World Library  
Flag as Inappropriate
Email this Article

Lionel Trilling

Lionel Trilling
Lionel Trilling
Born Lionel Mordechai Trilling
(1905-07-04)July 4, 1905
New York City, NY
Died November 5, 1975(1975-11-05) (aged 70)
New York City, NY
Cause of death abdominal cancer
Residence New York City, New York
Nationality American
Alma mater Columbia University
Occupation literary critic, professor
Years active 1931–1975
Employer Columbia University
Known for literary criticism
Notable work The Liberal Imagination (1950)
Spouse(s) Diana Trilling (1929-1975; his death)
Children James Trilling
Website Official website

Lionel Mordecai Trilling (July 4, 1905 – November 5, 1975) was an American literary critic, author, and teacher. With wife Diana Trilling, he was a member of the New York Intellectuals and contributor to the Partisan Review. He was one of the leading U.S. critics of the twentieth century who traced the contemporary cultural, social, and political implications of literature.


  • Academic life 1
  • Partisan Review and the "New York Intellectuals" 2
  • Critical and literary works 3
  • Politics 4
    • Liberal 4.1
    • Neoconservative 4.2
    • Moderate 4.3
  • Works by Trilling 5
  • Bibliography 6
  • References 7
  • Further reading 8
  • External links 9

Academic life

Lionel Trilling was born in Queens, New York, the son of Fannie (née Cohen), who was from London, and David Trilling, a tailor from Bialystok in Poland.[1] His family was Jewish. In 1921, he graduated from DeWitt Clinton High School, and, at age sixteen, entered Columbia University, thus beginning a lifelong association with the university. In 1925, he graduated from Columbia College, and, in 1926, earned a Master of Arts degree at the university. He then taught at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and at Hunter College.

In 1932, he returned to Columbia to pursue his doctoral degree in English literature and to teach literature. He earned his doctorate in 1938 with a dissertation about Matthew Arnold that he later published. He was promoted to assistant professor the following year – Columbia's first tenured Jewish professor in the English department. He was promoted to full professor in 1948.

Lionel Trilling became the George Edward Woodberry Professor of Literature and Criticism in 1965. He was a popular instructor and for thirty years taught Columbia's Colloquium on Important Books, a course about the relationship between literature and cultural history, with David Lehman, Leon Wieseltier, Louis Menand, Robert Leonard Moore [2] and Norman Podhoretz.

Trilling was the Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard University for academic year 1969-70. In 1972, he was selected by the National Endowment for the Humanities to deliver the first Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities, described as "the highest honor the federal government confers for distinguished intellectual achievement in the humanities."[3] Trilling was a senior fellow of the Kenyon School of English and subsequently a senior fellow of the Indiana School of Letters.

Partisan Review and the "New York Intellectuals"

In 1937, Trilling joined the recently revived magazine Partisan Review, a Marxist, but anti-Stalinist, journal founded by William Philips and Philip Rahv in 1934.[4]

The Partisan Review was associated with the New York Intellectuals – Trilling, his wife Diana Trilling, Lionel Abel, Hannah Arendt, William Barrett, Daniel Bell, Saul Bellow, Richard Thomas Chase, F. W. Dupee, Leslie Fiedler, Paul Goodman, Clement Greenberg, Elizabeth Hardwick, Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin, Hilton Kramer, Steven Marcus, Mary McCarthy, Dwight Macdonald, William Phillips, Norman Podhoretz, Harold Rosenberg, Isaac Rosenfeld, Delmore Schwartz, and Susan Sontag – who emphasized the influence of history and culture upon authors and literature. The New York Intellectuals distanced themselves from the New Critics.

In his preface to the essays collection, Beyond Culture (1965), Trilling defended the New York Intellectuals: "As a group, it is busy and vivacious about ideas, and, even more, about attitudes. Its assiduity constitutes an authority. The structure of our society is such that a class of this kind is bound by organic filaments to groups less culturally fluent that are susceptible to its influence."

