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Liberalism versus Conservatism in Great Literature, Lionel Trilling–Part One

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September 6, 2016

One of the most influential books of the intellectual life of the mid-20th century was Lionel Trilling’s The Liberal Imagination, published in 1950. I recently rediscovered this book as one of those You Might Also Likes on Amazon. I was actually a bit surprised it was still in print. I shouldn’t have been. Like all great books of ideas what Trilling observed in the 1950s still has relevance for our generation and will no doubt have relevance for your children’s and your grandchildren’s generations.

Lionel Trilling was a legendary professor of literature at Columbia University, the author of numerous books of ideas as well as novels. He edited the influential Partisan Review for many years and pretty well kept the conventional literary establishment in line. Ironically, what he may be remembered best for today, at least in his role as a prominent professor of a major university was his encouragement, along with his wife and fellow professor Diane Trilling, of two unconventional students, later to be leaders in the utterly unconventional and anti-academic Beat Movement: Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. Ah well, what do you say?

As I began actually reading the book, I realized that although I had read many excerpts through the years, especially back in my years as a grad student at The University of Tennessee, I probably never read the entire book. The book as a whole collects essays published at various times through the 1940s. But Trilling was more than one of the numerous New Critics in his time. He was a cultural critic as well, writing about the Big Issues of the century.

Throughout this season I plan on bringing up Big Questions that have been formulated in the past by major thinkers about Great Literature. While I don’t plan on studying these books with you as in some college class, certainly not in a concentrated way all at one time, I would like to discuss some of the ideas.

So, let’s go. Trilling titles his book The Liberal Imagination. I remember wondering what he meant by “liberal,” and I could not imagine that his idea of what liberalism is would relate much to the common political label of the present.

But here’s a passage from his preface that struck me. It’s a long passage but read it all. And then let’s talk.

“In the United States at this time liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition. For it is the plain fact that nowadays there are no conservative or reactionary ideas in circulation. This does not mean, of course, that there is no impulse to conservatism or to reaction. Such impulses are certainly very strong, perhaps even stronger than most of us know, But the conservative impulse and the reactionary impulse do not, with some isolated and some ecclesiastical exceptions, express themselves in ideas but only in action or in irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.”

Trilling published The Liberal Imagination in 1950, so this preface was probably written sometime in 1949-1950, thus prior to the huge conservative freeze on intellectual life in the U.S. that occurred with the McCarthy witch hunts.

The relevant question, as always, is whether Trilling’s observations from 66 years ago still contain truth in 2016 or hereabouts. To put it another way, does Trilling’s statement about the intellectual vapidity of the conservatism of his day still apply?

In contrast, why would Trilling say that the dominant, the only intellectual tradition of his day is liberalism?

Now, I know that the subject of Trilling’s book, the liberal imagination, is not just about the conservative/ liberal political spectrum that has overtaken the language of the issue of which Trilling speaks. Trump versus Clinton. Eisenhower versus Stevenson. But he does not ignore this political dichotomy in his thinking.

In fact, that’s the point. Even when we broaden out the discussion to include all of philosophy, literature, art, and other intellectual disciplines, there are, he says, no conservative ideas in his time. There simply was no opposing intellectual tradition in tension with liberalism then in place. (By “ideas” Trilling is speaking of a structured philosophical theory with a concomitant diametric opposition.)

Trilling contrasts ideas with sentiments. Yes, there are plenty of conservative sentiments as always. But sentiments are merely urges toward something. They are not intellectual.

So, a comparison with second decade 21st-Century America: It’s easy enough to tick off the names of the great liberal intellectuals of today—Noam Chomsky comes to mind. But who are the conservative intellectuals? Are there any? Obviously. There are celebrated conservative thinkers, but what conservative thinkers of today are adding to the ideas current of our time.

By intellectuals I am concerned, as was Trilling, with those in the intellectual disciplines, as I mentioned above, such as the arts, philosophy, political philosophy, criticism, historical theory, and so forth.

Well, of course I am trying to bait you. But is it possible to have civil debate about these observations?

Wait a minute? If the only intellectual tradition available to us in early 21st century America is liberalism, what might be the dangers? Stay tuned for next time.

Meanwhile, why don’t you start a conversation about these ideas in the comments box? But if not that, think seriously about these questions. That’s part of living a literary life isn’t it?

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Paul Varner


1 Comment

  1. Brian says:

    Harold Bloom comes to mind as a conservative voice–at least his views on canon. And, even The Anxiety of Influence (what I’ve read of it), strikes me as a fairly conservative approach to theory–actually, I see it as a theoretical approach to literature that endorses his notions of canon.

    While I do agree that liberalism is the dominant academic tradition of the day, I feel like academics are operating in a conservative structure. The top-down structure of authority in the University, College, and Department (never mind the role of the State); the competitive push to “publish or perish” keeps colleagues in competition with each other; the increasing demand that an education or degree be marketable or “worth something” (and this seems to direct funding away from the Humanities and toward professional degrees, causing departments to compete with each other). The academic is really in a location of antagonism.

    I guess what I’m considering is that if the structure of academics was a bit more liberal, would it not create space for there to be more conservative academics?


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