The Liberal Imagination Essay - Critical Context

Lionel Trilling

Critical Context

The essays of The Liberal Imagination were all written during a decade dominated by World War II and the Cold War. Moreover, that decade was itself a direct outgrowth of the economic and political extremism of the 1930’s, marked by the social dislocations of the Great Depression and the ideological warfare the Depression brought in its wake. For Lionel Trilling personally, those were two turbulent and deeply troubling decades. He felt the temptation of radical politics powerfully during the Depression. Though he did not give in to that temptation himself, his faith in the efficacy of both reason and art was deeply shaken by the events of that era. The outbreak of war presented a deeply felt emotional dilemma for him, as he was committed to stemming the tide of the Nazi evil but was appalled by the abandonment of man’s rational faculties which military violence betokened. As for the Cold War, its polarized and simplistic politics of hate left Trilling in despair of any possibilities for the life of the mind. Both inside the university and in the intellectual world outside, the atmosphere seemed hostile to a sensitive and private intellectual such as Lionel Trilling.

Nevertheless, because literature was his life, Trilling felt impelled to lobby for the power of liberal ideas, expressed in great literature, at a time when few seemed willing to listen to such a politically irrelevant message. The essays of The Liberal Imagination found a receptive though limited audience, an audience of a like-minded silent minority won over by Trilling’s evident moral seriousness, his intelligence, his wide learning lightly worn, and, clearly discernible below the surface of his cultural pessimism, his passionate commitment to literature and the intellectual life. Though the product of a time of despair, The Liberal Imagination won a following and became an influential force in literary criticism because it showed, by example, how imagination and intellect, in combination with liberal ideology, could give meaning to life even in an unpropitious environment.