Authors: Lionel Trilling

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American critic

Author Works


Matthew Arnold, 1939

E. M. Forster, 1943

The Liberal Imagination: Essays on Literature and Society, 1950

Freud and the Crisis of Our Culture, 1955

The Opposing Self, 1955 (criticism)

A Gathering of Fugitives, 1956 (criticism)

Beyond Culture: Essays on Learning and Literature, 1965

Sincerity and Authenticity, 1972 (criticism)

Mind in the Modern World, 1973

Prefaces to “The Experience of Literature,” 1979

The Last Decade, Essays and Reviews, 1965-1975, 1979

Speaking of Literature and Society, 1980 (Diana Trilling, editor)

The Moral Obligation to Be Intelligent: Selected Essays, 2000 (Leon Wieseltier, editor)

Long Fiction:

The Middle of the Journey, 1947

Short Fiction:

Of This Time, of That Place, and Other Stories, 1979

Edited Texts:

The Portable Matthew Arnold, 1949

The Selected Letters of John Keats, 1951

The Experience of Literature: A Reader with Commentaries, 1967

The Life and World of Sigmund Freud, 1970

Literary Criticism: An Introductory Reader, 1970

The Oxford Anthology of English Literature, 1973 (with others)


Lionel Trilling grew up in a Jewish neighborhood in New York City. Except for some of his youthful writing, he shunned specifically Jewish themes and identified his work with the great traditions of literature in Europe and the United States. His initial plan was to become a novelist, but he enrolled in Columbia University and became an astute student and critic, eventually obtaining his Ph.D. In fact, Trilling’s dissertation, on Matthew Arnold, became a highly acclaimed book. Like Arnold, Trilling became not only a literary critic but also a critic of culture. Along with Edmund Wilson, Trilling has come to be regarded as perhaps the pivotal critic of his generation, defining the dominant character of American literature and assessing the literature itself in profoundly moral and historical terms.{$I[AN]9810000730}{$I[A]Trilling, Lionel}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Trilling, Lionel}{$I[tim]1905;Trilling, Lionel}

Trilling’s elegant, sober style helped to shape the literary tastes of a generation. In an enormously influential collection of essays, The Liberal Imagination, for example, he praises Henry James for his style, point of view, sensitivity, and complexity while deploring Theodore Dreiser’s well-meaning but clumsy and vapid rhetoric. Trilling maintains that in novels such as The Princess Casamassima (1886) James exhibited a political sensitivity and shrewdness that was every bit as valuable as Dreiser’s–more so, because the literary value of James’s work was so much greater. The point of such evaluations for Trilling’s generation was that they rectified the rather provincial bias of earlier critics who were wary of James’s European biases and too eager to elevate new American writers such as Dreiser to canonical status.

Trilling was particularly interested in the relationship between works of art and culture. As a result, he drew on a number of different academic disciplines, such as history, philosophy, and psychology. He was especially curious as to how Sigmund Freud’s ideas about the mind might be applied to the study of literary works. While he had enormous respect for works of art, he thought that they were open to analysis using the vocabulary of the modern social sciences.

In The Liberal Imagination, Trilling articulates his stance as a critic heavily involved in determining the character of the age while assessing its roots in the past. In Beyond Culture, he extends his range by looking closely at the quality of American education. He is troubled by the way modern literature has been absorbed into the college curriculum, even though the producers of that literature had been against the institutionalization of knowledge. What will be the fate of the great modern works of literature in a setting that is itself conventionalized? Trilling seeks, in other words, to remind his readers (many of whom are academics) of the subversive value of literature which questions, rather than supports, the status quo. Implicit in Trilling’s argument is the notion that revolutionary ideas of modern literature should not be allowed to be domesticated. Somehow teachers have to give students a feel for the iconoclasm of art.

In “Some Notes for an Autobiographical Lecture,” Trilling explains how he first became engaged with Matthew Arnold and then how the example of Arnold turned Trilling toward the writing of an intellectual biography that was to have a profound impact on all of his criticism. In the beginning, Arnold represented the poet as the passive vehicle through which the stresses and strains of his culture get expressed. In the end, the poet became a rebel defiant of culture, someone who wanted to change it. That is also the kind of critic Trilling became: Never sure that literature, the teaching of literature, or the writing of literary criticism were self-justifying activities, he actively took on the point of view of society and argued for and against it. In an autobiographical lecture, Trilling calls his stance “novelistic,” by which he seems to mean that all of his assumptions have to be tested against experience and that ideas are not sacrosanct–they have no permanent truth–but must be constantly reevaluated in a changing environment. While many critics might echo Trilling’s sentiments, very few have embedded this novelistic imagination in their prose. Trilling’s work, read in its entirety, confirms that his views of literature and society continued to develop in response to the changing times.

BibliographyHeilbrun, Carolyn G. When Men Were the Only Models We Had: My Teachers Barzun, Fadiman, and Trilling. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002. Memoir by a former student of Trilling.Krupnick, Mark. Lionel Trilling and the Fate of Cultural Criticism. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1986. Primarily concerned with Trilling’s influence and his merit as a literary critic.Leitch, Thomas M. Lionel Trilling: An Annotated Bibliography. New York: Garland, 1993. A valuable research tool.O’Hara, Daniel T. Lionel Trilling: The Work of Liberation. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1988. Examines the broad range of Trilling’s work.Shoben, Edward J., Jr. Lionel Trilling: Mind and Character. New York: F. Ungar, 1981. A general study of Trilling’s complete works. It provides biographical information as well as a study of Trilling’s influential novel The Middle of the Journey.Tanner, Stephen L. Lionel Trilling. Boston: Twayne, 1988. A succinct critical overview.Trilling, Diana. The Beginning of the Journey: The Marriage of Diana and Lionel Trilling. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1993. A biographical and autobiographical memoir.
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