Lionel Trilling's Jewish Problem

A leading light of the famous New York Intellectuals harbored deeply conflicted feelings about his own Jewishness, and exceptionally harsh views on Jews and Judaism.

October 11, 2018 | Edward Alexander
About the author: Edward Alexander, professor emeritus of English at the University of Washington, is the author most recently of Lionel Trilling and Irving Howe: A Literary Friendship (2009) and Jews Against Themselves (2015).

Lionel Trilling (1905-1975) was the grand master of America’s “Age of Criticism.” A renowned literary authority who taught for many years at Columbia University, Trilling was an influential member of the grouping that came to be known as the New York Intellectuals, a highly respected voice in public arguments concerning matters social, cultural, and political—and a Jew with (to put it mildly) conflicted views on Jews and Judaism.

While a full biography of Trilling remains to be written, he makes a central appearance in numerous studies of intellectual and political culture in mid-20th-century America as well as in memoirs by his wife Diana Trilling and by many friends, colleagues, students, and sparring partners. There is also a collection of his major essays, The Moral Obligation to Be Intelligent (edited by Leon Wieseltier, 2000). And now, most recently, both the man and his work speak for themselves in Life in Culture: Selected Letters of Lionel Trilling. The volume is edited by Adam Kirsch, an accomplished critic and poet and himself the author of an earlier brief study, Why Trilling Matters (2011).

Life in Culture, a kind of epistolary biography, consists of 270 letters culled from the thousands available. All of them but one were written by Trilling himself; there is none by his interlocutors, though Trilling does frequently quote passages from their letters in the course of grappling with their thoughts. Kirsch helpfully identifies these interlocutors, but the book lacks a glossary, and Kirsch’s own annotations are minimal—a possible obstacle for readers unacquainted with the persons, the issues, or the circumstances being addressed.

Trilling was a prodigious correspondent, who once estimated that he wrote about 600 letters a year. That he was also a generous correspondent I can testify as a former student whose letters he never failed to answer (and for whom he also performed two remarkable acts of personal kindness). Nor did he fastidiously decline to respond to non-literary people asking for advice about “writing” from a famous English professor; to the contrary, as Life in Culture demonstrates, they would get wise and feeling replies.

Many of the letters in Kirsch’s book are copious, and some are of enormous length, especially when Trilling is engaged in argument and quoting his adversary in full or near-full. From Kirsch’s selections, three major themes emerge: Trilling’s politics; his ambivalence about his own literary vocation (is he a critic, or a novelist?); and his permanently uneasy relation to Jews and Judaism. For our purposes here, I’ll focus only on the last.


In his magisterial intellectual biography (1939) of the great Victorian poet and critic Matthew Arnold, begun as a Columbia doctoral dissertation, Trilling gave a detailed account of the strident opposition mounted by Arnold’s father, a prominent educator and liberal church leader, to the admission of Jews to London University. Thomas Arnold could not countenance a scheme that would mark “the first time that education in England was avowedly unchristianized for the sake of accommodating Jews.”

In 1936, Trilling had himself encountered an American version of this same barrier, in the form of resistance to hiring Jews for teaching positions in university departments of English literature. At Columbia, he had nevertheless been made an instructor in 1932—a first. But tenure was another matter. According to his wife Diana’s later account, based on his notebooks from the time, he was informed that “as a Freudian, a Marxist, and a Jew” he was not and could not be “happy” as a tenured professor at Columbia.

This turbulent episode in Trilling’s life is barely mentioned in Kirsch’s edition of his letters. Only near the end do we learn that he had intended to tell the story in a memoir begun near the end of his life. But in the letters he does get far enough to write about his mother, who had been born and educated in London and imposed on young Lionel a reading list of Victorian literature: George Eliot, Dickens, Thackeray, Carlyle, and so forth. The list comes very close to Trilling’s syllabus for a course I took in the mid-1950s as a Columbia undergraduate. So how could he, of all people, be excluded on “racial” and religious grounds from teaching Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton?

The story ended well. Trilling’s protest against the department’s rejection resulted in his retention and promotion to assistant professor, which made him the first Jewish member of the permanent faculty.

Yet there were limits to this new openness, and not only—it turns out—on Columbia’s side. Cynthia Ozick, the novelist and critic, would discover those limits when, as a graduate student in a classroom seminar with Trilling, she asked whether the fact that Freud, Marx, and Einstein were Jewish signified something. “Trilling’s reaction,” she would later record, “was out of proportion even to such gaucherie. He blew up at me, was enraged, outraged. . . . I had sullied—vulgarized . . . his class.”

