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Yet Trilling was never able to accept his own premises about the value of criticism compared with “creative” writing, and until his last days was beset by the feeling that his real vocation was fiction, even though he published just one novel, The Middle of the Journey (1947), and several short stories. In a lengthy letter of 1948 he tells John Crowe Ransom, one of the chief practitioners of “New Critical” close reading of poetry, that he feels “impatience with myself in the role of critic” and that his “unconscious is requiring [him] to get back to fiction, from which I’ve been away a very long time . . . My novel was, for me, only a very, very moderate success and yet it gives me the only satisfaction I can get out of years of writing.”

In 1968 Trilling was suddenly catapulted back to the subject of The Liberal Imagination: namely “the dark and bloody crossroads where literature and politics meet.” Leaders of the Columbia University “revolution” posted a large photograph of Trilling with the legend WANTED DEAD OR ALIVE. FOR CRIMES AGAINST HUMANITY. The steady escalation of the Vietnam war, racial turmoil, the inadequacy of President Johnson, the murder of Martin Luther King on April 4, were among a host of other “issues.” Still more were invented by leftist hysteria and university students who were virtually unteachable because (or so they thought) they already knew everything and were constantly being told by their elders that they were “the best informed, the most intelligent, and the most idealistic the country had ever known.” Trilling, by contrast, said that they were “much less literate, much less intellectually curious, and much less intelligent” than their student predecessors.

On April 23, 1968 Columbia students rebelled against the school’s administration, supposedly a microcosm of American society. The SDS and Students’ African-American Society occupied Hamilton Hall, which housed the college’s administration and also the English Department, including Trilling’s office. The students were eager to become victims of police violence and also to turn the university into a training centre for revolutionaries. Trilling said that “the actual issue . . . was — is . . . a cultural issue. The most radical students were expressing their doctrinaire alienation from . . . the whole of American culture.” According to Diana Trilling, her husband disapproved of the uprising but enjoyed it, especially in its early days. He was appointed to a three-man faculty committee to reassess the university’s disciplinary procedure.

“For three days,” his wife observed, “he was on campus around the clock; when he finally came home for an hour or two of sleep, the police insisted upon escorting him — rumor had it that Harlem [inhabited mainly by blacks] was about to march on the university. He was sixty-two years old at this time but I never saw him less tired or in better spirits, and in the next weeks . . . he was full of appetite for the emergency. He was at last sampling the life of action which had always been denied him. Ruefully he told me how much he liked it.”
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Edward Alexander
October 12th, 2018
4:10 PM
Lionel Trilling: America's Matthew Arnold

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