The Last Decade

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 15)

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.

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....

(The entire section is 2209 words.)