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On the relevance of Lionel Trilling


I am aware of no specific anniversary that has prompted the spat of recently revitalized interest in the life work of Lionel Trilling, the legendary Columbia University professor and author most famously of The Liberal Imagination (1950).  But suddenly his writing has sprung back into intellectual circulation:  the first third of an unfinished novel, The Journey Abandoned, has been published this year, and New York Review Books has just reissued The Liberal Imagination.  Read by today’s lights, which is to say to read it outside the culturally dominant frame of the Cold War and American anti-communism that shaped its production and Trilling’s world view, it is hard to imagine what made it a national bestseller (more than 100,000 copies were sold in paperback).  All the essays had previously appeared in print, many in the Partisan Review to which Trilling was long attached, and many of the essays engage particular novelistic texts in ways one would assume rather inaccessible to the wider reading public.  Still, I have found myself attracted to Liberal Imagination (and have been recently reading my way through it), in part because of the way it has been described as a “monument of humanism” (McCarter) but also just to gain purchase on the basis of his enormous influence in American literary critical circles.

Louis Menand’s introduction to the new reprint, which has been strongly attacked by Leon Wieseltier (a Trilling student) as misconstruing Trilling’s sense of the relationship between art and literature and thereby demeaning the sense of urgency Trilling saw in the literary critical enterprise, nonetheless rightly calls attention to a combination of humbled arrogance I find attractive in his work.  Trilling did not mainly want to be remembered as a critic (he wished most of all to be considered a novelist); in fact, because he only knew the English language he expressed the concern that he was not even properly a scholar.  “But,” writes Menand, “although he may not have wanted what he had, and he may not have understood entirely why he had it, he appreciated its value and tended it with care.”  The result is deeply polished prose that, if it fails, likely does so because Trilling’s work is saturated by the expression of dialectical tendencies that can become sources of frustration when one seeks to finally understanding his position, more than any sense of overweening arrogance in his compositional style.

The central theme of the book, which was also a central problematic of Trilling’s lifetime critical production, strikes me as possessing a profound continuing relevance even if Trilling’s own position reads as less coherent than it would have more than a half century ago.  Trilling was concerned to specify and sometimes to ambiguate the relationship between literature and liberal politics.  Liberalism, whose ideological impulses (and this is true of all ideological formations) can lead to an inevitable oversimplification of the human condition (in the case of liberalism by reducing the aim of all politics to the attainment of equality and freedom, which when applied risk doing violence to the rougher edges of the polity that should by liberalism’s own lights be tolerated), required reflective challenge if it was to survive without lapsing into empty and dangerous dogma.  Because conservatism seemed to Trilling an unavailable corrective in producing morally mature individuals (as he famously put it in the preface, “In the United States at this time liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition.  For it is the plain fact that nowadays there are no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation.”), it fell to the novelist to interrogate the tendency to empty certitude to which liberalism in all its American variations was prone.

Why literature?  Because great novels (and for Trilling this mainly meant stories to some extent historically distant from contemporary culture) offer representations that invite critical speculation and open ethical vistas.  This is so because the novelist situates moral and political struggle within characters, imagined persons who make ideological abstractions concrete and on account of their embodiment reveal the limits of theory (Donald Pease has suggested that Trilling’s main contribution was to “elevate the liberal imagination [and the liberal anticommunist consensus] into the field’s equivalent of a reality principle”).  Literature, Trilling wrote, is “the human activity that takes the fullest and most precise account of variousness, possibility, complexity, and difficulty.”  And all this is accomplished in a manner assured to interest and engage readers able to connect emotionally to vivid and rich scenes of imagined human interaction.  The novel thus possesses the twin capacity to enact moral ambiguities while also attracting the interest of audiences more numerous that those who would ever read theology or philosophy or other theory. (Ironically, perhaps, John Vernon criticized Trilling’s later writing as suffering because it offered a wholly disembodied and thus cold analysis, which is to say his criticism lacked the formal virtues of the novel he so regularly praised).

Trilling did not believe that literature always apprehends or represents or has some unique insight into the Truth.  He understood that not all writers see themselves as working in explicit opposition to liberalism, which for him was beside the point since any rich ethical interrogative novel poses an useful if implicit challenge to ideological certitude.  Nor did he believe that writers have (either on account of their separation from the wider culture or their innate madness) special access to privileged knowledge.  He simply believed that writers who attempt to offer richly plotted stories recognizable to their readers will necessarily induce critical analysis and reflection.  As Menand notes, referring to Trilling’s famous essay “On the Teaching of Modern Literature,” Trilling

…had come to believe that “art does not always tell the truth or the best kind of truth and does not always point out the right way, that is can even generate falsehood and habituate us to it, and that, on frequent occasions, it might well be subject, in the interests of autonomy, to the scrutiny of the rational intellect.”  …Humanism might be a false friend. This willingness to follow out the logic of his own premises, to register doubts about a faith for which he is still celebrated by people who are offended by attempts to understand books as fully and completely implicated in their historical times, is the finest thing about his work.

Along with mass culture, literary criticism can too easily become a culprit in degrading the complexity proper to a well-functioning liberalism as well, for if the critic tries to ignore the broader culture and its history altogether (and this was the major shortcoming Trilling saw in the work done under the name New Criticism), or insists on applying the strictures of scientific covering laws or a predetermined ideology, all the richness of the realist novel is erased, thereby simply opposing liberalism’s potential platitudes with the verities of alternatively over-basic theories of collective life.

