Trilling, Lionel (Vol. 9)
Trilling, Lionel 1905–1975
Trilling, an American essayist, novelist, and short story writer, was one of the twentieth century's most influential critics. His criticism is humanistic and far-ranging, incorporating the concepts and techniques of sociology, psychology, history, philosophy, and political science into the study of literature. He wrote one novel, The Middle of the Journey. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 61-64.)
Each of Trilling's books represents a determination to redeem and enforce the values consecrated in such words as reason, mind, sincerity, pleasure, society, self, and criticism. Witness the attempt to speak up for mind in Beyond Culture, self in The Opposing Self, idea in The Liberal Imagination, virtue in The Middle of the Journey. A classic occasion was Trilling's defense of reason, maintained in Sincerity and Authenticity in direct opposition to the cult of madness as "the paradigm of authentic existence and cognition," one of the most dismal marks, incidentally, of our current ideology. Trilling's rhetorical method is to surround his god term with a halo as a mark of its presence in history and an indication that he means to assert its continuing validity despite the fact that the time is unpropitious. Sometimes he argues directly and trenchantly in favor of his god term, sometimes he draws upon its ancestral reverberations in the hope that these will be enough, and sometimes he recites the holy word as if it had never been desecrated…. [He] speaks up in behalf of mind, but he does not argue the case directly; rather he surrounds mind with a number of terms which have a familial likeness to mind, such terms as order, coherence, inclusiveness, and objectivity. Mind is to be known by the company it keeps and the objects it serves. Trilling recites these several terms as Arnold recited sweetness and light in Culture and Anarchy, hoping to make them persuasive by the radiance they bring to the entire scene. He … represents the life of mind in such terms that a reader of goodwill could not think of disavowing it. This is to say that Trilling approaches an ethic by way of an aesthetic: a thing is likely to be felt as good if it is felt as beautiful. Trilling is alive to the risk involved in this rhetoric; he has a fine ear for the hum and buzz of current feeling, and a gift for defining it, as in the conflict between Laskell and Maxim in The Middle of the Journey. But he is unyielding in his moral preferences. He does not permit the reader to construe mind in any other terms than those endorsed by order, coherence, objectivity, and inclusiveness; that is one part of his rhetorical verve. Gradually the reader comes to feel that values so graciously expounded must be splendid in themselves and that their failure in an ostensibly civilized society would be monstrous. (pp. 429-31)
Denis Donoghue, in Sewanee Review (reprinted. by permission of the editor, © 1974 by The University of the South), Summer, 1974.
[Lionel Trilling's] critical achievement is substantial but there has always been a discriminating restraint about it, so that though we could have wished for more book-length works, even more essays, we have to register appreciation of the absence of critical waffling or pudder. In the fictive realm Trilling's output has been even more fastidious—two haunting short stories and, like his fellow countryman, Allen Tate, a single 'classic' novel. The epithet in inverted commas I take from the jacket of the re-issue of The Middle of the Journey—a pardonable piece of publishers' usage—and it is worth looking at the novel in the light of the claim for its having acquired such a status in the 28 years since it was first published.
I read the book fairly soon after it came out in England but have never opened it again until now. My memory of it was that its novelistic apparatus corresponded to its intellectual depth; though beyond a conviction that the 'journey' of the title was not completely metaphorical I had forgotten all detail. How fallible literary remembrance is—and what increase in gumption the passing years (both of history and his own age) bring to the reader! Trilling's novel proves to be as measured and resourceful as his criticism. If there is any meaning in the phrase 'a born novelist' we can safely say that he is not one. The characterisation has been well thought out and is convincing, sometimes vivid, but we never really lose the sense of actors carefully dressed for their parts and of the technique governing their appearances and interlinkings and development. There are some Jamesian 'wonderfuls' and a Forsterian sudden death, but we are usually more conscious of the author's artistic concealment of the high names who have influenced him rather than of such influence being betrayed. A modestly Conradian repetition and subsequent elaboration of incidents of narration is perhaps the main feature of the story-telling….
This is a deeply intelligent and therefore, for me, thoroughly enjoyable work. Where it is vulnerable, it seems to me, is where the finally unadjudicated facts of history still cling to it. In the introduction written specially for this reissue, the author tells us that The Middle of the Journey was composed in 1946–47—a decade after the time in which the novel is set. He says, too:
From my first conception of it, my story was committed to history—it was to draw out some of the moral and intellectual implications of the powerful attraction to Communism felt by a considerable part of the American intellectual class during the Thirties and Forties….
