“are all prose, all rhetoric, without any music… There is no voice here. As for the doctrinal element of the poems, apart from the fact that I of course reject it, it seems to me that I heard it very long ago and that you give it to me in all its orthodoxy, with nothing new added.”
Different as they were, Ginsberg the radical poet and Trilling the less-than-radical critic agreed and shared an extreme belief in literature. His teacher’s student, Ginsberg was a revolutionary of the written word: as went literature so would society go. The doctrinal element of a poem or the orthodoxy of a cultural position outlined the principles people were choosing to live for. The battles of literary criticism, then, were battles over the direction in which society and politics were tending.
Another of Trilling’s students from the 1940s, Norman Podhoretz, went from Columbia and from Trilling’s supervision to the editorship of Commentary magazine. It was self-evident to Trilling that the literary education he had given Podhoretz was all that Podhoretz needed for journalism, for advocacy and for the political fray. Trilling’s letters to Podhoretz have literature as their shorthand for everything. Taking the measure of the cultural scene, Trilling wrote to Podhoretz in August 1959 that “I smell a situation, the odor being of gunpowder.” In the calm twilight of the Eisenhower era, Trilling had intuited a political realignment from the discussion of literature. The gunpowder he smelled was of course real.
Only toward the end of Trilling’s life did literature seem to recede in stature. As Trilling often did, he discerned a cultural barometer in his students. In a May 1972 letter, he shared his impression that
“the relation of students to literature has undergone a radical change. This takes the form which cannot be described as an antagonism to literature but, rather, as a developing insensitivity to it—students seem less and less able to understand its cognitive value or to find that it has the exemplary force it once had.”
The cognitive value of literature is not less than it used to be, but the appreciation of this cognitive value is diminishing. From the students of the 1920s to the students of the 1970s something crucial had been lost.
Politics was most three-dimensional for Trilling when it concerned the 1930s. In a 1932 letter to the art historian Meyer Schapiro and his wife Lillian, Trilling emphasized his support for miners in Kentucky—a window into the mind of Trilling the philo-communist. A year later, another Trilling was in evidence. This was the Trilling who defended free speech on the Columbia campus. He defended, that is, that merits of having the ambassador from Hitler’s Germany speak on campus. Fully aware of Nazism, Trilling was adamant
“that it is wiser for the University to adhere to the principle of free speech on all occasions with all its possible anomalies than to reject the principle of free speech on any occasion because of any of its anomalies.”
In 1933, the Bolsheviks had other ideas about free speech.
The anti-communist Trilling is visible in 1936. As if writing out a précis for his later work, Trilling reviewed his feelings about the Soviet Union in an August 1936 letter. He had arrived at the irony and the complexity that would be the buzzwords of his later criticism, the inversions endemic to political maturity:
“I must always have a reservation of faith in anything. The revolutionary heroes—and they were certainly that—were disgusting; Russia was disgusting. Perhaps every revolution must betray itself. Perhaps every good thing and every good man has the seeds of degeneration in it or him.”
Skeptical reason triumphs over faith. Heroism issues in disgust, and a brave new world has grown from the “seeds of degeneration,” a signature Trilling oxymoron. But if there can be seeds of degeneration then decay can lead to regeneration. If the good can engender the bad, the knowledge of the bad can engender the good.
In the 1940s and 1950s, politics has less definition in Trilling’s letters than it did in the 1930s. His cause was clear, “a struggle, not energetic enough, against all the blindness and malign obfuscations of the Stalinoid mind of our time,” as he wrote in March 1946. Perhaps by this stage he was airing his views in his published work and did not need to go over them in his letters. Perhaps he was closer to the mainstream, closer to the policies of the Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations, and that made anti-communism no less necessary but less interesting than it had been in the Red Decade. Perhaps nothing quite reached the drama of the 1930s for him, the drama of a depression at home, of fascism in continental Europe and of the Soviet experiment under the Stalinist star. The gunpowder Trilling alluded to in 1959 exploded in the 1960s, and Trilling watched it explode, but neither the details of the Civil Rights Movement or of the Vietnam War captivated Trilling—at least not in the letters.
