The Last Decade

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2209

Since 1950, with the publication of his first collection of essays, the influential The Liberal Imagination, Lionel Trilling has sustained, at least in conservative critical quarters, his reputation as being a man of letters in the grand old nineteenth century tradition. As a broad literary and cultural critic, Trilling has expressed his opinion on a variety of literary individuals and cultural issues for the past forty years. To the delight of those who agree with him, and to the chagrin of those who do not, his opinion has almost always been the same one.

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In 1955, when his collection The Opposing Self was published, that rather placid era applauded Trilling’s concern with social reality and shared his distaste for those who wished to escape what he perceived as the conditioned nature of reality by attempting to impose their own conditions. Trilling’s old-fashioned Victorian reaction against the perennial romantic preference for artifice over social reality, however, settles dustily on the sensibilities of the 1980’s. It is only because Trilling defines “mind” so narrowly that he can in this current collection of essays decry what he calls the contemporary “ideology of irrationalism” which celebrates the “attainment of an immediacy of experience and perception which is beyond the power of rational mind.” In a well-known 1956 attack on Trilling, Joseph Frank says the weakness of the conservative imagination “lies in imposing its sense of the ultimate conditioned nature of life on areas where the will may fruitfully intervene.” An even less generous critic might suggest that Trilling’s limitation lies in the fact that he did his doctoral dissertation on Matthew Arnold and never really got over it.

Such a statement is not intended to underestimate Lionel Trilling, or to undervalue his contribution to American critical thought; rather, it is simply to suggest that the essays in The Last Decade not only offer nothing new, but they are also seriously out of step with current critical thought. In The Liberal Imagination, Trilling convincingly argued that ideology oversimplified human experience, that only literature was complex enough to do life justice. He also powerfully argued for the artist’s intensity in confronting the “recalcitrant stuff of life,” and he influentially defined culture as the “locus of the meeting of literature with social actions and attitudes” and as a “continuous bargaining with life.” Trilling’s essays in The Liberal Imagination on Sigmund Freud and Literature, on William Wordsworth’s Immortality Ode, on Huckleberry Finn, and on Henry James’s The Princess Casamassima were concrete, individualized, and specific; they were evidence of an energetic and tough-minded young critic. The current collection, edited posthumously by his wife, Diana Trilling, is an uneven collection of mostly occasional pieces, which are primarily polemical, generalized, derivative, and meandering.

The heart of the book are the essays, “Mind in the Modern World,” delivered as the first Thomas Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities of the National Endowment for the Humanities; “Art, Will, and Necessity,” a lecture delivered at Cambridge University; “The Uncertain Future of the Humanistic Educational Ideal,” a paper delivered at a conference at the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies; and “What Is Criticism?” which is the Introduction to Trilling’s edited collection, Literary Criticism: An Introductory Reader. The first three are important because they reiterate Trilling’s basic themes of will, effort, and intention; the latter essay is the longest in the book and summarizes Trilling’s view of literary criticism.

The remaining essays are extremely heterogeneous, although the same basic themes arise again and again, and often the same examples of literary figures and works are evoked. “A Novel of the Thirties” is a reprint of an Afterword that Trilling wrote for the republication of Tess Slesinger’s novel The Unpossessed. The essay is an informal piece that relates the book to Slesinger’s relationship to the Jewish intellectual community of the 1930’s, especially those associated with the Menorah Journal; Trilling discusses the book as a reflection of the radical movement of the 1930’s. His criticism of the book, however, is that it does not encompass the “political particularities” of that time and place firmly enough. The real subject of the book, says Trilling, is that dialectic between “life and the desire to make life as good as it might be”—what Thomas Mann has called the dialectic between nature and spirit. Because the book does not develop the actuality of politics of its time, however, its real theme has been misunderstood and it is currently being read simply as a book of “feminist protest.” Trilling therefore criticizes Slesinger for writing a book that is susceptible to being misunderstood as a feminist book which celebrates nature over the tyranny of spirit rather than, as Trilling would have it, as a dialectical novel in which the work of spiritual intellect should have been more emphasized.

Trilling launches a similar criticism against James Joyce in his review of Richard Ellmann and Stuart Gilbert’s three-volume edition of the Letters of James Joyce. Trilling’s focus is on the ambivalence of Joyce reflected in his love/hate relationship with Ireland, his admiration/scorn for social status, and the simultaneous innocence/perversity of his sexual desires. Trilling is himself ambivalent about his own claim that Joyce was largely responsible for destroying nineteenth century fiction’s emphasis on the confrontation of the moral and spiritual life with the values of the world. Trilling reveals his own nostalgia for such an emphasis and his impatience that the modern reader prefers that literature have a metaphysical rather than a moral aspect. Trilling’s delight in the letters is that what Joyce denied in his fiction, he once affirmed with a great deal of intensity—a delight sparked by Trilling’s disapproval of what he considers essential to Joyce’s genius—his desire “to move through the fullest realization of the human, the all-too-human, to that which transcends and denies the human.”

Trilling’s review of The Correspondence Between Sigmund Freud and C. G. Jung and his introduction to the republication of his own novel The Middle of the Journey are of limited interest and one wonders why they were included here; there seems to be no reason except that they were there. The first simply summarizes the Moses-Joshua relationship between Freud and Jung recounted in the letters, and the latter is a personal apologetic account of Trilling’s use of Whittaker Chambers as the model for his character Gifford Maxim in his 1947 novel.

