Lionel Trilling and Edmund Wilson: Criticism and Responsibility

James Seaton

Both Edmund Wilson and Lionel Trilling were humanistic critics. I use that rather awkward adjective, since to call them “humanists” would suggest that they believed in “humanism,” and it would be a mistake to classify the two under one of those “isms” which it is one of their special distinctions to have successfully eluded throughout their careers. Trilling, of course, never ceased to believe in the fundamental rightness of Freudian theory, and Wilson wrote major works under the influence of not only Freud but also Marx. Yet even when each was most influenced by doctrine, their criticism was still based on the humanistic supposition that literature provides knowledge both broader and deeper than can be supplied by any system whatever. Their willingness to take responsibility for the continuation of the humanistic tradition of literary criticism is perhaps the most obvious reason both are non-persons in the academy today. Neither appears in Critical Theory Since Plato, an anthology of criticism that devotes more than half its fifteen hundred plus pages to twentieth century criticism. The twentieth century alone is given more than fifteen hundred pages in The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, but there is still no room for Lionel Trilling. Perhaps it’s better that way: Edmund Wilson does appear in the Norton, represented by his essay “Marxism and Literature.” He is classified in the “Alternative Table of Contents” under both “Marxism” and “Ideology and Hegemony”; the others so classified are Louis Althusser, Antonio Gramsci, Stuart Hall, Dick Hebdige, and Fredric Jameson.

Trilling was never more clear about the superiority of literature to even the best doctrines than in the book that made his reputation, a book whose title taken by itself might lead one to think that Trilling was interested in dividing the products of the imagination into political categories—the liberal imagination, the conservative imagination, perhaps the radical imagination, the fascist imagination, etc. But of course that impression would be mistaken. Trilling was concerned above all with what he called, following Edmund Burke, “the moral imagination.” In The Liberal Imagination Trilling was at pains to point out the gap between the kind of imagination expressed in the greatest modern literature and the attitudes and ideas about human beings associated with modern liberalism. It was the former that seemed to him profound and true, though disturbing, while the latter shallow and false, though reassuring. Having pointed out that there was “no connection between the political ideas of our educated class and the deep places of the imagination” (“The Function of the Little Magazine” 94), Trilling offered no solution to the problem of bridging this gap. Indeed, Trilling went out of his way to emphasize that the greatest modern literature seemed “indifferent, or even hostile to, the tradition of democratic liberalism as we know it” (“The Meaning of a Literary Idea” 283). Later Trilling would emphasize the ways in which modern literature seemed hostile not merely to liberal pieties but to civilization itself. He insisted on the ineluctable strangeness of teaching students in a classroom a literature that was committed to “the idea of losing oneself up to the point of self-destruction, of surrendering oneself to experience without regard to self-interest or conventional morality, of escaping wholly from the societal bonds . . . (“On the Teaching of Modern Literature” 26-7). In Sincerity and Authenticity Trilling makes explicit one extension of this “idea”: “the doctrine that madness is liberation and authenticity,” a doctrine that, he points out with characteristic irony, “receives a happy welcome from a consequential part of the educated public” (171).

Edmund Wilson did not worry about the gap that for Trilling was so troubling between the great literature of the twentieth century and the attitudes associated with American political liberalism. In part this was because Wilson was less committed to liberalism than Trilling; in the thirties he turned to Marxism and later to an apparent disgust with all politics. But the differences between Trilling and Wilson were not only political; they also differed in their view of the political availability and relevance of great literature. Trilling believed that some great literature, specifically the modern masterpieces, could be made relevant to a decent politics only with great difficulty and cautious circumspection, since the most obvious political implications of such literature seemed to him dangerously anti-social. Edmund Wilson had no such fears.

