Man of Letters

Life in Culture: Selected Letters of Lionel Trilling

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.

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About the Author

Robert Alter is Professor of the Graduate School and emeritus Professor of Hebrew and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley. His translation with commentary of the Hebrew Bible will be published at the beginning of December.


gershonhepner on October 4, 2018 at 3:09 pm

Robert Alter writes in his fine review: “There are some indications in Trilling’s letters of corrosive self-doubt and of black moods that have the distinct look of depression,”
reporting that in

his diatribe on sexuality and the Jews—in the course of which, incidentally, he takes issue with Howe—he denounces Jewish “superstition,” “the compulsiveness and fear” of the Jews in regard to sex, and declares without qualification that “the antisexual impulse of East European Jews is extreme. . . . They think sex is dirty, that all the body is dirty.”

Suspecting that Alter is pointing out the cause of Trilling's irrelevance for those Jews who do not suffer from an antisexual impulse and think that sex and all the body are dirty this Jew composed this poem.


Do not mistake ideas for moods:
ideas may last, but every mood will pass.
Respect ideas, treat moods as prudes
treat nudes who, even if they have an arse
that’s perfect, are mere bodies which
may seem to be exciting, but will dis-
appoint the viewers, lacking any itch
to make love with them, in no mood to kiss,
being prudes, as I have said,
which means that they have no idea what
to do, not even after being led
to bed, to be the johns of their jackpot.

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