Lionel Trilling & the Crisis at Columbia

By Meyers, Jeffrey | New Criterion, January 2003 | Go to article overview

Lionel Trilling & the Crisis at Columbia


Meyers, Jeffrey, New Criterion


The seventy-five-page interview with Lionel Trilling conducted in May 1968, which I recently discovered in the Oral History Research Office at Columbia, reveals for the first time his role in the dramatic and sometimes violent uprising at the university. A brilliant teacher, influential critic, and major figure in American intellectual life, Trilling suddenly, moved from difficult books and disturbing ideas to confrontations with revolutionary students. During the most important political engagement of his life, he tested his ideas in the cauldron of reality. Diana Trilling, in her long account of the crisis called "On the Steps of Low Library" (1968), focused on her own reaction, ignored Lionel's role in these events, and said: "my husband was still at the University, doing whatever it was that the faculty was then doing, or trying to do" The unpublished Oral History interview explains what he did.

The crisis began with student demonstrations on April 23, 1968 and ended with a police bust in the early hours of April 30. It took place during a volatile and often explosive period in American history: between the Berkeley Free Speech Movement (September 1964-) and the student riots in Paris (May 1968), between the assassinations of Martin Luther King in Memphis (April 4, 1968) and of Robert Kennedy in Los Angeles (June 5, 1968), between the March on the Pentagon (October 1967) and the bloody protests at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago (August 1968), between the Tet Offensive (February 1968) and the My Lai Massacre (March 1968) and the escalating protest against the war in Vietnam. Trilling's English department colleague E W. Dupee wrote that "in its duration and its bitterness, its capacity to absorb every major issue now dividing the nation [it] is probably without precedent in the history of American universities."

The issue that sparked the student revolt was the proposed construction of a gymnasium on university land in nearby Harlem, which would be used both by Columbia students and local residents. It had been approved by Harlem civic organizations, but it was called racist and was opposed by militant elements because it would be used separately rather than jointly and (because of the sloping land) it had two entrances: one for students, one for local residents. But there was no substance in the student complaints. Mark Rudd, the fiery leader of the radical Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), later admitted: "We just manufactured the issues.... The gym issue is bull. It doesn't mean anything to anybody."

The students--who took their revolutionary style and dress, their beards and berets, from Che Guevara--seemed, Dupee wrote, "to unite the politics of a guerrilla chieftain with the aesthetic flair of a costumer and an interior decorator." Black students--adjacent to a Harlem still smoldering after the King murder, and effectively stirred up and supported by CORE, SNCC, and the Mau Mau Society--occupied Hamilton Hall, captured Dean Henry Coleman, expelled the white students, and dominated the scene. The whites, more numerous but less powerful, occupied President Grayson Kirk's offices in Low Library. The old-fashioned Classics professor Gilbert Highet, ignoring the intrusions, continued to conduct a doctoral defense. When a student broke in and announced: "This building is occupied," Highet, in his haughtiest British accent, waved him away with: "This room is occupied!" The students' demands were essentially: no gym on Morningside Heights, no connection with the Institute of Defense Analysis (which did work for the Pentagon, but which Rudd later called "nothing at Columbia. Just three professors"), amnesty for all demonstrators, and a restructuring of power in the university.

The old radical Dwight Macdonald, summoned to the scene by Dupee's announcement that "It's a revolution! You may never get another chance to see one," described "the complicated interaction between the white communards, the blacks in Hamilton Hall, the sympathizers and the opponents of the strike on the campus, the Administration, the Trustees, and the various faculty groups, plus the `community' in Harlem. …

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