“Life in Culture: Selected Letters of Lionel Trilling” edited by Adam Kirsch— Letters of a Life

Kirsch, Adam, editor. “Life in Culture: Selected Letters of Lionel Trilling”, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2018.

Letters of a Life

Amos Lassen

I often wonder how our world will change now that written letters are a thing of the past for so many. We have learned about our history and society from the letters that were written over time and in most cases these letters were carefully thought out before pen was put to paper. We write emails as we write memos in most cases and the art of letter writing has fallen by the wayside. We still have the letters of the great literary critic, Lionel Trilling and we still have the wonderful Adam Kirsch to edit them.

With Trilling’s letters we get to see him argue with himself and as a liberal arts graduate of the 60s, I doubt that two days passed when I was at college without some reference to Trilling. He was a man who wrote powerful essays that were inspiring. Because of what Trilling had to say, we were influenced to think about how literature shapes our politics, our culture, and ourselves. He was at the center of the period of time that became known as the age of criticism. We got the impression from his essays that he was somewhat reserved and highly circumspect. However, in this collection of selected letters, we see him as diverse and complex. We read of his love for Diana Trilling, who would become an eminent intellectual in her own right; we learn of his “alternately affectionate and contentious rapport with former students such as Allen Ginsberg and Norman Podhoretz;” (could it have been any other way?). He writes about the complicated politics of Partisan Review and other fabled magazines of that period; and we become very aware of his relationships with other writers of the period, including Saul Bellow, Edmund Wilson, and Norman Mailer.

Taking all of the letters together, we see an intimate portrait of the man and the critic as well as the intellectual journey of America from the 1930s until his death in 1975. I cannot tell you enough how much I enjoyed reading these letters that have been so beautifully edited by Adam Kirsch.

Letters often give us the man behind the public face and they also provide a historical background and context to what the author was writing about. They are also full of surprises. In his letters to the woman who was to become Mrs. Trilling, Diana, we see the man’s vulnerability and love as well as self-doubts (he shared them with her but not to others). to her as he usually didn’t to others. I love that Trilling wrote about problems that we still struggle with today (see his letter about the use of the “n” word in “Huckleberry Finn”. By reading these letters, we see how people thought just fifty years ago and how it differs from how we think today.

Editor Kirsch focused on the letters about what engaged his mind, (often politics) and the issues that mattered to liberals in New York City in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s. In the letters, we can see real historical events unfolding in real time. Something else we see is his Jewish background, although he kept it at arm’s length, he never hid that he was Jewish, but he didn’t want to be labeled a Jewish writer. (I had a wonderful college professor, Rima Drell Reck, who never mentioned her Judaism, yet I could feel it when she spoke. One year I brought her latkes at Chanukah and it was amazing to see her return, if just for a short while, to Judaism).

Kirsch tells us that Trilling was definitely on the left, and interested in writing about deficiencies of the left. He wanted to explore the unexamined assumptions at a time when liberalism was o the rise. It is the opposite today and there is no way to guess what he would say.

Trilling wrote at least 600 letters a year (Trilling’s by own estimation) of which we get 270. Trilling needed his space, and because of it, the reader is rewarded by his engagement in literature and culture. He was often “enormously impressed” as well as very much against. He was generous to those needing his help, and outspoken honesty throughout. For those qualities alone, the letters are well worth reading but there is so much more.

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