Monday, November 07, 2011

"Why Trilling Matters"

Close reading.
In Sunday's New York Times Book Review, Michael Kimmage reviews Why Trilling Matters by Adam Kirsch. Kimmage is enthusiastic about the new book (Yale UP, $24) and gives it high praise. At the end of his review, Kimmage writes:

“Why Trilling Matters” is not simply the best book yet written on Lionel Trilling. Its subject, an austere man previously tethered to the age of Eisenhower and Kennedy, is the pretext for an invigorating magic trick. With Trilling’s help, Kirsch transforms a backward glance into a forward step.
This is no small compliment. Kimmage himself wrote a book on Trilling, The Conservative Turn: Lionel Trilling, Whittaker Chambers, and the Lessons of Anti-Communism, and that book is nothing to shake a stick at. The small cottage-industry known as Trilling-criticism is an insular world, a world that I may still be a part of, and so I wanted to add my two cents. I haven't had the opportunity to read Kirsch's book, but I wanted to write about why I thought Trilling still matters.

In the 1950s and early 1960s, Lionel Trilling was perhaps the most important public intellectual and literary critic in the western hemisphere. He appeared on radio and television where he discussed books and literature and the big ideas of the age (mostly Freud).  Trilling began his career in the 1930s as a graduate student in Columbia. His dissertation, which later appeared as his first book, was a critical biography of Matthew Arnold. In many ways, Trilling's Matthew Arnold would set the path for his entire career. Like Arnold, Trilling believed that literature "is the criticism of life" and had the purpose of making readers more moderate and less likely to blindly follow an ideology.

By the time of The Liberal Imagination (1950), his major collection of criticism, Trilling had enlisted this critical humanism in the cultural Cold War. While Trilling flirted with communism in the 1930s, he became a committed member of the center-left once the excesses of the Stalinist regime became public.Trilling set out to attack the remains of Popular Front culture, a culture that Trilling felt was too ideological and too associated with the Soviet Union. Along with his fellow New York Intellectuals and their Southern analogues, the New Critics, Trilling set about reshaping the canon of American letters. While Progressive intellectuals and Soviet-influenced critics held up figures like Theodore Dreiser and proletarian authors such as Mike Gold, Trilling was a devoted follower of Henry James and F. Scott Fitzgerald. These writers were either apathetic toward progressive social movements, or, in the case of James, suspicious of their motives. Despite the fact that James and Fitzgerald didn't seem to advocate a cause, Trilling thought they did something political all the same. In examining the culture of their time writers like James and Fitzgerald allowed readers to see the constructed-nature of all institutions. They allowed readers to see that society operated under certain assumptions, but that these assumptions were often little more than what Trilling called "manners." However, in pointing out this fact, Trilling did not want to make readers feel superior to society; rather, he implicated them in society's folly. Trilling's audience learned that their own attitudes were just as constructed by society as those characters depicted in the works of James and Fitzgerald.

Certainly, Trilling is a product of his time and many of us would find his Cold War politics to be reactionary. For many, Lionel Trilling might seem like a relic, a stodgy, old, neo-Victorian in an age that has long since been postmodern. However, we should not be so quick to judge. If we heed Trilling's words we might manage to avoid the extremes of our own ideology and the false comfort of easy assurance. If Trilling still matters it is because he teaches us to avoid hubris and that reading the right type of literature might be the way to do it.

Come back on Friday when I try to figure out Faulkner.

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