days in the late summer of 1949, when he was forty-four, the first to John Crowe Ransom, Trilling’s close friend and fellow literary critic, and the second to David Riesman, the sociologist who would publish his influential book The Lonely Crowd: A Study of the Changing American Character the following year. Ransom had written to Trilling to invite him, not for the first time, to teach at Kenyon College’s summer school. Trilling’s reply begins by emphasizing his need not to “mortgage” his summers to teaching but goes on to note what he calls “a sizeable desperation about my way of life,” a desperation he chalks up to both fatigue and a growing sense that he was “not getting done the work I had cut out for myself to do.” That work, he goes on to confide, consists of a novel among other projects. Although in a sense this letter could have been written by any one of a thousand creative academics, who are chronically late with writing deadlines and constantly balance time spent at a desk with time spent in a conference room, a classroom, or (these days) in an airplane, Trilling’s choice of “desperation” is telling. He goes on, in the letter to Riesman, to characterize himself as a “nineteenth-century character” who cannot be expected to understand contemporary culture, “high” or “popular,” because he is inner-directed and not other-directed (the adjectives are his own). His novel’s theme, he says, is “the tragedy of a young man who is the last survivor of the old culture.” That phrase might almost serve as Trilling’s epitaph.

Trilling comments infrequently but trenchantly on Judaism and his own experience of Jewishness. As early as 1929, he admitted to Elliot Cohen that he was somewhat divorced from Jewish “life or thought of any sort,” and that Judaism, though “not unpoetic” (the litotes is surely significant), is nevertheless “quite empty of meaning now and inclined to manifest itself stupidly.” A decade and a half later, he avers that many of his “feelings” about Jewish life “are negative,” and in a long 1958 letter to a former student, Herbert Feinstein, he criticizes a lecture Feinstein had apparently delivered somewhere—there is no annotation to help us here—for what he takes as mistakes about Jewish attitudes to sexuality. “How disturbed by sex the Jews are, how repelled,” he claims, before going on to generalize about “Jewishness as it appears in East European Jewry,” which, he is certain, “has injured all of us dreadfully.” It is surprising that, apart from these asseverations and a few other instances—in 1959, for example, Trilling turned down an invitation to speak to a Jewish group at Columbia because “I can find nothing that I can talk about”—he never mentions religion in general, not even for its obvious and profound role in the works of some of the American writers whom he ranked above all others. In various letters, Trilling wonders at his non-Jewish name and points out that despite the “quite large proportion” of Jewish students at Columbia when he was an undergraduate, he was the first Jew to be hired by the English Department in a tenure-track position. He seems, all the same, not to have been terribly concerned at all by anti-Semitism. “I thought of it as making life rather the more interesting and certainly it never gave me any personal pain.”

The “life” that emerges from Life in Culture can sometimes seem somewhat stale smelling and claustrophobic. Adam Kirsch points out that Trilling contributed to several areas of “the culture industry”—a horrible phrase, if accurate, I suppose—but that the real value of the letters resides in Trilling’s “constant inquiry about literature and public life.” That is an enticement of a sort, though at times one longs for Trilling to show more evidence of the merely human: playfulness, perhaps, or his response to the ordinary minor rhapsodies of quotidian life, things which Kirsch dismisses as “pleasantries, or details of business” and says he has deliberately omitted. A little more life and a little less culture might have created a more detailed and compelling portrait of Lionel Trilling. As Kirsch points out, “life in culture comes at a cost.”
[1] Life in Culture: Selected Letters of Lionel Trilling, ed. by Adam Kirsch. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $35.00.