Review: Life in Culture: Selected Letters of Lionel Trilling

By William H. Pritchard

Adam Kirsch, ed., Life in Culture: Selected Letters of Lionel Trilling (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018), 464 pp.

A few years ago the poet and critic Adam Kirsch wrote a short book titled Why Trilling Matters, implying at least the possibility that there were those who thought Trilling’s work, four decades after his death, didn’t matter all that much. Mr. Kirsch has now followed up with a hefty collection—over 400 pages of letters, lightly edited (sometimes too lightly as far as footnotes go), selected from the thousands Trilling wrote. Throughout the letters a recurring note is Trilling’s insistence that he is not a literary critic and that academic literary criticism, especially as it pervades the graduate schools, is of no interest to him. He begins a letter to Etienne Gilson telling him how “touched and gratified” he is by Gilson’s recognition that he is not a literary critic, although—he adds in a characteristic note of qualification—he has “no large harsh adverse feeling” toward literary criticism. When his student Norman Podhoretz spent a year in Cambridge, England and studied with F. R. Leavis, Trilling writes that he understands Leavis’s “long pedagogic rage” now that he, Trilling, is involved in the graduate school at Columbia.

This antipathy toward literary criticism whether as practiced in Cambridge or at Columbia is a central part of Trilling’s larger relation to literature itself and to what he calls “democratic education.” In the letter to Podhoretz he goes so far as to say that he’s almost ready to declare “a moratorium on literature as an academic study.” On the other hand, his experience teaching undergraduates at Columbia was strikingly different. As late as 1953, after he has been teaching at Columbia for over 20 years, he is full of enthusiasm, in a letter to a former student, Richard Howard, about a course he’s just given to undergraduates—“the first time I’ve ever given my own course in the College.” “A revelation of pleasure” was what had resulted from two semesters, the first devoted to Jane Austen, Dickens and D. H. Lawrence, the second to Wordsworth, Keats, and Yeats. For the time being he says it has “checked” his “always threatening disenchantment with teaching.”

I took special note of this letter since I audited that course when he gave it the following year, and it was indeed a course to be remembered, with students he calls “interesting and responsive,” some of them “astonishingly gifted.” I failed adequately to register its originality at the time (I was an unhappy graduate student in philosophy). But the treatment given books and writers both by students and their professor was far away from the more traditional one in which literary history was imparted, or “readings” of texts (the word became popular in later theoretical times) were proffered by a professor intent upon decoding them. I remember being assured at the time by a graduate student in English at Columbia that Trilling’s demeanor and behavior in his graduate class, where he mainly lectured, were entirely different and unattractive compared to the more informal “pedagogy” with which the undergraduate class was conducted.

It is surprising to discover how long it took Trilling to become a full professor at Columbia. These days a tenure decision will be made five or six years after hiring a candidate. In 1947 Trilling was 42 years old, had published an important book on Matthew Arnold, an original appreciation of E. M. Forster, and an impressive novel, The Middle of the Journey. Yet in writing to the dean of Columbia University he (rightly) felt the need to remind him of his position in the intellectual world: “During the last few years I have acquired a considerable prestige in both the academic and the literary world. I have published rather widely and what I have published has been well received both in this country and abroad.” He points out that he has finally been raised “to the lowest statutory salary of an Associate Professor,” and suggests that it may be only by “a threat of my leaving the University” that promotion to full status will be achieved. As often, Kirsch’s sparsity of footnotes gives us no help in understanding why this should have been the case, and doubtless Trilling in his as yet unpublished journals may have expressed his resentment. At any rate it was an important aspect of his dissatisfaction with university teaching and his delight in the anomalous experience, so it seemed to him, of engaging in spirited colloquy in an unsystematic way with lively undergraduates.

