Lionel Trilling, Edited by Adam Kirsch, Life in Culture: Selected Letters of Lionel Trilling (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018), 464 pp., $35.00.,
Like his wife Diana, who wrote her memoirs The Beginning of the Journey in 1993, Lionel Trilling was a charter member of the New York intellectuals. In his collection of essays, The Winding Passage, Daniel Bell anointed both Trillings as elders, along with Sidney Hook, Elliot Cohen, Meyer Schapiro, Hannah Arendt, Philip Rahv and William Phillips. Bell sought to distinguish this generation of Jewish American intellectuals from later ones by stressing that "there was a pride in the group that what was important was really ideas and one should not talk about people as celebrities."
Lionel Trilling's eminence was so great, however, that he reached near celebrity status as a literary critic. His 1950 essay collection, The Liberal Imagination, is surely among the most influential volumes of literary criticism ever released in the United States. Towards the end of his life, he published his probing study Sincerity and Authenticity, which championed the eighteenth-century ideal of sincerity by casting a skeptical eye on the quest for an authentic self, a pursuit Trilling associated with the Far Left of the 1960s. An evangelist for serious literature and a public intellectual if ever there was one, Trilling was a moralist who lived in New York City and who had read Marx and Freud. He was as avowedly modern and sophisticated as he was priestly and professorial.
Born in 1905, Trilling came from an Eastern European Jewish immigrant family that was just affluent enough to send him to Columbia College. (His father was a furrier.) At Columbia, Trilling was among the first cohorts of students to take in the great-books curriculum, mounting the arduous ladder from undergraduate to professor. It was a very close call: thanks to the intervention of the college's president, Nicholas Murray Butler, Trilling overcame the English department's reservations about him. As with many American universities, the department's anti-Semitism militated against a Jew and a child of immigrants teaching English literature to Ivy League students. Trilling's achievement of tenure was a seminal moment for the New York intellectuals, as Sidney Hook recounts in his memoir Out of Step.
Trilling's truest wish was to be a novelist. He published his only novel, The Middle of the Journey, in 1947. More than a novelist or a conventional scholar, Trilling was a supple essayist in the tradition of Matthew Arnold, about whom he wrote his first book. Trilling was a natural Anglophile. As Bell noted,
It is no accident, I suppose, that the best writings of Trilling are those on Matthew Arnold or E. M. Forster or Jane Austen, because that was the kind of life--a life of manners, a life of society, a life of culture--which gave a great sense of coherent social structure or of nuanced relationships. Like Arnold, Trilling could unite observation with opinion in a manner that was subjective and objective, emotional and urbane, instructive and mysterious.
Trilling never wrote directly about public or foreign policy. He spent no time in Washington, DC. He was literary to the core. Yet his was a life in politics. This was in part a consequence of timing. He was twenty-four years old at the time of the stock market crash, and like many in his generation he was drawn to communism in the 1930s. He did not join the Communist Party. He admired the Soviet Union from afar until Stalin robbed him of his admiration. As with many in his generation, though a bit earlier, Trilling became an anticommunist, the intellectual canary in the political coal mine. His essays narrated the story of communism and anti-communism, and by doing so, they outlined the imperative of anti-communism.
Then came the 1960s. Through this decade Trilling walked an exquisitely fine line. He dined at the White House with John and Jackie Kennedy. His very name was associated with the word liberal, and that was the problem in the sixties. Trilling was the kind of centrist Cold War liberal against whom the decade's radicals defined themselves. It was Trilling's peculiar destiny to protect and defend the novels and poetry of the Victorians, among others, in the Age of Aquarius. When the Columbia campus rose up in protest in the spring of 1968, Trilling symbolized the liberal old guard.
Meanwhile, several of Trilling's friends and one of his students, Norman Podhoretz, rebelled against the reigning rebellion and launched the neoconservative movement in the 1970s. (One of these friends, Irving Kristol, founded The National Interest in 1985 as a realist counterweight to Commentary.) Trilling's books and essays had been an inspiration to the neoconservative movement, of which he was...