Lionel Trilling and The Liberal Imagination

In the feverish political climate of the 1930s and 1940s outlined in the introductory section, American critics with left-wing sympathies tubarned James’s disavowal of any direct purpose for the novel against him. They approved of writers such as Theodore Dreiser (1871–1945) and John Steinbeck (1902–68) who specialized in documenting the oppressive conditions of many American workers and the general plight of the under-classes. For Trilling, in a phrase to which we shall return, Dreiser and James were ‘at the dark and bloody crossroads where literature and politics meet’ (Trilling 1950: 10). Far from aligning himself, however, with what the nineteenth-century English critic Walter Pater (1893–94) had called ‘the love of art for its own sake’ (1893: 190), Trilling positions himself and Henry James as being political in the broader senses clarified and explored in The Liberal Imagination.

The Liberal Imagination is organized as a series of essays rather than as the unified study of a particular author or narrowly defined topic. Given that this article is concerned in a preliminary way with perspectives on the novel, the main focus here will be on the essays devoted to it: ‘Reality in America’, ‘The Princess Casamassima’ (one of Henry James’s novels), and arguably two of the most important and challenging chapters in the book: ‘Manners, Morals, and the Novel’ and ‘Art and Fortune’. Trilling was attracted to the essay form partly because of the variety of topics and approaches it allowed; but he was also committed to the more casual, less sternly systematic, tone and conversational style he was able to develop in shorter pieces. As Roger Sale has characterized it: ‘The voice of The Liberal Imagination . . . speaks from a lectern: here is a subject, a problem, a matter for an hour’s serious thought, let us see what we can say about it’ (1973: 328).

But Sale’s qualified approval of this method is far from universally shared: Denis Donoghue, for example, disparaged Trilling by observing that he was ‘likely to remain’ merely ‘the Intelligent Man’s Guide to Literature’ (Donoghue 1955: 222). For Robert Mazzocco, ‘the usual impression’ of Trilling’s prose ‘is that of trudging uphill, scanning hazy vistas martyred with abstractions’ (Mazzocco 1965: 260). This assessment, however, tells us as much about the fracture opening up between scientific and humane approaches to literature in the 1960s as it does about the effectiveness of Trilling’s style. All Trilling’s publications after The Liberal Imagination consist of essay or lecture collections.

Despite the apparently miscellaneous nature of The Liberal Imagination, its constituent parts are held together by the broad political agenda signalled in its title. In the face of what he saw as the dogmatism of socialists and communist sympathizers, Trilling establishes an ‘abiding interest’ (1950: i) in his introduction, which turns out to be quite closely connected with the various functions he goes on to identify for the novel form itself: ‘The job of criticism would seem to be, then, to recall liberalism to its first essential imagination of variousness and possibility, which implies the awareness of complexity and difficulty’ (1950: vi).

The problem with Marxist theories, which Trilling expresses in a way that recalls James’s insistence on organic form, is in their ‘mechanical’ (1950: v) view of the world. In line with Henry James’s The Art of Fiction, Trilling argues that literature, and especially the novel, ‘is the human activity that takes the fullest and most precise account of variousness, possibility, complexity, and difficulty’ (1950: vii).

At first sight, though, categories such as ‘variousness’ and ‘difficulty’ seem like huge abstractions from the real world; and this is a problem that Trilling tries to tackle in the chapter entitled ‘Reality in America’. For Trilling, the left’s critical approval of Dreiser’s fiction at the expense of Henry James was flawed by a misguided belief in the value of novels that represented the world in straightforward, documentary ways, simplifying both the problem (as a class struggle between factory owners and their employees, for example) and its solution (the need for revolution). Trilling abhorred the movement of some American novelists into this kind of ‘social realism’ between the First and Second World Wars. The American literary historian V. L. Parrington (1871– 1929), whose Main Currents in American Thought (1927–30) is a target in ‘Reality in America’, was an advocate if not of social realism, then of novels that depict social problems with the aim of bringing about reform. Parrington is memorably described by Trilling as having ‘a limited sense of what constitutes a difficulty’ (1950: 4). It is precisely this limitation that the novel, especially as handled by James, can and should confront. What James’s theory and practice as a novelist display is a ‘moral mind’ with an ‘awareness of tragedy, irony, and multitudinous distinctions’ (1950: 10). At the heart of the novel is not the ‘current’, suggesting a simple flow, of Parrington’s title, but struggle, debate, and ‘contradictions’ (1950: 9). Novels written within this paradigm, or to this model, could challenge the valorization of ‘dullness and stupidity’ all too easily entailed by reductive notions of ‘virtuous democracy’ (1950: 11). In short, their task is to counter the ‘political’, or Marxist, ‘fear of the intellect’ (1950: 11).

