Life in Culture: Selected Letters of Lionel Trilling

Lionel Trilling (Author) Adam Kirsch (Editor)


A great critic's quarrels with himself and others, as revealed in his correspondence

In the mid-twentieth century, Lionel Trilling was America's most respected literary critic. His powerful and subtle essays inspired readers to think about how literature shapes our politics, our culture, and our selves. His 1950 collection, The Liberal Imagination, sold more than 100,000 copies, epitomizing a time that has been called the age of criticism.

To his New York intellectual peers, Trilling could seem reserved and circumspect. But in his selected letters, Trilling is revealed in all his variousness and complexity. We witness his ardent courtship of Diana Trilling, who would become an eminent intellectual in her own right; his alternately affectionate and contentious rapport with former students such as Allen Ginsberg and Norman Podhoretz; the complicated politics of Partisan Review and other fabled magazines of the period; and Trilling's relationships with other leading writers of the period, including Saul Bellow, Edmund Wilson, and Norman Mailer.

In Life in Culture, edited by Adam Kirsch, Trilling's letters add up to an intimate portrait of a great critic, and of America's intellectual journey from the political passions of the 1930s to the cultural conflicts of the 1960s and beyond.

Product Details

Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publish Date
September 25, 2018
6.3 X 1.5 X 9.0 inches | 1.55 pounds
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About the Author

Lionel Trilling (1905-1975) taught at Columbia University from 1931 until his death and was the author of many books, including Matthew Arnold and the novel The Middle of the Journey.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic whose writing appears in The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, and other publications. He lives in New York.


"[A] well-edited volume . . . Trilling's letters to [Allen] Ginsberg are among the highlights of this book; indeed, you can imagine their relationship . . . being made into a stage play. "What is Batman?" Trilling asks in one of them . . . Trilling's letters read, in this selection, like well-appointed essays." --Dwight Garner, The New York Times

"The recent publication of Life in Culture: Selected Letters of Lionel Trilling, wonderfully edited by Adam Kirsch, puts a new Trilling before us. In this book, he is not the Olympian essayist. His voice is not perfectly modulated and polished as it was in his essays, an author happy to hide behind the veil of literary criticism. " --Michael Kimmage, The National Interest

"Judiciously edited by Adam Kirsch . . . Life in Culture gives us, among much else, intimate glimpses of Trilling's continuous self-appraisal . . . Trilling's letters resolve themselves into a captivating portrait of a man wrestling with roles essential to his sense of himself: as a teacher, a liberal, a Jew and a critic . . . 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." --Benjamin Balint, Wall Street Journal

"Adam Kirsch's judicious selection of [Lionel Trilling's] letters throws instructive light on both Trilling's life and American intellectual culture from the 1920s to the 1970s. For anyone concerned with the many leading writers, critics, and thinkers with whom Trilling corresponded or curious about how the son of Jewish immigrants came to play such a central role in American literary life, this is a fascinating book." --Robert Alter, Jewish Review of Books

"It's a measure of Trilling's brilliance and humanity that these letters are as alive now as then were then. A joy to read, this is one of the most inviting letter collections readers will come across this year." --Library Journal (Starred Review)

"A generous sampling of letters that displays the rich intellectual life of mid-20th-century America's leading critic as well as his staunchly even temperament and many second thoughts . . . This epistolary interior monologue shows the defensiveness of a restless and meticulous mind, wary of easy answers and labels and astute about matching the right word to the precise shade of thought." --Kirkus Reviews

"Kirsch has done a fine job culling ...Trilling's correspondence is undoubtedly valuable . . . The reader is rewarded by [Trilling's] engagement in literature and culture . . . Well worth reading." --Publisher's Weekly