Critical and literary works

Trilling wrote one novel, The Middle of the Journey (1947), about an affluent Communist couple's encounter with a Communist defector. (Trilling later acknowledged that the character was inspired by his Columbia College compatriot and contemporary Whittaker Chambers[5][6]). His short stories include "The Other Margaret." Otherwise, he wrote essays and reviews, in which he reflected on literature's ability to challenge the morality and conventions of the culture. Critic David Daiches said of Trilling, "Mr. Trilling likes to move out and consider the implications, the relevance for culture, for civilization, for the thinking man today, of each particular literary phenomenon which he contemplates, and this expansion of the context gives him both his moments of his greatest perceptions, and his moments of disconcerting generalization."

Trilling published two complex studies of authors Homage to Catalonia.

In 2008, Columbia University Press published an unfinished novel that Trilling had abandoned in the late 1940s. Scholar Geraldine Murphy discovered the half-finished novel among Trilling's papers archived at Columbia University.[8] Trilling's novel, The Journey Abandoned: The Unfinished Novel, is set in the 1930s and involves a young protagonist, Vincent Hammell, who seeks to write a biography of an elder poet, Jorris Buxton. Buxton's character is loosely based on the nineteenth century Romantic poet Walter Savage Landor.[8] Writer and critic Cynthia Ozick praised the novel's "skillful narrative" and "complex characters", writing, "The Journey Abandoned is a crowded gallery of carefully delineated portraits whose innerness is divulged partly through dialogue but far more extensively in passages of cannily analyzed insight."[9]


Trilling's politics have been strongly debated and, like much else in his thought, may be described as "complex." An often-quoted summary of Trilling's politics is that he wished to:[10]

"[remind] people who prided themselves on being liberals that liberalism was ... a political position which affirmed the value of individual existence in all its variousness, complexity, and difficulty."

Politically, Trilling was a noted member of the anti-Stalinist left, a position that he maintained to the end of his life.[11][12]


In his earlier years, Trilling wrote for and in the liberal tradition, explicitly rejecting conservativism; from the preface to his The Liberal Imagination, 1950, emphasis added to much-quoted last line:

In the United States at this time Liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition. For it is the plain fact that nowadays there are no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation. This does not mean, of course, that there is no impulse to conservatism or to reaction. Such impulses are certainly very strong, perhaps even stronger than most of us know. But the conservative impulse and the reactionary impulse do not, with some isolated and some ecclesiastical exceptions, express themselves in ideas but only in action or in irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.


Some, both conservative and liberal, argue that Trilling's views became steadily more conservative over time, and Trilling has been embraced as sympathetic to neoconservativism by neoconservatives (such as Norman Podhoretz, editor of Commentary), though this embrace was unrequited, Trilling criticizing the New Left (as he had the Old Left), but not embracing neoconservativism. The extent to which Trilling may be identified with neoconservativism continues to be contentious, forming a point of debate.[13]


Trilling has alternatively been characterized as solidly moderate, as evidenced by many statements, ranging from the very title of his novel, The Middle of the Journey, to a central passage from the novel:[14]

"An absolute freedom from responsibility – that much of a child none of us can be. An absolute responsibility – that much of a divine or metaphysical essence none of us is."

Along the same lines, in reply to a taunt by Richard Sennett, "You have no position; you are always in between," Trilling replied, "Between is the only honest place to be."[15]

Works by Trilling


Non-Fiction and Essays

Prefaces, Afterwards, and Commentaries


  • Shoben, Edward Joseph Jr. Lionel Trilling Mind and Character, Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1981, ISBN 0-8044-2815-8
  • Bloom, Alexander. Prodigal Sons: The New York Intellectuals & Their World, Oxford University Press, 1986. ISBN 978-0-19-505177-3
  • Chace, William M. “Lionel Trilling”, Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism.
  • Kirsch, Adam. Why Trilling Matters. Yale University Press, 2011. ISBN 978-0-300-15269-2.
  • Krupnick, Mark. Lionel Trilling and the Fate of Cultural Criticism. Northwestern University Press, Evanston, 1986. ISBN 978-0-8101-0712-0
  • Lask, Thomas. “Lionel Trilling, 70, Critic, Teacher and Writer, Dies”, The New York Times, November 5, 1975
  • Leitch, Thomas M. Lionel Trilling: An Annotated Bibliography.
  • Lionel Trilling, et al., The Situation in American Writing: A Symposium Partisan Review, Volume 6 5 (1939)
  • Longstaff, S. A. “New York Intellectuals”, Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism.
  • O'Hara, Daniel T. "Lionel Trilling: The Work of Liberation." U. of Wisconsin P, 1988.
  • Trilling, Diana. The Beginning of the Journey: The Marriage of Diana and Lionel Trilling. Harcourt, Brace & Company, 1993. ISBN 0-15-111685-7.
  • Trilling, Lionel. Beyond Culture: Essays on Literature and Learning.
  • Wald, Alan M. The New York Intellectuals: The Rise and Decline of the Anti-Stalinist Left from the 1930s to the 1980s (University of North Carolina Press 1987). ISBN 0-8078-4169-2, ISBN 978-0-8078-4169-3
  • Alexander, Edward. Lionel Trilling and Irving Howe: And Other Stories of Literary Friendship. Transaction, 2009. ISBN 978-1-4128-1014-2.[16]
  • Kimmage, Michael. The Conservative Turn: Lionel Trilling, Whittaker Chambers, and the Lessons of Anti-Communism. Harvard University Press, 2009. ISBN 978-0-674-03258-3.[16]


