Kirsch, senior editor at the New Republic, has edited the first edition of the letters of critic Lionel Trilling, Life in Culture (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Sept.)
Why publish a volume of letters from any author? And why Trilling in particular?
Letters give you a sense of writers behind their public faces. First, they offer a more intimate look at the author. Second, they provide a historical background and context to what the author was writing about. As for Trilling, I love his work. I became interested in editing the letters as I looked at the Columbia University archives, after I wrote Why Trilling Matters. I found that his was a substantial archive, something waiting to be discovered.
What surprised and interested you most about Trilling’s letters?
Most surprising were the early letters from Trilling to his wife, Diana, because they show his naked and vulnerable side. He revealed his self-doubts to her as he usually didn’t to others. Interestingly, Trilling writes about problems we still struggle with today—for example, Huckleberry Finn. In one letter, an editor wants to replace the “n”-word when reprinting a Trilling essay, but Trilling won’t allow it—he feels he needs to stay faithful to Twain’s text. Reading Trilling can help us understand how people might have thought differently 50 years ago than today.
You say in the introduction that Trilling wrote more than 600 letters per year for 50 years—how do you cull such a huge number down to the 270 in the book?
To choose, I focused on what engaged his mind, which was often politics, the issues that mattered to liberals in New York City in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s. He wanted to make liberals of his period think twice—about Stalin, for instance. You can see real historical events unfolding in real time in the letters. I also chose letters that reveal his Jewish background, although he kept it at arm’s length. He never hid that he was Jewish, but he didn’t want to be labeled a Jewish writer.
Morality and political engagement were central to Trilling’s thoughts about literature. Does he offer any insights for our own times?
Trilling was definitely on the left, and interested in writing about deficiencies of the left. He wanted to explore the left’s unexamined assumptions at a time when liberalism was in the ascendance. That’s not like today, where the right is in ascendance. It’s impossible to know what he would say today.
What did you most enjoy about editing the collection?
Like many people, I think there is something magical about handling paper and ink, some of it almost 100 years old. In a hundred years, when we look back to today, we’ll no longer be dealing with handwritten documents.