In 1957 he writes to John Aldrich, who has published a book about literary critics, that it was “impractical” for him, Trilling, to engage in literary correspondence: “It has become almost impossible for me to read a book out of simple inclination or curiosity, just for fun; and the writing situation brings desperation.” This, then, was the bitter reward for having established a significant literary reputation; it also testifies more personally to Trilling’s inability ever to be “satisfied” with his academic life. The deep bags under his eyes, well remembered by me, suggested the weight of a responsibility that could never be fulfilled. Perhaps no one has greeted the appearance of his book in terms as self-depreciating as those Trilling employed when his second book of essays, The Opposing Self, was published in 1955. He writes to Podhoretz:

My book came out very pleasantly—the publication was full of gratifications. Everybody was very nice to me about the book, friends as well as reviewers; the friends for the first time seemed under no strain and showed no self-consciousness. There was a general air of acceptance, in which the reviewers seem to have joined. Very nice, as I say, and a little dismaying, for it makes me feel that what everybody is saying is that there is nothing to worry about me. I’m not going to make any technical gaffes. I have a very good mind and quite a prose style, thought difficult: and nobody in the least notices what I am saying. Misunderstood, you see.

Not content with playing down all the harmless, imperceptive “nice” things readers tell him without actually noticing the “what,” he appends a final piece of scorn at his own self-pity: “Misunderstood, you see.” The Opposing Self contained essays as original, as ready to engage in argument as the ones on Mansfield Park, William Dean Howells, Keats, and George Orwell. He once stated that he thought literary colloquy should consist of “great fights about moral issues.” No one seemingly was willing or able to step into the ring and punch back.

Despite Trilling’s reputation for suave politeness of the sort that drove Alfred Kazin, Harold Rosenberg, and some others up the wall, the letters show him on more than one occasion speaking forcefully and reprovingly to someone who fails to meet his standard of intellectual and moral probity. Here is an early example, addressed to his friend from Columbia, Meyer Schapiro, who had (Trilling has been told) ascribed his “doubts and hesitations in political questions to the fear of losing my job”:

It would seem that your excellent powers of inference fail when they concern themselves with me. The motive you ascribe to my political thought has as little existence as the baby you recently conceived for me. Your statement and its circumstances automatically abrogate any friendship between us, so that beyond the mere denial of the truth of your statement I need not go.

Fine and final word, “abrogate,” and that was the end of his relations with Schapiro. To Delmore Schwartz, who had written an essay critical of Trilling, he began a long refutation with “I must tell you that your letter is very offensive, although I do not think you meant it to be.” Schwartz was thus placed in the unappealing position of having given offense but being too dense to realize it. On a milder note, he writes to his wife Diana from London after he has been to lunch at Stephen Spender’s with Dwight MacDonald, who praised Spender’s virtues as a host. They were unappreciated by Trilling who remained “anesthetic”: “I thought he was singularly abstracted and unresponsive. He seems to me dazed or bemused and to be on the point of breaking into tears, and his voice is in a monotone and terribly dreary.” To those who remember Spender’s “affect” this sounds the right, acerb note.

One of the instances of Trilling speaking out not just in sorrow but in anger occurs in an exchange with Leon Edel, the biographer of Henry James. It began with Edel’s review of one of Trilling’s books (there is no identifying note, but from the 1966 date I presume it was of the essay collection Beyond Culture). Trilling had spoken of Yeats’s snobbery and Edel thought it necessary to inform him that Yeats’s “transcendent vision” made venial any social snobbery. In response, Trilling charges him with failing to hear the irony in one of Trilling’s sentences. Whatever Edel said in response, Trilling closes the conversation (“Dear Leon Edel”) quite unequivocally and tartly with the following paragraph:

Some years ago it began to occur to me that irony was a mode which the ordinarily educated reader could no longer be counted on to comprehend, and lately I have had the sense, in which you confirm me, that it is probably beyond the reach of even very highly trained literary scholars.

To Stanley Burnshaw he had written that Edel was a “very stupid man,” but now he has transformed bluntness into a more subtly wounding thrust. For me, it’s one of Trilling’s most satisfying epistolary moments.

