Lionel Trilling was, during his lifetime, generally acknowledged to be one of the finest essayists in the English language, the heir of Hazlitt and the peer of Orwell. Since his death in 1974, his work has been discussed and hotly debated, yet today, when writers and critics claim to be "for" or "against" his interpretations, they can hardly be well acquainted with them, for his work has been largely out of print for years.
With this re-publication of Trilling's finest essays, Leon Wieseltier offers readers of many new generations a rich overview of Trilling's achievement. The essays collected here include justly celebrated masterpieces--on Mansfield Park and on "Why We Read Jane Austen"; on Twain, Dos Passos, Hemingway, Isaac Babel; on Keats, Wordsworth, Eliot, Frost; on "Art and Neurosis"; and the famous Preface to Trilling's book The Liberal Imagination.
This exhilarating work has much to teach readers who may have been encouraged to adopt simpler systems of meaning, or were taught to exchange the ideals of reason and individuality for those of enthusiasm and the false romance of group identity. Trilling's remarkable essays show a critic who was philosophically motivated and textually responsible, alive to history but not in thrall to it, exercised by art but not worshipful of it, consecrated to ideas but suspicious of theory.
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 of Partisan 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.
In Life 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.