the notional strength of internalized “opposing selves”. This is perhaps why he declined, like Leavis, to make explicit what would now be called his “theoretical” position as a critic, though the complexity for Trilling resided more in ideas than in the irreducible literary text. The letters show a continual questioning of liberal assumptions, and the behaviour of others in the name of liberalism, especially when that degenerates into the “whole dreadful Stalinoid flummery, which I consider one of the most immoral events of intellectual history”. His own liberalism encompasses “variousness and possibility” and requires the liberal imagination to contain “both the yes and no of [the] culture”, including its “reactionary” dimension. The discriminating and capacious sympathy with which he takes issue with blinkered “liberal” criticism of Kipling’s imperialism is a small example. Trilling’s fiction is often concerned with doubles or alter egos embodying ethnic, religious, ideological, or temperamental oppositions, as in the stories “Impediments” or “The Other Margaret”, and one of his essay collections is called The Opposing Self.
In his novel The Middle of the Journey, there is a scrupulously clear-eyed treatment of both the Communist Party hardlinerturned-reactionary, Gifford Maxim, and the equally bigoted fellow-travelling loyalists Arthur and Nancy Croom, while a sympathetically judicial attitude to all three is exhibited by the self-questioning hero, John Laskell. Laskell, incidentally, though professionally an expert on social housing, is characterized as a “critic”, as is Vincent Hammell, the hero of Trilling’s unfinished novel, The Journey Abandoned (excavated and beautifully introduced by Geraldine Murphy in 2008). Trilling regarded the genre of the novel, and especially the “autobiographical novel”, as quintessentially adapted to the liberal outlook and the adequate portrayal of human complexity. His high praise of the sociologist David Riesman’s treatise The Lonely Crowd (1950) was that he got from it “what I used to get or think I was getting from novels”. In a letter of 1936 containing analysis of Bolshevik trials and assassinations, he reflects that “A letter isn’t any place to talk about the Russian business; it needs a novel or an auto-
biography”, the disillusioning complexity being unamenable to discursive as distinct from novelistic exposition. Such is the intimacy with which he conceived the connection between literary form and the political sphere. Trilling was combative in valuing a lucid apprehension of complexities above doctrinaire rigidity or a simplifying activism. He concludes “that I must always have a reservation of faith in anything”, and that “perhaps every revolution must betray itself”. By 1946, he isn’t sure he is “a leftist” any longer “except ultimately”; “I certainly have no desire to choose between a Trotskyist of any present complexion and a Stalinist, although I can imagine moving with some Socialist party.”
The Middle of the Journey is in its formal aspect partly “autobiographical”, both in the limited sense that its protagonist’s political and moral thinking are manifestly authorial, and that it includes autobiographical memories. Trilling says Laskell is “simply not sufficiently detached from his author”, nor sufficiently the opposite. The intimate episode of Laskell’s “love affair” with a flower while on his sickbed replays an experience of Trilling himself as reported in a letter of 1928, nearly twenty years earlier. Laskell, however, like some other Trilling protagonists, is not Jewish. These protagonists, usually mild-mannered intellectuals, are apparently gentile alter egos, who may themselves, as in “Of This Time, of That Place”, have to wrestle with an apparently Jewish secret sharer within the story. Conrad’s novella The Secret Sharer, Trilling says in a letter, is “my almost favorite story in the world”.
I say “apparently” because Trilling seems to have made a point of blurring such identities. In one of the most interesting early letters (December 2, 1929) to Elliot Cohen, Editor of the Menorah Journal, a Jewish intellectual periodical, he speaks of a story which “exploited a situation between two Jews; but I had not said they were Jews; and I tried to hint but not say it by giving the characters names that might or might not be Jewish. This evasion did not make the story dishonest. It had truth – general truth”. He goes on: “I used to be told that this Jewishness was extraneous, that the story would have more ‘universal’ appeal without it”. He concluded that being explicit about the Jewishness was not only more authentic but probably more universal. As he pointed out elsewhere, his own real name Trilling, which was “un-Jewish”, was the family’s original name from Białystok. This un-Jewishness nevertheless “made, I have no doubt, a significant fact in my life”.
The letter to Cohen is richly expressive of the ambivalence of a loyal secularized Jew for whom the traditional observances no longer have their primary meaning but who is determined to cling to certain marks of Jewish identity. For this reason, he tells Cohen, he is anxious that the Menorah Journal should survive. Six days later, he declines the “honor” of an invitation to join the Columbia Club, which “does not usually take Jews”. But fortythree years later, in 1972, he reports that “academic anti-Semitism”, once “rigorous and unabashed”, has “crumbled and disappeared and now Jewish students are incredulous of its ever having existed”. He thinks this change is “my model for what I look forward to in the situation of women and ethnic groups”. This causes me to reflect on my own experience, in recent decades at Yale, of Jewish students who would undoubtedly have bridled at any other form of racism, but whose eyes would glaze over with patient indifference when the unignorable topic of T. S. Eliot’s anti-Semitism was broached. In 1972, Trilling remembered that such academic anti-Semitism as he had experienced as a student made life “more interesting” and “never gave me any personal pain”.
