The white-haired, sunken-eyed professor wandered slowly around his Columbia University classroom leafing through a copy of James Joyce's Dubliners. "He lived at a little distance from his body," Lionel Trilling read aloud from the book. Then, as if discovering Joyce afresh, he fairly glowed with joy: "Marvelous phrase. Isn't that the essence of alienation?" Still wandering, he went on to observe that a character in the Dubliners kept a rotting apple in his desk, which reminded him that the only way Schiller could compose poetry was with an apple giving off fumes in his desk drawer. That in turn reminded the professor of the dangers of becoming too academic. "If anyone connects this rotting apple with the Fall, he will immediately lose 20 points," he said.
Lionel Trilling's, humor was quiet, for he was a quiet man. When he died of cancer last week at the age of 70, those who had known and cherished him during his 44 years in the Columbia English department tried to recapture the elusive qualities of a great teacher. Commentary Editor Norman Podhoretz, once awed by "the witchlike precision" of Trilling's mind, said that he was "an intellectual father." Added Beat Generation Poet Allen Ginsberg: "He had a sweet heart, a sad, solemn sweetness." Columbia Professor Emeritus Jacques Barzun, who collaborated with Trilling for 36 years in a course on cultural history, admired the way "his thoughts progressed in a rational manner from beginning to end." A student who took that Barzun-Trilling course remembers most vividly the moment when some unfortunate victim cited the motto of the Order of the Garter during a class on Malthus. Said Barzun: "Honi soil qui Malthus pense." Said Trilling: "Honi soil qui mal thus puns."
Courtly Scholar. The son of a New York City businessman, Trilling earned both undergraduate and doctorate degrees in literature at Columbia. He joined the Columbia faculty in 1931 as an instructor of English. Two years earlier he had married Diana Rubin, also a distinguished critic, and they had one son James. As he worked toward a full professorship (in 1948 he became the first Jew to receive tenure in the English department) Trilling slowly gained the reputation of someone more than a courtly scholar. His doctoral dissertation on Matthew Arnold was published in 1939in the heyday of the textual analyses by the New Criticismand it restated the Arnoldian creed that "a work of literature ... has value as a criticism of life."
Trilling's first and only novel, published in 1947, made his name known in an unexpected circlethe FBI. Titled The Middle of the Journey, the book described the intellectual torture of a Communist in the process of quitting the party. Reviews which praised its "assurance, literacy and intelligence" aroused the interest of FBI agents investigating Whittaker Chambers' allegations of spying by State Department Official Alger Hiss. Indeed Trilling had shared a class with Chambers when both were Columbia students, and he frankly admitted fictionalizing Chambers' story in his novel. But when Hiss's lawyers asked him to testify against Chambers, he refused.