Life in Culture

Lionel Trilling

A Letter to His Publisher

Barnes and Noble

It is rare for a literary critic to remain alive for readers decades after his death—even rarer than for a novelist or a poet. Lionel Trilling (1905–1975) belonged to what Randall Jarrell called “the age of criticism,” a time when the analysis and judgment of texts had a prestige that is hard to imagine today. Many of the leading figures of that golden age appear in the correspondence collected in this volume, as Trilling’s friends, colleagues, or antagonists. But only a few of them are still in print today, and fewer still have the ability to inspire devotion or argument.

If Trilling is the exception, it is because his own position in the age of criticism was exceptional, even anomalous. He was not, like the New Critics Allen Tate and John Crowe Ransom, a close analyst of textual strategies—one reason why he seldom wrote about poetry. He was not a journalist-critic like Edmund Wilson and Alfred Kazin, helping to shape the public’s taste for new books and writers. Nor was he, after his first book, a literary historian like Newton Arvin or Leon Edel.

Perhaps to describe Trilling as a literary critic at all, though inevitable, is somewhat misleading. (When the philosopher Etienne Gilson told him that he “wasn’t really a literary critic,” Trilling responded with delight.) Really, he belonged to a different, though related, species: he was an intellectual, a thinker about society, politics, and ideas, who used literature as the medium of his investigations. Yet here, too, Trilling stands out from his contemporaries. Without a doubt, he was a charter member of the group known as the New York intellectuals—the writers, mostly first-generation American Jews, whose work filled the pages of Partisan Review and Commentary. He shared the eclectic approach of this group, as described by Irving Howe: “The kind of essay they wrote was likely to be wide-ranging in reference, melding notions about literature and politics, sometimes announcing itself as a study of a writer or literary group but usually taut with a pressure to ‘go beyond’ its subject, toward some encompassing moral or social observation.”

Trilling, too, writes at what he famously called “the bloody crossroads” of literature and politics. When he discusses Orwell’s honesty, or Keats’s affirmativeness, or Forster’s rejection of greatness, he is describing literary qualities that are at the same time visions of life and society. Yet what Howe goes on to say about the prose style of the New York intellectuals—that it was “nervous, strewn with knotty or flashy phrases, impatient with transitions and other concessions to dullness, calling attention to itself as a form or at least an outcry”—does not at all describe Trilling’s work. Rather, his style is grave or elaborately ironic, impersonal, and authoritative, owing much to the Victorian sages who were the subject of his early academic study.

One way of describing Trilling’s distinctive quality as a thinker and writer is to say that he was a hybrid of the twentieth-century radical intellectual and the nineteenth-century liberal moralist. This is why he was so acutely aware of the tensions that arose when liberalism evolved into radicalism, as it did for many American intellectuals in the 1930s and 1940s. Trilling’s only published novel, The Middle of the Journey, published in 1947, was a dramatization of this confrontation; his essay collection The Liberal Imagination, which followed three years later, analyzed the same issue, in texts ranging from Henry James’s The Princess Casamassima to the Kinsey Report.

Trilling’s correspondence shows that the publication of these books marked a watershed in his life and career. Before them, he was a junior professor at Columbia and a respected member of the New York intelligentsia; after them, he became an intellectual celebrity and an academic grandee, with a national and international reputation. The last twenty-five years of his life saw him accumulate numerous honors, as he emerged as a kind of emblem of the life of the mind. When Trilling died, his obituary was on the front page of The New York Times, and it spoke of him in reverential terms: his “criticism was a moral function, a search for those qualities by which every age in its turn measured the virtuous man and the virtuous society.”

It is in this large and profound sense that Lionel Trilling’s life can be described as a “life in culture.” It is not simply that Trilling was “in culture” as a field, the way other people are “in business” or “in medicine,” though it is true that he worked in several areas of the culture industry, not just as a teacher and writer, but as a participant in radio and TV discussions and as the editor of a subscription book club. Rather, his thought was an exploration of what it means to live in culture—as a set of assumptions and values governing individual life, and a set of transactions in which human potentialities are gained and lost.

His thought was an exploration of what it means to live in culture—as a set of assumptions and values governing individual life, and a set of transactions in which human potentialities are gained and lost.

Trilling’s exploration of literary and cultural questions would not be so dramatic and compelling if they were not questions he asked himself as well. He was acutely aware of the irony involved in becoming an icon of culture, because he knew well that life in culture comes at a cost. In his own life, he experienced this cost as the sacrifice of creative work for critical writing, and of personal experience for respectability and achievement. Indeed, Trilling’s life was seldom outwardly dramatic. Born in New York in 1905, he lived in the city for his entire life, with the exception of an early year spent teaching at the University of Wisconsin and a few later years at Oxford. His life in New York revolved around a single institution, Columbia University, where he was an undergraduate in the early 1920s, a graduate student in the 1930s, and a teacher for four decades, until he retired with the highest rank of University Professor. He was married to Diana Trilling in 1929 and remained married to her until his death in 1975. His days were filled with teaching, reading, thinking, and writing—quiet, sometimes invisible activities.