[There] is an element of 'hindsight in the book's atmosphere, perhaps in the very setting—so far from all the features of the Thirties that made 'parlour radicalism' a term of abuse that in fact precisely fitted not many of those to whom now it might be unamiably applied. (p. 57)
Of course, one has no first-hand knowledge of the epoch as it appeared to a young intellectual New Yorker but, insofar as one can make any valid judgment, the historical nitty gritty in The Middle of the Journey seems rather pallid, not uncontrived—somewhat burked, it could be said. (pp. 57-8)
Trilling's view of the novel in general expressed in The Liberal Imagination, critical writing roughly contemporaneous with his own novel, would predispose him to precision in matters of social organisation and morality (as against the American drive to fantasy about the social outcast), and indeed his attention to this pays several good dividends. The social classes in the Connecticut village and their varied reactions to the visiting New Yorkers—this is well done, though the effort of doing it is somewhat apparent and shows how difficult a novel of this kind can be for Americans. (It may well become—if it hasn't already become—just as difficult for us; on account of the English process, already tagged in The Liberal Imagination, of 'the middle class … in the process of liquidating itself'.)
In 1955 I reviewed (for the London Magazine) Trilling's collection of literary essays The Opposing Self. Having reread The Middle of the Journey I thought I would look at the later book again (I had reviewed it favourably) to see how it stood up. In my notice I had found that:
The great interest of Trilling's book (apart from its numerous purely literary generalisations and aperc, us) is in the ideas which interconnect all the essays—the ideas of the opposition of the modern writer's self to his society and of his ideal aim nevertheless to project the experience of art 'into the actuality and totality of life as the ideal form of the moral life'.
It may be an indication of Trilling's deepening influence over the last twenty years that one takes this neo-Arnoldian view rather for granted and finds the 'great interest' of The Opposing Self more in those 'literary generalisations and aperçus'. My notes the second time round almost all referred to pages unnoted on first reading—a tribute to Trilling's fertility rather than my own progress! Quite profound, for example the passages in the essay on Wordsworth referring to Eliot's The Cocktail Party and Wordsworth's insistence on 'being', the play denying the 'beatitude', even at low levels, which Wordsworth regarded as the human birthright. I quote a few lines:
I think it can be shown that every tragic literature owes its power to the high esteem in which it holds the common routine, and the sentiment of being which arises from it, the elemental given of biology.
Fully to appreciate that has come to me only through recent experience undergone and poems written. (pp. 58-9)
Roy Fuller, "Trilling at 70," in The New Review (© The New Review Ltd., 11 Greek Street, London W1V 5LE), April, 1975, pp. 57-9.
The Middle of the Journey … was originally published in 1947, making ([Trilling] tells us in a new introduction) little impact at the time, but gathering something of a reputation as it became more widely read and known. Judged from a literary point of view now that it has been re-issued, one can admire its quiet, mature style, its sudden flashes of intense feeling, its professional capability in stimulating interest while not pretending that anything more dramatic than dawning awareness is likely to happen. For my taste, Trilling is too direct a writer, almost as if he had not quite achieved the leap from the discursive, explicit language of criticism to the world of inferences, the language of the unspoken, which we associate with the novel. Any thought, feeling or motive which affects a character, particularly the hero, John Laskell, is immediately set down on the page….
In the course of a fine essay, 'Manners, Morals and the Novel', Trilling once remarked that in novels, whether they be those of Homer, Dickens or Proust, it is manners that make men. He offered this thrust out of an argument advanced by Henry James that what American novels and novelists lacked by comparison with English ones was what America lacked by comparison with England—a 'thick social texture' of palaces, churches, manor houses, thatched cottages, sporting classes, precise social codes, strong formal conventions…. Trilling only spasmodically achieves that 'thick social texture' in The Middle of the Journey, so that one is frequently aware of his characters as embodiments of certain attitudes, as pieces in a complex game where the aim is to marry ideological attitudes to their correct emotional affinities.
One explanation for this may be that The Middle of the Journey is—or became in the course of writing, as Trilling explains in his new introduction—partly a roman a clef, in which the character Gifford Maxim represented that Dostoievskyan ex-communist and professional apostate, Whittaker Chambers, the man who denounced Alger Hiss…. Anyway, that's another story, Hiss versus Chambers, and the reader will find no clue to it in The Middle of the Journey, not even in the character of Gifford Maxim.
David Caute, "Summer People," in New Statesman (© 1975 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), April 11, 1975, p. 486.
