Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1107
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 Parrington rejected in literature and the latter representing the realism he most admired. Trilling notes that liberal critics dismiss Henry James and his great gifts of subtle analysis and moral perceptiveness because those gifts yield nothing of practical value in understanding the political and economic forces of his time. Yet liberal critics dismiss complaints about Theodore Dreiser’s superficial ideas and his ungainly style because his work is sympathetic to the oppressed and accusatory toward the powerful. The standard of liberal judgment is thus crassly political, according to Trilling, devaluing intelligence and refinement as aristocratic and unreal while praising democratic earthiness, in spite of its vulgarity and simplemindedness, because it is politically useful.
Trilling’s point is that a liberalism that is narrowly political must end by distorting literary values and constricting the public view of American cultural reality as well. In these essays, he repeatedly tries to recall liberalism to its roots in imaginative thought and the exercise of a profound moral and critical intelligence, while deploring the reductive tendency he sees everywhere to equate liberalism with a handful of simpleminded slogans about freedom, progress, economic justice, and international cooperation. The slogans embody worthy and positive ideas, but by themselves they are not enough to give a credible account of human life, which is more various, complex, and fraught with difficulty and contradiction. Liberal critics will realize their potential, Trilling holds, only by asserting their imagination and moral intelligence, leading to a full accounting of the complexity of the human condition.
Trilling noted the limitations and inadequacies of American liberalism with meticulous observation and penetrating insight, but as a committed liberal himself, he wrote his criticisms sadly, rather than with the glee of a debater scoring points. It was the gap between the mediocre achievements of liberalism in practice and the inspiring imaginative reach of its underlying ideas that most distressed Trilling. It was a point of honor with him to point out that gap wherever he found it. He found it, unhappily, in the academy, which was his intellectual home, as his essay “The Sense of the Past” demonstrates. In that essay, he speaks with sympathetic understanding of the objectives of the academy’s New Critics of the 1930’s and 1940’s, who wished to give full aesthetic attention to the text of literary works, considering them as autonomous artifacts, in opposition to the scientific pretensions of the literary historians, who viewed texts as products of the historical process. Honesty compelled Trilling to note, however, that the New Critics were thus limiting their understanding and diminishing literary art by refusing to recognize the ineluctable historicity of every text. In spite of its refreshing appeal, the New Criticism appeared to Trilling to be another example of the liberal spirit seeking to simplify a complex task by reductive thinking.
An even more painful problem for liberalism Trilling articulates, with characteristic honesty, in “The Function of the Little Magazine,” in which he notes that for several decades liberal ideology has produced a copious literature of social protest but not one writer of major stature. Moreover, he observes, the entire roster of the monumental literary figures of their time—Marcel Proust, James Joyce, T. S. Eliot, Thomas Mann, Franz Kafka, and so on—was uniformly indifferent to liberal ideology. Trilling thus confronted the hard truth that great writers of the past display the qualities of imagination and mind which he most prized: the capacity to take account of the variousness of life, including the dark and perplexing side of the human soul. American liberals, however, seem incapable of achieving such great status, because they are fearful and evasive in the face of such disturbing variety in human conduct and prefer to fall back on the comforting simplicities of positive slogans. For Trilling, that was the greatest failure of the American liberal imagination—the failure to embrace life fully, in all of its awesome, inexplicable complexity. The Liberal Imagination can perhaps most accurately be read as Lionel Trilling’s personal lament for that multifaceted failure, at a time when he believed that all America urgently needed the inspiration of a great literature.