1322853064551-cachedIn his approach to James’s The Princess Casamassima, Trilling identifies two aspects of fiction as being of equal importance to the novel: ‘illusion’, with ‘primitive’ narratives such as the fairy-tale as a vital part of its syntax, and ‘probability’, within a framework of ‘verisimilitude’ or ‘truth’ (1950: 62, 63). Trilling recognizes that the balance between the two is a shifting one; but he insists that no novelist should adhere slavishly, as critics such as Parrington seemed to advocate, to ‘multitudinous records’ (1950: 65). James’s novel, as many of the best novels are, is ‘a brilliantly precise representation of social actuality’ (1950: 71); but its power is in the pursuit of the ‘analogue of art with power’ (1950: 79). Worrying once more about what he sees as the simplifications of Marxism, Trilling argues that the novel should seek out the complications of the ‘moral mind’ (1950: 10) rather than merely serve the needs of ‘our facile sociological minds’ (1950: 83). Trilling in this essay at least, like James, is committed to the principles of organic unity: The Princess Casamassima is praised for its ‘complex totality’. James’s novel is also endorsed for its ‘incomparable representation of the spiritual circumstances of our civilization’ (1950: 88).

Trilling is close to James in that his emphasis is on the novel as a representation of life; its ‘art’, as for James, is in the interaction between that representation and the writer’s impressions, in an imaginative sense of the subject. Trilling’s concern, by contrast with James, however, is much more with the ‘society’ element in our narrative model (p. 16); on the social context, that is, of both author and reader, and on the novel’s responsibilities towards the morality, broadly defined, of the community. As the American critic Norman Podhoretz has it: Trilling ‘understood literature as an act of the moral imagination and as an agent of social and political health’ (Podhoretz 1968: 79).

Trilling’s definition of the novel and its particular significance culminates in The Liberal Imagination in two of its major essays: ‘Manners, Morals, and the Novel’ and ‘Art and Fortune’. The first essay will be at the centre of Chapter 6, ‘Moral intelligence’. But it is important to note here that in that essay Trilling qualifies his stress on the importance of ‘reality’ for the novel by turning it into the ‘question of reality’ and adding that its focus has actually tended to be on ‘the old opposition between reality and appearance, between what really is and what merely seems’ (1950: 195). It is not ‘reality’ that is essential to the novel, but the ‘question of reality’, the ‘problem of reality’ (1950: 196). This is especially evident in the novel’s entanglement with money and what it symbolizes. Money is ‘the great generator of illusion’, closely bound up as it is with ‘snobbery’. For Trilling, the ‘novel is born in response to snobbery’ (1950: 197). Money, nothing in itself, is significant only in terms of how it is perceived and appears; and its appearance, like all appearances, is a false one. Snobbery involves a misguided deference towards what are regarded as superior and often steeply hierarchical social structures. The ‘characteristic work of the novel is to record the illusion that snobbery generates and to try to penetrate to the truth which, as the novel assumes, lies hidden beneath all false appearances’ (1950: 198).

At the centre of such illusions, then, are money and the fantasies and delusions of power to which it gives rise. It is within this context that the novel ‘is a perpetual quest for reality’, the ‘field of its research being always the social world’, and ‘the material of its analysis being always manners as the indication of the direction of man’s soul’ (1950: 199). For the social realist, the task of the novel is to represent for condemnation an image of society; for Trilling, that image masks the essential moral complexity with which the novel should really be engaged.

‘Art or Misfortune’ considers whether or not the novel is dead as a form. Trilling argues, recalling once more the concept of organic form, that ‘technique has its autonomy and that it dictates the laws of its own growth’ (1950: 241–2). But relying only on those laws, which was James’s tendency, would result in the exhaustion of the form. The novel exists in an environment, like any organism, and its existence is conditioned. What conditions the novel is the work for which it has been contrived. Unlike James, who rejects an externally imposed purpose for the novel, Trilling sees the ‘investigation of reality and illusion’ (1950: 242), in ways that connect ‘Art and Misfortune’ with ‘Manners, Morals, and the Novel’, as its supreme task. Specifically, he again underlines the fact that the relation between reality and illusion can best be considered in conjunction with social class and money. ‘Money is both real and not real, like a spook’, and what characterizes the novel is its ‘interest in illusion and reality as generated by class and money’ (1950: 242, 243).

Trilling further suggests that ‘the great work’ of the novel ‘of our time is the restoration and reconstitution of the will’ (1950: 250–1) which is dying in our society ‘of its own excess’ (1950: 250). What matters is the world of ‘unfolding possibility’, an ‘awareness of the will in its beautiful circuit of thought and desire’ (1950: 252). The novel is the perfect vehicle for challenging the sterilities of systematic thinking, and for opposing dogmatism and its stifling of spontaneity. The novel is a social affair; but if it is to help in this renovation of the will, it must also concentrate on ‘ideas’ even though it will be attacked by Marxists for doing so. Trilling’s own novel, The Middle of the Journey, deals with the plight of intellectuals caught up in competing reactionary and Marxist ideologies; and Trilling firmly believed that that is where novels should be.

