Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Why Trilling Matters

Why Trilling Matters

Adam Kirsch
Copyright Date: 2011
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 192
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Why Trilling Matters
    Book Description:

    Lionel Trilling, regarded at the time of his death in 1975 as America's preeminent literary critic, is today often seen as a relic of a vanished era. His was an age when literary criticism and ideas seemed to matter profoundly in the intellectual life of the country. In this eloquent book, Adam Kirsch shows that Trilling, far from being obsolete, is essential to understanding our current crisis of literary confidence-and to overcoming it.

    By reading Trilling primarily as a writer and thinker, Kirsch demonstrates how Trilling's original and moving work continues to provide an inspiring example of a mind creating itself through its encounters with texts.Why Trilling Mattersintroduces all of Trilling's major writings and situates him in the intellectual landscape of his century, from Communism in the 1930s to neoconservatism in the 1970s. But Kirsch goes deeper, addressing today's concerns about the decline of literature, reading, and even the book itself, and finds that Trilling has more to teach us now than ever before. As Kirsch writes, "Trilling's essays are not exactly literary criticism" but, like all literature, "ends in themselves."

    eISBN: 978-0-300-17828-9
    Subjects: Language & Literature, History

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. 1 Does Literature Matter?
    (pp. 1-22)

    “We are all a little sour on the idea of the literary life these days.… In America it has always been very difficult to believe that this life really exists at all or that it is worth living.” To anyone who has been paying attention to the morale of American writers lately, such a diagnosis will come as no surprise. Hardly a year goes by without a novelist, poet, or critic coming forward to confess this sense of sourness, which is actually a compound of despair and resentment. Despair, because every department of literature seems to be undergoing simultaneous crisis,...

  4. 2 “A Professor and a Man and a Writer”
    (pp. 23-36)

    Perhaps the biggest obstacle to a genuine appreciation of Trilling today is a certain interpretation of his life and work that has been growing in popularity for years, and has now become a kind of critical orthodoxy. This is the notion that Trilling was, at heart, not a great literary critic but a failed novelist, and therefore an unhappy, unsatisfied man. Once this view is accepted—and it can be found in most of the important discussions of Trilling in recent years, even the sympathetic ones—it’s hard to escape the conclusion that we don’t have to admire or learn...

  5. 3 Varieties of Liberal Imagination
    (pp. 37-70)

    “A writer’s reputation often reaches a point in its career where what he actually said is falsified even when he is correctly quoted,” Trilling observed in the preface to his first book,Matthew Arnold. “It is very easy for Arnold’s subtle critical dialectic to be misrepresented and for his work to be reduced to a number of pious and ridiculous phrases about ‘the grand style,’ ‘culture,’ ‘sweetness and light.’ ” It seems fitting, then, that Trilling, who modeled his career on Arnold’s in certain ways and found in him a kindred spirit, should have his own reputation follow the same...

  6. 4 Isaac Babel and the Rabbis
    (pp. 71-90)

    WhenThe Middle of the Journeywas published, one of the criticisms it provoked was that Trilling had erred in not making his characters Jewish. The intellectual circles in which Trilling moved in the 1930s and 1940s, where he found the originals of figures like the Crooms and John Laskell, were largely made up of Jews; while he taught at Columbia, then still a Protestant bastion, Trilling published his essays inPartisan ReviewandCommentary,the house organs of the New York Jewish intellectuals. Yet “not one of the essential characters is, incredibly, a Jew,” complained Leslie Fiedler, “though much...

  7. 5 A Syllabus of Terrors
    (pp. 91-110)

    In 1967, Trilling editedThe Experience of Literature,an anthology for college students. He chose to represent Isaac Babel in this volume not by one of his most famous and representative stories—the obvious choice would have been “My First Goose”—but by the brief “Di Grasso,” one of Babel’s tales of his Odessa childhood. In “Di Grasso,” the Jew-Cossack opposition does not appear—there are no soldiers to be seen, and the Jewishness of the milieu, though taken for granted, hardly matters for the story Babel wants to tell. Here, instead, he finds a new embodiment of savage, thrilling,...

  8. 6 “Howl” and the Visionary Gleam
    (pp. 111-128)

    If Wordsworth, for Trilling, represents the wisdom of passiveness, then the poet who best represents the modern desire for rebellion and unmasking, for the transvaluation of social and aesthetic values, is William Blake. Blake’s “Proverbs of Hell” is the classic example, in English literature, of “insult offered to the prevailing morality” in the name of a more primal truth:

    The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.

    If the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise.

    The soul of sweet delight can never be defiled.

    Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted...

  9. 7 The Affirming Self
    (pp. 129-150)

    If modern literature is, as Trilling argues, a literature of aggression, of critique and contempt, then the only way to fully experience it is to be threatened by it. Any purely formalist approach to literature is simply an evasion of this threat—like praising the design of a revolver that is being pointed at your head. “Structures of words [the modernists] may indeed have created,” he writes in “On the Teaching of Modern Literature,” “but these structures were not pyramids or triumphal arches, they were manifestly contrived to be not static and commemorative but mobile and aggressive, and one does...

  10. 8 The Reader as Hero
    (pp. 151-168)

    Walt Whitman is not a writer ordinarily associated with Lionel Trilling. It may even seem paradoxical to mention them together: the critic’s formality and irony seem to stand at the opposite pole from the poet’s ardor and adhesiveness. But in 1945, at the end of the Second World War, Trilling wrote a short article about Whitman inThe Nation,in which he quoted a phrase fromDemocratic Vistasthat captures the central intuition of his criticism: “There is, in sanest hours, a consciousness, a thought that rises, independent, lifted out from all else, calm, like the stars, shining, eternal. This...

  11. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 169-170)
  12. Index
    (pp. 171-186)
  13. Back Matter
    (pp. 187-187)