Lionel Trilling

Lionel Trilling (1905-1975) 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. William Barrett, in his memoir of the Partisan Review clan, praises Lionel Trilling for his elegance of manners, of writing, and of demeanour.  But he also suggests that Trilling may have been the first of the PR writers to move towards a developing conservative strand in American intellectual life.

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.

Hemingway the Artist

Hemingway the artistIn his essay on Hemingway, Trilling makes a political argument into an aesthetic one by differentiating between Hemingway ‘the artist’ and Hemingway ‘the man’, suggesting that the early Hemingway’s work was of high literary value, while his later works, contradictory in their focus on the “man” as the bearer of socialist politics, now have gravitated towards a ‘liberalism’ of ‘good behaviour.’

Hemingway the  Man.

Hemingway the man.

Trilling begins with two recent works by Hemingway: The Fifth Column and  The First Forty-Nine Stories:  “Hemingway the ‘artist’ is conscious; Hemingway the ‘man’ is self-conscious; the ‘artist’ has a kind of innocence; the ‘man’ a kind of naivety; the ‘artist’ is disinterested; the ‘man’ has a dull personal axe to grind; the ‘artist’ has a perfect medium, and tells the truth even if it is only his truth. But the ‘man’ fumbles at communication and falsifies.” He goes on, “Insofar as we can ever blame a critical tradition for a writer’s failures, we must, I believe, blame American criticism for the illegitimate emergence of Hemingway the  ‘man’ and the resulting inferiority of his two recent major works.”

Hemingway was greeted with two competing interpretations: on one side, he was thought of as a brilliant new style maker in fiction, on the other, that he was a writer of   “cruelty, religion, anti-intellectualism,” and these reactions in turn had a strong impact on Hemingway’s ideas about what kind of writer he wanted to be:“For upon Hemingway were turned all the fine social feelings of the now passing decade, all the noble sentiments, all the desperate optimism, all the extreme rationalism, all the contempt of irony and indirection– all the attitudes which, in the full tide of the liberal-radical movement, became dominant in our thought about literature.” 

So half the audience adored and imitated him, and the other half reviled him as a border-Nazi. But a third other idea was that he attacked ‘good human values.’ He tried to put in the ‘correct social feelings.’ in the ‘required social way.’   So he brought in Hemingway ‘the Man.’ Trilling cites Edmund Wilson’s argument  that Hemingway’s “ideas about life or rather, his sense of what happens and the way it happens, is in his stories sunk deep below the surface and is not conveyed by arguments or preaching but by directly transmitted emotion it is turned into something hard as crystal and as disturbing as a great lyric. When he expounds his sense of life, however, in his character of Ernest Hemingway, the Old Master of Key West, he has a way of sounding silly.”

At this point, Trilling slides into his political point about Hemingway’s deterioration: “If , however, Hemingway ‘in his own character,’ were apparent to the practitioners of this  critical tradition, they did not want Hemingway’s virtues – the something ‘hard’ and ‘disturbing.’ Indeed they were in a critical tradition that did not want artists at all–it wanted ‘men,’ recruits, and its apologists were delighted to enlist Hemingway in his own character, with all his confusions and naivety, simply because Hemingway had now declared himself on the right side.”

In that way critics on the left could forgive the ‘silliness’ or immaturity of the Hemingway ‘man’ writings, because that was the mark of their political commitment: of showing that Hemingway was “on the right side.”

“For what should have always been obvious is that Hemingway is a writer who, when he writes as an ‘artist,’ is passionately and aggressively concerned with truth and even with social truth.”

Trilling moves to the politics of America in and after  WWI: Trilling approves of Hemingway’s claim that the strength of  American prose originated in Huckleberry Finn’s trip down the Mississippi; Trilling adds to the horror of death and destruction:

“TO the sensitive men who went to war, it was not, perhaps death and destruction that made the disorganising shock. It was perhaps rather that death and destruction went on at the instance and to the accompaniment of the fine grave words, of which Woodrow Wilson’s were the finest and gravest: Here was the issue of liberal theory; here in the bloated or piecemeal corpse was the outcome of the words of humanitarianism and of ideals… Words were trundled smoothly o’er the tongue — Coleridge had said it long ago:

“Like mere abstractions, empty sounds to which/ We join no feeling and attach no form/ As if the soldier died without a wound. . ./Passed off to heaven, translated and not killed”.
SO it is, Trillling argues, against that language of complacent Liberalism that Hemingway’s search for the truth must be placed.

Trilling then adds a third category to ‘artist,’and ‘man’; contemporary politics. While arguing that the ‘artist’ seeks truth, he implies that Stalinist Popular Frontism and American Liberalism obfuscate the actuality of revolutionary possibility woven into the best works of the ‘artist.’  So, while elevating the ‘artist,’ Trilling also elevates the work of the artist by finding in it the contemporary questions and in places, possible answers to political as well as artistic problems.

Trilling never did become one of the Partisan Review writers who slid into conservatism over the years. He remained an anti-Stalinist Socialist throughout his life.

To read the whole of the essay, cut and paste the link below.

NEXT WEEK; Gertrude Stein