By today's standards Lionel Trilling represents, perhaps, the tired old naive liberalism of the 1950's and early 1960's when liberalism was dominant in America. However, despite Trilling's excessive faith in liberalism he was a true exemplar of true liberal learning like his great contemporaries, Gilbert Highet, Mark Doren, Moses Hades, Allan Nevins and Jacques Barzun who amazingly is still with us at 100+.
Trilling was also almost entirely uncontaminated by PC thought, Affirmative Action multiculturalism which let's tell the truth elevates junk and mediocrity on a quota basis.
No wonder kids don't want to read. If I were a youth subject to today’s testing regime and today’s PC literature I think I would run away from school and certainly never darken the door of any university liberal arts department. Like the scholars in Fahrenheit 451 I would flee with my classics to some remote area to keep alive the flame of true culture and high literature.
I am a great reader but I avoid almost anything current that comes out of the Nobel system or PC liberal arts departments of our universities. Life is too short and there are such great classics. Most of our best writers, today are independent writers so it seems to me in this tarnished silver age we still have great non-fiction authors. But most contemporary poetry and fiction falls flat as far as I am concerned with a few exceptions such as Ian Pears. I don't think Ken Follett is really a first class writer but at his best he comes close to matching in consistent quality of output of Kipling,Stevenson,Bryce,MacDonald, Bronte,Trollope, Boswell, Gibbon,Twain, Theodore Roosevelt,Bret Hart, Wells, Dickens or Scott or Conan Doyle. I used to think George Orwell's fiction was uneven but now -re-reading Orwell it all seems like gold and of course he had his masterpieces too and his essays and letters are among the greatest ever written by anyone in any language. But just match any post 1950 English language author to Conan Doyle for example or Dickens or Shaw or even Austen, or French literature, Flaubert, Verne, Zola, Gautier,Hugo, Balzac and so forth. Then there is the great opus of Russian literature pre-1914 Tolstoy,Pushkin, Chekov, plus all the works of Solzhenitsyn, all the great romantic Spanish dramss of the 19th century (several made into operas by Verdi such as the Duque de Riva's Don Alvaro La Forza del Destino)followed by the great Spanish playwrights and poets of the first half of the 20th century, The Quintero brothers, Benevente, Garcia Lorca, Machado. Then there is German literature as well, Thomas Mann, Goethe, Heine,Mommsen, Niebuhr, Ranke. With men like Trilling or Gilbert Highet or Allan Nevins one always knew one was reading LITERATURE by people who knew their prose and poetry like modern Ciceros. The wide learning of a Trilling or Highet -men who were conversant with politics and history to a high degree plus classical and world literature or of an Allan Nevins whose vocabulary and literary allusions in his historical works show a man who knew his Gibbon, his Shakespeare, his Scott, his Dickents,his Twain, his Lincoln, his Theodore Roosevelt (yes TR was one of America's great prose writers and essayist equally a match to Winston Churchill and the superior author to Jefferson who was talented but relatively unoriginal and unproductive. As an original thinker and writer Jefferson is highly overrated -especially when one compares him to Theodore Roosevelt. We have no one like TR today nor Mark Twain either nor Robert Sherwood or even Hemingway at his best. Hemingway is a classic example of a modern author who just cannot sustain excellence. Hemingway, at his best (1926-1950) is very, very good and still highly accessible. But -and I have read almost all of his fiction, letters and prose- Hemingway is not consistently as great an author as Conrad or Dickents or even Conan Doyle. My chief criticism of modern autors is that they are careless writers who seem not to have read very much. Once I tried to stay abreast of "current literature" but I found so much of it to be squalid, turgid and mediocre with some exceptions as I have mentioned plus others such as Anthony Burgess. The great thing about Trilling was that Trilling was truly learned and truly had great taste at time when men could be discriminating in their tastes and judge work ONLY by its literary beauty, originality, and general merit. Today we relive Don Juan Manuel's tale -later retold as the Emperor's New Clothes- over and over. We pretend all people, all cultures all genders are absolutely equal in quality and in fact that PC works are what we must read because they are PC. Of course, multiculturalism and PC Affirmative Action authors and poet laureates are just one big lie just an exercise in propaganda. And as Orwell or Trilling would have told us, propaganda and lies make for the deadest literature of all. Trilling lived at time when a man could tell the truth and exalt in and know the limits of art. We are very glad to have him, still, as an untainted if somewhat overoptimistic old style liberal. One remembers when reading Trilling what is was like to when it made sense to be a (moderate) liberal because moderate liberals of the 1950's and early 1960's were manly, patriotic, proud of being American and part of what was then called Western Civilization. Most children today do not even know what Western Civilization is and in most places in the West -the USA probably being an exception- knowledge of the Bible is at its lowest since probably AD 200. I meet unbaptized and completely deracinated Russian, Spanish, Italian immigrants who have never heard of Noah, or the Psalms or Ecclesiastes, or Aaron or even Moses let alone Luke, Matthew, Paul etc. Men of the right often complain that immigrants from Latin American are destroying America because they are uneducated, have no values, do not share our culture etc.
