Intellectuals, Reputations and the Humanities Today

Review of John Rodden (editor)
Lionel Trilling & the Critics: Opposing Selves

Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1999.


Neil McLaughlin


Everyone wants to be a public intellectual these days, it seems, as the debate stimulated by Russell Jacoby’s The Last Intellectuals (1987) has spread throughout the educated classes both in United States and beyond. It is not always clear what exactly a public intellectual is or is not, but the phrase and the sociological role related to it has clearly hit a nerve and captured our imagination. There is no question, however, that Lionel Trilling would be classified as an important public intellectual by any definition. John Rodden’s edited collection Lionel Trilling & the Critics: Opposing Selves (1999) is an absolutely essential resource for scholars interested in the emerging scholarly literature on reputations, the public intellectual debate and the state of literary criticism and the humanities today. The book also provides an exceptionally useful account of Trilling’s criticism and life and is a good place to start a discussion of the larger issues this volume raises.

Trilling scholars and young intellectuals alike will find much of value in this edited collection of reviews, essays, personal reflections and analysis of the life, career, criticism and scholarship of Lionel Trilling, arguably the premier American cultural critic of the 20th century. Expertly and carefully edited by John Rodden, this volume is organized around the most influential and interesting book reviews of Trilling’s work that include, among other things, Matthew Arnold (1939) and E. Forster (1943), his novel The Middle of the Journey (1947), and the collections of essays The Liberal Imagination (1950), The Opposing Self (1955) Beyond Culture (1966), and Sincerity and Authenticity (1972). There are also excerpts from a variety of books and essays that discuss Trilling including Richard Sennett in The New Yorker, Mark Krupnick’s discussion of neo-conservatives in Lionel Trilling and the Fate of Cultural Criticism (1986), Gertrude Himmelfarb from On Looking into the Abyss and Rodden’s own discussion of “Trilling’s Homage to Orwell” from The Politics of Literary Reputation (1989). Obituaries, a selection from various memoirs (an illuminating short selection from Diana Trilling’s The Beginning of the Journey (1993) and Norman Podhoretz’s discussion of his former teacher in Breaking Ranks (1979), and various reassessments round out the well-organized edited collection. All this is annotated to bring alive and help put into context debates from decades ago. The book also contains a full and detailed chronology of Trilling’s life and publications. If one wants to continue or start an argument about Trilling, this volume is as good a place as any to begin.

We live, perhaps, in a time when the art of the book review is dying, so reading through these selections of critical responses to Trilling’s publications is a treat. Edmund Wilson’s praise of Matthew Arnold as ‘the first critical study of any solidity and scope by an America of his generation,” F. R. Leavis’s discussion of the Forster book, Raymond Williams’s discussion of The Liberal Imagination from The Manchester Guardian are just some of the highlights among the well-known reviews collected here. Particularly interesting were the three reviews by Irving Howe, which include his critique of The Liberal Imagination in the Nation in1950written just a few years before the broadside of “This Age of Conformity,” and his make-up review of Sincerity and Authenticity in Commentary in1973. It was enlightening to read Howe’s glowing last statement on Trilling in The New Republic where he says that “with the exception of Edmund Wilson Lionel Trilling was the most influential literary critic in America these past few decades,” a tribute across political differences that we could use more of in these polarized political days.

One important advantage of a comprehensive volume of this nature is that Rodden has collected reviews from a large and diverse number of literary outlets and written by some authors who are less familiar to us today than they would have been in their own time. Rodden tells us who all the reviewers were and what their relationship to Trilling was in a series of extremely helpful annotations. This provides an indispensable resource for future scholars and teachers interested in Trilling and his legacy, and the information on even the famous authors will be helpful in the classroom. A less meticulous researcher than Rodden might have missed these reviews by more obscure or now forgotten critics, but these essays provide some of the best gems in the volume. Clifton Fadiman, for example, tells us that Trilling was “neither specialist nor popularizer, having too great an affection for ideas to be the first and too great a respect for people to be the second.” I was particularly amused by a review penned by a then 27 year-old Irish critic Denis Donoghue (who later taught at New York York University) that chides Trilling for his “pet sociological tangents” in The Opposing Self, claiming that Trilling is more of a sociologist than a literary critic. Given the large amount of bad sociology done under the guise of cultural studies today, it is clear now that English departments were just at the beginning of this “boundary” problem and this sociologist, at least, would generally prefer a dialogue with Trilling than with much of what passes for English today.

