The Demonic Trilling

Edward Mendelson in the New York Review of Books:

Mendelson_2-060712_jpg_230x925_q85It is hard to recall now the enormous prestige of Lionel Trilling as a literary and social critic during the postwar years. The Liberal Imagination (1950), his first collection of essays, is said to have sold more than 70,000 hardback copies. For the first and last time, a literature professor enjoyed the public eminence normally reserved for an economist like John Kenneth Galbraith or a sociologist like David Riesman. Trilling was a quietly dominating figure, sensitive, sensible, and reassuring in his emergence from 1930s radicalism and his nuanced Freudianism. His essays served as a form of national therapy. Writing about Henry James’s The Princess Casamassima, for example, he guided readers away from the political certainties of the 1930s and toward the difficult complexities of “ambiguity and error” that they must learn to accept if they wanted to fulfill their generous liberal intentions.

For Adam Kirsch, in Why Trilling Matters, Trilling’s authority still survives as a source of courage: “In the last twenty years, when writers have lamented the decay of literature’s confidence and authority, they have often turned, as if by instinct, to Trilling as the emblem of those lost virtues.” Kirsch’s central insight, however, is that Trilling wrote with an artist’s authority, not a teacher’s:

Trilling’s authority…is itself a literary achievement—not a privilege of cultural office or a domineering assertion of erudition and intellect, but an expression of sensibility, the record of an individual mind engaged with the world and with texts.

Trilling’s constant theme, he adds, was “the conflict between the artist’s will and the demands of justice.”

More here.

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