The Liberal Imagination Critical Essays

Lionel Trilling


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

The most striking characteristic of the essays in The Liberal Imagination is their unrelenting serious tone. Whatever the topic, Trilling considers and probes its implications as broadly and as deeply as possible. Even in his essay on the Kinsey Report, which is the closest he comes to a topic that belongs to popular culture (and the only topic that elicited from him a display of humor), Trilling does not stray from the high moral aim of his critique. He can note with amusement that Kinsey’s account of an interviewee who reported having had an average of thirty orgasmic experiences every week over a thirty-year period gave the reading public an improbable new folk hero to admire, but he immediately comments on the impoverishment of the public view of sexuality which Kinsey’s strictly numerical analysis occasions. For all the useful information incorporated in the Kinsey Report, Trilling notes, it has probably brought more confusion than enlightenment to the public because of its methodical refusal to consider anything but physical—that is, quantifiable— forms of sexual behavior. Trilling is particularly insistent on the damage the study can do by so resolutely eschewing any mention of the moral consequences of sexual behavior. For Trilling, even so transient a phenomenon as the Kinsey Report illustrates the tendency of liberalism to avoid confronting the complexity of human civilization by concentrating on the superficially observable raw facts and leaving their interpretation to others. This tendency Trilling considers to be one of the abiding moral failures of the liberal imagination.

In the very first essay, pointedly titled “Reality in America,” Trilling addresses the specific theme that will run through the volume: the limitations and deficiencies of American liberalism, particularly as evidenced in literature and literary criticism. The essay begins with a consideration of the weaknesses of V. L. Parrington’s influential account of American culture, Main Currents of American Thought (19271930). Trilling notes that Parrington admires writers who depict the rough pragmatism of working-class America, writings which reflect the social and economic conditions of the everyday world, and disparages writers who belong to the more genteel or academic traditions. Those opinions are not simply a consequence of Parrington’s taste, but of his definition of reality, which was liberal in its tendency but shallow and oversimplified, making his account one-sided and insensitive to the variety and complexity of American culture.

The essay then turns to the contrast between the novels of Henry James and those of Theodore Dreiser, the former being the prototype of what...

(The entire section is 1107 words.)