Everybody’s a critic, but in the past hundred years, few have reached the heights of Lionel Trilling. When he died in 1975, his obituary ran on the front page of the New York Times—a rarity for those in the thankless field of criticism. Through his essays for the Partisan Review and his books—including The Liberal Imagination—Trilling shaped and prodded the currents of American thought in a time of great social change. As Trilling himself once put it, his writing lies at “the bloody crossroads” of literature and politics, and this devotion to grounding literary criticism in real-world concerns made him one of the premier intellectuals of the twentieth century. Trilling was also a prolific writer of letters. By his own estimation, he wrote at least six hundred every year. In September, Farrar, Straus and Giroux published Life in Culture: Selected Letters of Lionel Trilling, edited by Adam Kirsch. Below, we present a selection of Trilling’s choicest opinions, which show that even in his correspondence, the critic was always at work.
On Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems
I’m afraid I have to tell you that I don’t like the poems at all. I hesitate before saying that they seem to me quite dull, for to say of a work which undertakes to be violent and shocking that it is dull is, I am aware, a well-known and all too-easy device. But perhaps you will believe that I am being sincere when I say they are dull. They are not like Whitman—they are all prose, all rhetoric, without any music. What I used to like in your poems, whether I thought they were good or bad, was the voice I heard in them, true and natural and interesting. There is no real voice here. As for the doctrinal element of the poems, apart from the fact that I of course reject it, it seems to me that I heard it very long ago and that you give it to me in all its orthodoxy, with nothing new added.
On Eugene O’Neill
I never can feel that O’Neill is writing about men—just about the abstracted damp souls of undergraduates. It is not that he cannot “think”—it is that he cannot touch: for all that fine “experience” of his young manhood—sea and saloons and sanitariums—the immediacy of life has never reached him. You can see this in his language, that dreadful, dreadful soggy language, which sounds like and has in it the slang of two decades ago. The loss of the sense of touch: it marks more and more of our thought and literature. Even our language to describe it is out of touch: we say “lost contact with.” When I reach out to take O’Neill’s hand, I feel as I had grasped an inflated rubber glove. And I simply don’t know what he is talking about. Yet matters of guilt and self-deception and one’s relations with ultimates, these are things that I like to think about and read about. Take a real theological mind and a real literary mind, like St. Augustine’s, and how real all those matters become—how tactile. Life is dreadfully getting away from us. (And especially how I hate it when O’Neill talks about death. Or about life.)
Am I wrong in all this? Am I unperceptive, intolerant, and mean? I’m willing to be corrected.
On his facial hair
Had you heard that I have a mustache? I don’t much like it.
On the great novelists
Today I read in D. H. Lawrence and was strangely encouraged by myself. For there are, for me, four transcendently great novelists: Dostoevski, Proust, Cervantes, and Dickens. (I omit Rabelais for his book is perhaps not rightly a novel.) Dostoevski has always depressed me by seeming to be scarcely human; Middleton Murry says, rather preciously, that by several tests he does not write novels but something beyond. At present Dostoevski has no applicable meaning for me and I do not read him, but his power I remember as something never again to be attained by anyone and as making effort futile, for somehow, though temporarily I have rejected him, his seems the greatest sort of thing to do. Proust I can see at work; I understand him pretty completely and so can control my feelings about him; but he, in fertility and strength, can, too, discourage me. (We never understand enough the tremendous originality and courage of his method.)
As for Cervantes and the great parts of Dickens, they are primal, from the very beginning; they just are, and allow no comparison or categorizing. But Lawrence is pretty great, I am sure; he is not Dostoevski, but there is as much validity in him if not so much terrible greatness; and by being great as he deals with the things of this world and not of some other—and more important—world which is Dostoevski’s and which I cannot conceivably touch, he allows in me the presumption that I, too, etc.—In short, he assures me that by using what good methods are at hand and by seeing clearly and deeply at eye level I may do something first-rate. I think if that is so it cannot happen for some time yet—not until I get blasted free: I am a good river, I think, but I am frozen down my length if not at my source, and I need that blasting.
On Thom Gunn
It seems that there is no question in any certified poet’s mind but that Gunn is the real thing. But I think Gunn is a neat-minded bore of a craftsman making well-made poem after well-made poem.
On “the new”
So far as I can see, there isn’t any hostility to the new: on the contrary, everybody is very nice and kind to the new and hopes it succeeds and secretly wishes it weren’t so ghastly boring. Which is to say, everybody takes toward the new the attitude of a devoted headmaster or undergraduate professor, who knows that the future lies with the new and that it must be brought out and encouraged, but who looks elsewhere for his conversation. Here’s a bet, say a good lunch: that you can’t name me one book in the last five years that has meant something to you, personally, as we say, and not as something you rate with an expert’s eye. I mean meant in the way (I don’t demand as much as) The Waste Land did, or A Portrait of the Artist (I don’t demand Ulysses), and so on. The new is weekly celebrated in the Times Book Review, or at least received, but the terms of the welcome by its partisans give the show away: such dull hurrahs. Of course, I’ve never been a great welcomer of the new—I’ve never thought I should go hunting for it, rather that it should try to capture me, against my resistance. I’ll be pleased to know, and I’ll take the information very seriously, who is now working who is likely to overcome my resistance and win my reluctant assent two, three, four, five years from now.
I think we’re in one of those bad times when minds lose their tone and make only flaccid noises. Such times have always passed and maybe this one will.
Lionel Trilling (1905–1975) was one of the most important American literary critics of the twentieth century. He taught at Columbia University for five decades and was the author of numerous books, including The Liberal Imagination and the novel The Middle of the Journey.
Excerpted from Life in Culture: Selected Letters of Lionel Trilling, edited by Adam Kirsch, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux on September 25, 2018. Copyright © 2018 by James Trilling and Adam Kirsch. All rights reserved.