Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 850
Speaking of Literature and Society is the twelfth and last volume in the Uniform Edition of the Works of Lionel Trilling. This posthumous volume, edited by Diana Trilling, collects some fifty-eight pieces written between 1924 and 1968. Book reviews predominate; there are also a few critical essays, lectures, introductions, and the like. The volume concludes with Diana Trilling’s fine memoir, “Lionel Trilling: A Jew at Columbia.”
Occasional pieces such as these—especially the reviews, which make up the bulk of the volume—undergo metamorphosis over the years. They are read today, if at all, not for their ostensible subjects but for what they tell about the development of Trilling’s thought. Interest has shifted from the book reviewed to the reviewer.
Reading these pieces which span more than forty years, one is struck by Trilling’s consistent virtues: humane intelligence, erudition leavened by common sense, ability to learn from opposing points of view. These qualities—conspicuously absent from much contemporary criticism—are more impressive than any change in perspective which can be traced through the forty-odd years. One comes to this volume already knowing that Trilling became, in his late years, increasingly skeptical toward the claims of Modernism, which he had in the past so vigorously argued. In a review of Fyodor Dostoevski’s short novels (“A Comedy of Evil,” 1961), there is a passage worth quoting at length, because it sets out with great clarity the intellectual and spiritual conflict which informs Beyond Culture and indeed all of Trilling’s major work in the 1960’s and the 1970’s:It is eighty years since Dostoyevsky died, and in that time his appalling perceptions have been made into the common coin of modern literature. Any number of writers of the avant garde, from Henry Miller and Samuel Beckett down, have appropriated some part of his vision and have been understood and approved by Mademoiselle, Harper’s Bazaar, and Esquire. But at the time Dostoyevsky wrote, before his epigoni were born, his subversion of traditional morality and religion was not a chic but a revelation, and the more because it affirmed as much as it subverted, because it made the spiritual life—we might almost say the personal life—what it had not been for a long time, an adventure.
There was no “solution” to the conflict set out here. As the 1960’s progressed, Trilling had ever more reason to remark the strange supermarket nihilism, yet he never denied the genuinely liberating force of Modernism. Holding opposing truths in tension, he was characteristically honest, ready to admit perplexity.
A retrospective collection of occasional essays offers no great surprises, no striking new angles of approach, but there are modest insights to be gained. Particularly interesting in this volume is Trilling’s recurring affirmation of the value of pride. More often than not, “pride” is a pejorative term, but Trilling often speaks with frank admiration of the “strong pride” of a confident person. Trilling’s admiration for pride is another evidence of his realism and fundamental common sense. Pride implies conflict and competition, which many advocates of self-realization do not want to admit into their universe. One of the brilliant reviews in this collection is Trilling’s criticism of Karen Horney (“The Progressive Psyche,” 1942), whose sentimental vision he contrasts with the psychology of Sigmund Freud, who presents man with “the terrible truth of his own nature.”
Indeed, Trilling’s concept of healthy pride is the keynote of his reviews of Ernest Jones’s three volumes on the life of Freud (“The Formative Years,” 1953; “The Years of Maturity,” 1955; “Last Years of a Titan,” 1957). These reviews, in which Trilling considers the life of his acknowledged master, bring him to a real eloquence. Freud’s pride, he says, was “the secret of his moral being. He had the passionate egoism, the intense pride that we call Titanic... . His own egoism led him to recognize and respect the egoism of others.” The same note is sounded in essays on Leon Trotsky (“his pride is, I think, his chief claim upon our sympathy”), James Joyce (in which Joyce is likened to Freud), and others.
Given this emphasis on pride, it is particularly interesting to read in Diana Trilling’s memoir about “the single most decisive move” of Trilling’s life: fired by the English department at Columbia University in 1936, he confronted the faculty members whom he knew best—and with a most uncharacteristic aggressiveness—he “told them that they were getting rid of a person who would one day bring great distinction to their department; they would not easily find another as good.” He was right, of course, but “for the rest of his life,” Diana Trilling says, “he would recur to this deeply uncharacteristic moment,” speculating on what had caused it and why it worked—because it did work, and having said that he was that good, he became that good. A “miracle,” his wife calls it, his confusions over his dissertation “seemed overnight to vanish,” and soon it was his first book, Matthew Arnold, which would later be reissued in the Uniform Edition of the Works of Lionel Trilling.
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