The Liberal Imagination: Essays on Literature and Society by Lionel Trilling
The Liberal Imagination is one of the most admired and influential works of criticism of the last century, a work that is not only a masterpiece of literary criticism but an important statement about politics and society. Published in 1950, one of the chillier moments of the Cold War, Trilling’s essays examine the promise —and limits—of liberalism, challenging the complacency of a naïve liberal belief in rationality, progress, and the panaceas of economics and other social sciences, and asserting in their stead the irreducible complexity of human motivation and the tragic inevitability of tragedy. Only the imagination, Trilling argues, can give us access and insight into these realms and only the imagination can ground a reflective and considered, rather than programmatic and dogmatic, liberalism.
Writing with acute intelligence about classics like Huckleberry Finn and the novels of Henry James and F. Scott Fitzgerald, but also on such varied matters as the Kinsey Report and money in the American imagination, Trilling presents a model of the critic as both part of and apart from his society, a defender of the reflective life that, in our ever more rationalized world, seems ever more necessary—and ever more remote.
Lionel Trilling (1905–1975) was born in New York and educated at Columbia University, to which he returned as an instructor in 1932, and where he continued to teach in the English Department throughout his long and highly distinguished career as a literary critic. Among the most influential of his many works are three collections of essays, The Liberal Imagination, The Opposing Self, and Beyond Culture; a collection of lectures, Sincerity and Authenticity; a critical study of E.M. Forster; and one novel, The Middle of the Journey (available as an NYRB Classic). The Journey Abandoned, an unfinished novel, was published posthumously in 2008. Lionel Trilling was married to the writer and critic Diana Trilling.
Louis Menand is the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of English at Harvard University, and a staff writer at The New Yorker. He is the author of Discovering Modernism, The Metaphysical Club and American Studies.