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Lionel Trilling: The most influential mind in the culture of the Fifties (© Gjon Mili/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)


The recent publication of a selection of letters by Lionel Trilling — 270 chosen out of thousands available to an editor in the archives — affords an opportunity to reflect on the importance of this grand master of the Age of Criticism in the middle of the last century. Trilling rose to prominence in 1950 with the publication of his third book, The Liberal Imagination: Essays on Literature and Society. It sold in numbers unprecedented for a book of criticism — 70,000 copies in hard cover, and 100,000 in paperback — and made Trilling the most influential mind in the culture of the Fifties.

But Trilling’s importance in the development of American literary culture and the place of Jews in that culture goes back to the time when he was a doctoral candidate at Columbia University in New York and to a now unremembered predecessor there named Ludwig Lewisohn. Lewisohn, a Berlin-born Jew who made himself into a southern Christian gentleman in Charleston, had to leave Columbia in 1903 without his doctorate because he was, in the eyes of Columbia’s English Department faculty, irredeemably Jewish. Like many a Jewish student of English after him, Lewisohn was told that he should not (or could not) proceed in his studies because the prejudice against hiring Jews in English departments was insuperable. Two decades later, reflecting on the appointment of a number of Jewish scholars in American colleges, he noted that in one discipline alone the old resistance remained firm: “Prejudice has not . . . relented in a single instance in regard to the teaching of English.” Perhaps this was because the study of English, unlike that of science or philosophy, was intimately bound up with the particularities of culture, for it was precisely the study of the mind of Western Christianity. What Bernard Berenson called the “Angry Saxons” who ran English departments were determined to protect Tennyson’s “treasure of the wisdom of the West” from barbarous Eastern (European) invaders. (I heard the very same story of rejection decades later from Irvin Ehrenpreis, who recovered sufficiently to become the consummate biographer of Jonathan Swift, but never got a PhD in English.)

Almost nothing of this part of Trilling’s story appears in this volume of letters (Life in Culture: Selected Letters of Lionel Trilling; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $35, edited by Adam Kirsch). But Trilling did tell it, and very sardonically, in his notebooks of April and May of 1936, when Columbia’s English faculty tried to discontinue his appointment. “The reason for dismissal is that as a Jew, a Marxist, a Freudian, I am uneasy. This hampers my work and makes me unhappy.” His colleagues would undertake to cure his unhappiness by dismissing him before he could complete his degree and thereby strengthen his claim on a tenured position.

Trilling, never one to avoid a fight, confronted his professorial “accusers,” indeed “made date to annihilate [them],” and particularly his dissertation supervisor Emery Neff, who reportedly complained that Trilling had “involved himself with Ideas,” that he was overly “sensitive,” and didn’t really “fit [in] because he was a Jew.” This was not the last time that Trilling’s mentor would abandon him. Twenty-three years later, after Trilling had given a famously “heretical” lecture about Robert Frost’s poetry that aroused a storm of controversy, he wrote to me as follows: “Since we speak of teachers and scholarship, you will readily understand that the startling — and grotesque — part of the incident was that my old teacher Emery Neff, who taught me most of what I know about scholarship, denounced me with no knowledge of the text of what I had said.”
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Edward Alexander
October 12th, 2018
4:10 PM
Lionel Trilling: America's Matthew Arnold

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