Why Trilling Matters: it is a curiously defensive title for a book about a man who was a star in the much-acclaimed circle of “New York intellectuals,” who delivered the first of the Jefferson Lectures bestowed by the government for “distinguished intellectual and public achievement in the humanities,” and whose major collection of essays, The Liberal Imagination, has gone through half-a-dozen editions since it was first published in 1950 (most recently in 2008), totalling 70,000 copies in hard cover and more than 100,000 in paperback.1 Yet that defensive tone, unfortunately, is warranted. In spite of the availability of his work, Lionel Trilling today is almost unknown in academia, resurrected occasionally in an article or book, more often to be belittled or criticized than celebrated.

Adam Kirsch, seeking to restore Trilling to his rightful place in the literary and intellectual world, tells us that as an English major in the mid-1990s, he never read Trilling or even heard him discussed in class. It was only later that he came to the critic on his own and read him for “pleasure.” He then discovered that Trilling does indeed matter—and matters all the more because literature itself, he regretfully observes, seems to matter so little. In 1991, Dana Gioia, later the chairman of the National Endowment of the Arts, wrote an essay “Can Poetry Matter?” complaining that poetry no longer mattered, that, unlike fiction­, it had become the specialized calling of a small and isolated group. Five years later, the novelist Jonathan Franzen made the same complaint about fiction, deploring the neglect of novels in favor of movies and the web. In 2004, a survey by the nea found that the reading of any kind of literature is in dramatic decline, especially, and most ominously, among the young.

Trilling matters, then, Kirsch insists, because literature matters—and literature as Trilling understood it. His novel, The Middle of the Journey, has been criticized for creating characters who are merely the spokesmen for ideas. The same charge has been levelled against his literary criticism, which is said to treat novels and poems as vehicles for ideas about society and politics rather than as aesthetic responses to personal experience. Kirsch counters this objection by elevating Trilling’s literary criticism to the “primary,” “autonomous” status of literature itself, reflecting the same aesthetic sensibility that the novelist or poet brings to experience—and reflecting, too, the ideas about society and politics that are implicit in the novels and poems themselves.

“Variousness, possibility, complexity, and difficulty”—and, elsewhere, subtlety, ambiguity, contingency, paradox, irony—the words echo throughout all of Trilling’s work.

Kirsch is treading a fine line. He does not want to reduce Trilling to the role of social or, worse, political commentator. Yet he fully acknowledges the social and political import, even intent, of Trilling’s literary criticism: “More than any twentieth-century American intellectual, Trilling stood for the principle that society and politics cannot be fully understood without the literary imagination.” And the literary imagination, for Trilling, was preeminently a “moral imagination.” Moral imagination—not the moralistic dicta or pronouncements evoked in present-day debates about same-sex marriage, abortion, and the like. The true moral imagination transcends such dogmatic moralizing because it is imbued with “moral realism,” a realism that is “not the awareness of morality itself but of the contradictions, paradoxes, and dangers of living the moral life.”

It is this combination of “moral realism” and “moral imagination” that was the basis of Trilling’s critique of the “liberal imagination.” That phrase first appeared in the title of the introductory chapter of his book on E. M. Forster, “Forster and the Liberal Imagination”:

For all his long commitment to the doctrines of liberalism Forster is at war with the liberal imagination. Surely if liberalism has a single desperate weakness, it is an inadequacy of imagination: liberalism is always being surprised.

Surprised, because the “liberal mind” has an unrealistic and simplistic view of morality itself. It thinks that “good is good and bad is bad. . . . Before the idea of good-and-evil its imagination fails.” It cannot accept this “improbable paradox,” a paradox that such “great conservative minds” as Johnson, Burke, and Arnold well understood.

In 1964, in the preface to a new edition of that book, Trilling explained that he took the phrase in the title of that chapter for the name of his first volume of essays, The Liberal Imagination. It is an altogether fitting title, for it is a major theme in that volume (as well, I would argue, in much of his later work). On the first page of the preface, Trilling made the often-quoted remark that, in the United States, liberalism is “not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition,” that there are “no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation.” Rarely quoted is the qualification that followed: although there are no such ideas, there are very strong conservative, even reactionary, “impulses.” For conservative ideas, rather than mere impulses, Trilling had turned to the English, to that impeccable liberal John Stuart Mill, who urged his fellow liberals to become acquainted with the “powerful conservative mind” of Coleridge as a corrective to the “weaknesses and complacencies” of liberalism. Although Mill himself disagreed with Coleridge’s politics and metaphysics, he valued them because they recalled liberals to the “variousness and possibility” that was an “intellectual and political necessity,” and to the “inevitable intimate, it not always obvious, connection between literature and politics.”

