Speaking of Literature and Society

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 15)

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...

(The entire section is 850 words.)