More than literature as such and more than politics per se, Trilling was beguiled by politics-in-literature or literature-in-politics. The relationships were determined by Trilling’s notion of liberalism, which was uniquely his. He wrote to the editor of the New Republic, Bruce Bliven, in March 1957 that “nothing could be more useful to a liberal political point of view than the fostering of a strong interest in literature.” Trilling associated liberalism with America’s educated classes: it was an idealistic spirit of democracy, in his view, which to endure had to be balanced, self-aware and civilized. It could not succumb to the authoritarianism that characterized conservatism for Trilling, a force out there somewhere in the body politic but not, in Trilling’s estimation, a malady of the educated classes. Nor could liberalism succumb to the extremism of the Left, the blindness and malign obfuscations that had encouraged some liberals in the 1930s to applaud the crimes of Joseph Stalin.
To avoid imbalance of one kind or another, and to avoid the technocratic sterility to which the liberal mind was prone, the liberal point of view was in need of literature. A strong interest in literature had to be fostered. Trilling offers no formula for this in his letters (or in his essays). Better than providing a formula, his letters provide an example of literature as a stimulus to the liberal point of view. Literature is a resource, a reservoir of examples and problems and juxtapositions that the mind steeped in literature can turn to when articulating a political point, formulating a question and fashioning an argument. Good literature curbs wishful thinking. It frames an awareness of what is humanly possible and what is impossible. Good literature offers no precepts on ethical behavior, no etiquette, no enumerated commandments. In the matrix of good literature, however, ethical behavior can be grasped and grasped by the reader as relevant to the reader’s life. If literature is relevant to the reader’s life, it must be relevant to the society and polity in which the reader lives.
The essential example for Trilling was the poetry of William Wordsworth. The Marxist critics of the 1930s wanted to believe that Wordsworth was an excellent poet when he supported the French Revolution and a mediocre poet when he opposed it. They wanted a straight line between literature and politics. “But it must be noted,” Trilling wrote in a 1935 letter,
“That this same reactionary political philosophy [of Wordsworth’s] was largely instrumental in producing the poetry of his great period. Because his effectiveness came only after his rejection of the rationalism which had been one of the components of his revolutionary sympathy.”
Fascists and communists might force literature to do politics’ bidding, but the liberal cannot use literature as a mirror created to reflect back the loveliness of liberal pieties.
Liberal pieties must be tested against the stringent non-political truths of literature, preferably of an illiberal literature. (Trilling relished the fact that most of the great modernist writers, from Kafka to T.S. Eliot, were not political liberals.) This does not weaken the liberal reader, nor does it undermine the rationalism and pluralism of a liberal political order. Rationalism, pluralism and tolerance are not givens. They are elusive goods more likely to flourish when literature’s moral rigor is allowed to have its effect. They are achieved in the cultural interaction, the cultural struggle between a reader and a great work of literature. Liberal arts yield a liberal education and the imagination on which political liberalism ultimately rests.
This would be the thesis statement of Trilling’s major books, from The Liberal Imagination to The Opposing Self and Beyond Culture. The letters add a quality to Trilling’s political-cultural thesis statement that is missing from the books. This is the premium Trilling placed on privacy. Letters are private by definition, but even so Trilling’s letters form an homage to privacy. He was a famous man, sought after at Columbia, in New York, nationally and internationally. He enjoyed fame and enjoyed his achievements, and he resisted them at the same time. Letter after letter chronicles Trilling’s penchant for privacy, his saying no to invitations, his desire to get away from his reputation, from New York, from his public duties and from the demands of his own ego. When saying no to an offer to teach at Harvard, as he explains in a March 1958 letter to David Riesman, “what I most wanted at this point in my life was a greater measure of privacy.”