“Aggression and Utopia,” a paper on William Morris’ News from Nowhere and “Why We Read Jane Austen,” a paper prepared for the Jane Austen conference in Canada, but incomplete at Trilling’s death, are similarly limited and of narrow interest. Trilling’s attitude toward Morris’ utopian romance and Austen’s more mimetic novels, however, does reveal a common concern for Trilling—his preference for Austen’s actuality (which involves frustration, effort, work) over Morris’ regressive ideal of childlike hedonism. Trilling affirms the humanistic tradition that effort and aggressive energies constitute the ground of our dream of transcendence, value, and worth. It is, for Trilling, this aggressive energy that marks personhood—a personhood that although is lacking in the fiction of today, is amply evident in the novels of Jane Austen. In fact, Trilling attributes the enthusiasm that his own students have for Jane Austen to their need to see persons represented by an author with a strong moral imagination, rather than persons (as in the Morris romance) as projections of ideal desires. The most interesting ideas in these essays are Trilling’s points about the relationship between actuality and fictionality. Even as Morris’ works suggest that characters in his ideal, regenerate society are not fit subjects for art, in Jane Austen’s work, says Trilling, readers are made aware of a continual dialect between the awareness of life being the subject of art (or being made into an aesthetic experience) and life remaining earnest and literal, the essence of what Western culture feels life to be. It is unfortunate that Trilling was not able to complete his discussion of this dialectic in Jane Austen, nor able to develop these ideas further, for they perhaps would have led him to a more balanced consideration of the self-reflexive aspects of modern fiction that he seems to abhor.

Trilling was, however, at the time of these essays much too old a dog to be taught the new tricks of post-modernist criticism. In his long essay, “What Is Criticism?,” he adds little or nothing new or significant, being content to follow the outline of the four-part division of literary criticism established in the first chapter of M. H. Abrams’ The Mirror and the Lamp. Throughout his summary of the critical focus on the maker of the work, the work itself, the universe, and the audience, Trilling emphasizes the importance of judgment in criticism. The motive of all literary criticism, says Trilling, is to say what literary excellence is and to indicate how to discriminate the degrees of excellence. To read Trilling here is to believe that nothing has happened in literary criticism since the turn of the century. He even continues to beat the dead horse of New Critical formalism in his warnings about the chimera of objectivity and the inadequacy of genre and art-object description. His focus here, as it was thirty years ago, although with more cogency then, is on the cultural conditions under which the literary work comes into being, and with the moral sensibilities of the author and his or her time. Current students of literature might just as well read Trilling of three decades ago as Trilling of his last decade.

In his “Mind in the Modern World” lecture, taking H. G. Wells’s 1946 Mind at the End of Its Tether as his text, Trilling laments that in recent decades the study of literature has proceeded on the assumption “that literary works are not so readily accessible to the understanding as at first they might look to be.” Moreover, he turns up his nose at, although he does not seem to deign to understand them, the many theories and elaborate, sophisticated methods for the comprehension of literary works which he says have “tended to make literature seem an esoteric subject available only to expert knowledge.” As a result, Trilling says, literature has lost its profession—“We can therefore say that in our time the mind of a significant part of a once proud profession has come to the end of its tether.”

Indeed, the time when the profession of literature was the province of genial talkers and “well-educated” humanists and generalists like Trilling has come to an end. Edmund Husserl, not Matthew Arnold, is now the precedent to seek; and Jacques Derrida, not Edmund Wilson, is now the voice that commands respect in the literary academic marketplace. In all fairness to those critics who have developed elaborate and sophisticated theories, it must be said that they will never supplant the well-read amateur, the old-fashioned Arnoldian man of letters; such a critic will continue to be read by the general lay reader. They do hope to redeem the study of literature, however, from its dilettantish status and give to it the rigor and significance now given to the sciences.

In “Art, Will, and Necessity,” Trilling uses Harold Rosenberg’s book The De-Definition of Art and a recent essay in New Literary History by literary critic Robert Scholes as an excuse once again to lament, as does Rosenberg, the loss of the importance of will and necessity in contemporary art. Rosenberg says that art is being deprived of its redemptive power because the will has so far neutralized itself and that art is moving toward extinction. Scholes, one of the leading American proponents of French structuralism, admires the modern novel precisely because it has moved beyond the nineteenth century focus on individualism toward typification. Scholes admires such novelists as John Barth, Thomas Pynchon, John Fowles, and Robert Coover for their presentation of human life as a structure and pattern of events; Trilling laments the popularity of such writers because they indicate the loss of the nineteenth century sense of individual destiny.

Trilling’s criticism in this last collection seems an anachronism in the 1980’s atmosphere of structuralism and poststructuralism. The antagonism between Trilling and contemporary critics, however, stems from the basic difference between their view of art. Trilling, in the fragment of an autobiographical lecture that concludes The Last Decade, admits that his work in criticism comes from his initial interest in the novel and his desire to be a novelist; for he says he has always been less concerned with aesthetic questions and more concerned with moral questions, with questions of culture and history. Critical claims at least since Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren for the autonomy of literature, Trilling still feels are the result of a failure of sensibility.

Trilling was one of the last of the old-fashioned culture critics. This collection of final essays marks not only his final nostalgic look backward at the more spacious and tough-minded values of the nineteenth century, but perhaps also signals the swan song of such genial Arnoldian criticism in American letters, which is now so enamoured of the siren song of structuralism from France.

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