Lionel Trilling in the Age of Enormity

(Book cover via Amazon/Background: Pixabay)
A new collection of the eminent public intellectual’s letters reveals a man for his time — and ours.

The recent publication of Life in Culture: Selected Letters of Lionel Trilling, by our premier belletristic publishing house, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, follows on the same house’s publication in 2000 of a volume of Trilling’s selected essays entitled The Moral Obligation to Be Intelligent. Trilling’s life and work richly deserve the honor of such attention, because he was, in the period from 1940 until his death in 1975, probably the outstanding living American literary critic and a fine prose stylist, and because his work remains intelligible and important while that of many of his brilliant peers has aged badly or remains of interest only to academic specialists.

A Jewish New Yorker born in 1905, Trilling was educated at Columbia University and spent most of his career teaching there — from 1932 until his death, though he also held visiting professorships at both Harvard and Oxford. His lifetime, 1905–1975, spanned some of the most destructive developments and events in all of human history, and fit the moniker coined by the Chicago Jewish writer Isaac Rosenfeld: “an age of enormity.” The Oxford Jewish philosopher Sir Isaiah Berlin (1909–1997) said of the 20th century that it was “the most terrible century in Western history,” and he had a point.

This tragic fact is still ignored, neglected, or denied, implicitly or explicitly, by our dominant culture-shapers in the academy and the media, still thoroughly wedded to some version of what the Cambridge University historian Sir Herbert Butterfield called in a brilliant, short 1931 work of historiography, “the Whig interpretation of history”: the idea of an immanent, benign, propulsive purpose within human nature and history that guarantees collective, inevitable, irreversible human progress over time. Though scientistic Marxist utopianism is effectively dead (along with 85 to 100 million victims of Communism), the Whig–liberal utilitarian vision remains vigorous despite the indubitable disconfirmation of it by world history since 1914.

A witness much closer to the inferno of 20th century history than Trilling, Berlin, Rosenfeld, or Butterfield ever got was the distinguished German–Jewish refugee and philosopher Leo Strauss (1899–1973), a German veteran of World War I who fled Nazi Germany in 1932. Speaking of the 20th century toward the end of his life, Strauss wrote: “The idea of progress in the modern sense implies that once man has reached a certain level, intellectual and moral or social, there exists a firm level of being, below which he cannot sink. This contention, however, is empirically refuted by the incredible barbarization we have been so unfortunate to witness in our century” (emphasis added). “Enlightened” optimists, Jacobin, Marxist, or Whig–liberal, assumed with increasing confidence from the 1760s down to 1914 that historical change was improvement. As Reinhold Niebuhr put it, the future was the messiah: Progress replaced providence.

Like Berlin in Oxford, Lionel Trilling lived through these years in relative peace and security in New York, but their effect on so profound an observer could not fail to be deep.

One letter that Trilling apparently appreciated greatly came to him in 1955 from the eminent French Catholic philosopher Étienne Gilson (1884–1978); the circumstances of this exchange would have been helpful to know, but we have only Trilling’s grateful reply: “Your letter touched and gratified me more than I can say. There isn’t . . . any comment on my work as a literary critic that I would rather have than the one you make, that I am not a literary critic.” The paradox can probably best be explained by suggesting that what Gilson saw in Trilling was not only or mainly a literary critic, but in fact a moralist, in the French sense, a man in a noble Anglophone tradition stretching from Samuel Johnson, Carlyle, Matthew Arnold, Chesterton, and T.S. Eliot to Trilling’s English contemporary F.R. Leavis (1895–1978).

The moralist follows Arnold’s perception that the educated person — every educated person — must regularly try to “see life steadily and whole” (“To a Friend,” 1849); that there is no responsible escape from this humanistic ethical task, especially for the highly educated individual, whether professional, scientist, or humanist. (There is in any decent culture the related “moral obligation to be intelligent,” as one of Trilling’s Columbia teachers, John Erskine, put it in 1915.) In the English-speaking world in the 20th century, this role was played influentially in various public ways, creditable and discreditable. In the U.S. there were Irving Babbitt, Paul Elmer More, H.L. Mencken, John Dewey, Edmund Wilson, Niebuhr, and Trilling; in England, G.K. Chesterton, T.S. Eliot, H.G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, E.M. Forster, George Orwell, and Leavis.

The unexpectedly murderous, obscene, hysterical, tragic character of 20th century history, the technologically sophisticated immoralism and barbarity of imperialism, two world wars, ethnic and political exterminations, a global depression, Communism, and Nazism, exploded the Whig–liberal assumptions of the 150 years before 1914, giving us waking nightmares — the sleep of reason and the eclipse of God.

