crown CU Home > Libraries Home
Columbia University Libraries Archival CollectionsRare Book & Manuscript Library Collections

   Lionel Trilling Papers, 1899-1987

Download and Print CitationContact Bookmark Share

Preferred Citation

Identification of specific item; Date (if known); Lionel Trilling Papers, Box and Folder; Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University Library.

COinS Metadata available (e.g., for Zotero).

Summary Information


The Lionel Trilling Papers document the life of author, professor, and literary critic, Lionel Trilling. This collection contains his writings, extensive correspondence with other New York intellectuals, personal documents, and other records concerning his professional activities.

At a Glance

Call No.:MS#1256
Bib ID:4079615 View CLIO record
Creator(s):Trilling, Lionel, 1905-1975.
Title:Lionel Trilling Papers, 1899-1987
Physical description:27 linear feet (51 document boxes, 3 index card boxes)
Language(s):In English.
Access: This collection is located on-site. There are two folders in Series IV: Professional Work that contain student grades and reference letters. These items are restricted until 2036 and 2040.  More information »



This collection is arranged in six series and seven subseries.

Return to top


Scope and Content

The Lionel Trilling Papers document the professional work and personal life of Lionel Trilling (1905-1975), the prolific literary critic and Columbia University Professor of English Literature. This collection was acquired upon his death in 1975.

The bulk of the records consist of his many writings in the form of articles, essays, lectures, short stories, and book reviews. Correspondence with other prominent writers and intellectuals of the 20th century, family members, editors and publishers comprises the second largest series in the collection. Also contained are records concerning Trilling's work as a professor at Columbia University, as well as his involvement in various outside professional organizations. There is a small amount of personal documents and articles about Trilling's life and writings, including his detailed journals, comprised of his personal thoughts and intellectual queries.

Some of the items in this collection were originally located in the archives of his wife, Diana Trilling. Since their personal and professional lives intersected constantly, records concerning him, such as photographs and correspondence with his publishers, may be found in her collection as well.

Series I: Personal Papers, 1899-1975

Series I holds some of Lionel Trilling's personal items. This small series has been arranged into two subseries: Documents and Journals. Academic records, biographical information, certificates, and other general personal documents are found in Subseries 1. Subseries 2 contains extensive personal writings, ranging from the mid-1920s to the end of Trilling's life. Subseries 1 is arranged by topic, while Subseries 2 is arranged chronologically. Family and personal photographs are located in Series V.

Subseries I.1: Documents, 1899-1975

This small subseries is composed of Lionel Trilling’s personal items. Academic records, such as report cards from Columbia, the DeWitt Clinton High School yearbook and other publications featuring Trilling as a student, and essays written for his English classes at Columbia are found here. Other personal documents include a representative sample of his appointment books, a copy of the Trillings’ marriage license, early poems written for family members, several passports, and birth and death certificates. There are also a few items belonging to his mother, Fannie Trilling.

Subseries I.2: Journals, 1926-1975

Trilling recalled his daily activities, including classes taught, events observed, and conversations conducted with colleagues, friends and family members. However, the journals are not limited to narrative. Trilling also jotted down hypotheses concerning life, literature, and, in particular, the relationship between men and women, as well as potential stories and essays. These diatribes ranged from the merely observant: "Is it a terrible struggle for a bird to fly? Has he always the imminent panic of falling?" to the profoundly theoretical:

"There is one thing the world has immediate need of: I thought once it was a new religion but it is not that: it is that someone should ask a great thundering question-someone should ask it or the very earth should shout it, and the attentions of all to be turned to answer. We could not stand the certainty of a faith, I think. It is not at all necessary that the question be answered or answerable; it is only necessary that it be formulated and valid. But probably this is even more naively an impossible desire than for a new faith. What if I had only one question to answer?"

And, occasionally, to the very personal:

"Why do I so easily forget, and remember with so much surprise that one of the most intense and most un[scribbled word]edly passionate experiences I have had is the light of a scarlet leaved tree and that a flower can delight me? Why am I a little embarrassed to record this for myself?"

Some of the journal entries have annotations that appear to have been added a later date by Diana Trilling. These notes clarify names or provide context for some of the entries. Some of the journals are clearly dated, albeit inconsistently, while others have approximated dates.

Series II: Correspondence, 1900-1983

Series II holds Lionel Trilling's personal and professional correspondence. These letters were sent between Trilling and family members, colleagues at Columbia University and outside of the institution, contacts at publishing houses, and friends. This series is the largest in the collection and along with the writings, illuminates some of Trilling's opinions of other writers, developing literary trends, and the changing political situation, in particular World War II and the rise of social justice organizations in the 1960s. However, much of the correspondence consists of requests for Trilling to lecture, review new literary texts and give recommendations to former students and colleagues.

