The Liberal Imagination

October 17th, 2008 by EVENTS

By Lionel Trilling

Lionel Trilling was one of the Jewish boy-geniuses that New York’s teeming outer reaches seemed to breed like rabbits in the period between the World Wars. He grew up in Queens, entered Columbia University at 16, started teaching there in his mid-20s, and quickly became the preeminent literary critic of his age: the man whose name was filed in Middle America’s mental dictionary entry under “Man of Letters”, and the de facto leader of the New York Intellectuals. His reputation was cemented by the publication of The Liberal Imagination in 1950; long out of print, it was recently reissued by New York Review Books, which has made a mission of reviving comatose mid-century classics (others in this series include To the Finland Station and The 13 Clocks).

The Liberal Imagination was inspired by John Stuart Mill‘s exhortation that liberals should read the conservative writings of Coleridge—who, for all his laudanum-laced literary fantasias, was surprisingly curmudgeonly about matters of the real world—in order to brace up their philosophy. Trilling meant his book to be a similar tonic to the rigid, overworked Trotskyite impulses of his peers. When he says “liberal,” Trilling is referring not to the gaggle of bra-burning, tree-hugging, Chablis-sipping elitists etched into our national consciousness by Karl Rove. Instead he means, by and large, his friends: Philip Rahv, Mary McCarthy, and the rest of the gang over at the Partisan Review. Most of them were second-generation Jewish-Americans, reform-minded in a classically liberal way and brimful of a belief in progress and rationality.

The problem with this kind of liberalism, Trilling maintained, was that it ignored what he called “the deep places of the imagination.” Progressives did not or could not acknowledge the tragic impulses in human nature, the persistence of memory and the nagging sting of age-old slights. Trilling was a devoted Freudian, in analysis for much of his life, and he was tremendously influenced by the idea that there is a constant whipping froth of sexual and violent instincts boiling beneath modern man’s placid, socialized surface. Maybe we do not control our fate. Maybe things will never get better. Maybe folklore will always trump science and we will keep on helplessly choosing to do what is worst for us—kill our fathers and marry our mothers and so on—in the classic Greek tragical fashion.

Aside from Freud, Trilling’s greatest affinity is for the work of his literary critical counterparts—Arnold, Coleridge, Eliot, and especially George Orwell, who died very early in 1950, and whose sad shadow seems to hang over this volume. It tackles so many of Orwell’s favorite topics and refers to him so often that it sometimes reads like a conspiratorial whisper from Trilling to his better-known counterpart. But he has none of Orwell’s vigor and verve, none of his brisk, British get-to-the-point-ness. The essays here are long, and the prose is thick, sticky, languorous. His ideas, excellent as they may be, tend to take their own sweet time oozing out of this mire. Even Louis Menand, one of the liveliest cultural critics of our time, only managed to produce a perfunctory, dead-on-arrival introduction for this edition.

The best bits of The Liberal Imagination deal with straightforward, easily circumscribed topics—Huckleberry Finn, Tacitus, The Kinsey Report—that require Trilling to make early and frequent use of facts, names, quotes, and proper nouns. He is bang-on in his essay about Kipling (who was apparently even more unfashionable in 1950 than he is now), pointing out that even as T.S. Eliot was speaking of Kipling’s roots in the music hall with his trademark combination of amusement and derision, he was composing the music halliest and most Kiplingesque of all 20th century lyric-epic poems, The Waste Land, crammed full of dialect and skit-like tableaux and a sense of the vastness of empire. On Kinsey, Trilling is equally incisive, complaining that liberals who happily embraced a “scientific” view of sex were simply ignoring their own key biases, and that the Report was ultimately just as judgmental in its view of sex’s social function as the judgmental prudes that it sought to judge.

And in the wonderful “Manners, Morals, and The Novel”—originally given as a talk at Kenyon College, which might explain its unusual straightforwardness and sense of fun—Trilling manages to pack in so many of his key points that the essay could stand as proxy for the volume. He reminds his audience that “the moral passions”—our do-gooding impulses—”are even more willful and imperious and impatient than the self-seeking passions,” that if we set out to reform society and save the objects of our pity, we must take great care not to make them into the objects of our coercion; and that the novel, that great teeming chronicle of class and character, will help us along the way, help us to see the danger that lurks in our kindness, help us with imagination and humor to reign in the reforming impulse. It is a small tragedy that a man who could see all this, who was so sensitive to what he called “all the buzz of implication” that could define an age or a scene and make a novel worth reading years—even centuries—after its conception, was so deaf to the details of his own milieu that could have enlivened his prose. This gentle book lacks that hum, that throb, that evocation of an age, the sweet smell of tobacco echoing in bulb-lit back rooms, the chime of the Biltmore clock, the news of Stalin’s atrocities nagging at the consciousness of American progressives, the ominous tones of the speech that Joe McCarthy made on February 9, 1950 (“I have in my hand a list of 205 names that were made known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party”). In short, the way things were.

Reviewed by Julia Wallace

The Liberal Imagination
by Lionel Trilling
New York Review Books, 2008
Paper, 320 pgs, $15.95
ISBN-10: 1590172833

Posted in Reviews

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