Category Archives: Lionel Trilling

When Trilling Failed

Cynthia Ozick‘s extensive but absorbing essay on Lionel Trilling in the New Republic is well worth the time it’ll take to read. The peg for the piece is Trilling’s The Journey Abandoned, an unfinished novel that was recently discovered and just published by Columbia University Press. The book is, to Ozick’s mind, a failure, but an interesting failure that allows her to delve into the tricky business of being a critic who takes on fiction. When you were a critic such as Trilling, deeply concerned with the mechanics of literary greatness, the stakes were much higher. So for him to write what what Ozick calls merely a pretty good novel, 1947’s The Middle of the Journey, was essentially to fail. Ozick writes:

Then surely it behooved him to bring forth not merely a good novel, and not merely a very good novel, but a great novel? This he had not done. Q.E.D.: since with all this capacity for greatness, he had not produced a great novel, it must follow that he had produced a bad novel–gray, bloodless, intellectual, without passion. For the lauded critic who stakes his truth on a transcendent standard, there may be a lesson in it: do not try to practice what you preach, or your admirers will gather round to pick your bones.