The best defense of Lionel Trilling that I have read -- and Trilling needs defenders at a time when he is routinely patronized if not ignored -- is Adam Kirsch's new book,. Why Trilling Matters (Yale University Press).
Trilling's The Liberal Imagination (1950), a gathering of essays on subjects ranging from Scott Fitzgerald to Freud, from Huckleberry Finn to the Kinsey Report, is that rare miscellany whose individual parts are so brilliant, so illuminating of larger isues, and so unified in spirit and style that it constitutes, or rather intimates, an attitude and an ideal that the reader feels he or she must contend with.
Trilling exemplifiies an ideal of self-criticism. One thesis informing the essays is that liberalism is the reigning ideology of the day and that a true affirmation of the liberal ideal would include a criticism of its shortcomings. Adam Kirsch has a compelling discussion of Trilling's statement that "We of the liberal connection have always liked to play the old intellectual game of antagonistic principles," All the terms here -- including the "famous Trilling We," so strkingly different from the novelist's egocentric "I" -- require and get ample discussion here.
Kirsch, paraphrasing and endorsing Trilling, writes, "the right-thinking liberal tends to divide the world into two opposed camps, politically, morally, and socially, and to be sure that he is always on the right side." If you are correct theoretically, it does not quite matter how things work out in practice. Your certainty that you are right means that you, in Kirsch's words, do "not have to concern [yourself] with all the ways good can produce bad, thorough unintended consequences, or unacknowlged motives, or fanatical zeal."
Kirsch writes clearly and well on the inevitable subjects that come up when critics consider the Columbia professor's career: Trilling and Jewishness; Trilling and Freud; Trilling's relation to his famous student Allen Ginsberg; Trilling's novel "The Middle of the Journey," in which one of the characters is based on the author's former classmate Whittaker Chambers; why Trilling chose to write about Keats, Wordsworth, Austen, Henry James, Matthew Arnold, E. M. Forster rather than about the major modernist masters (Joyce, Proust, Dostoyevsk, Mann, Kafka, T. S. Eliot).
Here are a few sentences I checked in Kirsch's book: "It is significant that, for Trilling, the opposite of the knowledge of evil is not the knowledge of good, but knowledge of the self."
If it is as easy to enjoy a difficult composer (Morton Feldman) as the Beatles, that is because "the nature of the experience has changed: art is no longer the medium through which the self defines itself, but an object of consumption. The mataphor of taste already implies that the purpose of the work of art is to be consumed, which also means consumed away, used up and gotten rid of."
Trilling had a certain humility. If the recognition that his work received was "a victory," he felt it was one that took place in the "larger circumstances of defeat." He was, as Kirsch writes, prescient in understanding our cultural predicament. His subtle intelligence enacts itself in his very syntax. Trilling's sentences are full of characteristic qualifications. This is not a mere mannerism. Rather what informs the least of his sentences is the conviction Trilling shares with Keats -- that "an eagle is not so fine a thing as a truth."
How good it is to have a corrective to the view that Trilling no longer need concern us. Writers have scored off Trilling because they sense something "oppressive" in his work ("We can't help feeling that we should be improved by Trilkling, and this feeling is itself inevitably opporessive"). There has also been a steady stream of curious ad hominem dismissals ("he was depressive, he had writer's block, and he drank too much") There are reasons that Trilling, in his pedagogy no less than in his writing, had so profound an effect on those of us who were lucky enough to work closely with him at Columbia. If you want a brief introduction to this remarkable thinker and eminent professor, read Kirsch's book -- and then go straight to the source and read "The Liberal Imagination," "The Opposing Self," "Beyond Culture," and "Of This Time, Of That Place." -- DL