In a moment of unwarranted despair, the young Keats wrote his epitaph: “Here lies one whose name is writ in water.” Yet creative geniuses achieve such immortality as human memory bestows. Those who exalt them disappear. The poet endures; the critic is destined to be forgotten.
Some few critics survive — Samuel Johnson, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Hazlitt — but all because they were more, in some sense, than critics. Johnson was a sage, Coleridge a poet, Hazlitt the possessor of the most muscular prose in the language. But the signal critics of the 20th century — Stanley Edgar Hyman, Gilbert Highet, even F.R. Leavis and Northrup Frye and Edmund Wilson — have all faded or are fading into oblivion.
Still, great critics matter because they push us to a deeper understanding of creativity, to understand and weigh our own reactions and to suggest directions of aspiration. Specifically, the legacy of Lionel Trilling matters — that is the burden and achievement of Adam Kirsch’s new book, “Why Trilling Matters” (Yale University Press: $24). Lionel Trilling was a liberal with a tragic sense of life. He believed in improving the human lot but was aware of the limitations in the loose rigging of human character. The utopian social engineering of the day — Marxism and its variants — was too mechanical for his nuanced sensibility. Trilling saw both in his own world and in the novel, that “big bright book of life,” as D.H. Lawrence called it, proof that human beings would always be confounded and periodically elevated by the contradictions in our own nature.
Trilling read through a Freudian lens: the Freud of limitation and complexity and sadness and wry resignation. Earnest though he was (you don’t read Trilling for the jokes), he had a sharp sense of wit and irony in the authors he cherished, such as Henry James, Jane Austen, E.M. Forster. Each of these writers had a keen, at times deflationary view of people in society, their foibles and failures; Trilling found nourishment in those writers whose unsparing eye were antidotes to the slippery ease of modern thought.
Trilling’s essays, as Kirsch points out, are exercises in sensibility. In a masterful explication of Trilling’s take on Jane Austen, Kirsch shows how powerfully we are drawn to the brilliance, the wit, the charisma of the attractive personality. Yet the attraction is also a burden; we cannot lay down the demand to always be “at our best.” And we wish for the relief, at times, of Fanny Price in Mansfield Park, who is simply, unsparklingly good. She is not coruscating; she is moral. But for every reader of Austen, it is the uneven Emma, with her bad choices and her almost inadvertent cruelties and her gradual education, who is beloved.
Trilling had a distant, troubled relation to his own Judaism. He came of age at a time when Jewish writers dominated the cultural scene. While he was not of them — the Bellovian tone of irreverent Yiddish low-high-mindedness is very far from Trilling’s elegantly written applications to join the critical mainstream of Western traditions — he could not escape being Jewish. He may have joined the Columbia faculty by virtue of his “goyish” name and critical acumen, but “outsiderness” will out. The beautiful sentence that Trilling quotes in his masterful essay on Isaac Babel, “I was a boy with spectacles on my nose and autumn in my heart,” might easily apply to the critic as well.
To write a book about a critic is reminiscent of the supercommentaries of Jewish study. It is not enough that Rashi comments on the Torah; someone must explain Rashi’s commentary. One would think it would be sufficient to read Trilling’s subtle, fine-grained essays. Yet to read Kirsch is to be brought into the dialogue between literature and its best readers. Some of the books that live longest with us are the books we do not read alone.
Trilling lived in a world in which character was shaped not only by society but also by books. Decades ago Harcourt Brace brought out the uniform edition of Trilling’s works, which I bought for next to nothing in college; through the years, reading and rereading him has been one of the best investments I made in the now vanishing book-buying world. But to grasp the larger patterns in this master reader’s work, Kirsch’s book was an indispensible guide.
As Kirsch writes, “Moral thinking, for Trilling, is finally thinking about the kind of character one wants to have.” The best critics help us understand and even shape our own characters. Like Trilling. Like Kirsch.
Editor’s note: Author Adam Kirsch is the son of The Journal’s book editor, Jonathan Kirsch.