Rodden’s major argument in reading Trilling is that “his greatest legacy is not that of cultural critic, critical humanist, or public intellectual, but of a teacher.” For Rodden, Trilling taught young people and his peers how to live the intellectual life through the example of his own “modestly heroic style.” It is a compelling argument, supported by the extraordinary number of Trilling’s students who went on to become famous intellectuals, poets or scholars including Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Morris Dickstein, Steven Marcus, Marshall Berman and many others. The preface to Rodden’s book is a very moving and insightful personal discussion of Trilling as a teacher penned by Morris Dickstein that paints a picture of how he appeared to young people at Columbia as “ a legendary figure, the intellectual conscience of the undergraduate English Department, the entrepreneur of distinguished book clubs, a link to the turbulent world of the New York Intellectuals, and above all a teacher and critic who was dangerous to emulate and virtually impossible to please.”

My one major objection to the argument outlined in Rodden’s otherwise excellent editorial comments and analysis relates to the relationship between Trilling and Freud. Trilling, of course, helped to solidify Freud’s reputation as a major intellectual figure in North America outside of purely clinical and psychiatric circles, a “hero for our times” claimed Peter Gay in his influential biography of the founder of psychoanalysis. Trilling wrote reviews for each of the three volumes of Ernest Jones’s monumental Freud biography in The New York Times Book Review. Trilling also later pulled together an abridged version of this insider account of the life of Vienna’s favorite son with Steven Marcus, his former Columbia student and now a prominent literary scholar himself. In the jargon of contemporary sociology, Trilling was a reputational entrepreneur for Freud’s legacy, helping raise his intellectual and cultural capital by making the case that he was first among equals on the list of Trilling’s great 19th century cultural heroes that included Arnold, Foster, Keats, Wordsworth, James, Austen and, from the 20th century, Orwell.

There has been much debate about Freud and Trilling, and Rodden’s volume summarizes the core issues. One question has revolved around Trilling’s strange relationship to both culturally conservative Freudian orthodoxy, on the one hand, and the Marcusian and Norman O. Brown New Left era readings of Freud, perspectives he had much sympathy with until the 1960s. Trilling, as a central figure in the book publishing industry in those days, even helped sponsor the publication of Brown’s early counter-culture classic Life Against Death despite Trilling’s own reputation as a tribune for liberal middle class virtues. Moreover, in light of the personal issues raised by Diana Trilling’s memoirs and the critical writings of Trilling’s son, many scholars have asked questions about the relationship between Trilling’s support for and use of Freudian theory and his own troubled psyche and psychoanalytic therapy. These various issues are dealt with well in the Rodden volume, which includes a useful Bruno Bettelheim essay on Trilling, Freud and literature.

My Trilling-Freud problem lies elsewhere. The case is made throughout this volume for Trilling’s honesty and independence as a critic and intellectual, but Trilling’s extensive writings on Freud represent just the opposite. There has been an explosion of historigraphical writings on Freud and his movement since Trilling’s days, and while the debates represented by the “Freud wars” are still raging, no one could now take Trilling’s myth making around Freud’s legacy seriously. Like the work of Freud’s major academic apologist Peter Gay, Trilling’s three reviews of the Jones biography are embarrassingly uncritical. The late Paul Roazen’s work, in particular, brought to light the dark side of Freud’s character, movement and the flaws in any historical research dominated by the perspective of his followers. Roazen’s work had its own blinders, of course, and there are many other perspectives worth consulting in the vast scholarship on psychoanalysis if one wants to get a sense of Freud’s contributions and ideas. Trilling, of course, did not have access to this critical scholarship, and he deserves credit for defending Freud’s insights in the 1930s and 1940s, long before this was fashionable. Trilling, however, is just not a reliable source on Freud.

The question I am raising here is one of intellectual independence, a central question for the public intellectual. Irving Howe, for example, surely became an independent intellectual only when he broke with Trotsky’s movement. And Trilling himself was right to resist becoming an intellectual hack for the neo-conservative movement, something he was criticized for widely by conservatives themselves. It is true that the communist movement was far more authoritarian and destructive than psychoanalysis, of course, and contemporary neo-conservatives wield far more power and influence than any psychoanalytic school ever did. Nonetheless, any scholar tied uncritically to Freudian orthodoxy betrays the core demand of autonomy required by the public intellectual role. Hero worship tends to be an occupational hazard for public intellectuals, as the examples of Howe and Trotsky as well as Trilling and Freud suggest. Some of the cultural arguments Trilling made under the influence of Freud remain powerful and are worth engaging nonetheless, but Trilling’s greatest moments were not the essays where his hero worship of Freud strains credibility.

