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Lionel Mordecai Trilling Edit Profile

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Lionel Mordecai Trilling was an American literary critic, short story writer, essayist, and teacher. He was one of the leading U.S. critics of the twentieth century who traced the contemporary cultural, social, and political implications of literature. With his wife Diana Trilling (née Rubin), whom he married in 1929, he was a member of the New York Intellectuals and contributor to the Partisan Review.


Lionel Trilling was born in Queens, New York, the son of Fannie (née Cohen), who was from London, and David Trilling, a tailor from Bialystok in Poland.


His family was Jewish. In 1921, he graduated from DeWitt Clinton High School, and, at age sixteen, entered Columbia University, thus beginning a lifelong association with the university. He joined the Boar's Head Society and wrote for the Morningside literary journal. In 1925, he graduated from Columbia College, and, in 1926, earned a Master of Arts degree at the university (His master's essay was entitled Theodore Edward Hook: his life and work). He then taught at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and at Hunter College.


In 1937, Trilling 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, Lionel Abel, Hannah Arendt, William Barrett, Daniel Bell, Saul Bellow, Richard Thomas Chase, F. W. Dupee, Leslie Fiedler, Paul Goodman, Clement Greenberg, Elizabeth Hardwick, Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin, Hilton Kramer, Steven Marcus, Mary McCarthy, Dwight Macdonald, William Phillips, Norman Podhoretz, Harold Rosenberg, Isaac Rosenfeld, Delmore Schwartz, and Susan Sontag – who emphasized the influence of history and culture upon authors and literature. The New York Intellectuals distanced themselves from the New Critics.

In his preface to the essays collection, Beyond Culture (1965), Trilling defended 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 that are susceptible to its influence."

Trilling wrote one novel, The Middle of the Journey (1947), about an affluent Communist couple's encounter with a Communist defector. (Trilling later acknowledged that the character was inspired by his Columbia College compatriot and contemporary Whittaker Chambers). His short stories include "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 Homage to Catalonia.

In 2008, Columbia University Press published an unfinished novel that Trilling had abandoned in the late 1940s. Scholar Geraldine Murphy discovered the half-finished novel among Trilling's papers archived at Columbia University. Trilling's novel, 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 older 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, "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."


Trilling's politics have been strongly debated and, like much else in his thought, may be described as "complex." An often-quoted summary of Trilling's politics is that he wished to:

"Remind people who prided themselves on being liberals that liberalism was ... a political position which affirmed the value of individual existence in all its variousness, complexity, and difficulty."

Of ideologies, Trilling wrote, "Ideology is not the product of thought; it is the habit or the ritual of showing respect for certain formulas to which, for various reasons having to do with emotional safety, we have very strong ties and of whose meaning and consequences in actuality we have no clear understanding."

Politically, Trilling was a noted member of the anti-Stalinist left, a position that he maintained to the end of his life.


Fellow American Academy Arts and Sciences. Member National Institute Arts and Letters, Phi Beta Kappa. Club: Athenaeum (London).


In 1929 he married Diana Rubin, and the two began a lifelong literary partnership. In 1932 he returned to Columbia to pursue his doctoral degree in English literature and to teach literature. He earned his doctorate in 1938 with a dissertation about Matthew Arnold that he later published. He was promoted to assistant professor the following year, becoming Columbia's first tenured Jewish professor in its English department. He was promoted to full professor in 1948.

David W. Trilling

Fannie (Cohen) Trilling

Diana Rubin