Culture and Sincerity
It is not often that a literary critic receives the crown of a collected edition, and if he does he is probably something more than a literary critic. So it is with Lionel Trilling, whose complete works are now appearing from the Oxford University Press. There is indeed a novel, and a few short stories, besides the works of literary history and criticism, but it is not chiefly by these that he exceeds the limits of the man of letters. It is as a critic of culture, habits of thought and feeling, extending on occasion to the borders of politics, that Trilling has chiefly presented himself. ‘My own interests,’ he says, ‘lead me to see literary situations as cultural situations, and cultural situations as great elaborate fights about moral issues.’ He speaks of his ‘cultural and non-literary method’, and defines as his first concern ‘the animus of the author, the objects of his will, the things he wants or wants to have happen’. This brings Trilling a good deal nearer to the Victorian sage than to the 20th-century New Critic; and, as has often been said, his purposes, his relation to the life around him, were close in spirit to those of the subject of his first book – Matthew Arnold.
An American Arnold: for it is to American culture that Trilling addresses himself – often more specifically than we are apt to suppose. It is a tribute to his breadth and persuasiveness that the present edition should come from Oxford, not from Columbia or Harvard; and that his sallies into purely American combats, often notably different from what was going on elsewhere, should have been so easily received as having their application farther afield, or even, as they often claim, to the general condition of the literate world. This means that his whiff of grapeshot sometimes spreads wide enough to score hits on targets very different from the one actually aimed at. Probably the best-known of Trilling’s books is The Liberal Imagination, of 1950; and I think the title is understood by most English readers as a vaguely honorific salutation to the values of freedom and generosity of mind that its own style and texture exemplify. But that is not what it means. In American usage ‘liberal’ does not mean liberal (still less Liberal) in English. On the contrary, it means socialist. Or, to be more precise, intellectual socialist of the middle class, with the various fragments of Aberglaube that adhere to that outlook. Trilling defines the position in several places. Here is one of them: ‘In its political feeling our educated class is predominantly liberal ... I mean only that our educated class has a ready if mild suspiciousness of the profit motive, a belief in progress, science, social legislation, planning and international co-operation, perhaps especially where Russia is in question.’ There is a decided suggestion of Communist fellow-travelling. Partisan Review began its career in 1933 as an organ devoted to the interests of the Communist Party. The liberal imagination means (to use an anachronism but a handy one) the imagination of the trendy Left. This was the milieu to which Trilling belonged, and throughout the Forties he found himself increasingly ill at ease within it – ultimately in clear opposition. His book on Forster (1944) is particularly rich in evidence of the profound irritation this ethos caused him. In other places he goes out of his way to point out that no writer of any stature has ever espoused it, and that the liberal intelligentsia is bound to deplore all the most characteristic beliefs of the writers it most admires.
Like Arnold at odds with the very different liberalism of his day, Trilling retains a sort of nominal allegiance, and refers to himself half-ironically as part of the liberal phalanx: but he also believes that ‘a criticism which has at heart the interests of liberalism might find its most useful work not in confirming liberalism in its sense of general rightness but rather in putting under some degree of pressure the liberal ideas and assumptions of the present time.’ A reading of the works of this period – The Liberal Imagination, the study of Forster, the novel The Middle of the Journey – shows his attitude towards this complex of ideas as a cautiously expressed revisionism which nevertheless, on examination, amounts to a jettison of most of the cargo. He describes Forster as ‘at war with the liberal imagination’: his own opposition to it went very much farther. Forster managed to summon up two cheers for democracy: at heart Trilling could hardly rise to more than one. And in the 1968 preface to a new edition of The Middle of the Journey he goes out of his way to describe Whitaker Chambers, the man who betrayed his friend in the interests of his country, as ‘a man of honour’.
The full text of this essay is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.