When Archibald MacLeish, speaking as the Librarian of Congress after World War II had begun in Europe but before Pearl Harbor, lamented that antiwar novels like A Farewell to Arms had “done more to disarm democracy in the face of fascism than any other single influence” (qtd. in “Archibald MacLeish and the Word” 3) Wilson does not, as Trilling might, argue that great fiction can have a spiritual authority and significance even if its apparent political implications are unclear or even disastrous. Instead, in “Archibald MacLeigh and the Word” Wilson makes a case that the straightforward political message of the literature cited by MacLeish is after all quite defensible. He asks MacLeish “were there not, in short, very good reasons why anyone who served in the last war should have considered the Allied slogans an imposture?” (5). Far from justifying literature as an end in itself whose value is ultimately personal and spiritual rather than social and political, Wilson comments that he regards literature as “ . . . a technique for understanding, a medium for putting on record, the vicissitudes of human experience, a medium and a technique which must constantly be renewed to meet the requirements of changing experience” (8). In Axel’s Castle, Wilson’s survey of the modern masters whose work Trilling thought so great and yet so troubling, there is no suggestion that T. S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland,” for example, might be in some sense a protest against Western civilization itself. Wilson finds the anomie of Eliot as expressed in “Ash-Wednesday” irritatingly personal rather than disturbingly prophetic: “And I am a little tired at hearing Eliot, only in his early forties, present himself as an ‘agèd eagle’ who asks why he should make the effort to stretch his wings” (130). The difference in the two critics’ responses to the modern literature of alienation is exemplified by their reactions to Franz Kafka. The “terrible imagination” of a modernist like Franz Kafka speaks intimately and with irresistible “power” of an inner experience Trilling seems to knows only too well:


 . . . if ever we have experienced the sense that life is empty and meaningless, if ever we have suffered from the feeling that our behavior is compelled, that our will is not our own, or that it has ceased to function, we can scarcely withstand the power of Kafka’s terrible imagination of man’s existence.

(“The Hunter Gracchus” 122)


Edmund Wilson, on the other hand, confesses that he is constitutionally unable to take Kafka seriously:


Now, it may make a good deal of difference whether one was born, like the present writer, before the end of the nineteenth century, when stability and progress were taken for granted, instead of in a period when upheaval and backsliding seemed the normal conditions of life; but, with much admiration for Kafka, I find it impossible to take him seriously as a major writer and have never ceased to be amazed at the number of people who can.

(“A Dissenting Opinion on Kafka” 384-5)


Both Lionel Trilling and Edmund Wilson found themselves at odds with the cultural trends of the fifties and sixties. It was Trilling, however, who formulated concepts that clarified not only his own dissatisfaction but also help us today to understand the direction of Wilson’s work in those decades. Trilling lamented that the American writers of the fifties lacked interest and curiosity about their own society and thus failed to fulfill the minimal task of a novelist, “the job, that is, of giving us reasonably accurate news of the world, of telling us the way things are.” For Trilling “the novelist, in his ideal character, is the artist who is consumed by the desire to know how things really are, who has entered into an elaborate romance with actuality” (“Two Notes on David Riesman” 99, 100). American writers and intellectuals were all too ready to turn away from the messy compromises inevitable in liberal democratic politics to a dream of “a perfect and absolute form of government which shall make impossible the conflict of wills of actual politics” (“Two Notes on David Riesman” 97). For Trilling, however, the fundamental issue was not political but cultural and even spiritual; American intellectuals, including writers, wanted to “deny the idea of the conditioned because “somewhere in our mental constitution is the demand for life as pure spirit” (“William Dean Howells” 79). Even though the attraction to the “idea of unconditioned spirit” in itself had no direct political implications, Trilling found the best evidence for this attraction in the difference between the intellectuals’ response to the “failures and injustices” of capitalism and Communism. As a good liberal, Trilling had no doubt that “the wide disrepute into which capitalistic society has fallen all over the world” was indeed “justified by the failures and injustices of capitalism,” but he added that


. . . if we want to understand the assumptions about politics of the world today, we have to consider the readiness of people to condemn the failures and injustices of that [capitalist] society as compared with their reluctance to condemn the failures and injustices of Communist society. The comparison will give us the measure of the modern preference for the unconditioned—to the modern more-or-less thinking man, Communist society is likely to seem a close approximation to the unconditioned, to spirit making its own terms. (“William Dean Howells” 80).


The source of the attraction to “unconditioned spirit” was the “idea of the self” that was central to both modern literature and the culture influenced by it. This “idea of the self” could be set apart from other conceptions of selfhood by “one distinguishing characteristic” that to Trilling seemed “pre-eminently important: its intense and adverse imagination of the culture in which it has its being” (“Preface” unpaged). It is a testament to the acuteness of Trilling’s sensibility and the power of his ideas that these formulations can assist in understanding not only the trends of those times but also the career of even such a distinguished and strikingly distinctive figure as Edmund Wilson.