The series has been arranged into two subseries: Alphabetical, by name or by topic, and Chronological. This collection was processed according to earlier manuscript processing standards followed; therefore letters of "significant" individuals were removed from their place within a loose chronological order and arranged alphabetically. Although this collection has been reprocessed and newly donated material has been integrated, the two systems of arrangement have been maintained since the original order is not clear.

Subseries II.1 Alphabetical, 1900-1983

Subseries 1 is comprised of letters received by Trilling from his friends, family members, and business colleagues. Subjects covered ranged a variety of issues. Often Trilling debated current events with his colleagues, like an exchange concerning affirmative action with Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Many prominent writers may be found here such as Allen Ginsberg, who maintained a long correspondence with Trilling and often included drafts and ideas for poems in his letters, E.M. Forster, Robert Penn Warren (who Trilling affectionately referred to as "Red"), Saul Bellow, and e.e. cummings. In addition, there are long exchanges with John Crowe Ransom, with whom Trilling founded the School of English at Kenyon College, Henry Rosenthal, one of Trilling's oldest and closest friends, and Columbia History professor, Jacques Barzun who, along with being a close friend of Lionel Trilling, co-taught interdisciplinary courses with him. Letters from publishers, in particular Oxford University Press, Harvard University Press, and Viking Press illustrate the variety of professional literary relationships Trilling cultivated.

Family correspondence is available with the following individuals: James Trilling, Diana Trilling, Fannie Trilling (mother), David Trilling (father), Harriet Schwartz (sister), and Hyman Trilling (uncle). In general there is very little correspondence of this nature within the collection.

Subseries II.2: Chronological, 1925-1976

Letters held in Subseries 2 are similar in nature to those in Subseries 1. Correspondents include colleagues, publishers, personal friends, and students from Columbia University. Records concerning the Kenyon Institute, in particular the founding, the initial proposal, annual budget, and mission statement are found in January 1947. These letters are between Trilling, and fellow founders F.O. Matthieson and John Ransom. Many of the letters consist of requests to lecture at various academic institutions or to offer opinions of unpublished manuscripts. There are also letters from current and former students, many of whom were soldiers serving in Europe during World War II.

Series III: Writings, 1925-1975

This series is the second largest in the collection and contains Lionel Trilling's extensive writings. The texts span his entire career and cover a variety of intellectual, cultural, and personal subjects. Many of the texts have accompanying annotations written by Trilling. These notations illustrate his creative process and provide insight in the way he crafted his writing. The series has been arranged into three subseries based upon the original order of the papers. The subseries are: Manuscripts and Papers, Articles, and Reviews.

Subseries III.1: Manuscripts and Papers, 1931-1975

This subseries is composed of drafts of Lionel Trilling's longer writings, in the form of manuscripts, academic papers, lectures, and essays. In terms of manuscripts, there are drafts of Beyond Culture, The Liberal Imagination, and Sincerity and Authenticity. The Middle of the Journey is present in many versions that are each substantially unique. Other papers held in this subseries include lectures given at numerous institutions such as the 92nd Street YMWHA and the Aspen Film Conference, as well as acceptance speeches for various honors received, afterwards and forewords to other individual's writings, essays concerning literary and cultural events and selected book reviews. These reviews have been maintained within the subseries rather than separated into Subseries 3 in order to preserve the original order. Some of the drafts have descriptive notes written by Diana Trilling in which she compares the text in its draft form to a later published or rewritten version.

Subseries III.2: Articles and Essays, 1925-1974

Subseries 2 is comprised of shorter pieces of texts, some of which have been published in journals and magazines. Few of these exist in multiple draft form. This subseries is arranged by topic and includes articles on cultural and literary events, book reviews from journals such as The New York Times Book Review, Partisan Review, and The Nation, letters to the editor, and published essays that are organized by journal title. Some notable titles include The Griffin, a journal that was published by The Readers' Subscription a group whose board members were Trilling, W.H. Auden, and Jacques Barzun, Commentary, and Menorah Journal. Of interest is a small sample of Trilling's writings that were translated into other languages or published in other countries.

Subseries III.3: Notes, 1952-1974

Notes used for lectures at Columbia University and other institutions are held in Subseries 3. These lecture notes are arranged by topic and cover subjects such as Russian and American Literature, Jane Austen, Rudyard Kiping, William Wordsworth and Keats. There are also a large number of notes Trilling used for his Comparative Literature Course. In addition, there are three card files holding topical notes on authors and literary works that Trilling often wrote about.

Series IV: Professional Work, 1926-1987

The records in Series IV document Trilling's professional career as a professor of Literature, a literary critic, and a commentator on the changing political and cultural landscape of the United States. Included in this series are accolades, such as honorary degrees, awards, and grants received as well as meeting minutes and notices from professional organizations that Trilling was a member of. Columbia University records, such as committee correspondence and reports, course syllabi and attendance lists. This series is arranged by topic.

