We live in a period in which much academic literary criticism tends to be obscure and remote. Most academics write for other college professors, and their essays are often filled with professional jargon and favor fashionable, if sometimes transitory, approaches to understanding literature like structuralism or deconstruction.

This was not always the case.

In the 1950s Lionel Trilling was America’s most esteemed literary critic. His writing appeared regularly in the non-academic press, and his readership extended far beyond the narrow world of academia. Trilling’s writing was elegant and intricate but always clear and devoid of jargon. Hence, he was able to influence not only other critics but large numbers of lay readers. In this way, he persuaded educated members of the general public to read high-brow modernist authors like James Joyce and William Butler Yeats and less venerated if more traditional poets, novelists, and essayists like Matthew Arnold, E. M. Forster, and George Orwell.

Trilling’s writing first appeared at the same time that the movement known as New Criticism emerged. Promoted by Southern “agrarian” writers like John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and Cleanth Brooks, New Criticism was founded on the idea that literary criticism should make no reference to anything except the text being considered. Thus, the New Critics judged the historical context of a work and the author’s stated aims as irrelevant.

Trilling rejected this path. A short Trilling essay on the Milton poem “Lycidas,” for example, offers the reader a stylish history of the critical reaction to the poem, including Samuel Johnson’s denunciation of it as inauthentic and factitious. Trilling then explains the reason that pastoral literature was created during the Renaissance, why Milton wrote the poem in the faux naif manner of a shepherd, and how the historical circumstances of its authorship invalidate Dr. Johnson’s criticism.

Similarly, Trilling’s monograph on the famous Yeats poem “Sailing To Byzantium” demonstrates the irony inherent in Yeats’ decision to write a poem celebrating the supposedly static and lifeless culture of medieval Byzantium.

A popular collection of Trilling’s shortest essays, The Experience of Literature, provides teachers with prefaces to famous literary works. Reportedly, many teachers in classes where this has been selected as a textbook avoid assigning them to their students because they are so complete and cogent that they leave the instructor without anything to add.

Trilling wrote other essays for a mass-circulation book club that he directed along with his close friend Jacques Barzun and the poet W. H. Auden. The club brought tens of thousands of Americans across the country great works of literature from the past and major new works, along with sophisticated commentary to aid in understanding these. Among the volumes presented were reissues of lauded editions of Shakespeare and Tolstoy, Nabokov’s Lolita, Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March, Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet, the poetry of Constantine Cavafy, and nonfiction works like David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd, Erwin Panofsky’s art criticism, and Erik Erikson’s Young Man Luther.

However, Trilling had arguably even larger aims than to bring a nuanced grasp of major works of literature and controversial but significant ideas to a mass audience.

During the early 1930s, Trilling and his wife Diana had associated themselves with a well-known Communist front group known as the National Committee for the Defense of Political Prisoners. Observing its machinations, the Trillings learned about some of the sinister activities of the Communist Party. This included the Party’s involvement in spying in the United States on behalf of the Soviet Union. But it extended beyond this. In particular, the couple realized that the Communist Party of Germany was working to prevent the creation of a united leftist opposition that might confront the rise of Hitler and that it was exploiting the fraudulent rape trial of a group of young black men in the Jim Crow South, collectively known as the Scottsboro Boys, for its own ends.

This consciousness of the malign and secretive ways of the Communist Party would inform Trilling’s writing and would align him with many of the intellectuals who later came to be known as neoconservatives. This association would be fostered by Trilling’s involvement with the anti-Stalinist magazine Partisan Review. It would also be expressed in his novel The Middle of the Journey, which sympathetically portrays a character based on Whittaker Chambers and shows respect and appreciation for—if not belief in—Christianity.

Trilling’s consciousness that religious devotion was something apart from him was in some degree ironic, in that his Jewishness had almost derailed his academic career at its outset. Unease felt by senior Columbia University English Department faculty members about appointing Trilling to a tenured position during the 1930s was prompted by a specific animus toward Jews. In fact, after Columbia’s president appointed Trilling independently of the department, Trilling’s thesis adviser, Emery Neff, said that he did not wish to see any other Jews on the University’s faculty.

Yet this was not the only source of the English Department’s discomfiture with Trilling. Like many intellectuals of the time, Trilling was influenced by Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx, thinkers that the senior faculty disdained.

However, it is important to understand that Trilling focused upon Marx’s early humanistic essays, and not his later programmatic economic writings or his calls for revolution. Moreover, Trilling was critical and conscious of the anti-Semitism displayed even in these early works of Marx.

Similarly, the interest that Trilling had in Freud was focused upon his humanism and his considerable literary skills, and the book by Freud that Trilling assigned to his Columbia students was Civilization and Its Discontents. That paradoxically conservative study is a consideration of the difficulties that society faces in trying to persuade its egoistic members to subordinate their selfish and irrational wishes and desires in order to maintain the social order.

This subject would preoccupy Trilling throughout his life. How could civil society be sustained without sacrifice and a sense of duty among the citizenry? How important was the existence of a high culture and what role might it play in this? What cost did the need for social order impose upon the individual who might wish at times for a sense of personal liberation?