[Lionel Trilling's] life moved centrally through a number of the key transactions of a vigorous intellectual generation that has greatly shaped our thoughts about ourselves…. [After political activism in the 1930s] he began to move more deeply and committedly into literature, not as an escape from politics, but in pursuit of a deeper politics, a more inward view of ideology.
The word he attached to this motion was liberalism, which he defined in a brilliant opening chapter to his book on E. M. Forster. Here he presents liberalism as a full encounter with the intractability its own progressive passions create—the agent of a moral realism which 'is not only the awareness of morality itself, but of the contradictions, paradoxes and dangers of living the moral life'. It was to Matthew Arnold and Forster that he turned for his first two books, and you can see the threads that link him tightly to them. But Trilling's wasn't quite a liberalism in the English vein. He was metropolitan Jewish; his interests were cosmopolitan, political, expansive and concerned with the evolution of minds in literature as a process moving towards 'the modern self-consciousness and the modern self-pity'. Culture was an obsessive term in his thinking, and it was culture split and self-opposing in a modern world in which Freud was the high power. Literature was bound in an intimate politics of culture; it was a liberal imagination; liberal, he said, was 'a word primarily of political import, but its political meaning defines itself by the quality of life it envisages, by the sentiments it desires to affirm'….
A key part of Trilling's effort was to recreate the public, political meaning of the novel form, the form, he said in 'Art and Fortune', 'that provides the perfect criticism of ideas by attaching them to their appropriate actuality'. It was also an effort to reach into the roots of the modern mind, as it evolved through romanticism into modernism. Trilling appeals to a way of talking about this not only as a stylistic but as an intellectual and cultural development that impinged profoundly on to our most intimate selves, our marriages, our family lives, our friendships. 'My own interests,' he said in his essay 'The Modern Element in Modern Literature', where he presents his anxieties about teaching the modern abyss as an historical event for simple contemplation,
led me to see literary situations as cultural situations, and cultural situations as great elaborate fights about moral issues, and moral issues as having something to do with gratuitously chosen images of personal being, and images of personal being as having something to do with literary style.
The moral realism he spoke for came from this; it was a preference for a controlling sanity of mind; like Saul Bellow and other Jewish writers of the Fifties, he made the claim for a sane, a culturally central romanticism, liberal in cast, which understood the apocalyptic and the adversary but was not drawn in beyond sanity. It was attracted by 'the scent of utopia in men and governments' but capable of seeing pluralistically; it was drawn by that opposing element which prevents us from dying in submission to our culture, yet valued the capacity of reason to mediate between self and culture.
The book that pulls all this together is his novel The Middle of the Journey…. It is a profoundly subtle work, and while it belongs in line with the great liberal novels of the past, back through Isherwood and Forster to George Eliot, it faces head-on the encounter with the modern revolutionary imperative and the urgent claim of History, that long corridor, flanked by the twin images of Human Suffering and Political Power, in which Gifford Maxim stands, on the way to the moral future. Against that, Trilling sets other romantic imperatives: death, the self-knowledge it commends, the requirements it makes on a life. This does not reject politics—it claims that a good politics is a politics of whole persons….
Trilling's was a mind bounded by culture and history, as all minds are; the problem was to distil from that secular and limiting state an energy and moral purpose. His ideal novel entered society, and discriminated between its appearances and its realities; his ideal mind did the same and applied reason to inevitable alienation. You do this in time and it doesn't always help that you do. There are moral futures that beckon and utopias to lift you. Trilling spoke for caution on their virtuous claims. He saw reason working in a finite world, and he knew—as Laskell, through his childish illness in The Middle of the Journey, knew—that things started and finished. Now his career is ended and in later days he felt considerable sourness. He leaves behind a longer question, which is whether the modern liberalism he appeals to is itself going to transcend its historical moment, or also, at a certain point, sourly finish.
Malcolm Bradbury, "Lionel Trilling: End of the Journey," in New Statesman (© 1975 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), November 14, 1975, p. 619.
In his introduction to ["Of This Time, Of That Place"] in his anthology, The Experience of Literature, Trilling explains his own conception of its primary purpose, which is to "present the sad irony of a passionate devotion to the intellectual life maintained by a person of deranged mind."… It was, essentially, to be the story of Tertan. But Tertan, the mad student who gives the story its essential structural and thematic unity, is not the primary character whose story this becomes. It is Howe, narrator and professor, whose moral dilemma elevates the story to nearly tragic proportions.