Rodden does a far better job in addressing the very interesting political struggle over Trilling’s legacy. This is an important theme in Rodden’s larger intellectual agenda, as he came to study Trilling as part of a scholarly journey that started with Orwell. George Orwell, of course, has been such an influential intellectual figure in the Anglo-American world partly because of the political ambiguity of his work. Was Orwell a democratic socialist critic of Stalinism, a neo-conservative proto-Reaganite opposed to all totalitarianisms as Norman Podhoretz famously argued or was he a decent, virtuous and honest representative of democratic liberalism as Trilling’s introduction to Homage to Catalonia eloquently argued? Rodden’s earlier book The Politics of Literary Reputations (1989) addressed this question at some length, making an important theoretical contribution to our understanding about how political conflicts shape intellectual reputations. In this edited collection, Rodden has reprinted a Cornel West essay that makes the case that Trilling was the “godfather” of neo-conservatives, and has included a number of critiques from conservatives who saw Trilling as someone who lacked real commitment to the cause. Liberals and conservatives fought over Trilling’s politically ambiguous legacy, and even radicals such as West and Howe took an interest in how his politics were categorized since the issues are linked to the ideological struggle over neo-conservatism and the New Left. As was the case with Orwell, Rodden makes the case that Trilling’s literary reputation was not simply determined by an internal process of evaluation undertaken within the ranks of academics and literary critics, but was shaped by judgments forged in overlapping spheres of academic, literary and political discussions. Politics, it is clear, played an important role in the process.

Trilling’s involvement in so much of the cultural politics of the 1950s and 1960s makes his example a fascinating case study of literary reception, and Rodden’s analysis adds much to the sociological study of reputations. Rodden frames the question sharply: how could, as Rodden puts it, an English professor “who exhibited little interest in literary theory, never developed a critical ‘method,’ established no school or movement” achieve as much eminence as Trilling did? Rodden’s answer lies with “his geographical institutional location and professional affiliations” as “a celebrated Columbia professor with close ties to the (anti-Stalinist and primarily Jewish) group of New York Intellectuals who wrote for Partisan Review, the premier American intellectual magazine of the wartime and early postwar period.” It is unclear whether contemporary sociological dynamics work the same way. Perhaps the dynamics of the celebrity academic has replaced older ways of doing academic work outside traditional peer review channels and networks of intellectual journals. Moreover, it would be my guess that Trilling is a relatively marginal figure within literary departments today, living on, at least within the MLA, mostly as a “conservative foil” against which young scholars develop their new post-modern identities. There are exceptions, of course, and pockets of interest in more traditional literary figures, but the larger direction the literary profession has moved in seems clear. The issues are important, and Rodden has carved out a unique and important research agenda.

As interesting as this research on intellectuals reputations is, however, my sense is that Rodden’s work is going to be even more influential on the development of a theory of the public intellectual, and the case study included here on Trilling is vitally important for this larger agenda. Scholars in the sociology of intellectuals have been debating the definitional question for many years. Scholars in literary studies have recently become obsessed with the question of the role of the intellectual, as theconsensus on their professional mission has broken down. Rodden has been studying public intellectuals for sometime now, particularly Orwell, Irving Howe and now Trilling, and has added much historical research and biographical details to the literature. The stress Rodden has placed on the overlapping spheres where public intellectual life is formed has been a major contribution to the debates. The case of Trilling, in particular, is a valuable addition to the discussions as he was clearly far more influential as a public intellectual than as an academic literary scholar while it is clear that, in his case more than most, the spheres overlap and influence each other.

The major insight Rodden has made for the study of the public intellectual is the emphasis he has placed on the question of the intellectual hero — Trilling is central to this story. The sphere of public intellectual activity is a strange sociological space, for the role is not a formal profession, the work is not controlled by one type of organization, is not a real occupation, per se, and is not something people train for or are rewarded for in clear cut ways. It is an in-between sociological space since it is a role played by elite journalists, elite and/or relatively marginal academics, free lance writers who operate in the boundaries between political power, anti-professional academic discourse and the intellectual debates created in around journals of opinion, high end newspapers and commercial book presses. It is because of the very unstructured nature of this public intellectual work that intellectual heroes are so important to the activity. Highly professionalized academics or journalists know exactly what the rules of the game are in their chosen line of work. The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of habitus, despite the jargon, helps us understand how professionals internalize the assumptions that shape the struggle for position within established professions.

