A critic who continues to be read twenty-five years after his death is sufficiently rare to be called, in the colloquial sense of the word, a phenomenon. The odds are against it, in part because criticism tends to be entangled in a web of current references that unravels over time, leaving future readers perplexed or indifferent. This new selection of essays by Lionel Trilling constitutes a wager that he has beaten the odds, and will last.
I want to believe it. When I arrived fifteen years ago at Columbia University, where Trilling had taught for some forty years (except for visiting stints at Harvard and Oxford), he had been dead for a decade, but his name was invoked as if he were still present. His widow, Diana Trilling, presided over dinner parties at which newcomers coveted her blessing and dreaded her disapproval as if her late husband were passing posthumous judgment through her. Framed in the window of their first-floor apartment, she could be seen receiving a stream of callers who had the demeanor of official mourners.
With Diana’s death in 1996, the Trilling presence in the neighborhood became ghostly. The English department had moved out of its quarters in Hamilton Hall, and the room in which he had once met with students has since been turned into an administrative office. A lecture series named in his memory fell into dormancy. As for his standing in the wider academy, he now tends to be condescended to as a naive believer in Matthew Arnold’s ideal of “disinterestedness.” Outside the academy, his photograph has appeared under the dubious title “The Forebear” in a New York Times article on the origins of neoconservatism. In a recent mystery novel by Robert Parker about sordid doings on a college campus, his name is invoked as the lost exemplar of intelligence and personal virtue. Yet others accuse him of being muted or even embarrassed about being a Jew.
These claims are somewhere between cant and slander—the sort of judgments that attach to a writer who has become a figure more caricatured than read. The multivolume edition of Trilling’s works that appeared in the late 1970s has been out of print for years; and when one comes across it in secondhand bookstores, the dust jackets tend to have the undulled shine of books that have been displayed and admired but seldom opened. Now we have a new selection, chosen and introduced by Leon Wieseltier, who was a student at Columbia during Trilling’s last years of teaching, and whose introduction does the rare thing of rising to the level of its subject. The book is intended to arrest Trilling’s descent into the condition of an outmoded sage, and to restore him to currency in the minds of new readers.
Trilling’s prose style will be both an attraction and an impediment. For one thing, it has an old-fashioned courtliness that sounds odd in contemporary ears (“aged, venerable, and often rather inert,” according …