The dramatic situation of the story is relatively simple; it explores the relationship between a young professor of literature and his brilliant but mentally ill student. Through the ironies in their relationship, the underlying themes, far bigger than either Tertan or Howe, emerge. "Of This Time, Of That Place," undertakes to explore the relationships between art and life, between subjectivity and objectivity. These two basic themes are each represented by intermediary issues in the story, and finally connected to each other by specific characters and situations. The result is a surprisingly elaborate structure—surprising because Trilling is handling themes better suited to the novel genre, but without the sense of incompletion or awkwardness that might be expected in a short story—developed through a carefully crafted network of symbols, heavily overlaid with intense dramatic irony. The conflict of science and morality is the intermediary vehicle used to present the first thematic consideration, the problem of subjectivity versus objectivity. Science and morality are placed in polar opposition to each other, and remain irreconcilable throughout the story. Science is equated with both reason and inhumanity, morality with emotion and humanity. The relationships between the issues are all necessarily negative, and in that fact lies the bitterest irony of the story. To follow reason is to turn against feeling in the small but intense universe of the story. Science is the villain, totally correct but abominably immoral. The relationship that should be able to reconcile the paradox—the relationship between Howe and Tertan—fails miserably. Howe, the subjective and emotional poet, must betray Tertan by using the objective verdict of science. The interplay in the roles of Howe and Tertan becomes symbolic not only of the larger issues of the story, but of the connections and disjunctions among those issues. Compromise is not permitted; opposition through paradox is the only norm.
The story opens and closes with a camera scene. The apparently irrelevant camera becomes a major symbol…. In [the] first representation, we see the camera as benign and simple. There is no reason to fear it. It is surely "an instrument of precision," as Tertan later calls it, but it still requires human judgment to aid it in its work. There is no mention of the camera again until the end; but in the meantime, Howe and Tertan have met and interacted, loved and struggled, and Howe has betrayed the mad Tertan. Howe's alliance with science has been unwilling, but inevitable; and he has more than a little disgust for his own decision, made on behalf of objective facts. (pp. 1-2)
The camera that was simple and harmless at the beginning of the story became, by the end, a symbol of the cold indifference of science. But it is not only the "precision" of science, and its mathematical indifference, that the camera represents; it is also symbolic of the inaccuracy of science, or at least of its lack of discrimination. The appearance of the camera is deceptive. It is not as correct and precise as it looks. Its "precision" is actually rather sloppy, but it does look impressive. Similarly, the facts of science that condemn Tertan as a madman and grant a Blackburn the sanction and sanctuary of legal sanity, are really imprecise. It is not that science is mistaken, and that Tertan is really sane; Trilling is aware that this mistake in interpretation might be made, and he cautions in his commentary that "nothing, I fear, can reverse the diagnosis of Tertan's illness."… Rather, Blackburn is also quite insane, but in a more subtle and insidious, and therefore less perceptible, way. The "instruments of precision" make no mistake about Tertan, whose aberration is glaring, but totally pass over the more vicious and harmful disease of Blackburn. Hilda's camera takes a decent picture, but misses the subtle discriminations of light and shade that the sympathetic human eye can perceive.
Howe in his role as poet and teacher, and Tertan as ironic counterpart to Howe as poet, lay the basic framework for Trilling's exploration of the other major theme, the relationship between art and life. The vehicle for exploring the theme is a discussion of the role of poet in society. (pp. 3-4)
It is through his position as a poet of "precious subjectivism" that Howe's deepest and most ironic connection with the mad Tertan must be viewed. Howe himself never fully realizes why he feels such an intense bond with Tertan, such guilt when he turns his back. He only knows that he feels, inexplicably, unreasonably, far out of proportion to any rational explanations. But the parallels are inescapable, and even Howe cannot completely ignore them. Howe has been accused of a kind of madness himself; he has been branded as a danger to the world of literature because his work has no useful connection to the real. But nobody will lock Howe away in a white-walled room for his "disease." His "madness" may earn him professional disapproval, but little else. Tertan, on the other hand, has an illness that does permit society and science to cart him away. In a different time and place, under different circumstances, Tertan would be allowed to babble incoherently (and freely) for the rest of his life, and Howe would be incarcerated. But the accident of time and place lets Howe go free (as it should; he is not really mad at all) and also allows him to be the authority that calls attention to Tertan (as he perhaps must; Tertan really is mad). (p. 5)