Was this a foreshadowing of things to come? In his book Why Trilling Matters, Kirsch points out that in two of his “most personal and suggestive essays”—“Isaac Babel” and “Wordsworth and the Rabbis”—Trilling treated the Jewish condition as “a central metaphor for his [own] divided feelings about the modern spirit.” But those who recall these two essays, or Kirsch’s benign comments on them, may well be dismayed by the treatment of “the Jewish question” in the letters selected for this book.

In reading those letters, it is helpful to bear in mind a point that complicates and may even mitigate the dismay. This is that Trilling tended to speak differently about Jews according to whether he was in the company of Gentiles or of other Jews. The essay juxtaposing the poetry of William Wordsworth and the moral aphorisms of the talmudic rabbis, for example, was originally given in 1950 as a lecture at Princeton, at that time very much a Gentile enclave (though more genteel in its anti-Semitism than Harvard or Yale). In favorably contrasting the rabbis’ moral attitudes to Wordsworth’s, Trilling was delivering an elegant affront to the audience he had invaded; some who were present for the occasion would report that he was “very agitated” afterward.

In Life in Culture, the first letter with explicitly Jewish content is dated December 1929. It reflects honorably on the young Trilling, who here refuses membership in the Columbia Club because he has heard (presumably from friends with names more “Jewish” than his) that the club does not usually accept Jews; therefore, he writes, he “cannot decently stand for membership.”

By this juncture, moreover, he has also been contributing both essays and fiction to the Menorah Journal, a publication edited by his friend Elliot Cohen and sponsored by the Intercollegiate Menorah Society, an organization then-active on university campuses and dedicated to the principles of “Jewish humanism.” At the end of 1929 he sends a letter to Cohen expressing the highest admiration and enthusiasm for what the Menorah Journal has done to open his own eyes and mind to the intellectual riches of the Jewish heritage, thereby enabling him to see a place for himself within it. Three years later, in August 1932, he tells Herman Jacobs of the 92nd Street YMHA in New York that he plans to lecture there on the subject of “The Jew in Fiction.”


The first truly discordant note comes in Trilling’s letter in September 1932, only a month later, to Henry Hurwitz, founder of the Menorah Journal. In it, he announces that he is discontinuing his connection with the publication because he no longer feels any degree of accord with its “policy.” Although he does not specify further, the Journal by then was turning sharply toward a pro-Communist stance just as Trilling was emerging decisively from his own flirtation with Marxism.

But there was more to it than that. In many ways, his break from the Menorah Journal was a harbinger of his far more decisive break from, or rather refusal to throw in his lot with, Commentary, the new Jewish (and solidly anti-Communist) journal launched in November 1945 by the American Jewish Committee.

In June of that year, Trilling writes again to his friend Elliot Cohen, who now, having been tapped to become the founding editor of Commentary, had prospectively invited Trilling to join the masthead as a contributing editor:

I must say no to your flattering invitation. . . . I am pretty sure that I must make a strong effort to avoid the politicalized forms of the intellectual life, . . . if only because the board of Contributing Editors to which you invite me is bound to be made up of strong, respectable, and antagonistic personalities dealing with highly controversial matters.

Beyond these unspecified political reservations, however, Trilling also confesses his “reason of principle”:

You know, more than anyone else, what my feelings are about Jewish life. So many of those feelings are negative. Most manifestations of organized Jewish life do not please me. And most do not interest me. . . . If I continue to think about Jewish matters, I cannot do so with a quasi-official commitment at my back.

He does not want to be known as a “Jewish writer” or a “Jewish publicist,” he continues. He might write for a Jewish magazine, but only as an “uncommitted teacher and writer.”

With this letter to Cohen, Trilling established a pattern, never to be broken, of refusing to lend his name to a Jewish initiative or enterprise, or his public presence to a synagogue. Indeed, just thirteen days after sending the letter, he would become embroiled in a heated dispute with the editors of the still-nascent Commentary who had consulted him on a manuscript submitted by the American historian Edward Saveth.

The subject was the anti-Semitism of Henry Adams, the 19th-century American patrician and man of letters. The altercation reached a point where Clement Greenberg of the editorial staff-in-formation called Trilling a “self-hating Jew,” and the two came close to fisticuffs. (Saveth’s essay would appear instead in the final issue of Commentary’s predecessor magazine, the Contemporary Jewish Record. In 1961, Trilling and Greenberg would rehash the incident in a brief exchange of letters in Commentary.)

Trilling’s furious objection to the Saveth article was not so much an outright denial of Adams’ anti-Semitism as an assault on Saveth’s purported evasion of the fact that

many notable modern intellects, by no means to be dismissed as injured, frustrated, primitive neurotics, hate Jews. I don’t by any means think this is an easy subject to deal with, but it must be dealt with, and it cannot be dealt with until we learn to state it accurately.