Trilling’s responses to this “age of enormity” are well worth following in his lucid essays on books, writers, manners, and ideas, though they are rarely direct, forthright, or simple. They can also be found in the letters included in Life in Culture by editor Adam Kirsch. Trilling complained in a 1936 letter that life “is a perpetual struggle. Never a being, only a becoming.” Like many a learned person, he found both inspiration and consolation in great writers of the past — epiphanies of being, not only the welter of becoming — particularly Wordsworth, Jane Austen, and Dickens (“the two greatest novelists of England”), Hawthorne, Tolstoy, and Henry James, about all of whom he wrote superlatively well. Early on attracted to and influenced by Marxism by the Great Depression of the 1930s, he grew to fear and hate its contemporary forms and admirers — especially Stalin, Russian Communism, and its American sympathizers. But if Whig and Marxist utilitarianism were truly discreditable — and Trilling grew to detest secular liberalism, despite his qualified defense of it in influential essays and books such as The Liberal Imagination (1950) — what consistent political/ethical stance should one take?

Too much influenced by the naturalism of John Dewey (though he complained in a 1972 letter that Dewey was “incomprehensible . . . notoriously the worst of lecturers”) to take monotheistic religion or Kantian idealism seriously, Trilling found or created a neo-Stoical vision of Sigmund Freud as a cultural hero and moralist, a stance that today seems threadbare and credulous in the light of the ongoing exposure of Freud’s dishonesty and non-scientific opportunism by scholars such as Frederick Crews. But Trilling and his intellectual wife undertook psychoanalysis and identified themselves with the Freudian movement, and he managed to convey his neo-Stoical view of Freud to a host of talented colleagues, friends, and students after his tenure appointment as the first Jew in the English Department at Columbia in 1939. For Trilling, the Freud of Civilization and Its Discontents (1930) was a heroic defender of the necessity of inhibition, sublimation, repression, renunciation of the individual’s instinctual desires in the interest of culture and civilization. It was a line of analysis that would later be deepened eloquently (and transcended) by Philip Rieff, but it now seems much less credible in the light of the important work on Freud’s actual behavior, and supposedly scientific work, by scholars such as Crews.

Trilling’s 1939 study of Matthew Arnold and his subsequent essays and essay collections brought him a literary–critical eminence as a moralist, editor, and anthologist: he edited a Portable Matthew Arnold, editions of classics such as Keats’s Letters, Austen’s Emma, Dickens’s Little Dorrit, Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, and two novels by James, and in later life brought out The Experience of Literature: A Reader with Commentaries (1967) and Literary Criticism: An Introductory Reader (1970). During World War II he published a short, appreciative study of Forster, whom, very much like Leavis, he gradually lost interest in and respect for. Both men saw Forster early on as a defender of moderation and liberal values in a fiercely ideological age, but grew disillusioned with his decline into Bloomsbury aestheticism. Leavis fiercely attacked Forster for promoting a sophisticated aesthetic nihilism (Nor Shall My Sword, 1972). Trilling, too, attacked him, telling Morris Dickstein in a 1975 letter written a few months before his own death that the man’s “unquestionable rule that one should betray one’s country rather than one’s friend” was “reprehensible and contemptible.” He knew that the Cambridge Communist spies — Burgess, Maclean, Philby, and the later-revealed Sir Anthony Blunt — had used this idea to justify betraying their country and civilization, and he also knew close-up the agonies of his one-time college friend Whittaker Chambers, who ultimately left the American Communist movement, returned to Christianity, and denounced former comrade Alger Hiss and his circle of Washington-based Soviet spies. Already in a 1942 letter to his friend Jacques Barzun, Trilling called his old classmate “the astonishing Whittaker Chambers.”

Trilling’s one published novel, The Middle of the Journey (1947), incarnated Chambers as Gifford Maxim, an apocalyptic, tormented, Dostoyevskyan figure who finally dissents altogether from the “progressive” Whig–Marxist utilitarian tradition, leaves the Communist party, and becomes its terrified, bitter foe. Reviled by the American liberal intelligentsia for his public accusation of Hiss, Chambers has subsequently been vindicated in substantial, indispensable books: Allen Weinstein’s Perjury: The Hiss–Chambers Case (1978) and Sam Tanenhaus’s great biography of Chambers himself (1997). He became an important figure at Time magazine during and after World War II and a main advisor to his friend William F. Buckley Jr. as Buckley founded National Review in the mid 1950s. He also never lost the grudging respect and admiration of Trilling, who wrote a new Introduction to The Middle of the Journey discussing Chambers in the year of his own death, 1975. Several of the most interesting of Trilling’s letters published in this collection are to left–liberal colleagues or former students who continued to reproach Trilling for his liberal anti-Communism, which went along with a growing conservative humanism not unlike that of his friend and fellow Morningside Heights moralist, Niebuhr. Both came increasingly to see irony and modesty as necessary elements in any true understanding of history and the moral life.

