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  • Lionel Trilling and the Periodical Imagination
  • Paul Woolridge (bio)

Like many of the finest literary critics in twentieth-century letters, Lionel Trilling showed us why literature continues to matter. Trilling was one of America's more prominent men of letters in the post-war intellectual climate, whose dislike for the social realism of Theodore Dreiser and Sinclair Lewis boded well for the modernist turn in literary culture, a shift in critical and popular taste that owes much, for better or for worse, to Trilling's publication of The Liberal Imagination in 1950. There is certainly much to be said about the cultural politics of this "turn" in American criticism, but the popular appeal of Trilling himself also makes for an intriguing focus, a story which begins with the variety of little magazines and periodicals that published his work. Of the many smaller publics built into Trilling's broader discursive appeal in The Liberal Imagination, his early association with the Partisan Review circle, a relationship that we will recount in some detail, was especially formative.

Nearly a decade after the magazine's initial launch, Trilling prefaced the Partisan Reader: Ten Years of Partisan Review (1946) with a thoughtful reflection on the social function of little magazines in the world of letters. His essay broaches the question of Partisan Review's cultural relevance for American intellectual life while praising the group's ability to keep "a counter-current moving," one wholly unrecognized, Trilling suggests, "until it ceases to move." This current, Trilling argues, is what keeps literary culture vibrant. "To the general lowering of the status of literature and of the interest in it the innumerable 'little magazines' have been a heroic response," he writes. "Since the beginning of the century, meeting difficulties of which only their editors can truly conceive, they have tried to keep the roads open. From the elegant and brilliant Dial to the latest little scrub from the provinces, they have done their work, they have kept our culture from becoming wholly academic and wholly sociological."2 Trilling's fondness for little magazines is no surprise, really, since they reflected so well the heroic middle ground of his own best self—namely, [End Page 43] as an academic writer situated between the staid forces of the academy and the sociological pulses of Marxism.

Throughout the forties, Trilling was a frequent reviewer and critical essayist for Partisan Review, Kenyon Review, and the Nation while teaching at Columbia and writing his own fiction, both short stories and one fairly well-received (but now seemingly little-read) novel.3 Trilling's 1939 intellectual biography, titled Matthew Arnold, established his academic reputation almost instantaneously, and with the short story "Of This Time, Of This Place," published in Partisan Review in January 1943, he began to be admired as a serious writer of fiction. Mary Louise Aswell, literary editor of Harper's Bazaar, wrote: "Dwight Macdonald tells me that your story in Partisan Review is making a hit, as well it should. It made such a great hit with me I want to ask if you haven't a story for the Bazaar—our audience isn't as select as Partisan Review's, but it's larger and I covet the quality of your writing for us."4 "The Lesson and The Secret," another successful short story by Trilling, was published in Harper's Bazaar in March 1945, and "The Other Margaret" in Partisan Review's fall issue of the same year.

Over the years, there has been some debate over this bicameral sensibility in Trilling. Mark Krupnick, for example, divides his critical and creative life into an "uptown" and "downtown" persona, the former modeled on Arnold and Freud, the latter a Greenwich Village bohemian.5 When evaluating a writer like Trilling, though, neat divisions such as these tend to gloss over discursive complexity in telling ways, especially since blurring tidy distinctions was precisely Trilling's forte as an essayist. The self-positioning in his most famous essays clearly understates the kind of nuance he perfected in his critical and creative prose, a style of writing particularly evident in The Liberal Imagination, which mixes a number of discursive registers while drawing on audience...


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pp. 43-59
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