The Liberal Imagination

It?s hard to imagine an era when liberals could be called complacent, or even ascendant. But Lionel Trilling?s landmark collection of essays, first published in 1950, argued not only that conservative thought in America was bankrupt but that liberalism -- what we would call the progressive left -- had settled into a self-satisfied ideology. With the tide so turned today, what makes these essays, many first published in The Nation and the Partisan Review, worth reprinting? Simply put: Trilling?s distaste for all ideologies, especially as they shape critical opinion. Substitute identity politics for liberalism, and you begin to see Trilling?s relevance. What links these somewhat disparate pieces is Trilling?s firm belief in the moral imagination and his acceptance of an ambivalence that transcends easy categories. His beef with now-forgotten critics like V. L. Parrington resonates in our current cultural climate, with its confused notion of literary realism. For Trilling, the touchstone is Henry James, and his essay on James?s novel The Princess Casamassima is something of a critical masterpiece, teasing out the political intelligence and the "moral realism" of that difficult book. Numerous articles about the state of the novel, and his brilliant dissection of the Kinsey Report, prove Trilling alive to "a culture?s hum and buzz of implication." His ongoing engagement with Freud easily withstands the test of time, highlighting both the limits and uses of psychology in understanding the human mind. Trilling writes with the great tradition at his fingertips -- Cervantes, Proust, Flaubert, Dostoevsky, Shakespeare and Keats all inhabit his thinking. And his essays on writers as different as Wordsworth, Kipling, Tacitus, and Fitzgerald demonstrate his expansive sense of the critical imagination. Considered one of the fathers of neoconservatism for his critique of liberalism, Trilling displays a subtlety and elegance so often lacking in his ham-fisted epigones.

April 18: "[W]ould it be too bold to imagine that all warm-blooded animals have arisen from one living filament…?"

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