The Liberal Imagination
by Lionel Trilling, introduction by Louis Menand
The Liberal Imagination is one of the most admired and influential works of criticism of the last century, a work that is not only a masterpiece of literary criticism but an important statement about politics and society. Published in 1950, one of the chillier moments of the Cold War, Trilling’s essays examine the promise —and limits—of liberalism, challenging the complacency of a naïve liberal belief in rationality, progress, and the panaceas of economics and other social sciences, and asserting in their stead the irreducible complexity of human motivation and the tragic inevitability of tragedy. Only the imagination, Trilling argues, can give us access and insight into these realms and only the imagination can ground a reflective and considered, rather than programmatic and dogmatic, liberalism.
Writing with acute intelligence about classics like Huckleberry Finn and the novels of Henry James and F. Scott Fitzgerald, but also on such varied matters as the Kinsey Report and money in the American imagination, Trilling presents a model of the critic as both part of and apart from his society, a defender of the reflective life that, in our ever more rationalized world, seems ever more necessary—and ever more remote.
Trilling's best and most influential collection of essays shows how criticism, written with grace, style, and a self-questioning cast of mind, can itself become a form of literature, as well as a valuable contribution to how we think about society.
— Morris Dickstein
The dialectical method at its peak, honed to revelatory art.
— Sam Tanenhaus
One felt that the essays of The Liberal Imagination were helping to generate a new kind of discourse; in them the traditional disparities between English and American ways of discussing both literature and society were being transcended. The specific means of this transcendence had largely to do with the intensity and luminosity of Trilling's mind...
— The New York Times Book Review
Lionel Trilling was so compelling that he mesmerized many of his Columbia students for life, away from what he regarded as the illusions about progress fostered by the liberal imagination.
— Los Angeles Times
One of the most important literary critics of mid-20th century America.
— The Wall Street Journal
After his death, Lionel Trilling still exerts great influence on the landscape of American culture.
— The New York Times
The essays in [The Liberal Imagination] are remarkable for persuasiveness with which they draw attention to the importance for much, if not all great literature, of the tragic, the ironic, and the basically unjust elements in life.
— The Times (London)