Lionel Trilling

America’s greatest critic put moral imagination at the heart of his literary and social criticism

Academia Literature North America Underrated

When Lionel Trilling died in 1975, he was not only the most eminent literary critic in America, but also, some would argue, the most eminent intellectual figure. Three years before his death, he received the first of the Thomas Jefferson Awards, the highest honour the federal government confers for “distinguished intellectual achievement in the humanities”. Today, his name is unknown even to graduate students of English literature. More disquieting, the mode of thought that was uniquely his is not so much in disfavour – it is simply ignored, not even a matter of contention.

Trilling, who was so sensitive a recorder of the culture, may have anticipated this turn in his own reputation as well as the culture. His Jefferson Lecture, “Mind in the Modern World”, was exhortatory rather than celebratory, cautioning about tendencies in the culture apparent to him although not yet to many others, which had the effect of diminishing the force and legitimacy of mind. He did not use the words “postmodernism” or “deconstruction” – they were not in common usage then-but that was what he had in mind when he deplored the increasingly esoteric and dehumanising, as he thought it, nature of the humanistic disciplines.

That disrespect for mind he saw epitomised in the aggressive relativism that ridiculed the very idea of “objectivity”, and with it, Trilling insisted, the idea of reality itself. Today, Trilling’s defence of objectivity, as an idea and an ideal, has a prophetic ring, an appeal to redemption, so to speak. “In the face of the certainty,” he told his audience, “that the effort of objectivity will fall short of what it aims at, those who undertake to make the effort do so out of something like a sense of intellectual honour and out of the faith that in the practical life, which includes the moral life, some good must follow from even the relative success of the endeavour.”

“The practical life, which includes the moral life” – and the intellectual and aesthetic life as well. In an age that is as sceptical about morality as it is about objectivity, Trilling’s insistent sense of morality – “moral realism,” he called it – can well be derided as Victorian.

Indeed, it was from one of the most notable Victorians that he imbibed that sense. An intellectual biography of Matthew Arnold was his first work, and the spirit of Arnold – “literature as a criticism of life” – hovers over all of his work, extending far beyond the Victorians and engaging the most disparate writers and thinkers: George Orwell and Isaac Babel, Mark Twain and T.S. Eliot, Wordsworth and Hemingway, Jane Austen and Rudyard Kipling, Henry James and James Joyce, Sigmund Freud and E.M.
Forster.

In a series of lectures published as Sincerity and Authenticity, he went further still. Philosophers ancient and modern – Plato and Aristotle, Rousseau and Hegel, Nietzsche and Sartre – mingled with poets, novelists, writers and thinkers of every genre, and even the occasional historical figure. The juxtaposition of characters and ideas is exhilarating and sometimes startling. A discussion of Rousseau’s idea of sincerity, for example, prompts the thought: “Oratory and the novel: which is to say, Robespierre and Jane Austen” – an odd coupling, Trilling observes: “This, I fancy, is the first time the two personages have ever been brought together in a single sentence, separated from each other by nothing more than the conjunction that links them.” But they are not, he insists, “factitiously conjoined. They are consanguineous, each is in lineal descent from Rousseau, cousins-german through their commitment to the ‘honest soul’ and its appropriate sincerity.” The ideas of sincerity and authenticity are also “conjoined” as moral concepts, each with its distinctive lineage, authenticity suggesting “a more strenuous moral experience than sincerity does, a more exigent conception of the self and of what being true to it consists in, a wider reference to the universe and man’s place in it, and a less acceptant and genial view of the social circumstances of life.”

It was Edmund Burke who introduced the term “moral imagination” into political discourse. But it was Trilling (who read Burke although perhaps not closely enough to have picked up on that phrase) who popularised it and made it the heart of his literary and social criticism. Trilling is sometimes criticised for being unduly subtle, complicated, oblique. But that is because those are the characteristics of the moral imagination “properly understood” (as Tocqueville, whom Trilling also read, would have said). Trilling is also sometimes criticised for being conservative, in spite of his often quoted statement that today “there are no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation”. That statement was made in 1950, in the preface to The Liberal Imagination, and was followed by the comment (rarely quoted) that there were, nevertheless conservative “impulses”, which were “certainly very strong, perhaps even stronger than most of us know”. Moreover, the book itself was a critique of the “liberal imagination”, which did not appreciate the complexity of moral life and therefore of social and political life. More than half a century later, Trilling’s moral imagination stands as a corrective to the “terrible simplifiers” who have ideologised our culture as well as our polity.