As Trilling uses a network of camera symbolism in his representation of the science-morality problem, he uses clothes symbolically in the representation of the art-life theme. Howe carries his doctoral hood and gown proudly: "There were the weightly and absurd symbols of his new profession, and they pleased him."… The significance is understated. Trilling has been examining the role of the poet in society, and the gown is an unmistakeable symbol of the academic and intellectual side of Howe's professional life. Howe is engaged in the process of trying to integrate himself emotionally and intellectually, to decide on his role, and then defend it to himself and others. And although he does not like to think of himself as a willfully obscure poet, his chosen route is undeniably one detached from the modern social context. The description of the decorous absurdity of the doctoral hood reasserts this: "Howe carried his voluminous gown over his arm, he swung his doctoral hood by its purple neckpiece, and on his head he wore his mortarboard with its heavy gold tassel bobbing just over his eye."… Nothing could be more divorced from context, of time if not place. Tertan, whose dress of "shabby formality" has elsewhere singled him out from his contemporaries, is present in the final camera scene where Howe is wearing his gown and Hilda is doing a "character study" in light and shade. Tertan is also ridiculously dressed, "in a panama hat … [and] a suit of raw silk, luxurious but yellowed."… Howe is ironically unaware of the silliness of his pity for Tertan, as he looks at him through an eye covered by an absurd, bobbing tassel. (pp. 6-7)
The question becomes, of course, at whose door must the tragedy of Tertan (or of Howe, for that matter) be laid? Trilling offers no real answers to this or any of the other questions he raises. He connects and connects, but always in negative terms, always with irony. And yet, even caught in an inescapable dilemma, Howe has grown and developed. Even if there are no answers, the issues of art and life, subjectivity and objectivity, brought together in desperately personal connection for one man, have at least made him aware of the question. That is perhaps more than most men experience. And that is far more than most short stories dare to ask.
The idea that gives the story its title—the accident of time and place—does not answer any of the questions, but does make the reasons for the problems clearer, while intensifying the irony. The chance of time and place have brought Tertan and Howe together. The element of time, in particular, pervades the story; Howe feels he must keep Tertan's secret for a somehow important time; time has brought about the changes in circumstances, created the juxtapositions, increased Hilda's camera equipment. If penicillin had been invented, Mr. Alving wouldn't have had a venereal disease. And so on and on. Most important, the particular irony of the art/life, science/morality dilemma is a largely temporal one. Tertan is mad and would be mad in any time and place, as we meet him at the beginning of the story. But his context may have created his madness; or, in another time, his madness would be regarded as harmless, and Howe would have had no weighty decision to make. (It is DeWitt's argument again, turned back on itself.) The science of the time captures the Tertans and lets the Blackburns go by, or even creates them. And the time stresses the poignancy of the predicament of the poet's role in society, makes him a slave to science. It is the time that demands such connections between life and art, and yet maintains a distorted hour, scientifically incorrect, in "academic time" (It lacks ten whole minutes.). The problems raised here will all continue to recur, shaped and shaded by the particular context, but always continued in another generation of cameras and gowns, madmen and poets. (pp. 7-8)
Diana L. George, "Thematic Structure in Lionel Trilling's 'Of This Time, of That Place'," in Studies In Short Fiction (copyright 1976 by Newberry College), Winter, 1976, pp. 1-8.
With the exception of Edmund Wilson, Lionel Trilling was the most influential literary critic in America these past few decades. By "influential" I mean something simple: that a critic's essays be read by a public extending beyond the limits of the academy. (p. 29)
Trilling, while often performing superbly as an interpreter of texts, was not read primarily for literary guidance. His influence had to do with that shaded area between literature and social opinion, literature and morality; he kept returning to "our" cultural values, "our" premises of conduct, for he was intent upon a subtle campaign to transform the dominant liberalism of the American cultivated classes into something richer, more quizzical and troubled than it had become during the years after World War II. One way of saying this may be that he sought to melt ideological posture into personal sensibility.
Trilling's intellectual adversaries—among whom, in earlier years, I was one—felt that his work had come to serve as a veiled justification for increasingly conservative moods among American intellectuals. (pp. 29-30)
[Perhaps] it was … true, as some of us felt at the time, that Trilling was providing, not a rationale for a new conservatism, but an inducement for a conservatized liberalism. Nor did he always make it easy for those of us attracted by his wonderful essays to acquiesce readily in the values they advanced. His grave elegance of style, his disinclination toward polemic, his use of uncomfortable terms like "will," "spirit," "sentiment of being"—all these were disturbing in one or another way, making us uneasy in our admiration.