In contrast, how does one become a public intellectual? There is one Ph.D. program for public intellectuals in an American university, but mostly public intellectuals emerge through the inspiration of seminal intellectual heroes who break the rules of the profession by which they make their living. It is the very lack of formal training for the role that creates such a strong need for intellectual heroes. How else does one figure out how to play a role that is not institutionalized than by following the example of almost mythical exemplifiers? Trilling’s name for the intellectual hero is the “figure,” and it is clear that Trilling himself has followed in the footsteps of his own heroes Arnold, Freud and Orwell. I would have a different answer to Christopher Hitchens’s excellent question about “why Orwell matters.” If journalists and academics do not have role models for stepping out of the established and standard professional careers of such novelists, journalists or academics as Orwell, Hitchens himself, or Trilling, Said, Arendt, or Howe, then our broader intellectual life would be impoverished. Trilling’s own former student Charles Kadushin pioneered the study of these issues in his influential sociological study The American Intellectual Elite (1974), but Kadushin’s stress on small intellectual journals of opinion seems inadequate to allow us to address the reproduction of public intellectuals in a mass-media and internet-dominated climate.

The case of Trilling, in particular, sharply raises the question of how changes in intellectual life affect the state of the humanities and literary studies today. A recent New York Times Book Review discussion of a literary theory textbook was the occasion for Hitchens to argue that we should see the closing down of all English literature departments given the alleged “take over” by high theory and politically irresponsible radicalism. I have to confess laughing at the suggestion when I read Hitchens’s review, for it is not a totally unappealing idea given some of the nonsense in literary studies today. Nonetheless, I am holding out for Russell Jacoby’s proposal that left-liberals “trade” the English departments for think tanks and the major media outlets where conservative orthodoxy prevails despite the right’s whining about their cultural marginality. Neither idea, of course, is really fair to the diversity of what goes on in English departments throughout North America and neither proposal deals realistically with the structural issues that Rodden’s book on Trilling (as well as his earlier writings on Orwell and Howe) putson the agenda. So we will need to come up with a better way forward.

Intellectual figures like Trilling, who care about literature, writing and general cultural debate, are not being reproduced systematically in contemporary cultural institutions. Professional literary criticism is hostile to this kind of intellectual, and I am quite sure that few graduate students in English today are reading Trilling or Howe. Said is being read, of course, but most of the young scholars reading him would be shocked to see Said’s picture in Rodden’s book on Trilling, standing smiling next to Diana Trilling at a Columbia University reception in honor of Lionel. Said was clearly part of the literary world the Trillings inhabited despite political differences that were not spoken of at such events. Whatever the political differences some people have with Edward Said and he with them, he clearly loved literature and was a public intellectual from the old school, with an appreciation of the importance of not politicizing everything as sometimes is happening in cultural studies today. Moreover, even Trilling’s sharpest critics such as Cornel West appreciated his talents as a brilliant essayist, an endangered craft in a world dominated by sound-bites, internet surfing and academic jargon. It is the great accomplishment of John Rodden’s work to have outlined an original angle on the reputational histories and sociological context that shape the emergence of the type of literary public intellectuals we have, perhaps, lost. If this is the story for only the nostalgic, our common culture has lost much. I do not, however, think that this must be the case.

Intellectual heroes then do not represent perfect human beings, but stand in for a role that society needs played. This is why the details of Trilling’s extraordinary but humanly flawed life really matters little in the bigger picture. The more important question remains: what kind of informal and institutionalized arrangements can help our society reproduce general literary intellectuals? These new intellectuals will be very different in style and interests from Trilling or Howe since we live in different times, and far more of them will be women, African-American and globally oriented. But new examples of literary public intellectuals will care deeply about literature and writing, will be committed to undergraduate teaching in all of its messy complexities, will be politically diverse and not narrowly ideological and they will be willing to stand against professional and academic orthodoxy and the deadly theory-fashion that is killing so much of the life of the humanities today. With these larger questions in mind, Trilling is an intellectual figure worth celebrating, despite his limitations. Rodden’s volume is an excellent introduction to the debate as well as an invaluable resource for scholars interested in this seminal mid-20th century American public intellectual.