It was this Coleridgean vision of literature and politics that Trilling, by way of Mill, was passing on to his own countrymen. The function of the literary critic, his preface concluded, was to remind the liberal that “literature is the human activity that takes the fullest and most precise account of variousness, possibility, complexity, and difficulty.” (In an early essay, referred to in the preface but somehow not included in the volume, Trilling had made the even bolder suggestion that liberals take T. S. Eliot seriously, not only as a poet but as the author of “The Idea of a Christian Society,” which was even more antithetical to the liberal than Coleridge’s thought.)

“Variousness, possibility, complexity, and difficulty”—and, elsewhere, subtlety, ambiguity, contingency, paradox, irony—the words echo throughout all of Trilling’s work. They are his signature, so to speak, the defining characteristics of the true literary imagination, in contrast to the simplistic liberal imagination. Trilling is sometimes mocked for the complexities, subtleties, and, yes, difficulties in his analyses of novels and poems. Kirsch defends him on both counts: the principle of complexity applied to literature in general and the way it manifested itself in his literary criticism.Trilling’s own imagination—literary and political—is reflected in a considerable body of work. His books on Matthew Arnold and E. M. Forster are as authoritative and incisive today as they were almost three-quarters of a century ago. A hundred or more essays on a variety of subjects—Austen and Dostoyevsky, Keats and T. S. Eliot, Kipling and Henry James, Kafka and Freud—reveal a critical sensibility perfectly attuned to that variety and complexity, and another hundred or so commentaries, each several pages long, accompanying the poems, stories, and plays in his massive anthology, The Experience of Literature. The lectures of his last years, Sincerity and Authenticity, are in accord with his lifelong work, observing, as he said in the introduction to Sincerity and Authenticity, “the moral life in process of revising itself.”

In the compass of a short book, Kirsch manages to convey the spirit of these writings, and to do so in the spirit of Trilling himself, giving his work the same kind of subtle and nuanced reading that Trilling gave to others. Kirsch also introduces a Trilling who is a formidable intellectual as well as a literary critic. The range and depth of his literary criticism are impressive enough. Even more impressive are his ventures into areas normally foreign a literary critic—philosophy, history, political science, sociology—what might be called the history of ideas.

His first work, on Matthew Arnold, includes more than passing references to philosophers not commonly associated with Arnold: Plato, Aristotle, Spinoza, Voltaire, Rousseau, Kant, Hegel, Burke, Bentham, Carlyle, Mill, Marx, John Dewey, William James. His later work is no less varied and impressive—reflections on Diderot’s Rameau’s Nephew, Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy, or Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents, which are penetrating insights into the complexities and difficulties of the moral life under the conditions of modernity. Other essays are even more provocative, refuting, incidentally, the familiar criticism that he ignored or belittled his Jewishness. “Wordsworth and the Rabbis” places the poet in the unlikely context of Judaism, with a lengthy discussion and quotations from the rabbinic tractate Pirke Aboth (“Ethics of the Fathers”). And his essay on Isaac Babel’s book about a Jew in a Cossack regiment prompts him to reflect on the nature of Jewish identity, defined in terms of moral values rather than mere ethnicity.

In making the case for why Trilling matters, Kirsch has to address another more serious criticism: that Trilling’s critique of the liberal imagination constitutes a critique of liberalism itself, and is thus an endorsement of conservatism or neoconservatism—as the title of an essay by Cornel West puts it, “Lionel Trilling: The Godfather of Neo-Conservatism.” Some of Trilling’s early writings, Kirsch admits, lend themselves to this interpretation. A “statist liberal,” Kirsch suggests, might be inspired by the essay on Kipling to take seriously the fact that a benevolent law might not result in the effective execution of that law:

It is not so far from this empiricist skepticism to the impulse that led some New York intellectuals, in the 1960s, to critique the welfare state in Irving Kristol’s magazine, The Public Interest. At such moments, the intellectual genealogy that connects Trilling with neoconservatism becomes visible.

