Study Guide

Lionel Trilling

Lionel Trilling Biography

Biography (Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Lionel Trilling grew up in a Jewish neighborhood in New York City. Except for some of his youthful writing, he shunned specifically Jewish themes and identified his work with the great traditions of literature in Europe and the United States. His initial plan was to become a novelist, but he enrolled in Columbia University and became an astute student and critic, eventually obtaining his Ph.D. In fact, Trilling’s dissertation, on Matthew Arnold, became a highly acclaimed book. Like Arnold, Trilling became not only a literary critic but also a critic of culture. Along with Edmund Wilson, Trilling has come to be regarded as perhaps the pivotal critic of his generation, defining the dominant character of American literature and assessing the literature itself in profoundly moral and historical terms.

Trilling’s elegant, sober style helped to shape the literary tastes of a generation. In an enormously influential collection of essays, The Liberal Imagination, for example, he praises Henry James for his style, point of view, sensitivity, and complexity while deploring Theodore Dreiser’s well-meaning but clumsy and vapid rhetoric. Trilling maintains that in novels such as The Princess Casamassima (1886) James exhibited a political sensitivity and shrewdness that was every bit as valuable as Dreiser’s—more so, because the literary value of James’s work was so much greater. The point of such evaluations for Trilling’s generation was that they rectified the rather provincial bias of earlier critics who were wary of James’s European biases and too eager to elevate new American writers such as Dreiser to canonical status.

Trilling was particularly interested in the relationship between...

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Lionel Trilling Bibliography (Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Heilbrun, Carolyn G. When Men Were the Only Models We Had: My Teachers Barzun, Fadiman, and Trilling. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002. Memoir by a former student of Trilling.

Krupnick, Mark. Lionel Trilling and the Fate of Cultural Criticism. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1986. Primarily concerned with Trilling’s influence and his merit as a literary critic.

Leitch, Thomas M. Lionel Trilling: An Annotated Bibliography. New York: Garland, 1993. A valuable research tool.

O’Hara, Daniel T. Lionel Trilling: The Work of Liberation. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1988. Examines the broad range of Trilling’s work.

Shoben, Edward J., Jr. Lionel Trilling: Mind and Character. New York: F. Ungar, 1981. A general study of Trilling’s complete works. It provides biographical information as well as a study of Trilling’s influential novel The Middle of the Journey.

Tanner, Stephen L. Lionel Trilling. Boston: Twayne, 1988. A succinct critical overview.

Trilling, Diana. The Beginning of the Journey: The Marriage of Diana and Lionel Trilling. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1993. A biographical and autobiographical memoir.