If Mark Van Doren was Columbia's most famous author, then Lionel Trilling was certainly its most famous critic. One of the most public of this century's public intellectuals, Trilling became nationally known for both his scholarship and his literary criticism, which appealed to a wide audience. At Columbia, however, Trilling was also recognized as a gifted and dedicated teacher with a special commitment to undergraduate education.
Such was Trilling's reputation that students of all kinds were known to come to the College expressely to "take Trilling." A native of Queens, he entered Columbia in 1921, when the College was beginning to experiment with general education courses. When he began teaching in the early 1930s, he was quickly recognized as one of the school's most acute minds, though also something of an iconoclast. He began teaching general education courses early in his career-in the 1930s, he co-taught a section of the Colloquium on Important Books with Jacques Barzun. Later he became a mainstay of Humanities A.
Although Trilling wrote a well-received novel and short stories, his national reputation was built on his many critical essays. A regular contributor to the Partisan Review and other national journals from the 1940s, he appealed both to the scholar and the general reader. His best-known volume may be The Liberal Imagination (1950), which seemed to capture the political outlook of an entire era, but such later works as The Opposing Self (1955), Beyond Culture (1965), and Sincerity and Authenticity (1972) also made enduring contributions. Trilling's dispassionate commitment to the life of the mind fell out of favor with some students in the hectic days of the late 1960s and early 1970s, but at the time of his death in 1975, there was no mistaking his importance in the life of Columbia College. "He was one of the people who created the intellectual climate in which we moved," said his longtime colleague Steven Marcus '48. "He made the intellectual weather seem a part of nature rather than culture."