Trilling’s reputation had been won by a consideration of these subjects in his masterful study, Matthew Arnold. Based on his doctoral dissertation, it is generally regarded as among the finest academic literary works of the twentieth century. Yet it was unconventional in some noticeable ways. Trilling made almost no use of contemporary commentary, instead citing major figures of the past like Emerson and Goethe.

In this book Trilling acknowledged Arnold’s faults. He did not deny that Arnold had a poorer “ear” for verse than his major Victorian contemporaries, Browning and (especially) Tennyson, and that some of Arnold’s poems seem more to aim for greatness than to be invested with it. But Trilling argued convincingly that Arnold’s matching of his intellectual power with his depth and substance gave the best of his poems a special excellence and that his criticism and commentary remained of unusual significance and relevance, with its focus upon maintaining culture in a time of widespread loss of religious faith.

Although Trilling was still in his early thirties when the book came out, its publication at once established him as one of the leading living scholars of English literature, and other academics were forced to again acknowledge how extraordinary the best of Arnold’s work was—that, for instance, as one wag put it, Arnold’s “Empedocles on Etna” had successfully condensed Goethe’s Faust to fifteen pages.

In the same way, Trilling’s writing about E. M. Forster brought the British novelist a much wider degree of appreciation. Trilling elucidated not only Forster’s artistry but also his views of imperialism and his intimate knowledge of and regard for bourgeois life and culture.

Likewise, Trilling’s writing about George Orwell played a central role in creating an understanding of the importance of Orwell’s courage, of his opposition to totalitarianism, and of his exposure of the Left’s deceptions about Communism and its hostility toward the sense of civic duty that both Orwell and Trilling valued and admired.

Trilling’s work on Arnold, Forster, and Orwell was perhaps the most significant, but the range of his literary criticism was nearly all-encompassing and has rarely been equaled. From Diderot and Tacitus to Austen, Dickens, Tolstoy, Twain, Wharton, and Fitzgerald, Trilling skillfully presented learned and perceptive analyses that were valuable for fellow scholars and intelligible and accessible to intelligent laymen.

Trilling consistently approached writers as figures of a specific time and place whose politics offered a particular set of problems and issues. Still, while Trilling had an interest in authors who addressed political or social questions, he was dismissive of critics who focused on poorly written but politically “engaged” stories. Thus, though Trilling had a special interest in Henry James’ early novels about women’s suffrage and anarchist violence, The Bostonians and The Princess Casamassima respectively, he had a far higher view of James generally than of sociological novelists who wrote unskillfully, like Theodore Dreiser.

For Trilling politics was an aspect to be regarded in literature—it was not the thing itself.

Insofar as Trilling had a stated political orientation it was as a liberal Democrat. This was so even at the end of his life. However, when students took over Columbia’s campus buildings during the Vietnam War, he showed no sympathy for their actions or their cause, and he was, according to his widow, not an admirer of anti-war Presidential candidate George McGovern. Further, his view of radical affirmative action policies was watchful and questioning. Although he looked hopefully on the likelihood of an increase in the number of women and minority university teachers, he felt it essential that they be sufficiently qualified and worried that political pressure might lead to the selection of those who were not.

This wariness is to be expected given the enormous effort he put into his own teaching and the value he accorded it. This commitment is reflected in the remarkable number of his students who came to prominence as intellectuals after him, nearly all of whom spoke highly of his instruction and his personal encouragement. Among those who took his Great Books course were novelists Jack Kerouac and Cynthia Ozick, poets Allen Ginsberg, John Hollander, and Richard Howard, biographer Carolyn Heilbrun, and critics Leon Wieseltier, Louis Menand, and Norman Podhoretz.

Trilling’s deficiencies as a critic are linked to his persistent desire for what might be called “high seriousness.” Because of this, he tended to underestimate or to lack interest in satirists and humorists. Thus, one can hardly find reference in his criticism to Henry Fielding, Evelyn Waugh, or Dawn Powell, for example, and even though he was friends with Mary McCarthy, he seems not to have fully appreciated her writing.

There can be no doubt but that the union of Trilling’s conviction that a high culture was possible and worthwhile with his range and force of mind and his desire to appeal to a broad audience rendered a singular legacy. This prompted an author in the Atlantic Monthly some years ago to refer to him in an article on his accomplishments as “The Last Great Critic.”

Trilling’s best-known work was The Liberal Imagination: Essays on Literature and Society. Though Trilling was politically liberal, his use of the term in this work was very different than the sense it now has. The “Liberal Imagination” is the ability to entertain the problems, complexities, and delights of a free society. Trilling saw liberalism thus understood as patriotic and an enlargement of the human spirit. He hoped the experience of works of high art would endow his readers and students with something of this sense of liberality. In Trilling’s work, the “Liberal Imagination” is contraposed by the want of imagination of intellectuals trapped by radical theorizing or by dreams of utopia.

One of Trilling’s most brilliant essays dealt with the William Morris novel News from Nowhere. Set in a future utopian state, it describes a society without much in the way of struggle or individuality—or, for that matter, freedom of thought. While Trilling recognized that Morris was a multifaceted genius, Trilling stated plainly that he very much disliked the novel upon rereading it. This was not only because it was manifestly a fantasy. It was also that he found the world it depicted entirely uncongenial.

–Essay by Jonathan Leaf