Lionel Trilling, one of America’s foremost literary critics, was born on the Fourth of July in 1905 in Queens, New York to Jewish immigrant parents—his mother from London, his father from Bialystok, a city in northeastern Poland. He grew up in New York City, graduated from high school in 1921, and enrolled at Columbia University, where he would spend most of his professional life.
As an undergraduate he took one of the earliest versions of the “Great Books” seminar that would become part of Columbia’s trademark core curriculum. He received his B.A. in 1925 and an M.A. in 1926, then left Columbia for five years to teach at other colleges; he married his wife Diana, also a writer, in 1929. He returned to Columbia in 1932 to begin a doctoral program, which he completed in 1938.
At Columbia he began teaching as an untenured lecturer: the English department faculty resisted offering him tenure because he was Jewish. Even publishing his dissertation to widespread acclaim did not remove the prejudices of some of his colleagues, so the university’s president appointed him to a tenured position during the summer recess, when antisemitic faculty members were not around to object.
Trilling remained at Columbia for the rest of his career, teaching in the English department, helping to build Columbia’s core curricular program, and befriending many of the great New York Intellectuals—Jacques Barzun, Irving Howe, Whittaker Chambers, Norman Podhoretz, Irving Kristol, Philip Rahv, and numerous others. He wrote for several New York literary and intellectual magazines but was most associated with Partisan Review, whose advisory board he joined in 1937.
Partisan Review was a leftist journal that broke with American communism over a complicated, interlocking set of issues, of which two deserve mention. In politics, PR’s writers and editors opposed Stalinism and other forms of pro-Soviet leftism. PR became a gathering place for what Irving Howe called the “independent left.” In art, PR championed complex and ambiguous literature, especially modernism and the literary avant-garde, against communist writers who preferred their art to make straightforward political statements.
At the same time that he was writing articles in PR, Trilling began to publish books. His scholarly biography of Matthew Arnold (1939) was followed by a shorter, more popular, but equally well-received study of E. M. Forster (1943) that played a major role in introducing Forster’s work to American readers. Next came The Middle of the Journey (1947), Trilling’s only novel; it received good reviews but sold poorly.
Trilling’s breakthrough to popular recognition came in 1950 when he published The Liberal Imagination, a collection of essays revised from magazine articles (including several published in Partisan Review) and introductions to classic works of literature. It sold 170,000 copies, an unthinkable number for a work of literary criticism. The book amounted to a criticism of then-regnant liberalism by a liberal and an attempt, in Trilling’s words, to “recall liberalism to its first essential imagination of variousness and possibility, which implies the awareness of complexity and difficulty.”
Throughout the 1950s, Trilling was America’s most famous and respected literary critic.
During the remainder of his life, Trilling published dozens of highly wrought essays on books, culture and the arts. Many of these were reprinted in three additional collections issued during his lifetime: The Opposing Self (1955), A Gathering of Fugitives (1956), and Beyond Culture (1965). In 1969-70 he was invited to give the Charles Eliot Norton lectures at Harvard; a revised version of the lectures became his final full-length book, Sincerity and Authenticity, a history of those two concepts from the Renaissance through Trilling’s day.
Trilling died of pancreatic cancer on November 5, 1975. In the years that followed, his widow Diana Trilling published a collected version of his works; that series includes the short story collection Of This Time, Of That Place; the collections The Last Decade and Speaking of Literature and Society; and the critical introductions that Trilling wrote to literary works for a classroom anthology that he edited, published as Prefaces to ‘The Experience of Literature.’ In 2000 a one-volume selection of his essays appeared under the title, The Moral Obligation to Be Intelligent. His work has continued to influence debates at the intersection of culture, literature, and politics.