A great critic’s quarrels with himself and others, as revealed in his correspondence
In the mid-twentieth century, Lionel Trilling was America’s most respected literary critic. His powerful and subtle essays inspired readers to think about how literature shapes our politics, our culture, and our selves. His 1950 collection,The Liberal Imagination, sold more than 100,000 copies, epitomizing a time that has been called the age of criticism.
To his New York intellectual peers, Trilling could seem reserved and circumspect. But in his selected letters, Trilling is revealed in all his variousness and complexity. We witness his ardent courtship of Diana Trilling, who would become an eminent intellectual in her own right; his alternately affectionate and contentious rapport with former students such as Allen Ginsberg and Norman Podhoretz; the complicated politics ofPartisan Review and other fabled magazines of the period; and Trilling’s relationships with other leading writers of the period, including Saul Bellow, Edmund Wilson, and Norman Mailer.
InLife in Culture, edited by Adam Kirsch, Trilling’s letters add up to an intimate portrait of a great critic, and of America’s intellectual journey from the political passions of the 1930s to the cultural conflicts of the 1960s and beyond.
Lionel Trilling (1905–1975) taught at Columbia University from 1931 until his death and was the author of many books, includingMatthew Arnold and the novelThe Middle of the Journey.
Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic whose writing appears inThe New Yorker,The New York Review of Books, and other publications. He lives in New York.
"[A] well-edited volume . . . Trilling’s letters to [Allen] Ginsberg are among the highlights of this book; indeed, you can imagine their relationship . . . being made into a stage play. “What is Batman?” Trilling asks in one of them . . . Trilling’s letters read, in this selection, like well-appointed essays."—Dwight Garner,The New York Times
"The recent publication ofLife in Culture: Selected Letters of Lionel Trilling, wonderfully edited by Adam Kirsch, puts a new Trilling before us. In this book, he is not the Olympian essayist. His voice is not perfectly modulated and polished as it was in his essays, an author happy to hide behind the veil of literary criticism. In his letters, Trilling is caustic and affectionate, self-assured and vulnerable. He is tersely and revealingly himself. He is very much an anachronism and one with a great deal to say at the present moment. The revelation of Life in Culturelies less in its extraordinary recreation of the past than in Trilling’s preferred combination of literature and politics . . . Trilling’s letters come to us as a specimen—an artefact perhaps—of the literary self in a liberal polity. They remind us of the alertness literature can give its devotees, the skill of scrutiny (not least of self-scrutiny) and of the magisterial powers and beneficence of privacy, of the novel’s patient, meticulous slowness and of literature’s innate hostility to dogma. They remind us that good literature’s resistance to conservatism and liberalism and radicalism, its provocations to the absolutes of political pride and fury, is the very stuff of tolerance and pluralism. From today’s vantage point, Trilling’s letters are triumphant. "—Michael Kimmage,The National Interest
"Judiciously edited by Adam Kirsch . . .Life in Culturegives us, among much else, intimate glimpses of Trilling’s continuous self-appraisal . . . Trilling’s letters resolve themselves into a captivating portrait of a man wrestling with roles essential to his sense of himself: as a teacher, a liberal, a Jew and a critic . . . The letters selected by Mr. Kirsch offer persuasive testimony that the contradictions Trilling discovered within himself acted as a fulcrum for his achievement, with a result that was anything but sterile."—Benjamin Balint,Wall Street Journal
"Adam Kirsch's judicious selection of [Lionel Trilling's] letters throws instructive light on both Trilling's life and American intellectual culture from the 1920s to the 1970s. For anyone concerned with the many leading writers, critics, and thinkers with whom Trilling corresponded or curious about how the son of Jewish immigrants came to play such a central role in American literary life, this is a fascinating book."—Robert Alter, Jewish Review of Books
"It's a measure of Trilling's brilliance and humanity that these letters are as alive now as then were then. A joy to read, this is one of the most inviting letter collections readers will come across this year."—Library Journal (Starred Review)
"A generous sampling of letters that displays the rich intellectual life of mid-20th-century America's leading critic as well as his staunchly even temperament and many second thoughts . . . This epistolary interior monologue shows the defensiveness of a restless and meticulous mind, wary of easy answers and labels and astute about matching the right word to the precise shade of thought."—Kirkus Reviews
"Kirsch has done a fine job culling ...Trilling's correspondence is undoubtedly valuable . . . The reader is rewarded by [Trilling's] engagement in literature and culture . . . Well worth reading."—Publisher's Weekly
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