Under the tyranny of ideology that is a grim fact of contemporary life in university English departments, it is tempting to reflect on the career of Lionel Trilling (1905-1975) with an uncritical wistfulness. It is to Stephen Tanner’s credit that his astute and balanced introductory study resists such a temptation; for however much Trilling’s criticism remains something of a beacon during the dark night of deconstruction, his work contains severe flaws.

Trilling’s sensibility was shaped in large measure by the humanist tradition of Matthew Arnold, from whom he learned a scholarly disinterestedness and a prudent aloofness from the brawls of partisan politics. What is more, Trilling’s preoccupations were determined by his Arnold-like humanism. “His themes,” Tanner says, “are relatively few and remain surprisingly constant from beginning to end of his career: literature as a criticism of life; the problematic but vital relationship between self and society; the perils of oversimplifying human nature and experience; the dangers of overweening intellect and will; and the complexity and pain of living the moral life.”

Trilling’s concerns, then, were of the highest order; his treatment of them, moreover, was unfailingly serious and expressed in what Tanner aptly calls “a style of extreme tact and judiciousness.” Nevertheless, the moral and intellectual context in which Trilling developed these themes is embodied in the revolutionary trinity of Rousseau, Marx, and, above all, Freud. This devotion is not at all surprising; like many of his contemporaries. Trilling was raised in a secular milieu—”It is difficult,” Tanner observes, “to think of Trilling as Jewish at all”—an experience that left gaps in his literary and cultural perceptions. Tanner is to the point:

The most significant omission in Trilling’s work is his failure, despite his historical predisposition, to recognize the vital significance of the continuing secularization of culture and the gradual withdrawal of God that have characterized the West since the seventeenth century.

The truth is that Trilling was a comfortable denizen of the Secular City, and he dutifully paid his obeisances, at one time or another, to its gods. Freud, of course, was for Trilling the most illustrious figure in the pantheon; and it is to what Tanner calls a “selective and idealized Freud” that he turned time and again for moral and cultural authority. But Civilization and Its Discontents, to choose a text that Trilling revered, is hardly the definitive source of a coherent point of view.

The secular world view lacks any metaphysical explanation of man’s aboriginal depravity. To be sure, Trilling was keenly aware of our fundamentally tragic nature. His humanism, however, contained a marked tendency toward a utopianism that is bereft of any acknowledgment of ineradicable human frailty. Trilling was thus stranded by his rejection of either heaven in the next world or heaven on earth. This inherent tension is particularly conspicuous in his political liberalism. For instance, in the preface to The Liberal Imagination (1950), he indicates that the critic’s objective is “to recall liberalism to its first essential imagination of variousness and possibility, which implies the awareness of complexity and difficulty.” It goes without saying that Trilling’s best criticism—including The Opposing Self (1955), Beyond Culture (1965), and Sincerity and Authenticity (1972)—fulfills this function, and he remains perhaps liberalism’s best internal critic. The problem is that a decade or so after he wrote his famous preface, liberalism was splintering, “its first essential imagination of variousness and possibility” descending into nihilistic chaos. In retrospect. Trilling was defending a tradition in which the concept of ultimate things led ineluctably to the Molotov cocktail.


[Lionel Trilling, by Stephen L. Tanner; Boston: Twayne Publishers]