Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 708
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 works of art and culture. As a result, he drew on a number of different academic disciplines, such as history, philosophy, and psychology. He was especially curious as to how Sigmund Freud’s ideas about the mind might be applied to the study of literary works. While he had enormous respect for works of art, he thought that they were open to analysis using the vocabulary of the modern social sciences.
In The Liberal Imagination, Trilling articulates his stance as a critic heavily involved in determining the character of the age while assessing its roots in the past. In Beyond Culture, he extends his range by looking closely at the quality of American education. He is troubled by the way modern literature has been absorbed into the college curriculum, even though the producers of that literature had been against the institutionalization of knowledge. What will be the fate of the great modern works of literature in a setting that is itself conventionalized? Trilling seeks, in other words, to remind his readers (many of whom are academics) of the subversive value of literature which questions, rather than supports, the status quo. Implicit in Trilling’s argument is the notion that revolutionary ideas of modern literature should not be allowed to be domesticated. Somehow teachers have to give students a feel for the iconoclasm of art.
In “Some Notes for an Autobiographical Lecture,” Trilling explains how he first became engaged with Matthew Arnold and then how the example of Arnold turned Trilling toward the writing of an intellectual biography that was to have a profound impact on all of his criticism. In the beginning, Arnold represented the poet as the passive vehicle through which the stresses and strains of his culture get expressed. In the end, the poet became a rebel defiant of culture, someone who wanted to change it. That is also the kind of critic Trilling became: Never sure that literature, the teaching of literature, or the writing of literary criticism were self-justifying activities, he actively took on the point of view of society and argued for and against it. In an autobiographical lecture, Trilling calls his stance “novelistic,” by which he seems to mean that all of his assumptions have to be tested against experience and that ideas are not sacrosanct—they have no permanent truth—but must be constantly reevaluated in a changing environment. While many critics might echo Trilling’s sentiments, very few have embedded this novelistic imagination in their prose. Trilling’s work, read in its entirety, confirms that his views of literature and society continued to develop in response to the changing times.
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