The distance between James and Trilling on these issues, in terms of a purpose for the novel beyond the merely aesthetic, is more apparent than real, however. On the one hand, unlike James, Trilling thought that the novel ‘achieves its best effects of art often when it has no concern with them’ (1950: 260), and that ‘the novel is . . . the least “artistic” of genres’ (1950: 261). Yet on the other, in strains similar to those of The Art of Fiction, he believed that it is in the novel that ‘thought and desire’ can have a ‘field of possibility’ which, by definition, should not be ‘demanded or prescribed or provided for’ (1950: 262, 263). James opposes the novel as an organism to Besant’s mechanical sense of how it works; and similarly, Trilling counters crude Marxism with what he sees as biological reality. The novel is ‘involved with ideas’ because ‘it deals with man in society’ (1950: 265); and ideas are ‘living things, inescapably connected with our wills and desires’ and ‘susceptible of growth and development’. If we think in this way, then the novel as an ‘active’ form is ‘possible’ (1950: 284). James and Trilling are at one when it comes to the need for novels to interrogate the ‘moral life’ (carefully defined). For Trilling, as for James, the greatness of the novel is

in its unremitting work of involving the reader himself in the moral life, inviting him to put his own motives under examination, suggesting that reality is not as his conventional education has led him to see it. It taught us, as no other genre ever did, the extent of human varietyand the value of this variety. (1950: 209)

For James, too, the supreme value of the novel form is its flexibility and variety: ‘the Novel remains still . . . the most independent, most elastic, most prodigious of literary forms’ (James 1907–9: 1321). Mark Krupnick pithily expresses the agenda of The Liberal Imagination when he proposes that ‘Trilling offers the literary imagination as a cure for the simplifications of the liberal imagination’ (Krupnick 1986: 63).

Key Theories of Lionel Trilling

Further Reading
Anderson, Quentin, Stephen Donadio, and Steven Marcus (eds) (1977) Art, Politics, and Will: Essays in Honor of Lionel Trilling, New York: Basic Books.
Bloom, Alexander (1986) Prodigal Sons: The New York Intellectuals and Their World, New York: Oxford University Press.
Boyers, Robert (1977) Lionel Trilling: Negative Capability and the Wisdom of Avoidance, Columbia, MO and London: University of Missouri Press.
Chace, William M. (1980) Lionel Trilling: Criticism and Politics, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Dickstein, Morris (1992) Double Agent: The Critic and Society, New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Donoghue, Denis (1978) ‘Trilling, Mind, and Society’, Sewanee Review, 86: 161–86. Frank, Joseph (1956) ‘Lionel Trilling and the Conservative Imagination’, Sewanee Review, 86: 296–309.
Freedman, Jonathan (1993) ‘Trilling, James, and the Uses of Cultural Criticism’, Henry James Review, 14: 141–50.
French, Phillip (1980) Three Honest Men: Edmund Wilson, F. R. Leavis, and Lionel Trilling, Manchester: Carcanet New Press.
Krupnick, Mark (1986) Lionel Trilling and the Fate of Cultural Criticism, Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.
O’Hara, Daniel T. (1988) Lionel Trilling: The Work of Liberation, The Wisconsin Project on American Writers, Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press.
Rawlings, Peter (2001) ‘Trilling Unlionised’, Essays in Criticism, 51: 276–82.
Rodden, John (ed.) (1999) Lionel Trilling and the Critics: Opposing Selves, Lincoln, NE and London: University of Nebraska Press.
Salmagundi (1978) special Trilling issue, 41 Scholes, Robert (1973) ‘The Illiberal Imagination’, New Literary History, 4: 521–40.
Schwartz, Delmore (1953) ‘The Duchess’ Red Shoes’, Partisan Review, 20: 55–73.
Scott, Nathan A. (1973) Three American Moralists: Mailer, Bellow, Trilling, Notre Dame and London: University of Notre Dame Press.
Shoben, Edward J. (1981) Lionel Trilling, New York: Ungar Simpson, Lewis P. (1987) ‘Lionel Trilling and the Agency of Terror’, Partisan Review, 54: 18–35
Tanner, Stephen L. (1988) Lionel Trilling, Boston, MA: Twayne Publishers. Teres, Harvey M. (1996) Renewing the Left: Politics, Imagination, and the New York Intellectuals, New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Wellek, René (1986) ‘Lionel Trilling’, in his A History of Modern Criticism, Vol. 6, American Criticism, 1900–1950, New Haven, CT and London: Yale University Press: 123–43
Source: Rawlings, Peter. American Theorists of the Novel. London: Routledge, 2006. Print.

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