Returns to print 32 tough-minded discourses, written from 1938 to 1975, from one of American literature’s most exacting cultural critics.
Positioning Trilling (1905–75) for unfamiliar readers, editor Wieseltier (Kaddish, 1998) presents him as “a distinguished enemy of his time.” Repute aside, how fare these writings today? Trilling’s abiding concern: how literary situations embody cultural situations—those moral struggles about personal choice, which in turn determine literary treatment. He prizes how James’s anarchist study The Princess Casamassima does not shirk the price civilization exacts, nor our duty to protest extortion at “the dark and bloody crossroads where literature and politics meet.” Fellow feeling imbues reconsiderations of Huck Finn (as “a friend to man”) and Keats’s “heroic” letters and “The Immortality Ode” (commemorating not the death of inspiration but the birth of adulthood). Reflections on love, not lust, as Lolita’s ruling theme still sizzle. But Santayana proves himself the prig Trilling claims he is not; advocacy for Howells dotes on the critic’s extrapolations; Austen’s mischievous deep-founded skepticism in Mansfield Park outflanks the sober professor. Despite his Partisan Review allegiance, his essays (The Liberal Imagination, 1950; Beyond Culture, 1965; etc.) toe no party line, though few pass unsanctified by Freud or “dialectic.” Others, tied to their times, are grave markers, not eternal flames: Revisiting the Leavis-Snow “Two Cultures” tongue fight is like chewing sawdust. Trilling consistently pits “spontaneity, complexity, and variety” against the propensity to commiserate with, then condescend to, then coerce our peers. Not tragic, never droll, this successful lecturer—instantly understood while sparking further thought—makes the “complex and difficult and exhausting” moral life sound less empowering than burdensome. Does all good literature wag a moral like a tail?
Take heart, Reader, old or new: These essays—their premises, arguments, conclusions, triumphs, and shortfalls—are still well worth grappling with.