Trilling, Lionel. “Life in Culture: Selected Letters of Lionel Trilling” edited by Adam Kirsch, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018.
There was a time in my life when, as a graduate student, when each day began and ended with the words of Lionel Trilling. I would read something about him every morning and would do the same before I went to sleep. He was everyman’s intellectual and we cared about what he had to say.
In the mid-twentieth century, Lionel Trilling was America’s most respected literary critic. His essays inspired readers to think about how literature shapes our politics, our culture, and our selves. Trilling’s New York intellectual peers saw him as reserved and circumspect. But in his selected letters, we see Trilling revealed in all his variousness and complexity. We read of his courtship of Diana Trilling, who became an eminent intellectual in her own right; his alternately affectionate and contentious rapport with former students such as Allen Ginsberg and Norman Podhoretz; the complicated politics of Partisan Review and other fabled magazines of the period; and Trilling’s relationships with other leading writers of the period, including Saul Bellow, Edmund Wilson, and Norman Mailer.
Taken as a whole, Trilling’s letters add up to an intimate portrait of a great critic, and of America’s intellectual journey from the political passions of the 1930s to the cultural conflicts of the 1960s and beyond. Trilling was a great critic’s who quarreled with himself and others, as we discover in his correspondence.
The letters to Allen Ginsberg are wonderful and we can only imagine what kind of relationship they had. The letters are not just letters, each is something of an essay about something. We get intimate glimpses of Trilling’s continuous self-appraisal. Trilling’s letters are “a captivating portrait of a man wrestling with roles essential to his sense of himself: as a teacher, a liberal, a Jew and a critic.” The letters offer persuasive testimony that the contradictions Trilling discovered within himself acted as a basis for his achievement, with a result that was far from sterile or perfect.
Of course, a lot has to do with the letters that Adam Kirsch selected to be included here. They shed light not just on Trilling but on American intellectual culture from the 1920s to the 1970s. It is amazing to reach the conclusion of about the son of Jewish immigrants came to play such a central role in American literary life. Trilling shows us that hard work pays off. The book contains a generous sampling of letters that show Trilling’s rich intellectual life as America’s leading critic as well as his staunchly even temperament and his many second thoughts. His mind was restless and meticulous at the same time. He feared easy answers and labels and he chose his words carefully.