In his 1963 essay “The Critic’s Credentials,” Stanley Edgar Hyman made this claim: “Our world is a multiverse and complex one, and our literature accurately reflects it. Unless the critic’s equipment is similarly multiverse and complex, he will be turned away at the door of literature.” Fifteen years earlier, in a meticulous work of criticism called The Armed Vision, Hyman distinguished between the “Ideal Critic,” who would possess the highest degree of knowledge in the humanities—Coleridge and Arnold were his Ideal Critics—and the “Actual Critic, poor fellow,” who would limp along as best he could.
Hyman’s requirement that critics be intellectuals stemmed from his recognition of a now little-recognized fact: imaginative literature does not happen in a vacuum. One doesn’t have any business writing about literature unless one’s business is literature, because every important poet and novelist has predecessors informing, shaping his vision, and if a critic has no engagement with those predecessors, he can have no sustained and substantive engagement with the poet or novelist under review. To borrow C.K. Chesterton’s insult against Swinburne, the critic would be all self-expression and no self-assertion. Self-assertion necessitates a steady poise in the mingling of knowledge and intellect.
At a time when many American publications employ pedestrian reviewers to scribble personal-pronoun-obsessed book reports, Adam Kirsch remains a blesséd throwback to the great poet-critic-intellectuals of yore—T.S. Eliot, Robert Penn Warren, Randall Jarrell, Conrad Aiken, R.P Blackmur, Yvor Winters—who brought to bear in every essay what Hyman nicely dubbed “a fearful assumption of personal capacity.” A poet of impressive range, Kirsch writes prose with a baffling prolificacy. Each week you can find him opining for several top publications on nearly every aspect of literary thought. An Ideal Critic of the Coleridgean mold, he possesses a swift command of how history, philosophy, sociology, and psychology inform works of imaginative literature. His Benjamin Disraeli is an expert, emotionally astute study of the complicated Jewish-English statesman and novelist, and The Wounded Surgeon and The Modern Element, his two books on English-language poets, rise to Dr. Johnson’s criterion for lasting criticism: the conversion of mere opinion into universal knowledge.
In Why Trilling Matters, Kirsch has turned his considerable gifts to the mind he most resembles in comprehensive literary and cultural understanding. When Lionel Trilling died in 1975, he was as prestigious and influential a critic as one can be. Jacques Barzun, Trilling’s friend and colleague at Columbia, noted that in the wake of Trilling’s death the “chorus of recognition” experienced “scarcely a moment’s hush.” The first Jew ever to earn tenure in Columbia’s notoriously Anglophilic English department, Trilling taught a graduate seminar so renowned among aspiring intellectuals and critics that many clamored to gain acceptance, Cynthia Ozick among them.
What makes Trilling such a complex subject is not his outstanding intellect that insisted on complexity and pluralism, but his steadfast resistance to being pigeonholed and his seeming contradictions of character. A career academic and critic, he was also, in Barzun’s words, “the very negation of an academic critic” in his freedom from Eliotic dogmatizing and method-making. A cloistered, lifelong New Yorker who got itchy whenever he left the five boroughs, he deigned to speak for all of human society in his infamous use of “we.” An unbelieving Jew reared in a conservatively Jewish household, Trilling held that being Jewish was a social rather than religious or cultural enterprise. An apolitical citizen who walked the middle road because “between is the only honest place to be,” he was a powerfully political reader and writer who contended that literature offered badly needed political and moral instruction. And, most splitting of all, Trilling the Apollonian critic of refinement yearned to be a Dionysian artist up to his elbows in the sweet blood of creativity.
Kirsch puts to rest decades’ worth of speculation that Trilling was made miserable by his inability to become a successful novelist, by his organic inclination toward literary comment and not literary creation (his only published novel, The Middle of the Journey, failed to win many admirers; one reviewer sniped that it “reads at times as though it were first serialized in PMLA”). Like so many of his generation, Trilling envied the raw creative genius of Ernest Hemingway, and indeed believed that “novelists as a class have made the most aggressive assault upon the world.” He looked upon the Byronic energies of his student Allen Ginsberg with a kind of brooding envy, never mind that Ginsberg was start to finish a second-rate poet, his celebrated “Howl” the sophomoric and technically inept rant of a solipsist (Kirsch quotes Trilling’s indefatigable wife, Diana, comparing the Beats to “children in a progressive kindergarten”).
The speculation about Trilling’s private misery began in 1984 when Diana Trilling published in Partisan Review selections from his journals that appeared to describe a rabidly dissatisfied man who had shunned his deepest ambition to be a novelist: “Suppose I were to dare to believe that one could be a professor and a man! and a writer!—what arrogance and defiance of convention.” But Kirsch reads these journal entries more carefully than others and finds no evidence of a bitter man stymied by the sublime forces of creativity. Rather, Trilling welcomed what he was, and understood what Harold Bloom would later champion with such gusto: that the critic must be every bit as creative—as downright dynamic—as the novelist and poet he assesses. Trilling’s critical dynamism helped make Partisan Review the peerless literary/political outfit it was in the 1940s and 50s.
Matthew Arnold, E.M. Forster, and The Liberal Imagination—the three books that secured Trilling’s place in the American pantheon—are masterworks of discerning critical sensibility, of what Kirsch calls “an individual mind engaged with the world and with texts.” Kirsch rightly singles out sensibility as the vital, defining characteristic of any necessary writer—comprehend James’s storytelling sensibility or Dickinson’s poetic sensibility and you are halfway to comprehending their artistic achievement. Trilling’s work, argues Kirsch, amounts always to more than just criticism because it is “primary” and “autonomous”—it is “literature itself.” If Trilling’s coiled prose style lacks the aphoristic flair of Oscar Wilde or the come-hither bombast of Bloom, it nevertheless perfectly serves the complex, almost paradoxical sensibility of a first class mind that delighted in dialectic and knew there are no easeful answers to the most pressing inquiries of humankind.
The reason Trilling matters now has less to do with his status as the saint of liberalism—a troubled status, at best; like Arnold, Trilling had a love/hate relationship with the liberal tradition—than with his doggedness in proclaiming the primacy of literature as a means of ascertaining the individual and the individual’s relation to society. Trilling’s friend and fellow critic Alfred Kazin titled a short memoir Writing Was Everything, but for Trilling reading was everything. The literary life was not only an occupation but a way of being in the world, a personal and social commitment to understanding who we are and how we fit. “The permanent value” of Trilling’s work, writes Kirsch, “is as a record of the way literature generates a self.” Trilling “speaks directly to our current loss of faith in literature—which is, as he understood, fundamentally a loss of faith in a certain ideal of selfhood.” In other words: We cannot become ourselves without literature. We have a “moral obligation to be intelligent”—the title of Leon Wieseltier’s superb edition of Trilling’s essays, borrowed from Trilling’s teacher John Erskine—and for Trilling, as he wrote in his final book, The Last Decade, intelligence is “connected with literature” and “advanced by literature.” If he was never naïve enough to believe in the Arnoldian notion of literature as social corrective and replacement for religion, Lionel Trilling, like Adam Kirsch himself, illustrates that reading deeply and wisely is not a credential for critics only, but everyone’s last best hope of being better.