We in America are very lucky that most Latin American immigrants DO NOT SHARE the non-culture of present day British or European immigrants. I work with Hispanic Youth groups and am amazed that most Hispanic youth 1) know and respect the Scriptures and Christian traditions 2) genuinely enjoy poetry and often recite it by heart 3) their songs and musical traditions are not (yet) completely divorced from their literary traditions and so at their best are surprisingly literate. I don't think it is all great by any means but at least it is not horrible post-modern aggressive noise like so much contemporary American popular music. Latin culture is actually (still) quite civilized in its music and manners.
The reason it is, I believe, is because they still consider themselves to be part of Christendom and value their language and ancient culture heritage. Latin Americans still have a deep sense of the sacred and a knowledge that there is such a thing as truth and right and wrong. English-speaking peoples and many Western Europeans seem to have lost all interest in their heritage, their religion and hope for the future hence their inability to man up and even have the children necessary to guarantee a future for their languages and nations. I cannot help but think so many "permanent" nations of today will merely be geographic or historical expressions by the 22nd century. That sort of knowledge and wisdom is something that would have intrigued Trilling and he would have been interested in that because he was not under any illusion that he was living one great summit of Western Civilization but was merely a small part of its great story.
Trilling always had the confidence to believe in himself, in America, in democracy, in Lockean tolerance in Western Civilization. Reading Trilling today reminds of a time when most Americans even intellectuals believed in America and in the old verities with a feeling of genuine optimism for America's future. Their optimism like Trilling's was based largely on an edifice of the truth mixed with some mild polite ficitons (such as that someday we would achieve merely by merit true equality for all). Today we are wiser. We know all Americans are equal but some are more equal than others.
Today we know there ARE HEREDITARY CASTES and TITLES OF NOBLITY that grant some persons preference and privilege part of the creeping unconstitutionality of our Bold State with its Liberal Elites and activist judges.
President Obama is a perfect example of a PC Affirmative Action brat whose entire political, intellectual, academic life is essentially an exaggeration and a lie based on a life of constant preference and a comfortable, easy rise via mediocrity, gut courses, inflated grades (what WERE his grades???) ghost writers and rapid promotion via Affirmative Action.
One always knows one is in the presences of an Affirmative Action Brat when he or she boasts “I have never applied for a job in my life; I have constantly been recruited.” No wonder people like Mr. Obama really believe they are God’s gift to the earth and the greatest thing to happen since Isaac Newton or at least A.J. Cronin or Booker T. Washington.
In their vanity they think they are truly great, historically great.
But in reality they are great in the way Lord Corwallis was great.
Corwallis, of course, at least KNEW he bought his commission and in his moments of candor gloried in the preference his status as primogenitor in an Anglican world governed by Test Acts .
That is what the “Protestant Cause” meant to people like Cornwallis: wealth and preference usually without any pretence of merit only class privilege. That was the “Old Affirmative Action” for “White Anglo Saxon Males” (chiefly of course first born sons and heirs –no bastards or Irish need apply)
The Affirmative Action Brats of today –in literature, business and politics- of which Mr. Obama is most splendid example of what is, now, probably a permanent hereditary “title” of nobility –meaning people like Obama get preference based on the theory that there was discrimination in the past which has to be made good today and “forever more”.
Which means true excellence and merit in America is dead or dying in many fields of endeavor especially literature but also in business, government, finance, law, medicine. Obamacare, if it endures will probably be the end of the American era of dominance in medical technology and developments. Gradually our obsession with “fairness” , a “level playing field” (instead of a “square deal” for all), and racial and gender quotas will destroy and stifle our cultural life and our industrial productivity. More and more the mediocre and the non-producers will gobble up the best jobs and the most financial aid while taxing and discriminated against the productive and truly creative elements of American society.
Soon all insurances and all our medical programs as well as our schools and universities will be run by clones of Mr and Mrs. Obama. Big Brother would be less of a threat to human freedom than such an insidious lie as what is being foisted on Americans today. In fact, the growing Bold State is, perhaps, a stealth form of leveling and Socialism that will one day wipe out families, private lives, private religion and even free thought and speech.
Not a boot in the face of humanity forever but vapid teleprompter speeches on autoplay forever and a pauperized general public whose paper dollars will blow away in the wind like so many Weimar marks and whose happiness and confidence will be slowly crushed by confiscatory taxation and a debt load that can never be paid only repudiated and defaulted on until we in America are poorer and more miserable than Argentina or Weimar Germany.
Mr. Obama is no Hitler nor a Stalin; no he is more like helpless and hapless the president of a Banana Republic or Honorius a Roman emperor who enjoyed dreaming and reigning and partying but had not the slightest idea how even to defend or pay for a single legion or a single villa. Trilling would have understood what I am getting at and where I am coming from. He too would have been astonished that our first Black president was not a Frederick Douglas or even a Ralph Bunche or a Martin Luther King but someone more akin to Reconstruction Era politicians, Haitian presidents of old or even Boss Tweed.
Of course that is not fair to Boss Tweed. The Solyndra bankruptcy and the total losses of the Obama administration will probably dwarf anything Boss Tweed ever did.