A generous sampling of letters that displays the rich intellectual life of mid-20th-century America’s leading critic as well as his staunchly even temperament and many second thoughts.
Lionel Trilling (1905-1975) led a seriously busy life. These letters, edited by poet and critic Kirsch (The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature, 2016, etc.), show a famous and popular Columbia University professor constantly pressed for time between classes, meetings, and books. They also reveal a man equally consumed by self-doubt and the fear that no one really understood his variously nuanced, ironic, or radically moderate positions. He hated extremes. He was attracted to communism but despised Stalinism; he sympathized with Trotsky but bristled at Trotskyism. In a dispute with Marxist critic Eric Bentley, he wrote, “I am no longer sure that I am, in any sense, in any accepted sense of the word, a leftist.” For all his honors, Trilling wasn’t sure he was even in the right job. “Fiction is what I always had in mind and maybe I’m ready for it,” he wrote to critic Newton Arvin in 1942. Six years later, he told novelist John Crowe Ransom, “I always feel that I made myself a critic on a dare to myself at twenty and because I had been such a maundering idiot at college: and now I’m bewildered and even embarrassed when I’m taken seriously!” The public had other ideas. Trilling’s 1947 novel, The Middle of the Journey, gave him immense satisfaction but only middling notices (all of which he answered with multiple corrections). His essay collection The Liberal Imagination sold more than 100,000 copies in paperback.
Thin-skinned Trilling may have been, but this epistolary interior monologue shows the defensiveness of a restless and meticulous mind, wary of easy answers and labels and astute about matching the right word to the precise shade of thought.