Academic journal article Shofar

The Trilling Files

Academic journal article Shofar

The Trilling Files

Article excerpt

The FBI dossier on Lionel Trilling discloses that the Bureau followed his activities intermittently for almost three decades. An active file was maintained on Trilling from the late 1930s to the mid-1960s. Most of these reports address Trilling's peripheral connection to ongoing FBI probes and to its scrutiny of communist figures and issues, and reveal how out of touch FBI intelligence was about which American intellectuals posed security threats. Although Trilling's FBI dossier contains no bombshell revelations and discloses no technical violations of his civil liberties, his surveillance by the FBI was wasteful and unnecessary; in any event, it demonstrates a skewed understanding of the balance among national security, social order, and personal liberty.

I

The FBI never conducted a formal investigation of Lionel Trilling.1 But the FBI dossier on Trilling discloses that the Bureau followed his activities intermittently for almost three decades. It searched his records periodically, interviewed him to uncover information about his acquaintances, and investigated him as a possible security risk long after he had resigned from the National Committee for the Defense of Political Prisoners (NCDPP), a Communist Party affiliate organization consisting largely of writers and intellectuals.2 The FBI files comprise 60 pages exclusively about him and include more than 200 pages involving other investigations in which his name arose, thereby resulting in agents monitoring him periodically.3 The dossier runs from 1937 to 1965 and covers reports from regional FBI bureaus in New York City, Boston, Detroit, and Baltimore, though numerous pages are simply blacked out, most of them involving the Alger Hiss-Whittaker Chambers case.

Most of these reports address Trilling's peripheral connection to ongoing FBI probes and to its scrutiny of communist figures and issues, ranging from Leon Trotsky and his connections to sectarian American Trotskyist groups in the 1930s to the Soviet Union's antisemitism and the U.S. embargo against Castro's Cuba in the 1950s and '60s, respectively. Much of the file also addresses Trilling's novel, The Middle of the Journey (1947), because one of its protagonists, the ex-CP member Gifford Maxim, was closely based on Whittaker Chambers, whom Trilling knew personally from their student days together at Columbia in the early 1920s. A revealing (though perhaps unsurprising) feature of the file-which speaks volumes about the standard datacollection methods of secret intelligence agencies-is that no agent ever seems to have read any of Trilling's work in order to ascertain his political positions, except for what one agent refers to as the Bureau's "review" of Trilling's novel to determine whether it contained any useful information on Chambers' communist past. The agent determined that it did not. (At the center of Lionel Trilling's only novel, The Middle of the Journey, was Whittaker Chambers, a Columbia man and a spy. Chambers had tried to recruit Diana Trilling for Soviet espionage. In her 1993 memoir, The Beginning of the Journey, she candidly reports that she was proud to be asked, and although she refused, she felt sufficiently beholden to Chambers and the revolutionary cause that she never phoned the FBI.)4

Although Trilling was never seriously harassed by the Bureau, this essay argues that his dossier constitutes important historical material. Among other things, his file discloses how out of touch FBI intelligence was about which American intellectuals posed security threats-and indeed how misplaced was Trilling's increasing satisfaction with postwar American life.

Finally, the Jewish context of the Trilling investigation is an open question that is difficult to answer. Clearly, the FBI was especially interested in Jewish intellectuals, including many of the members of the New York Intellectuals, because of their communist (specifically Trotskyist) backgrounds or convictions. …

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