Series V: Photographs, 1905-1963

This small series holds photographs of Lionel Trilling, select friends, and several family members. Identified individuals include Lionel Trilling as both a youth and adult, his Uncle Hyman, his mother, Fannie Trilling, and Jacques Barzun. The majority of the family photographs were bequeathed to James Trilling and not included in the donation of this archive. For more photographs, please see the Diana Trilling Papers housed at the RBML at Columbia University.

Series VI: Realia, 1905-1971

Series VI contains personal memorabilia such as the baby shoes of Lionel Trilling and his sister, Harriet Schwartz, as well as some academic medals that he won while at High School and The Alexander Hamilton Award that he was given from Columbia University

Return to top

Using the Collection


Access Restrictions

This collection is located on-site.

There are two folders in Series IV: Professional Work that contain student grades and reference letters. These items are restricted until 2036 and 2040.

Restrictions on Use

Single photocopies may be made for research purposes. Permission to publish material from the collection must be requested from the Curator of Manuscripts/University Archivist, Rare Book and Manuscript Library (RBML). The RBML approves permission to publish that which it physically owns; the responsibility to secure copyright permission rests with the patron.

Preferred Citation

Identification of specific item; Date (if known); Lionel Trilling Papers, Box and Folder; Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University Library.

Related Material

Diana Trilling Papers, 1921-1996 Columbia University.Rare Book and Manuscript Library MS#1421

Return to top

About the Finding Aid / Processing Information

Columbia University Libraries. Rare Book and Manuscript Library; machine readable finding aid created by Columbia University Libraries Digital Library Program Division

Processing Information

Collection reprocessed in July 2007 by Lea Osborne.

Machine readable finding aid generated from MARC-AMC source via XSLT conversion December 2, 2008 Finding aid written in English.
    2008-12-02 File created.
    2008-12-31 xml document instance created by Patrick Lawlor
    2009-04-27 Revised by Lea Osborne

Return to top

Subject Headings

The subject headings listed below are found in this collection. Links below allow searches at Columbia University through the Archival Collections Portal and through CLIO, the catalog for Columbia University Libraries, as well as ArchiveGRID, a catalog that allows users to search the holdings of multiple research libraries and archives.

All links open new windows.


HeadingCUL Archives:
CUL Collections:
Nat'l / Int'l Archives:
Audio tapes.PortalCLIOArchiveGRID
Card files.PortalCLIOArchiveGRID
Manuscripts (literary).PortalCLIOArchiveGRID


HeadingCUL Archives:
CUL Collections:
Nat'l / Int'l Archives:
American literature--20th century.PortalCLIOArchiveGRID
Authors, American--20th century.PortalCLIOArchiveGRID
Barzun, Jacques, 1907-PortalCLIOArchiveGRID
College teachers as authors--New York (State)--New York.PortalCLIOArchiveGRID
College teachers.PortalCLIOArchiveGRID
Columbia University.PortalCLIOArchiveGRID
Criticism--United States.PortalCLIOArchiveGRID
Ginsberg, Allen, 1926-1997.PortalCLIOArchiveGRID
Literary quarrels.PortalCLIOArchiveGRID
Ransom, John Crowe, 1888-1974.PortalCLIOArchiveGRID
Trilling, Diana.PortalCLIOArchiveGRID
Van Doren, Mark, 1894-1972.PortalCLIOArchiveGRID

Return to top

History / Biographical Note

Biographical Note

Lionel Trilling was an intellectual force in the New York literary and political scene throughout much of the 20th Century. A prolific writer, Trilling published literary criticism and cultural commentaries in journals such as The Nation, Commentary, The New York Times, The New York Times Book Review, and The Menorah Journal. Some of these publications were created by Trilling's colleagues, a group of left-leaning, Anti-Stalinist critics and theorists the New York Intellectuals like Daniel Bell, Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin, and Sidney Hook. These individuals were predominantly Jewish men who established themselves as a kind of “American Bloomsbury” to quote Columbia University professor of journalism Nicholas Lemann. Outside of his writing, Trilling was a popular and respected professor of English Literature at Columbia University. Together, with historian Jacques Barzun, Trilling helped to establish some of the core interdisciplinary classes that were vital to the growth and development of Columbia as a competitive academic environment.

Lionel M. Trilling was born on July 4, 1905 in New York City to businessman David W. Trilling and his wife Fannie (neé Cohen). As a child, Trilling attended DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx where he was a colleague of Countee Cullen. At school Trilling participated as a member of the Book Review Squad, the Reporters Squad, and president of Papyrus. He also wrote for the school publication, Magpie as well as co-authored a class play. In 1921 Lionel Trilling entered Columbia University, an institution that was to be his intellectual home for the rest of his life. Trilling graduated from Columbia with his A.B. in 1925 and his M.A. in 1926. For the next eleven years Trilling worked toward a doctorate in English Literature. However, this path was interrupted by work. He did not complete the Ph.D. until 1938.

