Lionel Trilling was an intellectual force in the New York literary and political scene throughout much of the 20th Century. A prolific writer, Trilling published literary criticism and cultural commentaries in journals such as The Nation, Commentary, The New York Times, The New York Times Book Review, and The Menorah Journal. Some of these publications were created by Trilling's colleagues, a group of left-leaning, Anti-Stalinist critics and theorists the New York Intellectuals like Daniel Bell, Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin, and Sidney Hook. These individuals were predominantly Jewish men who established themselves as a kind of “American Bloomsbury” to quote Columbia University professor of journalism Nicholas Lemann. Outside of his writing, Trilling was a popular and respected professor of English Literature at Columbia University. Together, with historian Jacques Barzun, Trilling helped to establish some of the core interdisciplinary classes that were vital to the growth and development of Columbia as a competitive academic environment.
Lionel M. Trilling was born on July 4, 1905 in New York City to businessman David W. Trilling and his wife Fannie (neé Cohen). As a child, Trilling attended DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx where he was a colleague of Countee Cullen. At school Trilling participated as a member of the Book Review Squad, the Reporters Squad, and president of Papyrus. He also wrote for the school publication, Magpie as well as co-authored a class play. In 1921 Lionel Trilling entered Columbia University, an institution that was to be his intellectual home for the rest of his life. Trilling graduated from Columbia with his A.B. in 1925 and his M.A. in 1926. For the next eleven years Trilling worked toward a doctorate in English Literature. However, this path was interrupted by work. He did not complete the Ph.D. until 1938.
Trilling left New York to be an Instructor of English at the University of Wisconsin from 1926 to 1927. Upon his return, Trilling began to date a recent Radcliffe graduate named Diana Rubin. Rubin was also a New Yorker, having been brought up in Manhattan. She briefly worked with her mother, Cecelia, as an interior designer while she pursued a career as a classical singer. Illness forced Rubin to abandon that goal. She and Lionel married on October 25, 1929.
A couple of years later, Trilling began teaching at Columbia University. His initial position was as an instructor and in 1939 he was made an assistant professor. From 1939 until 1944 he held this position and was promoted in 1944 to associate professor. Trilling was the first Jewish professor in the department to receive tenure. Throughout his career, Trilling was extremely involved with his undergraduate students. Along with his colleague and close friend, Jacques Barzun, Trilling reinstated a series of interdisciplinary or “general education” courses. With Barzun, Trilling taught a portion of the course entitled, Colloquium on Important Books, in which he covered cultural history and criticism of the 19th and 20th centuries. In 1969, Trilling was given the title of University Professor, a post he held until his retirement from teaching in 1975.
Although he was an active faculty member, Trilling published quite regularly. His dissertation, "Matthew Arnold", was published a year after he completed the degree. This was followed by another study, "E.M. Forster" in 1943. Other publications include a novel, "The Middle of the Journey" (1949), several volumes of short stories; the most well-known of these is "Of This Time, Of That Place" (1940). However, Trilling is best known for his collections of critical essays, in particular "The Liberal Imagination" (1950), "The Opposing Self" (1955), and "Beyond Culture" (1965). Trilling was interested in Sigmund Freud as a cultural icon as well as using Freudian psychology in the analysis of literature. Two books that focused on these themes were "Freud and the Crisis of Our Culture" (1955) and "The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud" (1962). Please note that Trilling's writings encompassed decades of work and that countless bibliographies have been attempted and often abandoned due to the sheer size of his oeuvre.
Trilling did not spend all of his time strictly at Columbia. He was a founder, with John Crowe Ransom and F.O. Matthiessen, of the Kenyon School of Letters, now referred to as The School of Letters, Indiana University. Beginning in 1951 as a summer program, the school expanded to a full-year program in 1961, with a focus on literary theory and criticism. Information concerning The School of Letters may be found in the Indiana University School of Letters Director's Records finding aid located in the Indiana University Archives.
Throughout his life, Lionel Trilling maintained a high level of professional achievement and this was reflected in the many academic accolades he received. He served as the George Eastman Visiting Professor at Oxford University from 1964-1965. There, Trilling lectured at the university and other academic and intellectual institutions as well as taught classes. He was accompanied by Diana Trilling who, by this time, had firmly established herself as a serious literary and cultural critic and penned for a variety of journals, including "Partisan Review", "The New York Times Book Review", "Redbook", "The Nation", "The New Leader", and "McCall's". She had also recently published a book entitled, "Claremont Essays". They were joined by their son, James Lionel Trilling. He was born in 1949 and at that point was a student at Exeter.
Four years later, Trilling was the Charles Eliot Norton Visiting Professor at Harvard University. In addition to these two positions, he held honorary doctorates from Trinity College in Hartford Connecticut (1955), Harvard University (1962), Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland Ohio (1968), Northwestern University (1963), Leicester University (1973), Brandeis University (1974) and Yale University (1974). Trilling was awarded the Alexander Hamilton Medal from Brandeis University in 1968 and gave the first annual Jefferson Lecture for the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) in 1972. He was a Guggenheim Fellow from 1948 to 1949 and received a second grant that he was unable to use in 1975.
While he was active in his field, Trilling was a member of the Modern Language Association, the American Committee for Cultural Freedom of which both he and Diana Trilling resigned once the organization redirected its mission, The National Institute of Arts and Letters, and The American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
As the 1960s unfolded, student unrest grew on American campuses, in particular Kent State and Columbia University. Although Trilling was teaching at that time, he, like most members of the faculty, was unaware of the growing dissatisfaction among the students and the community of Harlem. Always considered a driving force behind New York intellectualism, he would later be criticized for never publicly recognizing the importance of the social movements that occurred during the decade as well as the racial components that were driving the majority of them.
Upon his retirement from Columbia, Trilling was awarded the title of Professor Emeritus. Shortly after, he was taken ill with a fast moving form of cancer that had progressed undetected for too long. By November of that year, he had died. Diana Trilling published a twelve-volume set of his writings from 1977 to 1979. She also wrote "The Beginning of the Journey: The Marriage of Diana and Lionel Trilling", a memoir of the first years of their life together. Diana Trilling died of cancer in October of 1996.