Man of Letters
edited by Adam Kirsch
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 464 pp., $35
Lionel Trilling was a dominant figure in American literary criticism in the middle decades of the last century, and Adam Kirsch’s judicious selection of his letters throws instructive light on both Trilling’s life and American intellectual culture from the 1920s to the 1970s. For anyone concerned with the many leading writers, critics, and thinkers with whom Trilling corresponded or curious about how the son of Jewish immigrants came to play such a central role in American literary life, it is a fascinating book.
Trilling’s parents were by no means the Yiddish-speaking types one associates with the Eastern European immigrants of this period. His mother had actually grown up in England, and his father spoke perfectly correct English without a foreign accent. It is noteworthy that his parents would not consider sending him to City College, where so many children of the immigrant generation were educated, because they thought it was beneath him. Instead, they directed him to Columbia, the institution at which, after temporary teaching stints in Wisconsin and at Hunter College, he would spend his entire academic career. Trilling’s affinity for British high culture was not surprising.
There were three great points of departure in Trilling’s intellectual development, two of which he left entirely behind early on and a third that remained with him to the end: a somewhat vague and wholly secular Judaism, Marxism, and Freudianism. His consistent disengagement from all expressions of Jewish identity is a complicated issue to which I shall return. He and his wife Diana had a flirtation with Marxism in the early 1930s, as did so many New York intellectuals then, but they never joined the Communist Party, and he was soon horrified by the brutality of Stalinism and became a staunch anti-Marxist. In a contentious letter to the theater scholar Eric Bentley in 1946, he writes, “I live in deep fear of Stalinism” and goes on to observe aptly that in one respect Stalinism was more pernicious than Fascism because “it has taken all the great hopes and all the great slogans [and] has recruited the people who have shared my background and culture and corrupted them.” On Freud, he wrote a number of finely reflective pieces through to late in his life, and this intellectual interest was no doubt strongly reinforced by the fact that both he and Diana underwent psychoanalytic treatment for decades.