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New Trilling Essay the Talk of the Town

Lionel Trilling 2The emergence of a previously unknown and uncharacteristically fiery essay by Lionel Trilling is all the buzz in intellectual circles. Our stringers at far-flung campuses report the excitement at faculty clubs and academic production centers where Trilling's essays in criticism, particularly those written between 1940 and his death in 1975, command a respect accorded to few contemporaries, not because he had a penchant for oracular pronouncements (he did not) but because of the nuanced style of exposition in his writing, which reflected a mind of immense subtlety, irony, and complexity. By indirections he found directions out.

The reputation for what champions admired as subtlety (and detractors considered coyness) may change with the posthumous appearance of an essay Trilling was said to have begun in 1967 but never completed to his satisfaction. The essay's working title was "I Hate the Liberals." Victor Mathis, the archivist who discovered the draft in Trilling's papers, insisted that marginal handwritten comments in the legendary Columbia prof's distinctive script imply "that this jest was a place-holder for an ultimate title along the lines of 'The Liberal Dilemma in an Age of Economic Decline'."

That Trilling, author of "The Liberal Imagination," had commenced on an essay critical of New York City Mayor John V. Lindsay and of what was vulgarly known as "limousine liberalism," a phrase Trilling dissects, made news wherever talking heads shmooze. "It's like an intellectual version of Tom Wolfe's outing of Leonard Bernstein's black panther party as 'radical chic'," said Jenna Clauss of the Brookings Institute. Marvin Murdeck of the McLuhan School of Public Information emphasized that the title, though evidently a joke Trilling enjoyed, was "deliberately reductive of his thoughts on the whole question of political hypocrisy among union-smashing NIMBY elites who are incredibly full of shit but should not be caricatured nevertheless."

I like poetryHandmade signs declaring "I Hate the Liberals" (or variants, including celebrations of poetry as the antithesis of sociological claptrap, have sprung up in affluent parts of Ann Arbor, Madison, Colorado Springs, Ithaca, Providence, Rhode Island, and Evanston, Illinois. Some say this is happening in the spirit of a joke. "It's post-modernism, man," said Josh Lucas, a freshperson at Northwestern, who has not yet declared a major but is leaning toward sociology. But there are those who see in the outpouring of anti-liberal sentiment the hyperbolic release of impulses long repressed. Professor Leon Elson, the Hayte-Ashbery Professor of Applied Kenesiology at Florida Ache, compares the "I Hate the Liberals" fad with people screaming out the windows, "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take this any more." Elson's point: "It's not so much a matter of art following life, or life following art, but life following life, and art, art, depending on how you define it."

from the archive; March 31, 2011.

Professor Trilling, asked to comment for the record, replied with this link but said he was of "mixed minds, because of the implicit inaccuracy in the record of any correspondence between two persons, neither of whom is alive." The court decided in favor of the plaintiff, who affirmed his belief in the "irony of circumstance," as he termed it, and a distrust of any idea that, if stated flat out, could be construed as signifying both itself and its opposite. "You know, Fitzgerald was right about consciousness," he said to me one afternoon, sneaking a cigarette. -- DL


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I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
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ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
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as I enter
in the dark


from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman

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