Wilson’s essays and criticism of the fifties and sixties suggests that he, like the novelists and writers whose failure to at least bring “news of the world” was lamented by Trilling, could no longer sustain interest in the society of his own time and place. In “The Author at Sixty” Wilson declared that when “I look through Life magazine, I feel that I do not belong in the country depicted there, that I do not even live in that country.” Asking “am I, then, in a pocket of the past?” he could only offer the bare possibility that “my feelings and thoughts may be shared by many” (239). On the basis of this passage alone, one might suppose that Wilson’s point has to do with Life magazine rather than with American society in general, but a survey of his writings in the nineteen-fifties and sixties suggests that he was no longer interested in “giving us reasonably accurate news of the world, of telling us the way things are,” as he had been in the twenties, thirties and forties. The Bit Between My Teeth, subtitled “A Literary Chronicle of 1950-1965,” does not include among its forty-three essays any that deal with an American novel, short-story collection or drama from those fifteen years.

Edmund Wilson had already had his dream and his disillusionment with the “perfect and absolute form of government” of Soviet Russia, but the introduction to the great book of his later years, his study of the literature of the Civil War, Patriotic Gore, reveals a disgust with actual politics as intense as that of any fellow-traveler. Wilson asserts that struggles between social groups or nations should be understood not in terms of the political principles advanced by each group and not in terms of class struggle, as he had once believed, but by analogy to the “life at the bottom of the sea” as presented in a Walt Disney film, in which “a primitive organism called a sea slug is seen gobbling up smaller organisms through a large orifice at one end of its body; confronted with another sea slug of an only slightly lesser size, it ingurgitates that, too” (xi). The reductivism of the introduction belies, thankfully, the portraits of individual lives that follow, but there is a sense in which what Trilling called the “idea of the self” that is characterized above all by “its intense and adverse imagination of the culture in which it has its being” skews Wilson’s view of the Civil War and its significance.

The first half of Patriotic Gore ends with a long portrait of Alexander Stephens, the vice-president of the Confederacy, who is presented as a figure who deserves respect as the intellectual and moral equal of Lincoln himself: “Abraham Lincoln and Alexander Stephens, who commanded one another’s respect and who in intellect and career were peers, have come by this time to stand, in the crisis of the Civil War, at two opposite moral-political poles” (432). Though it is Lincoln who opposes slavery and Stephens who defends it, Wilson makes it clear that he prefers Stephens’s “moral-political pole” because for Wilson there is an even more important issue: it is Stephens, not Lincoln, who speaks for selfhood. Lincoln is the kind who “hunts as one of a pack,” while Stephens “differs essentially from Lincoln in being usually at odds with the pack” (433). Stephens’s “resolve to be himself and nothing but himself” (433) leads him to take risks that Lincoln would reject as imprudent. For Wilson the fundamental issue is “the question of the exercise of power, of the backing up of power by force, the issue of the government, the organization, as against the individual, the family group—for the South that fought the war was a family group” (434). Wilson cannot help but wonder “whether it may not be true, as Stephens said, that the cause of the South is the cause of us all” (434). Wilson argues that the cause of the South and the cause of the North are analogous to two opposing drives to be found in individuals of his own time, and it is clear that his own sympathy is with the former rather than the latter: “There is in most of us an unreconstructed Southerner who will not accept domination as well as a benevolent despot who wants to mold others for their own good” (435).

In considering the significance of the chapter on Alexander Stephens, it is important to remember that Patriotic Gore does not end with a ringing declaration that “the cause of the South is the cause of us all.” Instead the book goes on for almost another four hundred pages. Over the second half of this long book the notion that “the cause of the South is the cause of us all” and that the cause of the North and the Union is to be identified with despotism and domination is altered and qualified and finally transformed into a very different notion. Wilson’s insightful analysis of the prose style of Lincoln and Grant leads him to identify the Union with an idea different from both despotism and revolt, the notion of responsibility. Observing that “Grant and Lincoln, in writing and speaking, were distinguished by similar qualities: lucidity, precision, terseness” (649), Wilson characterizes their prose as “the language of responsibility” (650). The last chapter of Patriotic Gore constitutes an eloquent tribute to Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., in which he again links the concept of responsibility with allegiance to the Union, to the United States. He praises Holmes not so much if at all because of his legal philosophy, but rather as an example of personal integrity, “one who was never corrupted, never discouraged or broken” (782). Despite Holmes’s philosophical skepticism amounting almost to nihilism, he nevertheless lived out his “conviction that the United States had a special meaning and mission to devote one’s whole life to which was a sufficient dedication for the highest gifts” (796). Wilson explains Holmes’s decision to leave most of his personal wealth to the government of the United States in the last sentence of the book:


The American Constitution was, as he came to declare, an “experiment”—what was to come of our democratic society it was impossible for a philosopher to tell—but he had taken responsibility for its working, he had subsisted and achieved his fame through his tenure of the place it had given him; and he returned to the treasury of the Union the little that he had to leave. (796)


If Patriotic Gore is a great book, as I believe it is, Lionel Trilling’s ideas help us understand its greatness. Edmund Wilson felt intensely the attraction of the “opposed self,” the self at odds with organized society and government, and his Introduction demonstrates a proportionate disgust with the actuality of the United States and its government in the era of the Cold War. Yet in its tracing out of individual lives and its careful analysis of specific texts, the body of Patriotic Gore dramatizes the authority of “the conditioned.” The greatness of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., the reader cannot help but feel, derives from his willingness, despite his philosophical skepticism, to accept his own country, with all its political corruption and cultural mediocrity, as nevertheless an entity for which one might take responsibility insofar as an individual can do so. For devotees of “unconditioned spirit” it might seem mere folly for one to dedicate “the highest gifts” to such an inevitably flawed, entirely contingent enterprise. Yet Wilson convinces the reader that it is not folly at all, not only through the eloquence of his closing passage but especially because this conclusion has been reached only after acknowledging fully and even extravagantly the attractions of the opposed self that cannot be satisfied with anything less than unconditioned spirit.

If Lionel Trilling’s discussions never move from one position to another with quite the radical shifts of Patriotic Gore and its Introduction, much of the dramatic interest of his essays derives from his invocation of opinions that contrast with the views he wishes to affirm. What makes for drama is Trilling’s acceptance, through his use of the plural personal pronoun, of a certain responsibility for the opinions whose wrongness he demonstrates. Here are some examples, chosen almost at random: “In Defense of Zola” begins with the assertion that “We all believe that we know all about Zola, whether we have read him or not” (15) before going on to argue that, contrary to the received opinion, Zola’s works possess “moral and imaginative force” (18). The significance of D. H. Lawrence’s claim that “The most exquisite literature in the world is written in the English language” is explicated by comparison to “our tendency to a solid Unesco attitude about cultures, which makes it morally wrong (undemocratic) to think of one culture as better than another” (“A Ramble on Graves” 29). Trilling characterizes the particular quality of Fanny Price, the protagonist of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, a work whose greatness he intends to demonstrate, by first of all noting his own and his readers’ antipathy to her: “Fanny Price is overtly virtuous and consciously virtuous. Our modern feeling is very strong against people who, when they mean to be virtuous, believe they know how to reach their goal and do reach it” (“Mansfield Park” 186). The authority of Trilling’s conclusions is connected to the dramatic suspense such passages create; the reader waits to see how Trilling will manage to do justice to the position that he rejects even as he acknowledges it as in some degree his own, while still bringing out the superior wisdom of the opposed view, the view that he has only now come to appreciate, apparently, through the experience of re-reading the text in question. Just as Edmund Wilson works through the claims of the opposed self to finally acknowledge and affirm the claims of responsibility in Patriotic Gore, so Lionel Trilling in essay after essay works through ideas that are not merely “straw men” but to some extent his own to arrive finally at a different, enlarged conception that yet does not dismiss entirely “our” original opinion, the one held by “us,” the one “we” believe.

