Lionel Trilling, the regal American literary and social critic, was an ardent letter writer — he composed as many as 600 a year — but a slow-moving one. Corresponding with him was like playing squash with an opponent who pockets your serve, walks off the court and returns four months later to fire it back...and nearly all the letters in Life in Culture: Selected Letters of Lionel Trilling, edited by Adam Kirsch, begin with apologies and small arias of explanation for delay. The younger, slicker Ovitz would never have done such a thing. He explains in his back-patting new memoir that he specialized in keeping clients happy by identifying and then fulfilling their wildest dreams. As he says here: 'It’s only blarney if you can’t make it happen. If you can, then it’s the truth — and the truth is the supreme sales tool.'
Trilling’s stature', Cynthia Ozick has written, 'once prodigious, is so reduced as to have become a joke to certain young critics who favor flippancy and lightness.' A selection of some 270 of Trilling’s letters—spanning the years 1924, when Trilling was 19, to his death in 1975 at the age of 70—thus requires something of a leap of imagination ... The letters selected by Mr. Kirsch offer persuasive testimony that the contradictions Trilling discovered within himself acted as a fulcrum for his achievement, with a result that was anything but sterile. By interpreting a culture to itself, in all its complexity, and by demonstrating literature’s 'exemplary force' in such an effort, Trilling helped to answer a still-vital question: why literature matters.
Poet and critic Kirsch has done a fine job culling the thousands of letters written between 1924 and 1975 by famed literary critic Trilling—at least 600 a year, by the writer’s own estimation—down to a manageable 270 ... In his early courtship with his future wife, Diana, he strikes an analytically detached note, musing, 'I have been wondering... why I find so much satisfaction in your being away.' ... Decades later, he writes to Diana from England: 'for me too the being alone has been a great experience.' Trilling needed his space, and because of it, the reader is rewarded by his engagement in literature and culture, ranging from being 'enormously impressed' with an early Bellow novel to acidly rebutting a New York Review of Books essay implying he 'played a decisive part in the sad fate of Lenny Bruce.' Trilling also shows generosity toward those needing his help, and outspoken honesty throughout. For those qualities and more, the letters are well worth reading.