There is, for many of us, something vaguely oppressive about the thought of having to reread Lionel Trilling now. His elegant periods, always in danger of sliding into sonorousness; his confident, familiar invocation of the great names of modern European thought and literature; his cultivated superiority to all that might be tainted by provincialism or pragmatism, which, he concedes with the stoical air of the dutiful mourner at a funeral, amounts to most of American life; and above all, that elusive but pervasive note that runs through his prose–the note of a mind taking stock of its resources and finding that they are, despite their fragility, adequate to its tasks. We can’t help feeling that we should be improved by reading Trilling, and this feeling itself is inevitably oppressive.
The previous paragraph, as will have been evident to those familiar with Trilling’s writing, deliberately blends characterization with homage and pastiche. His liberal use of the first-person plural to suggest a community of the like-minded was a much criticized mannerism, as was his unembarrassed recourse to cultural name-dropping as a substitute for argument. Then there was the too ready suggestion of rereading, signaling his great storehouse of literary experience. And finally, there was the characteristic structure of a Trilling sentence, with the clauses queuing up to make their restraining or amplifying comment on their predecessors. The blending of homage and pastiche in my tribute may be expressive of the ambivalence Trilling excites. We, I might imitatively say, admire him; we may even sense that we need him; yet it remains true that we have ever so slightly to brace ourselves for a prolonged spell in his company. Reading him keeps us up to the mark, but we can’t help but be aware that the mark is set rather higher than we are used to.
All this may seem puzzling to those for whom Trilling is little more than a name, especially those who have grown up since his death, in 1975. It may be hard to understand why he was, a couple of generations ago, one of academia’s most cherished culture heroes, one of the few saints of modern literary criticism. It may be harder still to make the case for why Trilling, in his antique, mannered way, might matter now. But if so, there can be few better places to start than with a reconsideration of his most celebrated book, The Liberal Imagination (first published in 1950), reissued with a brief, deft introduction by Louis Menand, thought by some to come as near as anyone can to being Trilling’s successor today.
The scale of the book’s success on first publication seems scarcely credible today. It belonged, after all, to a genre most present-day publishers shun as utterly unsalable. It was a collection of essays; the essays had all been previously published in some form; and perhaps most unpromising of all, they were essays in literary criticism. Yet the hardcover sold an initial 70,000 copies, and then the paperback a further 100,000. Menand remarks that the volume “made literary criticism matter to people who were not literary critics,” which is true enough but may understate its reach. A similar work that sold, say, 20,000 copies would already be doing that. The Liberal Imagination made Trilling’s version of literary criticism matter to a readership that was in search of something more than criticism, perhaps more than literature itself. His essays spoke to a cultural or political moment in a way that is now hard to reconstruct and surely impossible to repeat. But why does it seem unimaginable that any work by a literary critic might have a similar impact now? Has “the culture” changed too much? Has “literary criticism”? Have “we”?