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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.

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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, between what the liberal imagination can conceive as the ideal of a free and rational direction for human life and what liberalism can actually achieve in its more constricted practical manifestations. That discrepancy suggested that the constant application of sound critical analysis was necessary in order to keep the products of liberalism from straying too far from the imaginative concepts with which they originated. To that critical process, Trilling argued, literature is uniquely relevant because it is capable of giving the fullest possible account of the varied, complex, and difficult vision which is the essence of the liberal imagination.

By “literature,” Lionel Trilling meant much more than works of the imagination, such as poetry, drama, and fiction. He insisted on including the work of historians, social critics, and scientists as well. The subject matter of the essays in The Liberal Imagination ranges from the Roman historian Tacitus to the 1948 study of human sexual behavior known as the Kinsey Report. Perhaps the most representative of the essays is “Freud and Literature,” in which Trilling points out both the strengths and the weaknesses of Freudian psychology as a systematic account of the human mind, and then goes on to show how Sigmund Freud’s ideas were influenced by his readings in literature, as well as how literature in turn has been influenced by Freud’s ideas. Trilling makes this fully reciprocal relationship seem inevitable by showing that both psychoanalysis and literature seek to understand how the human mind works.

There are also essays devoted to single literary works—such as William Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality,” Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), and Henry James’s political novel The Princess Casamassima (1886)—as well as essays devoted to the life’s work of a single author, such as the essays on Sherwood Anderson, Rudyard Kipling, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. The purely literary essays are scattered among essays on cultural and theoretical topics in which imaginative literature plays little part (“Art and Neurosis,” “The Sense of the Past,” and “Art and Fortune”) and essays which relate imaginative literature in general to social and political ideas (“Manners, Morals, and the Novel,” “Reality in America,” and “The Function of the Little Magazine”). Yet however varied the subject matter, the author’s concern is always with the way writers utilize or articulate liberal ideas in their work. Trilling’s critique often tends to be negative, sometimes impatiently so, because the standard of thought against which he judges the work of writers is very high.

Trilling’s use of the essay form is rigorously traditional, even conservative, almost as though he intended his own formal prose as a rebuke to the more colorful but, as he maintains, shallow uses of the liberal imagination. The essays generally begin with a clearly enunciated topic sentence or paragraph, then proceed to elaborate the arguments, point by point, which support the premise of the topic sentence. They conclude classically with an elegant restatement of Trilling’s position. The seamless structure, avoiding awkward transitions or erudite digressions, reveals a supremely orderly mind at work.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 63

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.

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