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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