Lionel Trilling was one of the contributors to Partisan Review who maintained his reputation as a brilliant critic and teacher throughout his life. But he was also often suspected of being too stylish, elegant, and at ease in the world to be a true radical. And he wasn’t a radical in the sense of a poet maudit and writer like Delmore Schwartz or a maverick polemicist like Dwight McDonald. He was cautious and somewhat aloof from the more tendentious positions and persons of the PR group.
And he was a life-time Columbia academic. Many of his colleagues and friends were Columbia graduates, and some had shorter term academic jobs at a number of prestigious universities, but Trilling was the model of a Modernist New York Intellectual Professor. He was always an anti-Stalinist, and continued as Liberal Leftist during the Cold War, and afterwards, when his very influential book, The Liberal Imagination was taken as a medicine to help the dilemma of middle-class liberal indecision about the Cold War itself.
As our examination of PR moves into the 1950s and 1960s, we will learn more about the changes and nuances of Trilling’s literary and political positions, but here in VOL 4, No. 5, April, 1938, he addresses John Dos Passos’s trilogy, USA, which is, on the one hand, a version of ‘proletarian literature,’ with its topics and issues of 1930s working class life, and on the other, an avant-garde almost abstract, collage of real headlines, advertisements and the detritus of everyday life. (See my post, “The Migratory Worker,” Dec.17, 206, for more about Dos Passos.) The three volumes of USA and photo of DosPassos:
Trilling starts out by saying that USA is a good read, in fact, “It stands as the most important American novel of the decade,” though “it is startlingly normal; at the risk of seeking paradoxical, one might say that it is exciting because of its quality of cliche.” He starts, that is, with a mobius strip of meaning. The judgement of the trilogy’s importance becomes the argument that its normality and cliched sentiments is the foundation of its importance.
DosPassos isn’t a great writer, Trilling continues, and he is no model for writers, as are “Stendahl or Henry James or even E.M. Foster,” (what does that ‘even’ suggest about Foster?) — its not that Trilling is sitting on the fence, but he is jumping back and forth over it. Dos Passos is a writer who “not only represents a great national scene but he embodies…the cultural tradition of the intellectual Left.”
SO, Trilling argues that the lack of particular heroes and heroines in the novel conforms to the intellectual Left’s focus on the collectivity: in its political character: “that the social forces now dominant are evil; that there is a conflict between the dominant social forces and other, better, rising forces; that it is certain or very likely that the rising forces will overcome the now dominant one.” The foundation for this is the assumption that collective aspects are more important than the individual. DosPassos, however, does focus on individual moral crises in place of generalised classes– and although the events and situations of the novel may turn on class issues, “he does not write of a class struggle.” Trilling argues that the characters who we meet aren’t at the top or the bottom of class structure; they are struggling individuals. “Their movement from class to class, if you will, makes for the uncertainty of their moral codes, their confusion, their indecision. Almost more that the people of a fixed class, they are at the mercy of the social stream because their interests cannot be clear to them.
Critics have complained that there is no uplift in the novel; that it ends for most characters of moral worth with despair. But Trilling writes, “Despair with its wits about it is very different from despair that is stupid.” Trilling is certain that sitting with despair is also a dialectical movement into re-thinking. When Harold Rosenberg was quick to tell Philip Rahv that Trilling was only upholding ‘bourgeois values,’ Delmore Schwartz came up with a better argument; namely, that Trilling wrote for Partisan Review to “protect his left flank,” another cautionary criticism of sitting on the fence.
click for the whole essay: Trilling on Dos Passos