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The Columbia faculty’s uneasiness about Trilling’s supposed Marxism in 1936 was mainly a cover for anti-Jewish prejudice. The letters published by Kirsch show that, as early as 1933, he considered communism a mistake of his past. In a letter of April that year he feigns surprise that the Writers’ Committee of the John Reed club has blocked his participation in a symposium, alleging that “[Trilling] is our enemy.” In August 1936 Trilling told an English department colleague that “I must always have reservation of faith in anything. The revolutionary heroes were disgusting. Russia was disgusting. Perhaps every revolution must betray itself.” In June 1937 he complained to Columbia colleague Jacques Barzun of “a polite vulgar Marxism which goes down with intellectual liberals so easy and which I conceive it my job in future to destroy.”

The unrelenting attacks on liberalism in Trilling’s private correspondence should put an end to the view that The Liberal Imagination is primarily an attempt to rescue it from its own excesses, its tendency to become dogmatic and dictatorial. In 1942, eight years before its publication, he was calling into question “a great many of the liberal assumptions which have been unquestioningly accepted by so many, and especially by intellectuals. My feeling about the situation is not only rational  . . .  it is very personal and passionate.”

Nor had Trilling’s turn away from liberalism gone unnoticed. A long review of his critical study of E.M. Forster in 1943, he noted with satisfaction, had “set liberal tongues fussily wagging, and even illiberal eyes open with surprise . . . the piece makes my book a Republican campaign document.” In the same year he told Newton Arvin: “Having escaped from a foolish affirmation — I meant the whole dreadful Stalinoid flummery, which I consider one of the most immoral events of intellectual history — I find it terribly hard to find new points of positive attachment.”

Trilling also came to the conclusion that liberalism was responsible for the debasement of American literature. “It isn’t merely that I believe that our liberal culture doesn’t produce great art and lacks imagination — it is that I think it produces horrible art and has a hideous imagination . . . And this is generally true of all our literature of social idealism, from its centrist generality to its leftist, Stalinist specificity.” Later, in the 1960s, Trilling was dismayed when his own favorite Columbia student, Norman Podhoretz, the new editor of Commentary magazine, was diluting the magazine’s strenuous anti-communist position.

But his stringent anti-communism did not mean that he became an uncritical apologist for modernism, whose leading figures — Dostoeveky, Yeats, Eliot, Pound — were either hostile or indifferent to liberal ideas. In a seminal Partisan Review essay of 1961 called “On the Teaching of Modern Literature,” later reprinted in Beyond Culture, Trilling dwelt uneasily on the paradox whereby a literature whose most distinctive mark was its “bitter line of hostility to civilisation” in its entirety was now (in response to student demand years earlier) an entrenched part of the English curriculum at Columbia and the many colleges that followed its lead. A literature whose most salient characteristic was “its discovery and canonisation of the primal, non-ethical energies” was being assimilated and made routine in syllabi, term papers, examinations. Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground was becoming the seminal work of modernism, “so radical and so brilliant was its negation of our traditional pieties and its affirmation of our new pieties.”
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Edward Alexander
October 12th, 2018
4:10 PM
Lionel Trilling: America's Matthew Arnold

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