Yet the life in culture he led during these decades was as active as could be. The great value of his correspondence is that it shows him involved in constant inquiry about literature and public life, and about his own proper place in each. From the young radical issuing demands to the New York police commissioner, to the committed anti-Stalinist challenging the pro-Soviet policy of The Nation, to the senior professor reckoning with student rebels in 1968, Trilling remained engaged in American culture and its battles. Some writers, as Trilling says in his essay “Reality in America,” are “repositories of the dialectic of their times—they contained both the yes and the no of their culture, and by that token were prophetic of the future.” Trilling himself was one such writer, and he lived the tensions he wrote about: between activity and quiescence, self-assertion and humility, creation and criticism, revolution and respectability.

As Trilling noted in a 1961 memorandum, his business and professional correspondence was enormous—he estimated that he wrote at least six hundred letters a year—and his archives attest to the diligence with which he answered invitations, provided evaluations and recommendations, and shared information with inquiring strangers. For this volume, I have selected what seem to me the letters of greatest biographical, intellectual, and historical interest. These letters will shed new light on Trilling’s life and relationships, as well as on the overlapping worlds in which he lived—the worlds of American letters, left-wing politics, academic scholarship, and New York intellectual debate. My hope is that Trilling’s correspondence will help readers to better appreciate the “variousness, possibility, complexity and difficulty”—to use his own phrase—of this important and inspiring thinker.

—Adam Kirsch
(A slightly condensed version of his Introduction to the book)

To Ruth Brown, of Viking Press
June 29, 1947
620 West 116th Street

Dear Miss Brown:

I’ve always thought that nothing was harder to write than a blurb. Now I think so more than ever, for I’ve been dealing with the catalog blurb of my book [The Middle of the Journey], trying to say why I think that it isn’t right for the jacket.

As close as I can come to it, what is wrong is this: that the blurb seems to have been written in a kind of uncertainty and embarrassment. It doesn’t present the book as primarily a story to be enjoyed, and then it compensates for this omission by talking about “hot-blooded love-making,” of which the book has none at all. It shies away from the seriousness of the book and then compensates with such killing statements as that the reader will find the “main excitement” of the book in an “intellectual search” or that the book is “an excursion into the mind of an adult modern man.”

Take the first sentence: “When a distinguished critic undertakes to write a novel . . .” This makes it sound like a stunt: Lawyer Plays Flute. Critic Writes Novel. The word “undertakes” suggests that the remarkable thing is not that he should do it well but that he should do it at all. I think that the phrasing of the sentence comes from the imagined difficulty of having to deal with a novel by a critic and a professor. This shows itself again in the phrase “Written by a knowing student of the craft . . .” Aside from the fact that “knowing” isn’t really a complimentary word—implies an unpleasant way of having knowledge—the whole phrase suggests a synthetic, academic performance. And then there is attributed to me “a warm sense of literary values.” This isn’t anything a novelist ought to have—it is what William Lyon Phelps had. Don’t you think the whole difficulty which I detect here could be got rid of—there’s really no need nowadays for it to exist at all—by making reference to my short fiction, which has had quite a good reception?

The phrase about the “excursion into the mind of an adult mod- ern man” suggests that the book is hopeless[ly] internal. Actually it isn’t—not more internal than most modern novels, though the internality may be of a different kind. The phrase damns the book. Same with the business about the “intellectual search” being the main excitement of the book.

The story, as I well know, is very difficult to describe. Best, then, not to describe it.

The story, as I well know, is very difficult to describe. Best, then, not to describe it. Certainly we ought to avoid the characterization of the characters in the manner of the third paragraph. I’ve talked the thing over with my wife, who, as a reviewer, has had experience of thousands of novel blurbs; she thinks they are of great importance in determining the reviewer’s expectations and her feeling about the present one is what mine is; she has especially strong objection to the trick of summarizing the story and taping the characters—says it always makes the impression on her that the publishers do not believe that the characters can be understood, besides falsifying and reducing the characters by anticipating them.

Does this at all make clear why I don’t like the blurb? And does it make publishing sense to you? But this is all negative, and in order to suggest the thing more positively, Mrs. Trilling tried her hand at some blurb copy. I won’t offer apologies for my own part in sending on this piece of glorification. I’d be very glad if you’d call me up and tell me what you think of it. You’ll understand, I’m sure, that it’s meant only as a suggestion and by way of practical criticism of the first blurb. Do what you like with it, though I’d be pleased if you’d see your way to using it. What it says in criticism of the first blurb is that the first doesn’t claim enough for the book, or doesn’t put forth its claims in a firm, confident, and single-minded way. Or perhaps the difference between the two blurbs is that the domestic one takes proper advantage of the fact that I am a writer of already established reputation. This is untoward to have to say, but I think that if it were understood in a simple way, it would bring to an end all the difficulty there’s been about writing the blurb for my book.

About the use of Mrs. Trilling’s name in the biographical matter: we’ve had a family conference and have decided that the way you have used it is perfectly all right, quite legitimate biographical information.


P.S. You would perhaps want to be told, and I forgot to tell you in our telephone conversation the other day, that Vogue sent up a photographic crew—one to hold me in talk, one to load the camera, one to snap—to get a picture for a feature in which I’m to figure. It’s a piece on writers in the classroom and I think it comes out September or October.


Lionel Trilling (1905–1975) taught at Columbia University from 1931 until his death and was the author of many books, including Matthew Arnold and the novel The Middle of the Journey.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic whose writing appears in The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, and other publications. He lives in New York.