  1. ^ [2]
  2. ^ Author of Compendiary (2 v., 2007-2009)
  3. ^ Jefferson Lecturers at NEH Website (Retrieved January 22, 2009).
  4. ^ Longstaff, S. A. “New York Intellectuals”, Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism.
  5. ^ Chambers, Whittaker (1964). Cold Friday. Random House. p. 128.  
  6. ^ Trilling, Lionel (April 17, 1975). "'"Whittaker Chambers and 'The Middle of the Journey. New York Review of Books. Retrieved October 9, 2010. 
  7. ^ Trilling, Lionel, et al., The Situation in American Writing: A Symposium Partisan Review, Volume 6 5 (1939).
  8. ^ a b The Journey Abandoned"Synopses & Reviews": Powell's Books, 2008. Retrieved 2008-05-27.
  9. ^  
  10. ^ 1974 foreword to The Liberal Imagination, quoted and cited as "often repeated" in (Glick 2000)
  11. ^ Writing in the 1974 foreword to his 1950 collection The Liberal Imagination, (shortly before his 1975 death) he wrote that the essays were "with reference to a particular political-cultural situation, ... [namely] the commitment that a large segment of the intelligentsia of the West gave to the degraded version of Marxism known as Stalinism." (Glick 2000)
  12. ^ Wald, Alan M. (1987). The New York Intellectuals: The Rise and Decline of the Anti-Stalinist Left from the 1930s to the 1980s. University of North Carolina Press. p. 33.  
  13. ^ Rodden, 2000
  14. ^ (Glick 2000) writes "several reviewers quoted [this passage] as Trilling's central point"
  15. ^ Quoted in Sennett essay in (Rodden 2000)
  16. ^ a b The Never-Ending Journey, Reviewed by D.G. Myers, Commentary Magazine, October 2009

Further reading

  • Glick, Nathan (July 2000), "The Last Great Critic",  

External links

  • Johns Hopkins Guide to Criticism
  • Quotations by Lionel Trilling
  • Columbia University - Profile of Trilling
  • Columbia University - Lionel Trilling Papers (1899–1987)
  • The Trilling Imagination by Gertrude Himmelfarb
  • The Middle of the JourneyArticle on
  • Lionel Trilling at Columbia by Quentin Anderson
  • Lionel Trilling at Find a Grave
This article was sourced from Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License; additional terms may apply. World Heritage Encyclopedia content is assembled from numerous content providers, Open Access Publishing, and in compliance with The Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act (FASTR), Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., Public Library of Science, The Encyclopedia of Life, Open Book Publishers (OBP), PubMed, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health (NIH), U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, and, which sources content from all federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial government publication portals (.gov, .mil, .edu). Funding for and content contributors is made possible from the U.S. Congress, E-Government Act of 2002.
Crowd sourced content that is contributed to World Heritage Encyclopedia is peer reviewed and edited by our editorial staff to ensure quality scholarly research articles.
By using this site, you agree to the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. World Heritage Encyclopedia™ is a registered trademark of the World Public Library Association, a non-profit organization.

Copyright © World Library Foundation. All rights reserved. eBooks from Project Gutenberg are sponsored by the World Library Foundation,
a 501c(4) Member's Support Non-Profit Organization, and is NOT affiliated with any governmental agency or department.