Kirsch himself sometimes lapses into phrases that have a distinctly neoconservative ring. On the subject of “good-and-bad” in the Forster book, he comments that liberals failed to appreciate the extent to which good can lead to bad through “unintended consequences, or unacknowledged motives, or fanatical zeal.” A neoconservative could not have put it better; “unintended consequences” in particular was the trademark of The Public Interest.

A few pages later, however, Kirsch takes pains to dissociate Trilling from neoconservatism. Acquitting him of the accusation that, in the Cold War era, liberal anti-Communists (like Trilling) had permitted liberalism to become “single-minded, and bellicose—that is, illiberal,” Kirsch takes the occasion to acquit him of the charge of neoconservatism as well: “The best reason to deny that Trilling was an intellectual godfather of neoconservatism is that he was aware of this danger, and took care to avoid it in his own work.” Nor was Trilling’s critique of the liberal imagination a critique of liberalism, Kirsch insists. His books on Arnold and Forster reveal “his own strictures against the liberal imagination as a means of strengthening, rather than defaming, liberalism.” And The Liberal Imagination as a whole “shows how central Trilling is—or should be—to our understanding of the main project of postwar liberal thought: a renewed commitment to pluralism.” Kirsch concludes his chapter on that book with a rousing affirmation of this renewed and reformed liberalism:

If the basic principles of liberalism today are the renunciation of utopianism and the sanctity of diversity, then Trilling deserves to be credited as one of liberalism’s most profound expositors. As long as these principles are honored, The Liberal Imagination will be a book that matters; and if they should ever cease to be honored, it will matter all the more.

“If the basic principles of liberalism . . . ” That is a very large “if.” Kirsch is right in saying that Trilling continued to think of himself as a liberal—a neoliberal, one might say today. But he would surely have rejected the word “diversity,” recognizing it as a euphemism for the “affirmative action” of which he heartily disapproved. It is in the name of diversity—racial, ethnic, and sexual diversity—that liberals today promote policies that discourage or deny the intellectual and political diversity—the “variousness, possibility, complexity, and difficulty”—that Trilling valued in literature as in society and that he found so defective in the liberal imagination.

Neoconservative or neoliberal—the issue is moot. Political labels, for so subtle a thinker as Trilling, are irrelevant.

The subject of affirmative action comes up in one of Trilling’s last writings, his Jefferson Lecture, “Mind in the Modern World.” Kirsch interprets that lecture as a great effort on Trilling’s part “not to become embroiled in the campus culture wars,” in spite of the fact that “combatants in those wars—from Philip Rieff to Gertrude Himmelfarb—would enlist Trilling as a spiritual ally.” And so we did (as did many others, including some liberals), regarding that lecture as a vigorous indictment of the counter-culture—the “adversary” culture, Trilling called it, which “rejects and seeks to discredit the very concept of mind.” As exemplars of that culture, Trilling cited the president of the Modern Language Association, who declared literature to be nothing more than “a diversion and a spectacle,” and the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, which imposed upon universities a policy of affirmative action inimical to the spirit and function of education. “This adversary position,” Trilling regretfully announced, “is now highly developed and its influence is of considerable extent.”

Kirsch dismisses lightly Trilling’s critique of this adversary culture. Apart from his “worries” about such things as affirmative action, Kirsch says, he avoided controversial issues, preferring to “make sense of cultural changes in personal, literary terms—to make them an object of experience rather than a subject for debate.’’ Neoconservatives, as Kirsch implies, take Trilling’s “worries,” about not only affirmative action but also the state of the culture, more seriously. If they cannot claim him as a political “ally,” they can welcome him as a spiritual and intellectual ally, and perhaps also as a political inspiration. It is in this sense that Irving Kristol, the original godfather of neoconservatism, declared Trilling to be one of his own “intellectual godfathers,” liberating him from a liberalism that was an “impoverishment of the imagination and a dessication of the spirit.”

Neoconservative or neoliberal—the issue is moot. Political labels, for so subtle a thinker as Trilling, are irrelevant. It is not for any political identification that we read him today but for the sake of that “moral realism” and “free play of the moral imagination” that he brought to bear on literature, culture, society, and politics alike. It is this Trilling that Kirsch celebrates, persuading us that he does indeed matter because literature matters. And literature matters because it shapes and reflects the whole of “moral life.”

1Why Trilling Matters, by Adam Kirsch; Yale University Press, 170 pages, $24.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 30 Number 2, on page 14
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