In judging the contemporary relevance of Trilling’s case for high literary culture one immediately wonders if a position so intimately connected to 1950’s hyper-ideological Cold War culture makes sense given today’s arguably post-ideological times.  Here is the case made by McCarter:

The “Stalinist-colored” ideas that Trilling sought to rebuke are now tough to spot, unless you’re a Fox News contributor.  But even as some liberal excesses have receded, the book has lost none of its urgency.  For it celebrates something that is imperiled in our high-speed, always-on media culture:  imagination itself.  Trilling foresaw the threat:  “The emotional space of the human mind is large but not infinite, and perhaps it will be pre-empted by the substitutes for literature – the radio, the movies, and certain magazines,” he wrote, prophetically.  A shrinking national attention span and eroding reading habits aren’t just bad news for liberal politics.  The moral imagination excited by good books, he argues, teaches us sympathy and a respect for variety:  the waning novel leads to “our waning freedom.”

Such a position is not altogether self-evident, especially given the manner by which popular culture has been vigorously defended in the last quarter-century (or more) as enabling vernaculars both of understanding and potential resistance to the stultifications of ideology.  To specify the point by asking a rather mundane question: why is it that the nation’s critical faculties are raised by reading an E.M. Forster novel (a writer Trilling praised) but not by seeing A Room With a View in the cinema multiplex?  I have not encountered a fully elaborated critique of popular cultural mass mediation so far in Trilling, but can imagine some lines of argument he might attempt.  He might first call to mind his often articulated view that the historical distance created by great novels is required to counteract the tendency to revert to current ideological accounts, possibilities subverted by necessarily simple film or journalistic treatments that translate rich novels into the contemporary vernacular.

Trilling might also evoke the long-standing case against mass culture as inevitably inclined to conformity and utopianism, versions of which often start with the view that, organized as they are by the desire for lowest-common-denominator mass audiences and controversy shyness (since controversy can be a stigma that suppresses profits), mass cultural artifacts will inevitably lapse into intellectual quietism or outright boosterism for self-satisfying verities.  As Hersch puts the potential case, “while literature encourages critical reflection, mass culture produces a predetermined emotional and intellectual response in the reader, discouraging and atrophying the ability to think independently.  Such pseudo-literature encouraged passivity, paving the way for totalitarianism.”  Agree or disagree, it should be noted that this view of mass culture may have contributed to Trilling’s own late-in-life pessimism even regarding the capacity of literature to break through, since (again quoting Hersch), “in a conformist culture, literature presents minority views that are likely to be scorned by the majority” (99).

Even conceding Trilling’s case, which many thoughtful observers of contemporary culture would never do (Herbert Gans and Raymond Williams would stand near the head of a long line), LT is often attacked for his tendency to read liberalism as wholly shaped by a now nonexistent monolithic middle class (that if it existed in the 1950’s certainly does not today, a point that underwrites part of Cornel West’s critique), which given current conditions of fragmentation does not exist in any meaningful way and probably cannot be rearticulated.  Another common criticism is that in developing his case for interrogating liberalism Trilling only paved the way for neoconservatism (a cottage industry continues to debate whether Trilling was a closet case neoconservative:  his wife Diana has adamantly refused the possibility, while Irving Kristol has claimed that LT was simply a neocon lacking the courage to say so in print).

Both arguments, it seems to me, miss the deeper commitment in Trilling’s work to a messy and complex humanism, and his recognition that for societies to proceed thoughtfully requires both a sense of common vision and purpose and also an always acknowledged sense that ideologies cannot be permitted, in the name of such commonalities, to erase or suppress what he called the “wildness of spirit which it is still our grace to believe is the mark of full humanness.”  As Bender has argued, “Trilling’s very middle classness – by providing the perspective of distance – ends up, however paradoxically, providing contemporary American culture with a radical challenge, urging critics to find some space among nostalgia, politicized group identities, and specialized academic autonomy for the creation of a public culture” (pg. 344).

SOURCES:  Lionel Trilling, The Liberal Imagination: Essays on Literature and Society, intro. by Louis Menand (New York:  New York Review Books, 2008 [1950]); Jeremy McCarter, “He Gave Liberalism a Good Name,” Newsweek, 6 October 2008, pg. 57;  Leon Wieseltier, “The Shrinker,” New Republic, 22 October 2008, pg. 48; Louis Menand, “Regrets Only: Lionel Trilling and His Discontents,” New Yorker, 29 September 2008, pgs. 80-90; Russell Reising, “Lionel Trilling, The Liberal Imagination, and the Emergence of the Cultural Discourse of Anti-Stalinism,” boundary2 20.1 (1993): pgs. 94-124; Donald Pease, “New Americanists: Revisionist Interventions into the Canon,” boundary2 17 (1990);  Cornel West, The American Evasion of Philosophy (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989); Thomas Bender, “Lionel Trilling and American Culture,” American Quarterly 42.2 (June 1990): pgs. 324-347; John Vernon, “On Lionel Trilling,” boundary2 2.3 (Spring 1974): pgs. 625-632; Charles Hersch, “Liberalism, the Novel, and the Self:  Lionel Trilling on the Political Functions of Literature,” Polity 24.1 (Fall 1991): pgs. 91-106; Robert Genter, “’I’m Not His Father’: Lionel Trilling, Allen Ginsberg, and the Contours of Literary Modernism,” College Literature 31.2 (Spring 2004): pgs. 22-52; T. H. Adamowski, “Demoralizing Liberalism:  Lionel Trilling, Leslie Fiedler, and Norman Mailer,” University of Toronto Quarterly 73.3 (Summer 2006): pgs. 883-904.

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