One example will have to suffice. In “That Smile of Parmenides Made Me Think” Trilling conveys the significance of George Santayana’s way of “looking at life in detachment, from a ‘height,’ ” by contrasting it to contemporary attitudes: “To look within is permitted; to look around is encouraged; but best not to look down—not realistic, not engaged, not democratic.” (165-6). Yet Trilling, even though he seems by implication to praise the capacity for looking at things from a height, does not himself adopt this attitude in the essay. Instead, he suggests that he, like the reader, “experiences the unsanctioned altitude” of Santayana’s letters “with as much guilt as pleasure” (166). Observing that readers may find it “easy” to dislike Santayana’s apparent assumption of superiority, he points out that he has his “own antagonism to Santayana” (166). And Trilling goes on throughout the essay to include himself among those who find Santayana troubling or difficult; he himself is among the “Americans” Santayana makes uncomfortable: “What does alienate Americans from Santayana is the principles upon which his rejection of America if founded. That is, what troubles us is not his negations of America, but the affirmations upon which he based his sense of himself” (170). Trilling makes clear his admiration for Santayana and concludes that “for Santayana himself, his effort of self-definition had, in some ways, an amazing success” (177), but even at the end of the essay it seems clear that Trilling, like most of his readers, is not interested in achieving that kind of success for himself.

The criticism of Lionel Trilling and Edmund Wilson continues to be a source of pleasure as well as instruction. According to the humanistic view, it is of course one of the distinguishing characteristics of literature that in it teaching and delighting are so intertwined that they cannot be really separated. It is likewise difficult and probably unrewarding to distinguish the proportion of delight as opposed to instruction afforded in reading Trilling as compared to Wilson. If one were forced to attempt a distinction, one might say that Trilling provides more instruction, Wilson more delight, but to say this is simply to make clear the folly of such attempts. Lionel Trilling and Edmund Wilson are true peers, two whose work will continue to both teach and delight as long as literature and the humanistic tradition, a tradition which takes responsibility for conveying the significance of literature to each new generation, continue.

Works Cited


Critical Theory Since Plato. Ed. Hazard Adams and Leroy Searle. Third Edition. Boston: Thomson Wadsworth, 2005.

The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. General Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. New York: Norton, 2001.

Trilling, Lionel. “In Defense of Zola.” A Gathering of Fugitives. 14-22.

—. “The Function of the Little Magazine.” The Liberal Imagination: Essays on Literature and Society. 89-99.

—. A Gathering of Fugitives. 1956. New York: HBJ, 1978.

—. “The Hunter Gracchus.” Prefaces to the Experience of Literature. New York: HBJ, 1979.

—. The Liberal Imagination: Essays on Literature and Society. 1950. New York: HBJ, 1979.

—. “The Meaning of a Literary Idea.” The Liberal Imagination: Essays on Literature and Society. 264-84.

—. “Mansfield Park.The Opposing Self: Nine Essays in Criticism. 181-202.

—. “Preface.” The Opposing Self: Nine Essays in Criticism. Unpaged.

—. “On the Teaching of Modern Literature.” 1965. Beyond Culture: Essays on Literature and Learning. New York: HBJ, 1978. 3-27.

—. The Opposing Self: Nine Essays in Criticism. 1955. New York: HBJ, 1978.

—. “A Ramble on Graves.” A Gathering of Fugitives. 23-33.

—. Sincerity and Authenticity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1972.

—. “That Smile of Parmenides Made Me Think.” A Gathering of Fugitives. 164-79.

—. “Two Notes on David Riesman.” A Gathering of Fugitives. 91-107.

—. “William Dean Howells and the Roots of Modern Taste.” The Opposing Self: Nine Essays in Criticism. 67-91.

Wilson, Edmund. “Archibald MacLeish and the Word.” Classics and Commercials: A Literary Chronicle of the Forties. 1950. New York: Vintage, 1962. 3-9.

—. “The Author at Sixty.” A Piece of My Mind: Reflections at Sixty. New York: Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1956. 208-39.

—. Axel’s Castle: A Study in the Imaginative Literature of 1870-1930. 1930. New York: Scribner’s, 1959.

—. The Bit Between My Teeth: A Literary Chronicle of 1950-1965. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1965.

—. “A Dissenting Opinion on Kafka.” Classics and Commercials: A Literary Chronicle of the Forties. 1950. New York: Vintage, 1962. 383-92.

—. “Marxism and Literature.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 1243-54.

—. Patriotic Gore: Studies in the Literature of the American Civil War. New York: Oxford UP, 1962.