Loads of Learned Lumber

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Why no Lionel Trilling biography?

ABOUT HALFWAY THROUGH Edward Mendelson's Moral Agents, which is stone brilliant, and about which I expect to be writing shortly, but Mendelson's first chapter on Lionel Trilling got me thinking: why is there no big biography on Trilling?

Now, some of you boys and girls out there may not recognize the name immediately, but Lionel Trilling was the USA's pre-eminent literary critic between World War II and his death in 1975. Edmund Wilson has a valid rival claim to the title during that same stretch, but Trilling, established at Columbia, had an unassailably Ivy academic credibility that Wilson did not have. Not that Trilling was strictly an academic critic, by any means--he wrote what were considered definitive books on Matthew Arnold and E. M. Forster, but also contributed to the NYT Book Review, The Nation, the Kenyon Review, and, most crucially, the Partisan Review--a non-academic intellectual forum the like of which we hardly have today.

Trilling was still alive for most of the time I was in college, and I remember three different classes in which we read essays of his, and his The Liberal Imagination was one of those books you were supposed to read if you were serious about literature, like Auerbach's Mimesis or Abrams's The Mirror and the Lamp.

There are some studies of Trilling, but no biography, even though there are biographies of contemporaries of his, like Alfred Kazin and Dwight MacDonald, who belonged to roughly the same milieu but lacked Trilling's clout.

(One of the studies I turned up is Why Trilling Matters, by Adam Kirsch, which sounds like a sly joke someone inserted in a publisher's list as a prank, but is apparently an actual book. Hard to think of a title-and-author combination that would more powerfully give you the feeling that you already know the book's entire contents than "Why Trilling Matters, by Adam Kirsch").

Reasons for the bio's absence do suggest themselves. For one, Trilling died just as French post-structuralism invaded U.S. literature departments, and his ponderous earnestness, with its emphasis on renunciation and resignation, quickly began to look unspeakably dowdy. With the rediscovery of the Frankfort School, there was a way to talk about political and moral engagement without Trilling's somewhat ironic Eisenhower-era update of Popular Front tropes.

For another, Trilling's prose aged badly. Edmund Wilson, Randall Jarrell, Mary McCarthy, Dwight MacDonald...they all still sound full of brio, to my ear. I read them and wish we still had critics around who wrote like that. But Trilling---? Here is a sample from The Opposing Self:

But now, when we have touched upon the Wordsworthian quality that is very close to the Stoic apatheia, to not-feeling, let us remember what great particular thing Wordsworth is said to have accomplished.  Matthew Arnold said that in a wintry clime, in an iron time, Wordsworth taught us to feel. This statement, extreme as it is, will be seen to be not inaccurate, if we bring to mind the many instances of spiritual and psychological crisis in the nineteenth century in which affectlessness, the loss of the power to feel, played an important part.

Doesn't really make you want to keep on, does it?  The passive constructions, the clich├ęs, the "not inaccurate" formulation?

But--so what if his reputation has been somewhat eclipsed, so what if his gravitas now just sounds stuffy...isn't he still historically important?  He is.  So there must have been dozens of people who figured they could write the biography, which, given how central Trilling was, would make an extraordinary book if you got it right.

An observation from Mendelson hints at an answer. Trilling kept an extensive journal, and apparently figured (he had every reason to) that it would be published.  He even revised it. Apparently, the Trilling of the essays--wise, learned, balanced, serious--is not at all the Trilling of the journals.  Mendelson writes in a note, "More than one of his admirers has looked through them with the thought of printing them, but was too appalled by their contents to proceed."

Trilling's journals...are appalling? So appalling that even publication-hungry scholars would leave them be?

Well, we really need to have that biography now.



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