Defending Adams, Trilling claimed the hatred of Jews present in his work arose from an attraction to medieval Christian “myths”—which, in Trilling’s view, were no more mythical than “the rationale of Judaism itself,” based as it was on “a fairly chancy historical myth.”

As if this weren’t equivocating enough, a look at Adams’ actual tirades against Jews confirms them as mainly a product not of medieval Christian myths but rather of modern racial anti-Semitism at its most deranged. J.C. Levenson, the eminent Adams scholar, writes, for example, that Adams took sides “as an anti-Dreyfusard [who] had no trouble identifying the [supposed maleficence of the British] military campaigns against the Boers [with] the legal campaigns on behalf of Dreyfus: ‘Both of them are Jew wars, and I don’t believe in Jew wars.’” Providing further samples of Adams’ characteristic language—the “Jew scandal,” the “howling Jew,” and so forth—Levenson concludes that Adams’ “obscure use of the word ‘Jew’ disfigures . . . his late masterpieces—pockmarks of a disease that can be fatal.” In Trilling we find no such reservations about Henry Adams.

In June 1947, Trilling was invited to sign a report in favor of founding a Jewish university, eventually named Brandeis. He declined, not only because of his dim view of “particularization” (that is, alleged Jewish parochialism) but also because

there are now in America no special Jewish values of a large and important sort. . . . Apart from the new intense nationalism [i.e., Zionism] which some Jews feel, Jewish life is dominated either by defensiveness and the problems of “adjustment” or, more positively, by the ideas of American sociological liberalism, . . . of which none are specifically Jewish.

Worse yet, the human talent for a university was lacking among Jews:

I know many Jews of large mind and morality, but do not know of a single mind in Jewish life that speaks as a Jew and with any intellectual authority in the exposition of Jewish values. It is possible that some day many such minds will appear. If they do, then the establishment of a Jewish university will be called for.

Quite aside from its invidiousness, this was a most peculiar remark. Among the modern Jewish minds that a willing ear in the mid-1940s might have heard speaking as Jews and with “intellectual authority” were Gershom Scholem, whose epoch-making lectures on Jewish mysticism had been delivered a few years earlier not far from where the Trillings lived; the philosophers Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig; the novelist S.Y. Agnon; and many of the Yiddish writers whom in 1954 the critic Irving Howe—an adversary and sometime friend of Trilling—would present to the American public in A Treasury of Yiddish Stories and several of whom lived, like the Trillings, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan or nearby in the Bronx.


This suggests that Trilling’s failure was not so much a matter of simple ignorance as of a willed blindness: a spiritual or characterological defect. Irving Howe would recount the following exchange with him:

Once, hearing I was working on Yiddish literature, he told me, “I suspect Yiddish literature.” This hurt and angered me deeply, and I never forgave him for it, since he didn’t know a damned thing about it—though we did become friends.

One is, alas, obliged to concur with Howe’s judgment—“he didn’t know a damned thing about it”—in response to other categorical Trilling pronouncements as well, including “how disturbed by sex the Jews are, how repelled”; or “I grow less and less sympathetic with almost all manifestations of [Jewish] culture. And . . . secular [Jewish] culture is erroneously overrated; . . . it has injured all of us dreadfully.”

Even his occasional attempts to use Yiddish or Hebrew words yielded transliterations suggesting that on this topic, like a person defiantly eating soup with a fork, he seemed sure he was under no obligation to check for howlers: mitzvah for mikveh, stetloch (or shtetln) for shtetlekh, halaba for halakhah. And there are bizarre book recommendations: don’t read Irving Howe on East European Jewry, Trilling advises a former student; read instead the middlebrow bestseller Life Is with People by Mark Zborowski, an anthropologist and former long-time secret agent for Stalin’s Kremlin.

Early in 1949, Trilling promised Rabbi Isidor Hoffman of Columbia University to attend services at his synagogue on April 1. He reneged on this commitment on March 21, just ten days beforehand, on the grounds that his attendance might seem to some to be making a “gesture” that, “in the degree that it might be available to any use, however tacit, or liable to be given any significance, would be a quite false gesture for me.” Squeamishness has seldom taken a more unctuous form.

Equally worthy of note, in one who spent most of his time among some of the smartest Jews on the planet, is Trilling’s harping on the stupidity of Jews. Discussing the reactions to the anthropologist Edward T. Hall’s influential 1976 book Beyond Culture with the poet Irving Feldman, he says that “Some part of my feeling is shame at my people’s stupidity.” Moreover, the stupidest among the stupid are the religious: “The nature of my alienation from Judaism is in large part an irritable response to the unsatisfactoriness—the dimness—of its theological utterances.” In an outlandish letter to his former Hebrew teacher Max Kadushin, one of the rabbis “indigenous in the tradition of my ethnic culture” [sic], he feels obliged to say: “As you know, very little in Jewish religious life speaks to me, although I think I keep my ears open.”


