- Why Trilling Matters
The struggle that Kirsch wages in this essay, a struggle pitting himself and Lionel Trilling against what both would cite as the cultural degradation of their times, then and now, has all the odds stacked against it. Kirsch acknowledges as much in his last pages, saying of Trilling that he knew how “literature’s victories are always achieved against the larger circumstance of defeat, that to live a literary life—which also means, to live according to the disciplines of literature—is itself the best, most inspiriting resistance to an unliterary culture.” Composed as the author sees all around him the signs of cultural collapse, the book could as well have been titled Why Trilling Doesn’t Matter Any More, but Should. That he matters to Kirsch is clear on every page, for his reading of some of Trilling’s most important essays, as well as others little known today, is faithful, discerning, accurate, and full of praise. He rightly remarks that, while Trilling was always conscious of the local circumstances—ideological and social—of his time, he was always able to transcend their boundaries. He correctly sees that liberalism, of which Trilling was an exemplary expositor, was perpetually undergoing stress testing at his hands and was inevitably found somehow wanting. And Kirsch notes, with appropriate commendation, that in the face of cultural conflict Trilling could always find safe haven in his “wise passiveness” and his devotion, derived from Rousseau, to the isolated purity of “the sentiment of being.”
When Kirsch claims, however, that Trilling, in the 1960s, could see everything rushing to ruin, he is on thin ice. Accurate readings and steadfast devotion to his chosen master are not enough. Could Trilling really have predicted what Kirsch now apocalyptically sees: the death of poetry, the marginality of the novel, the ruination of English departments, the decline of reading, the end of bookstores, the demise of book reviews in newspapers, and even—in this age of Kindle—the disappearance of the book itself? And could Trilling, even in his most prophetic moments, have been able to see that cultural consumption (what we buy, what we wear, the music we listen to) would supplant personal identity—who we really are? Certainly he could not have seen, as Kirsch suggests he did, the division of the United States into red and blue states. To make such large claims on behalf of a critic who had only an ambivalent attitude to the here and now of any time is, while spectacular, unconvincing.
It would be reassuringly pleasant to imagine that the world embodied in the essays of Lionel Trilling—magisterial, nuanced, deliberate, knowing, and infused with a fine irony at every turn—could find revival today, even a ruined today. Nostalgia of this sort will never lack for followers. But Trilling himself was wise enough to know that literature, founded on reality and given energy [End Page 149] by imagination, would ultimately have to defer to reality. For that reason, the cultural reality we have today is not one for which Trilling’s prose and his ideas can have genuine consequence.
William M. Chace, president emeritus of Emory University and professor of English there, is the author of One Hundred Semesters; Lionel Trilling: Criticism and Politics; The Political Identities of Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot; and (as editor) Making It New, Justice Denied: The Black Man in White America; and James Joyce: A Collection of Critical Essays.