Commentary Magazine

The Never-Ending Journey

Lionel Trilling and Irving Howe: And Other Stories of  Literary Friendship
By Edward Alexander
Transaction, 124 pages, $34.95

The Conservative Turn:
Lionel Trilling, Whittaker Chambers, and the Lessons of Anti-Communism

By Michael Kimmage
Harvard, 419-pages, $45

Why the persistent fascination with Lionel Trilling? An English professor, literary critic, and one-book novelist, Trilling continues to generate interest three decades after his death, while his contemporaries—Newton Arvin, Cleanth Brooks, F.O. Matthiessen, Philip Rahv, Yvor Winters—go quietly into obscurity. Two new books by academics of distinction—one with a long career and the other at the outset—wrestle with Trilling’s legacy only three years after Gertrude Himmelfarb named Trilling as the summit of The Moral Imagination in her book of that title three years ago. Just last year, an unfinished novel called The Journey Abandoned appeared in print for the first time and was the occasion of essays everywhere, including in these pages,1 just as the New York Review of Books reissued The Liberal Imagination, his best-known -volume, in a “classic” edition.

There is something peculiar in this. After all, liberal anti-Communism, the cause Trilling was most closely identified with, is no longer relevant. The Soviet Union outlived him by just a decade and a half, and those who claim the present-day mantle of liberal anti-Communism, like the journalists Peter Beinart and Paul Berman, have had an exceptionally clumsy time of it. There is no liberal anti-Islamism to speak of. Those who now declare themselves liberals (“a word primarily of political import,” Trilling wrote, “but its political meaning defines itself by the quality of life it envisages”) are more impatient to prosecute Bush-administration officials than the war on terror.

What is more, the style of literary criticism practiced by Trilling—and by Irving Howe, whose long friendship with Trilling is lovingly detailed in Edward Alexander’s book Lionel Trilling and Irving Howe—might itself share some of the blame for its current dreadful state. The rise of “literary theory” in the late 70s entailed the “reduction of literature to politics,” Harold Fromm charged in Academic Capitalism and Literary Value (1991), and since then critics have been “more interested in political goals than intellectual activity or aesthetic response.” The same might have been said of Trilling (and Howe).

As a literary man, Trilling was the sworn enemy of the so-called New Critics—his chief rivals to preeminence in the literary criticism of the time—who sought to disconnect literature from an external reality and study poems only in relation to what R. P. Blackmur, one of their more articulate spokesmen, called “the analyzable features of the forms and techniques of poetry.” The effect was to sever literature from any relation to politics.

Trilling believed that withdrawal from politics was unforgivable in an era in which human freedom was threatened by a Soviet totalitarianism that “wants not so much a liberated humanity as a sterilized humanity” and “would gladly make a wasteland if it could call the silence peace.” Intellectual passivity, he warned, was an invitation to violence. Literature had a very immediate connection with politics—though politics did not mean practical arrangements for the improvement of social existence but “the politics of culture, the organization of human life toward some end or other.” The aesthetic effect of the greatest literature was to be found in its “intellectual power,” in the “mind’s success” at confronting social reality. The greatness of literature, in other words, is measured in the level of its engagement with society and therefore with politics.

The Middle of the Journey (1947), Trilling’s one completed novel, is not a great work of literature, but it tackles a great subject—“the powerful attraction to Communism felt by a considerable part of the American intellectual class during the Thirties and Forties.” The attraction divided the class against itself. What elsewhere he called the Angelic Fallacy—the desire to side with the angels on the Left at all costs—is embodied in the Crooms, “the decent people, the people of good will,” who wear “the armor of idealism” and cannot believe that anything opposed to the Left requires consideration. On the other side is Gifford Maxim, a former party professional who broke with Communism when he could no longer deny that its results were evil.

