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Trilling won his fight to remain at Columbia as an assistant professor, and was probably helped by the fact that Columbia’s then president Nicholas Murray Butler intervened with the “angry Saxons” by remarking that Columbia would not follow the example of the University of Berlin, which had just refused to receive a Jewish visiting professor from Columbia: “Columbia recognises merit, not race.” Trilling, it is worth noting, claimed that, in his conferences with opponents of his tenure, he demonstrated that they were unable to identify a single example of Jewish, Marxist, or Freudian influence in his writings. (They must have been poor readers, for Trilling had contributed 24 articles and stories to The Menorah Journal.)

Neither was he a stranger to “Ideas” or to Jewish troubles at universities whose foundations were set, as King’s College/Columbia’s had been in 1754, by the Church of England. To this day most of Columbia’s colleges display three crosses in the traditional crown. With Victorian England’s controversy over Jews and universities Trilling had dealt at length in his magisterial biography of Matthew Arnold, originally his doctoral dissertation, later published as a book in 1939. It included a detailed account of Dr Thomas Arnold’s fierce opposition to the admission of Jews to London University. Arnold, father of the poet, headed the Broad or Liberal branch of the Established Church. He insisted that England is the land of Englishmen, “not of Jews” or “lodgers,” and that admitting Jews to the university would be “the first time that England was avowedly unchristianised for the sake of accommodating Jews.”

As for the accusation that Trilling worked with ideas, it was of course justified, provided that Neff and other Columbia English faculty remembered what a literary idea is. Years later, “The Meaning of a Literary Idea,” first published in 1949 in The American Quarterly, would become the culminating essay of The Liberal Imagination. “The question of the relation which should probably obtain between what we call creative literature and what we call ideas is a matter of insistent importance for modern criticism. It did not always make difficulties for the critic, and that it now makes so many is a fact which tells us much about our present relation to literature.” Calling into question T.S. Eliot’s famous remark that “Henry James had a mind so fine that no idea could violate it,” Trilling took pains to distinguish ideas from ideology:

Ideas . . .  if they are large enough  . . .  are not only not hostile to the creative process, but are virtually inevitable to it . . . to call ourselves the people of the idea is to flatter ourselves. We are rather the people of ideology, which is a very different thing. Ideology is not the product of thought; it is the habit or ritual of showing respect for certain formulas to which, for various reasons having to do with emotional safety, we have very strong ties of whose meaning and consequences we have no clear understanding.
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Edward Alexander
October 12th, 2018
4:10 PM
Lionel Trilling: America's Matthew Arnold

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