Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Following the publication of his monumental study of Matthew Arnold, in 1939, Lionel Trilling, then a professor at Columbia University, found himself much in demand as a literary critic. In the Arnoldian mold, he had many opinions about the connections between literature and society. In response to the demand, and to his own slowly matured ideas about the proper function of literary criticism, Trilling published a series of essays during the 1940’s, on a variety of subjects and for various occasions, all of them marked by the same serious concern with the role of social and political ideas in the shaping of works of literary imagination. Trilling thus worked out for himself a personal philosophy of criticism and, at the end of the decade, chose to publish sixteen of the essays, most of them revised and expanded, under the provocative title The Liberal Imagination. The collection, which appeared in 1950, bore the subtitle Essays on Literature and Society and included an explanatory preface which turned the volume into a manifesto, not only for Trilling personally but also, as it happened, for a generation of aspiring young writers of literary and cultural criticism.

As early as the second paragraph of the preface, Trilling asserts that the unity of this collection of essays “derives from an abiding interest in the ideas of what we loosely call liberalism, especially the relation of these ideas to literature.” Trilling’s approach is not to advocate or praise liberal ideas, however, but to subject those ideas to the pressure of close scrutiny and criticism, carefully judging both strengths and weaknesses. He regards that exercise of critical judgment as salutary for the cause of liberalism, primarily because liberalism seemed at that time to be the only active intellectual tradition in the United States and was therefore in danger of complacency without criticisms from an opposing tradition. A subsidiary consideration was the inevitable discrepancy Trilling observed between liberal ideas and liberal practices,...

(The entire section is 836 words.)


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Anderson, Quentin, Stephen Donadio, and Steven Marcus, eds. Art, Politics, and Will: Essays in Honor of Lionel Trilling, 1977.

Barzun, Jacques. “Remembering Lionel Trilling,” in Encounter. XLVII (September, 1976), pp. 82-88.

Chace, William M. Lionel Trilling: Criticism and Politics, 1980.

Howe, Irving. “On Lionel Trilling: Continuous Magical Confrontation,” in The New Republic. CLXXIV (March 13, 1976), pp. 29-31.

Spender, Stephen. “Beyond Liberalism,” in Commentary. X (August, 1950), pp. 188-192.