U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Lionel Trilling’s The Liberal Imagination

Has anyone read this 1950 book? I’ve been scanning the National Book Critics Circle weblog, Critical Mass, and it’s come up a few times recently as a “recommend.” What’s the book’s thesis? Chapter topics? Overall effect? I’m sure I could look it up in Bender’s New York Intellect, but then I wouldn’t get a conversational response. – TL

One Thought on this Post

  1. I read this book years ago, and I have since come back to it mostly to extract one quotation–what always seemed to me a cheap shot at conservative intellectuals. Trilling writes, “In the United States at this time liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition.” And later: “But the conservative impulse and the reactionary impulse…do not, with some isolated and some ecclesiastical exceptions, express themselves in ideas but only in action or in irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas” (both on first page of preface).

    The volume is a collection of Trilling’s essays, and although I cannot be responsible for his main arguments in any detail, a quick perusal of the preface and my memory reminds me that Trilling is a very important mid-century critic of liberalism, and the book is his attempt to provide a friendly critique of the reigning political consensus. The book conveys part of his theme–that hyper-rationalistic liberals lack imagination. Trilling was a classic postwar chastened leftist–someone returning from his journey on the Left with a more realistic view of politics, in his own mind, and seeking to emphasize qualities like complexity, difficulty, and irony, which he found absent from the Left and liberalism. Looking back over the introduction, I am struck by the way he is outlining am emerging awareness of the mixing of political and cultural complaints, or the way in which cultural issues were becoming politicized. Writing under the umbrella of liberal consensus, Trilling sees the class basis of political conflict waning, so, put another way, his essays also look toward a view of social conflict as driven by hitherto ignored psychological or sociological strains. In graduate school, we read the autobiographical *Middle of the Journey*, in which Trilling more squarely confronts the perceived failings of the Left. Trilling’s perspective on the promiscuous mixture of politics and culture informed Christopher Lasch’s critique of the Left in the 1960s.

    I am struck now at how reasonable Trilling’s attack on conservatism was. After all, the book was published in 1950, before the oncoming flood of conservative writing. I doubt he would have said the same thing ten years later. Moreover, he was mostly responding to Red Scare hysterics. Moreover, his point was to brandish his own emerging conservatism, one that did not fit in any way with the more superficial versions of antistatism then dominant on the Right. The book is a warning about to liberals against complacency and an honest effort to provide the kind of fruitful opposition he deemed essential for intellectual growth–particularly for a political philosophy grounded in flawed assumptions about human rationality and freedom.

    All of this, however, is much-tilled earth, not only in the works of Richard Pells and all those of who examined the long trajectory of the New York Intellectuals but in the entire old corpus of attacks on Cold War liberal realism and the end of ideology school. I remember particularly admiring Mark Krupnick’s take on Trilling in *Lionel Trilling and the Fate of Cultural Criticism* (1986).

    Paul Murphy

Comments are closed.