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Lionel Trilling Biography

(1905–75), Sincerity and Authenticity, The Partisan Review, The Opposing Self, Beyond Culture, The Liberal Imagination

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American critic, born in New York, educated at Columbia University. Among other academic posts, he taught at the University of Wisconsin and Hunter College, and rose to Professor of English at Columbia. One of the most subtle and reflective of American critics, his continuing concern was the fate of culture in troubled times, and the possibilities of contestation and rejuvenation represented by distinguished literary work. His touchstones were Jane Austen, Wordsworth, Arnold, and Tolstoy, and his critical project was an extension of the great themes of the liberal Enlightenment, to be found in an early, optimistic form in Diderot, and played out in a tragic mode in Freud as Trilling read him. Trilling's first books concerned the humanism of Arnold and Forster; his late work Sincerity and Authenticity (1972) explored and separated two terms often taken to be synonymous. Trilling was closely associated with the best of the American literary journals, like The Partisan Review, and most of his books were made up of essays and prefaces written for discrete occasions. The Opposing Self (1955) and Beyond Culture (1965) are substantial works of this kind, but Trilling's most enduring work is perhaps The Liberal Imagination (1950), which contains essays on Wordsworth, Freud, American literature, American literary history, and some profound reflections on the European novel. Shadows too are part of reality, Trilling said, and the recognition of sadness was an important part of his optimism—hence the attraction of Freud as the great modern poet of the cost as well as the triumph of culture. We shall all do better, meet with kindlier judgements, Trilling said, if Tolstoy rather than Dostoevsky is right about the world. It is characteristic of Trilling's tact that he should think this was a reason for wanting to prefer Tolstoy, not a proof that others should. See also Marxist literary criticism.

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