It is hard to recall now the enormous prestige of Lionel Trilling as a literary and social critic during the postwar years. The Liberal Imagination (1950), his first collection of essays, is said to have sold more than 70,000 hardback copies. For the first and last time, a literature professor enjoyed the public eminence normally reserved for an economist like John Kenneth Galbraith or a sociologist like David Riesman. Trilling was a quietly dominating figure, sensitive, sensible, and reassuring in his emergence from 1930s radicalism and his nuanced Freudianism. His essays served as a form of national therapy. Writing about Henry James’s The Princess Casamassima, for example, he guided readers away from the political certainties of the 1930s and toward the difficult complexities of “ambiguity and error” that they must learn to accept if they wanted to fulfill their generous liberal intentions.
For Adam Kirsch, in Why Trilling Matters, Trilling’s authority still survives as a source of courage: “In the last twenty years, when writers have lamented the decay of literature’s confidence and authority, they have often turned, as if by instinct, to Trilling as the emblem of those lost virtues.” Kirsch’s central insight, however, is that Trilling wrote with an artist’s authority, not a teacher’s:
Trilling’s authority…is itself a literary achievement—not a privilege of cultural office or a domineering assertion of erudition and intellect, but an expression of sensibility, the record of an individual mind engaged with the world and with texts.
Trilling’s constant theme, he adds, was “the conflict between the artist’s will and the demands of justice.”
Kirsch does not pursue the implications of these insights, but Trilling did. He broke decorum at a public ceremony by telling Robert Frost that the Frost treasured by readers as a “tutelary genius” was a myth, that the real Frost was “a terrifying poet” who portrayed “a terrifying universe” in poems warmed only by “the energy with which emptiness is perceived.” Trilling’s unpublished journals—Kirsch quotes only from the few, mostly innocuous, extracts that have appeared in print—make clear that he could see through the mask of the tutelary Robert Frost because he himself lived behind the mask of the tutelary Lionel Trilling.
Trilling spoke in public with the moral authority of the critic who serves society and its virtues by exposing the amoral energies of the artist who “serves his daemon and his subject.” He warned against the seductive, disruptive powers of “the fierce, the assertive, the personally militant,” but his greatest strength as a critic was his sense of the demonic energy that, he said, set modern art in opposition to modern culture. His first two books, Matthew Arnold (1939) and E.M. Forster (1943), glorified two English writers who suppressed their daemon by renouncing or abandoning their art.
In his private journals, however, he acknowledged the demonic impulse behind his own public …