In at least one instance, Trilling did pause momentarily to look at himself against the general background of supposed American Jewish decline. Could it be, he asked, that his inability to find sustenance in the Jewish community was his own fault rather than the community’s? Mostly, he thought upon reflection, it was the community’s. “Jewish religion,” he wrote sarcastically in a 1944 symposium in the Contemporary Jewish Record, is “very liberal and intelligent and modern. Its function is to provide, chiefly for people of no strong religious impulse, a social and rational defense against the world’s hostility.”

Still, he added, make no mistake: “In what I might call my life as a citizen, my being Jewish exists as a point of honor. . . . For me the point of honor consists in feeling that I would not, even if I could, deny or escape being Jewish.” Certain lingering fidelities were still alive, then—if not sufficiently alive to curb the impulse to excoriate Jews and Judaism.

One can add more here. Missing from Kirsch’s book but available in the archives are Trilling’s letters expressing interest in visiting Israel and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. This is a pity. Zionism, as even Hannah Arendt would declare in The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), was the only political answer that the Jews had ever found to the incurable disease of anti-Semitism, and the only political philosophy through which they had ever taken seriously the worldwide hostility against them. Surely Trilling, too, must have understood this about Zionism, and appreciated it.

To some qualified extent, he did. One Trilling letter on the subject, to Professor Dorothea Krook of the Hebrew University, is dated March 18, 1965 and proceeds, somewhat coyly, like this: “Jerusalem? He twirled a button . . . yes, some day I must come, I will come. But I rather dread the complications of the emotions I shall feel.”

Although he didn’t make good on this “I will come,” he continued to receive invitations from Israeli academia. Early in 1975, he expressed serious interest in serving as a Paley lecturer at the Hebrew University. Sholom Kahn, then a faculty member at the university, corresponded with him on the matter. In his final letter to Kahn, dated June 25, Trilling wrote: “We still hold on to the hope that we will have a piece of time which will be wholly our own and one of the first priorities of such autonomy as we may gain is a trip to Israel.”

He never did go. Readers of Kirsch’s edition of the letters might justifiably guess that, even had Trilling accepted the Israeli invitation, he would have backed out before he was due to depart, just as he had backed out of his commitment to appear at Rabbi Hoffman’s synagogue many decades earlier. But he died on November 5, 1975, a few months after his June 25 letter to Kahn, and we shall never know.


In 1944, Trilling complained in the Contemporary Jewish Record that Jewish liberalism, like liberalism generally, suffered from the inability to cope with death. “One had only to attend a Jewish funeral to have the sense of [modern Judaism’s] deep inner uncertainty, its lack of grasp of life.”

Thirty-one years after he wrote these words, Trilling’s own funeral took place on the campus of Columbia in the distinctly non-Jewish setting of St. Paul’s Chapel—a visible reminder of the university’s Anglican origins. Both a rabbi and a minister presided, a few psalms were read, some music was played. There was no eulogy, and, at Diana Trilling’s proscription, no kaddish was recited by their son James. The service was followed by cremation, a violation of Jewish religious law so serious that cremated remains may not be buried in a Jewish cemetery.

“Anti-Semitism directed at oneself,” remarks the late Israeli novelist Aharon Appelfeld, “was an original Jewish creation. I don’t know of any other people so flooded with self-criticism.” Nevertheless, it would be sad if Trilling’s long-time admirers, especially the Jewish ones, will now, thanks to Kirsch’s book, withdraw their admiration because of the stridently anti-Jewish sentiments to which he gave voice. All of them, to say it again, were written to other Jews, and it remains true that even as he could not abandon his lifelong habit of castigating Judaism and Jewishness to Jews, he celebrated Judaism and Jewishness among Gentiles.

Another mixed truth is this. Early on, the young Trilling had acquiesced in a visceral anti-Zionism; as he would later write about his years in the circle of young Jewish intellectuals around the Menorah Journal, “we were inclined to be skeptical about Zionism and even opposed to it, and during the violence that flared up in 1929 some of us were on principle pro-Arab.” But decades later, after the Yom Kippur War of 1973, his name appeared among those of other luminaries in public statements supporting Israel and urging American assistance to that beleaguered country.

On this whole vexed matter of Lionel Trilling and the Jews, then, we should perhaps postpone judgment pending another volume of his letters. There are thousands to go around.