Despite his “deep distaste for liberal culture” (letter of 1947), and despite having no illusions about the benign character of amoral capitalism or self-interested conservatism, Trilling could not commend either the fellow-travelling “Old Left” or its radical successor, the “New Left” represented by his former student Allen Ginsberg and the bombastic, lascivious novelist Norman Mailer. Having tried to encourage, understand, and help the young Ginsberg as a person and poet, he finally broke with his student after the publication of Howl and Other Poems in 1956. “I don’t like the poems at all. . . . They are dull. . . . There is no real voice here,” he wrote. “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.” Promiscuous, polymorphous, perverse self-exaltation, the “flowers of evil,” “upward psychopathic mobility,” and Mailer’s histrionic narcissism (see 1959 letter to Norman Podhoretz) could have no dark attraction for Trilling in the “age of enormity.” Adulthood was necessary.

Trilling’s own teachers, Erskine (a serious Anglican), Mark Van Doren (later a colleague), and Arnold, had conveyed to him a sense that language and literature must be suffused with or at least oriented toward ethics, and his dissent from the exaltation of literary and artistic modernism was not simplistic, hasty, petulant, or merely temperamental: It was the fruit of a lifetime disposition to virtue. He loved to recount how pleased he was with a student who called George Orwell “a virtuous man,” and the fact is that in a madly extreme “age of enormity” he tried to be such a man himself, without much help from the traditional props and sources of monotheistic religion or the philosophical idealism of Plato, Spinoza, or Kant. If his faith in Freud was misplaced, as I believe it was, his steady decency and intellectual discrimination were no less real. Many a believer has been better than his god.

Writing in 1953 to his former student (and later colleague) Steven Marcus, then studying at Cambridge University with Leavis, Trilling asserted that “the idea of duty [was] a dominating idea of the Victorian period,” (emphasis added) and “stoicism and stoical Christianity . . . are of the very greatest importance.” And his letters show us that duty and a certain stoicism were dominant ideas within him. He saw in Wordsworth, Austen, and Dickens a pervasive sense of duty and human fellow-feeling that he was also wise enough to attribute to their Christianity, and in fact his espousal of these writers is particularly sympathetic to their religious vision. His essays on such classic narrative writers remain themselves classic pieces of analytical and expository prose, vindicating in their own manner, insight, and argument the nourishing relevance of great, morally-orthodox works of art, the art of “painting virtue.”

In his large anthology, a “reader with commentaries,” The Experience of Literature (1967), Trilling writes of Shakespeare’s King Lear:

When it is said that Lear is “regenerated” and “redeemed,” the change that is being remarked upon in the aged king is his new consciousness of man’s inhumanity to man, of the general failure of justice: his mind becomes obsessed with justice, he is filled with disgust at those human traits that stand in the way of its being done — greed, lust, pride, and the hypocrisy that masks them.

Before quoting Lear’s famously affecting “Poor naked wretches” speech, he notes:

And with the new consciousness of justice goes a new sense of the need for caritas, which is not “charity” in our usual modern sense, but “caring,” the solicitude of loving-kindness.

After the quotation from Lear he adds:

Although Lear does touch upon the cruelty of the universe, this is far less the object of his new consciousness than the failure of man’s governance of himself, his falling short of what is required of him in doing justice and loving mercy.

In one paragraph we have echoes of both I Corinthians 13 and Micah 6:8, and a fine example of the moral imagination at work.

In “The Leavis-Snow Controversy” (1962; republished in Beyond Culture), Trilling judiciously discusses the “two cultures” dispute between the combative Puritan literary moralist Leavis and the blandly self-confident scientific Mandarin C. P. Snow. Both men knew and respected him and neither man was pleased with the essay. Trilling credits Leavis with knowing “the great fundamental mistake” of Snow’s position and praises Leavis’s eloquence in “asserting against a simplistic confidence in a scientific ‘future’ the need of mankind, in the face of rapid advance of science and technology,” to, in Leavis’s words, “be in full possession of its full humanity (and ‘possession’ here means, not confident ownership of that which belongs to us — our property, but a basic living deference toward that to which, opening as it does into the unknown and itself immeasurable, we know we belong).”

Language itself, Leavis wrote movingly in his 1964 essay on John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, “is a vehicle of collective wisdom and basic assumptions, a currency of criteria and valuations” that “entails on the user a large measure of accepting participation in the culture of which it is the active living presence.” In the middle third of the 20th century, no one in America better managed to use language in this way, with this conscious, plenary sense, than Lionel Trilling. His work remains an asset to the humanistic future of English-speaking people everywhere today.

M. D. Aeschliman recently retired after 25 years as professor of Anglophone Culture at the University of Italian Switzerland and is also professor emeritus of education at Boston University. The third edition of his The Restoration of Man: C. S. Lewis and the Continuing Case against Scientism was published in 2019 and in French translation this year. In 1987 he edited a new edition of Malcolm Muggeridge’s 1934 novel Winter in Moscow.


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