In a subsequent letter to Cohen (May 5, 1945), Trilling declined an invitation to become a contributing editor of the new journal Commentary, because, although he was prepared to write for the paper, he did not want to be flagged as a Jewish writer, since “most manifestations of organized Jewish life do not please me”. He refused to attend synagogue with a University rabbi because it might take on “the color of a ‘gesture’”. He writes judiciously against knee-jerk Jewish denunciations of anti-Semitism in an otherwise admirable writer like Henry Adams. But the issue of Adams’s anti-Semitism festered between 1945 and 1961, and Trilling felt that he had been accused by the art critic Clement Greenberg of “Jewish self-hatred”. When his mother died in 1964, while he was at Oxford, he arranged through Isaiah Berlin to have a Jewish service, held “in, of all places, Jesus College”. He found this “an affecting occasion and helpful in a way that I would not have expected”. But he affirmed some weeks later that his “alienation from Judaism” was based on irritation at its “theological utterances”.
The novel as conceived in The Liberal Imagination was for Trilling notably exemplified in the work of Henry James. He singled out for special praise two novels not greatly esteemed in their own time, The Bostonians and The Princess Casamassima, in which James may be said to adopt a “reactionary” perspective on the excesses respectively of feminist agitation and socialist insurgency, and to have written with inwardness and sympathy about both. In an essay on Sherwood Anderson, Trilling decried the “easy populism” of a writer who held that James “was ‘the novelist of those who hate’, for mind seemed to him always a sort of malice”. “Mind” was a key value for Trilling. He advocated an imaginative inclusiveness which could accommodate destructive as well as orderly forces, “the impulse to insist that the activity of politics be united with the imagination under the aspect of mind”. The absence of “mind” in Anderson’s populism leads to the cult of “marching men” and strong leaders.
The Middle of the Journey, an honourable, temperate novel, appeared in 1947, shortly before the trial of Alger Hiss (in the zealous prosecution of which Richard Nixon was conspicuous). The character of Gifford Maxim was based on the communist defector Whittaker Chambers, who denounced Hiss as a Soviet spy, and Arthur and Nancy Croom were taken to resemble the Hiss couple. The novel is not about a trial, though Arthur has premonitions of impending political harassment, not surprising in the early days of the Red Scare that were the prelude to McCarthyism. Trilling believed historically in the integrity, however repellent, of Hiss’s accuser Chambers. If Trilling, as he claimed, hadn’t heard of Hiss when he wrote the novel, his intuitive prefiguration confirms the sensitiveness of his cultural tentacles.
Similarly, “Of This Time, of That Place” (1943), about the troubled protective relationship between a university instructor and a “brilliant” but somewhat unhinged student with literary aspirations, prefigures the lifelong relationship, simultaneously loyal and adversarial, between Trilling and Allen Ginsberg, who did not arrive at Columbia until after the story was published, as Trilling tetchily explained to Leslie Fiedler in 1964. The uneasy bonding with Ginsberg typifies the much-mythologized tension between a guarded orderly liberalism and more extreme or disruptive forces which it seeks both to accommodate and to contain, at some cost in rattled composure. There is a moving letter to a senior University psychiatrist about the troubled young Ginsberg in 1946, testifying that “a healthy Ginsberg would have a good chance of becoming a person of real intellectual distinction”, and other letters in which Trilling navigated his way among the rocks and shoals of his long relationship with the talented and attention-demanding poet, in the teeth, incidentally, of Diana’s hostility.
The letters show Trilling engaged throughout in plans about fiction writing, not without academic self-consciousness. In a letter of 1931 from Yaddo, the artist colony in Saratoga Springs, while his PhD dissertation on Matthew Arnold “begins to take shape” and he worries that people are thinking of him as “a ‘smug professorial type’”, his thoughts turn instinctively to novel-writing and to Henry James: “the background of the place, the history of the people who built it and lived in it, and their tradition, and the contrast of the people now visiting it [sic] summers would have sent Henry James into fits of delight”. The intimacy of his engagement with James is manifested throughout Life in Culture. His unfinished novel, The Journey Abandoned, is suffused with Jamesian evocation. Paradoxically, one of Trilling’s best pieces of “novelistic” portraiture occurs not in a novel, but in the description of the real-life Whittaker Chambers in the essay he prefixed to the reissue of The Middle of the Journey in 1975, the year of his death (and in the wake of the new Nixonian reality of Watergate). Some of his best character portrayals, including an affectionately ironic description of the Marxist philosopher Sidney Hook, and a late sketch of the ageing Auden,
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