“The time was getting ripe for a competing system,” Trilling’s protagonist decides at the end of the novel, and Michael Kimmage, a young historian at Catholic University, has developed the hint into a full-length study of Trilling’s influence on American thought. In The Conservative Turn, he takes seriously the suggestion, made variously by Ruth R. Wisse, Cornel West, and others, that liberal anti-Communism reinvented itself in the 70s as neoconservatism. Although Trilling famously opened The Liberal Imagination by dismissing the conservative intellectual tradition in America—it expressed itself not “in ideas,” he said, “but only in action or in irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas”—Kimmage argues that he blazed a trail that was later followed by students and admirers like Norman Podhoretz, Midge Decter, Irving Kristol, and Gertrude Himmelfarb when the armored idealists still in the grip of the Angelic Fallacy re-emerged as the New Left.

To the end of his life, Trilling rejected the conservative label. By himself he could not have negotiated the “conservative turn” in American thought. For Kimmage, the intellectual trend fathered by Trilling was midwifed by Whittaker Chambers, the ex-Communist who, in a 1948 public hearing of the House Un-American Activities Committee, accused former State Department official Alger Hiss and two other members of the Roosevelt administration of having belonged to an “underground group” whose purpose was “the Communist infiltration of the American government,” with espionage as “certainly one of its eventual objectives.”

For a generation, the Hiss-Chambers Case (as it came to be known) served as a fixed point for determining intellectuals’ place on the map of political opinion. In that sense, the embrace of Chambers among neoconservatives was a significant development. And Trilling was forever yoked to him, not merely by the urgency of their mutual anti-Communism, but also by the fact that Chambers was the original for Gifford Maxim in The Middle of the Journey.

Kimmage is not persuasive, though, in holding that Chambers, especially in his 1952 autobiography, Witness, where he traces his progress from Communism to Christianity, exercised a “posthumous influence” as strong as Trilling’s on neoconservatives. Though it is true that Witness is now, more than a half century since its publication, considered an important and masterful book by many neoconservatives, their politics are probably still closer to Trilling’s, in part because he spoke the language they were required to master if they hoped to make it through the institutions of American life controlled by the leftover Left—the universities, the media, the law. Chambers was an outsider, living out a “Christian pastoral” on a farm in Maryland while scribbling occasional pieces for National Review; Trilling carried the fight to the Left on its own ground.

Despite the overreach of his claim that neoconservatism is the “common legacy” of Trilling and Chambers, Kimmage has writtenS an account of their crossed destinies that is so thorough, so painstaking, it will not need to be attempted again. His chapters on The Middle of the Journey and Witness are particularly good and might be held up as an example of how to write historical literary scholarship (if anyone were still interested in writing it).

Still, in his Lionel Trilling and Irving Howe, Alexander comes closer to saying why the author of Witness is likely to have a more profound influence on the American conservative tradition in the long run, even though he mentions Chambers only in passing. Alexander, professor emeritus at the University of Washington, examines the tense and fruitful association of two literary men whose similarities (a secularized Jewish background, passionate anti-Communism, an almost religious devotion to literature and the politicized criticism of it) were stronger than their differences, which included misunderstandings, slights, open disagreements, and the huge gulf between Trilling’s reflective calm and Howe’s sharp polemics. Through the ups and downs of their relationship, Alexander tells the story of two liberals at the end of a tradition, reluctant to acknowledge their loss of faith in the Left and trying valiantly to hold themselves aloof from both the Right and religious Judaism.

Alexander favors Trilling but finds him somewhat wanting. “Trilling’s unwillingness to be inspirited by anything Jewish or indeed anything religious—a disability that came from too much refinement and intelligence, not too little,” he writes—suggests a deep longing for something greater. Along with a nostalgia for a liberalism that has ceased to exist, the persistent fascination with Trilling may itself point to a longing for transcendence that Trilling would always disappoint. Although Chambers was wrong about Communism’s inevitable triumph, and though he was wrong in conceiving the Cold War as a contest between “godless Communism” and the Judeo-Christian tradition, in the end Chambers had the better of the argument all along. Trilling quoted Charles Péguy’s memorable adage in the Preface to The Liberal Imagination—“everything begins in mystery and ends in politics.” Perhaps. But everything that ends in politics must eventually return to mystery, or it will tumble into irrelevance.




1 See the review by Sam Munson in the July/August 2008 COMMENTARY.

About the Author

D.G. Myers, literary historian at the Melton Center for Jewish Studies at Ohio State University, writes our fiction chronicle and is the author of the Literary Commentary blog.

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