Trilling left New York to be an Instructor of English at the University of Wisconsin from 1926 to 1927. Upon his return, Trilling began to date a recent Radcliffe graduate named Diana Rubin. Rubin was also a New Yorker, having been brought up in Manhattan. She briefly worked with her mother, Cecelia, as an interior designer while she pursued a career as a classical singer. Illness forced Rubin to abandon that goal. She and Lionel married on October 25, 1929.

A couple of years later, Trilling began teaching at Columbia University. His initial position was as an instructor and in 1939 he was made an assistant professor. From 1939 until 1944 he held this position and was promoted in 1944 to associate professor. Trilling was the first Jewish professor in the department to receive tenure. Throughout his career, Trilling was extremely involved with his undergraduate students. Along with his colleague and close friend, Jacques Barzun, Trilling reinstated a series of interdisciplinary or “general education” courses. With Barzun, Trilling taught a portion of the course entitled, Colloquium on Important Books, in which he covered cultural history and criticism of the 19th and 20th centuries. In 1969, Trilling was given the title of University Professor, a post he held until his retirement from teaching in 1975.

Although he was an active faculty member, Trilling published quite regularly. His dissertation, Matthew Arnold, was published a year after he completed the degree. This was followed by another study, E.M. Forster in 1943. Other publications include a novel, The Middle of the Journey (1949), several volumes of short stories; the most well-known of these is Of This Time, Of That Place (1940). However, Trilling is best known for his collections of critical essays, in particular The Liberal Imagination (1950), The Opposing Self (1955), and Beyond Culture (1965). Trilling was interested in Sigmund Freud as a cultural icon as well as using Freudian psychology in the analysis of literature. Two books that focused on these themes were Freud and the Crisis of Our Culture (1955) and The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud (1962). Please note that Trilling's writings encompassed decades of work and that countless bibliographies have been attempted and often abandoned due to the sheer size of his oeuvre.

Trilling did not spend all of his time strictly at Columbia. He was a founder, with John Crowe Ransom and F.O. Matthiessen, of the Kenyon School of Letters, now referred to as The School of Letters, Indiana University. Beginning in 1951 as a summer program, the school expanded to a full-year program in 1961, with a focus on literary theory and criticism. Information concerning The School of Letters may be found in the Indiana University School of Letters Director's Records finding aid located in the Indiana University Archives.

Throughout his life, Lionel Trilling maintained a high level of professional achievement and this was reflected in the many academic accolades he received. He served as the George Eastman Visiting Professor at Oxford University from 1964-1965. There, Trilling lectured at the university and other academic and intellectual institutions as well as taught classes. He was accompanied by Diana Trilling who, by this time, had firmly established herself as a serious literary and cultural critic and penned for a variety of journals, including Partisan Review, The New York Times Book Review, Redbook, The Nation, The New Leader, and McCall's. She had also recently published a book entitled, Claremont Essays. They were joined by their son, James Lionel Trilling. He was born in 1949 and at that point was a student at Exeter.

Four years later, Trilling was the Charles Eliot Norton Visiting Professor at Harvard University. In addition to these two positions, he held honorary doctorates from Trinity College in Hartford Connecticut (1955), Harvard University (1962), Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland Ohio (1968), Northwestern University (1963), Leicester University (1973), Brandeis University (1974) and Yale University (1974). Trilling was awarded the Alexander Hamilton Medal from Brandeis University in 1968 and gave the first annual Jefferson Lecture for the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) in 1972. He was a Guggenheim Fellow from 1948 to 1949 and received a second grant that he was unable to use in 1975.

While he was active in his field, Trilling was a member of the Modern Language Association, the American Committee for Cultural Freedom of which both he and Diana Trilling resigned once the organization redirected its mission, The National Institute of Arts and Letters, and The American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

As the 1960s unfolded, student unrest grew on American campuses, in particular Kent State and Columbia University. Although Trilling was teaching at that time, he, like most members of the faculty, was unaware of the growing dissatisfaction among the students and the community of Harlem. Always considered a driving force behind New York intellectualism, he would later be criticized for never publicly recognizing the importance of the social movements that occurred during the decade as well as the racial components that were driving the majority of them.

Upon his retirement from Columbia, Trilling was awarded the title of Professor Emeritus. Shortly after, he was taken ill with a fast moving form of cancer that had progressed undetected for too long. By November of that year, he had died. Diana Trilling published a twelve-volume set of his writings from 1977 to 1979. She also wrote The Beginning of the Journey: The Marriage of Diana and Lionel Trilling, a memoir of the first years of their life together. Diana Trilling died of cancer in October of 1996.

Return to top