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Lionel Trilling (born Lionel Mordecai Trilling, 4 July 1905 – 5 November 1975) was an American literary critic, author, and teacher. With wife Diana Trilling, he was a member of The New York Intellectuals and contributor to the Partisan Review; although he did not establish a school of literary criticism, he is one of the great U.S. critics of the twentieth century in tracing the contemporary cultural, social, and political implications of literature.

Academic Life

Lionel Trilling was born in Queensmarker, New York Citymarker, to a Jewish family. In 1921, he graduated from DeWitt Clinton High School, and, at age sixteen, entered Columbia University, thus beginning a perpetual association with the university. In 1925, he was graduated from Columbia, and, in 1926, earned a master of art's degree. He taught at the University of Wisconsin–Madisonmarker and at Hunter Collegemarker, afterwards, in 1932, he taught literature at Columbia University. In 1938, he earned his doctorate with a dissertation about Matthew Arnold, that later he published. In 1939, he was promoted to assistant professor — the first tenured Jewish professor in the English department; in 1948, he was promoted to full professor. In 1965, he became the George Edward Woodberry Professor of Literature and Criticism. Academically, he was a popular instructor, and, for 30 years, taught, with Jacques Barzun, Columbia’s Colloquium on Important Books, a course about the relationship between literature and cultural history. Among his students figure Norman Podhoretz, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, John Hollander, and Louis Menand. Later, from 1969 to 1970 he was the Norton professor at Harvard Universitymarker. In 1972 he was selected by the National Endowment for the Humanities to deliver the first Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities, described as "the highest honor the federal government confers for distinguished intellectual achievement in the humanities."

The New York Intellectuals and the Partisan Review

In 1937, he joined the recently revived magazine Partisan Review, a Marxist, but anti-Stalinist, journal founded by William Philips and Philip Rahv in 1934.

The Partisan Review was associated with the New York Intellectuals — Trilling, his wife Diana Trilling, Alfred Kazin, Delmore Schwartz, William Phillips, Clement Greenberg, Harold Rosenberg, Dwight Macdonald, Mary McCarthy, F. W. Dupee, Paul Goodman, Lionel Abel, Irving Howe, Saul Bellow, Leslie Fiedler, Elizabeth Hardwick, Richard Chase, William Barrett, Daniel Bell, Hannah Arendt, Isaac Rosenfeld, Susan Sontag, Steven Marcus, Norman Podhoretz, and Hilton Kramer — who emphasised the influence of history and culture upon authors and literature. As such, the New York Intellectuals distanced themselves from the New Critics, by concentrating upon the socio-political ramifications of the discussed literature, concerning the future of the intellectual middle class of New York City.

In the preface to the essays collection Beyond Culture (1965), he defends the New York Intellectuals: As a group, it is busy and vivacious about ideas, and, even more, about attitudes. Its assiduity constitutes an authority. The structure of our society is such that a class of this kind is bound by organic filaments to groups less culturally fluent, which are susceptible to its influence.

Critical and Literary Works

Trilling wrote one novel, The Middle of the Journey (1947), about an affluent Communist couple's encounter with a Communist defector (whom later Trilling acknowledged was inspired by his Columbia classmate Whittaker Chambers) and short stories including “The Other Margaret.” Otherwise, he wrote essays and reviews in which he reflected on literature’s ability to challenge the morality and conventions of the culture. Critic David Daiches said of Trilling, “Mr. Trilling likes to move out and consider the implications, the relevance for culture, for civilization, for the thinking man today, of each particular literary phenomenon which he contemplates, and this expansion of the context gives him both his moments of his greatest perceptions, and his moments of disconcerting generalization.”

Trilling published two complex studies of authors Matthew Arnold (1939) and E. M. Forster (1943), both written in response to a concern with “the tradition of humanistic thought and the intellectual middle class which believes it continues this tradition.” His first collection of essays, The Liberal Imagination, was published in 1950, followed by the collections The Opposing Self (1955), focusing on the conflict between self-definition and the influence of culture , Freud and the Crisis of Our Culture (1955), A Gathering of Fugitives (1956), and Beyond Culture (1965), a collection of essays concerning modern literary and cultural attitudes toward selfhood. In Sincerity and Authenticity (1972), he explores the ideas of the moral self in post-Enlightenment Western civilization. He wrote the introduction to The Selected Letters of John Keats (1951), in which he defended Keats’s notion of Negative Capability, as well as the introduction, “George Orwell and the Politics of Truth”, to the 1952 reissue of George Orwell’s book, Homage to Catalonia.

In 2008, Columbia University Press published an unfinished novel that Trilling abandoned in the late 1940s. Scholar Geraldine Murphy discovered the half-finished novel among Trilling's papers archived at Columbia University. Trilling's novel, titled The Journey Abandoned: The Unfinished Novel, is set in the 1930s and involves a young protagonist, Vincent Hammell, who seeks to write a biography of an elder, towering figure poet - Jorris Buxton. Buxton's character is loosely based on the nineteenth century, romantic poet Walter Savage Landor. Writer and critic Cynthia Ozick praised the novel's skillful narrative and complex characters, writing that The Journey Abandoned is "a crowded gallery of carefully delineated portraits, whose innerness is divulged partly through dialogue but far more extensively in passages of cannily analyzed insight."

Works by Trilling


Books and Collections of Essays


  • Bloom, Alexander. Prodigal Sons: The New York Intellectuals & Their World, Oxford University Press, 1986. ISBN 978-0-19-505177-3
  • Chace, William M. “Lionel Trilling”, Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism.
  • Krupnick, Mark. Lionel Trilling and the Fate of Cultural Criticism. Northwestern University Press, Evanston, 1986. ISBN 978-0-81-010712-0
  • Lask, Thomas. “Lionel Trilling, 70, Critic, Teacher and Writer, Dies”, The New York Times, July 5, 1975
  • Leitch, Thomas M. Lionel Trilling: An Annotated Bibliography.
  • Lionel Trilling, et al., The Situation in American Writing: A Symposium Partisan Review, Volume 6 5 (1939)
  • Longstaff, S. A. “New York Intellectuals”, Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism.
  • Trilling, Diana. The Beginning of the Journey.
  • Trilling, Lionel. Beyond Culture: Essays on Literature and Learning.
  • Wald, Alan M. The New York Intellectuals: The Rise and Decline of the Anti-Stalinist Left from the 1930s to the 1980s (University of North Carolina Press 1987). ISBN 0807841692, 9780807841693
  • Alexander, Edward. Lionel Trilling and Irving Howe: And Other Stories of Literary Friendship (Transaction, 2009).
  • Kimmage, Michael. The Conservative Turn: Lionel Trilling, Whittaker Chambers, and the Lessons of Anti-Communism (Harvard, 2009)


  • Cynthia Ozick, Lionel Trilling and the Buried Life, in The Din in the Head

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