Not that he doesn’t sometimes set irony aside completely. He was in a friendly relation with his former student, Allen Ginsberg, but when Howl appeared in 1956 and Ginsberg sent him a copy, his old teacher replied in a way that most of us who teach would refrain from using on a former student and aspiring poet:

I’m afraid I have to tell you that I don’t like the poems at all. I hesitate before saying that they seem to me quite dull, for to say of a work which undertakes to be violent and shocking that it is dull is, I am aware, a well-known and all too easy device. But perhaps you will believe that I am being sincere when I say they are dull. They are not like Whitman—they are all prose, all rhetoric, without any music. What I used to like in your poems, whether I thought they were good or not, was the voice I heard in them, true and natural and interesting. There is no real voice here. As for the doctrinal element of the poems, apart from the fact that I of course reject it, it seems to me that I heard it very long ago and that you give it to me in all its orthodoxy, with nothing new added.

It is perhaps a tribute to Ginsberg—and to Trilling as well—that this was not the end of their correspondence.

His constitutional sobriety meant that there are few instances of purely playful behavior in his letters. So when on occasion they do appear, they stand out. In a 1942 letter to Jacques Barzun, with whom he was perhaps on the easiest, most relaxed terms, he informs Barzun that he has turned down an invitation to be literary editor of Time magazine, then directs the following to his friend: “Have we ever discussed the question of whether, since there is Comparative Literature, there must be Superlative Literature or Literature Absolutely?” He proceeds to imagine two professors, one of whom has identified himself in a department of Comparative Literature, to whom the second, teaching at a rival institution, replies, “Ah! As for us we only teach the very, very best.” There is a friendly note to Edmund Wilson occasioned by (it must have been) some writer linking the two critics. Trilling expands on this: “Two General critics. Two American critics. Two critics not New—yet of course not Old.” He imagines an exam question, “Name and discuss two general American critics who are not New Critics, but are not Old Critics either.” The answer, he reveals, is “Tilson and Willing.”

Trilling’s unpublished journals, mentioned above, are treated saliently if briefly in Edward Mendelson’s fine essay of a few years back, “The Sage” (in Eight Twentieth Century American Writers). Mendelson points out how much care Trilling took in writing and rewriting these journal entries and suggests that Trilling both wanted them to remain a secret, yet also hoped they might be published. That such publication has not yet happened, Mendelson suggests, is a function of their intensely depressed and self-castigating nature—quite a different nature from the formed and formal manner of the letters. Mendelson also notes that Diana Trilling’s biography of the marriage ended in 1950, just after The Liberal Imagination was published. What Lionel Trilling called the “resentments central to our marriage” had its sexual component, and in the years after 1950 both he and Diana engaged in extra-marital dallying the extent of which remains unknown. Mendelson writes of Diana’s “ambivalent complaisance” to her husband’s falling in love, at least briefly, with a younger woman, while she herself became involved with one of his “disciples.” In Robert Frost’s powerful but overlooked late poem “The Wind and the Rain,” written soon after his wife’s death, a line is set off from the narrative by white spaces before and after it: “And there is always more than should be said.” One can’t read these letters without from time to time imagining the “more” that Trilling held back and wrote about in the privacy of his journals.

It has been said of Joyce’s Ulysses that no one who looks at it will want or need to look behind it. This brief look at Trilling’s letters that selects a few resonant moments, if it doesn’t push one in the direction of looking behind, most certainly does instill the desire to be reacquainted with his remarkable body of essays. In one of the most attractive of these he is reviewing a collection of George Santayana’s letters and, casting about for comparative examples of great letter writing, he hits upon Keats’s. Trilling decides that although Santayana isn’t the equal of Keats as a letter writer, reading both men had a similar effect on him, that of commanding not assent but “concurrence,” the desire to follow where the writer leads. He finds in both something that without exaggeration can be applied to Trilling’s own letters: “The force and seduction of their manner of thought, their impulse to think about human comprehensive vision of the nature of the universe.”