Yet, as I now think back to the years in which Trilling did his major work, I cannot really believe that his conservatism, real or alleged, was the major reason for his influence. What drew serious readers to his work was something else which, at the risk of seeming perverse, I want to call a "radical" approach to culture.
In an age which had yielded to a host of determinisms and virtually took it for granted that literature constitutes some sort of "reflection" of a fixed and given external reality, Trilling believed passionately—and taught a whole generation also to believe—in the power of literature, its power to transform, elevate….
The contrast could hardly be stronger than between [his] belief in the autonomy and originating power of the literary imagination and tendency of some modern critics to see "the text" as inert material to be worked upon or, still more alarming, worked up. Like other human beings, Trilling had his weaknesses, mostly for mannerism, but he never succumbed to mere methodology. When his mind began to work, when his engagement with a novel or poem was spontaneous and strong, there occurred for many readers an experience of opening and enlargement, what T. S. Eliot has called "the full surprise and elevation of a new experience of poetry." Trilling would circle a work with his fond, nervous wariness, as if in the presence of some force, some living energy, which could not always be kept under proper control—indeed, as if he were approaching an elemental power. The work came alive and therefore was changeable, alive and therefore was never quite knowable, alive and therefore could even threaten the very desires and values that first made us approach it. (p. 30)
Circling that living presence we call a novel or poem, never forgetting that it was a shadowed embodiment of a man or a woman's imagination, Trilling would try to connect with it through the strategems of reason. What other strategems does a critic have? Yet what he also responded to most deeply was the possibility of surprise, even of the demonic. Utterly civilized, he kept looking beneath civilization. (pp. 30-1)
Trilling's deep absorption with Freud must have had its source in … the sense that Freud recognized, as almost no one else in our time has, the power of imagination to go beyond the routines of mimesis, to startle and terrify us with all that it might bring up. Just as Freud saw the role of the analyst as that of a mediator in the battle between what we have made of ourselves and what we have made it from, so Trilling would turn toward a work of literature, attentive to its modes of order and strategies of control but also on the lookout for the unexpected. Freud was probably the single greatest influence on Trilling's work….
It was the sense, then, that Trilling spoke for the imperilled autonomy of our life—for the large possibilities of our private selves and the dangers and betrayals which the modern obsession with self has brought—it was this, I think, that explains the hold he had upon his readers. (p. 31)
Irving Howe, "Continuous Magical Confrontation," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1976 by The New Republic, Inc.), March 13, 1976, pp. 29-31.
The death of Lionel Trilling brings an inevitable pause to literary discourse. For twenty-five years his voice has been compellingly persuasive, inviting people of liberal imagination to join with him in explorations of the life of the mind. It can be said of him what he once said of Edmund Wilson, that "he seemed to represent the life of letters in an especially cogent way, by reason of the orderliness of his mind and the bold lucidity of his prose." (p. 302)
Trilling's own style reveals much of his intellectual persuasions. It circles cautiously around the truth it seeks, tentatively, even hesitatingly, a step forward here, then sideways, or perhaps a movement backward, but ever circling closer and closer with a quick eye and with a rhythm and grace of movement which certifies competence and insures success. His dialectic suggests that, yes, of course, some one observation is precisely true, but that this other also requires profound consideration, so that, taken together, and joined with other facts, and with other assumptions intervening, they finally reach a conclusion which his verbal dexterity guarantees indestructible.
There are few green fields, little "impulse from the vernal wood," in Trilling's graceful persuasions toward intimacies with the cluttered moral landscape of literature. Confined to urbanity, in a cultural metropolis which talked with profound excitement about the fragmented world within and without its gates, he meticulously and with conciliatory quiet compassion reminded "the talkative and agonizing present" that some of what are called truths may be thought of as eternal, even venturing to join John Keats in reminding them that there is something even more important than poetry, "that an eagle is not so fine a thing as truth." (pp. 302-03)
It may be that we will best remember a younger Lionel Trilling who assured us that the "idea of unconditioned spirit is of course a very old one, but we are probably the first people to think of it as a realistic possibility and to make that possibility part of our secret assumption." He went on after that, of course, to superimpose mind upon spirit, but the secret assumption has in many of us prevailed. For it is the spirit of Lionel Trilling which lives on—his sweetness, grace, compulsive high seriousness and compassion, his insistence that mind can matter, and that literature can feed mind and make possible the luxury of the discovery of self. This is his legacy, which we receive with gratitude, hoping that we can invest it well. (p. 304)
Lewis Leary, "Lionel Trilling 1905–1975," in Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor, © 1976 by The University of the South), Spring, 1976, pp. 302-04.