Trilling's James: Liberalism and Selfhood in "The Princess Casamassima"

By Guerra, Gustavo | Papers on Language & Literature, Fall 1998 | Go to article overview

Trilling's James: Liberalism and Selfhood in "The Princess Casamassima"


Guerra, Gustavo, Papers on Language & Literature


In 1968, Christopher Lasch noted that in their self-understanding as inferior to men of actions, intellectuals in the twentieth century have often become unwitting agents of the workings of power. "The revelation that the man of action, revolutionist or bureaucrat," writes Lasch, "scorns the philosopher whom he is able to use has not led the philosopher to conclude that he should not allow himself to be used; they merely reinforce his self-contempt and make him the ready victim of a new political cause" (357). But recent history has revealed a point that Lasch seems not to have been able to see as clearly in the 1960s: that a number of intellectuals and cultural critics were perfectly willing to be used; more precisely, they were in fact eager to intervene in an imaginary historical panorama they understood as dangerous to the American nation.

The pervading feelings of anticommunism during the 1950s were indeed much more complex than a simple blind adherence to the message of such staunch opponents of communist ideas as, say, Senator McCarthy. As Ellen Schrecker argues, during the 1950s college campuses affected irrevocably the culture's image of itself; many of the intellectuals housed in those campuses had a more lasting--albeit less glamorous--influence on the culture than the wandering and miasmic arguments of McCarthy himself. "The American historian and present Librarian of Congress Daniel Boorstin," Schrecker claims,

named names for HUAC [House Un-American Activities Committee]; Lionel Trilling, perhaps the leading literary critic of the day, chaired a Columbia committee that developed guidelines for congressional witnesses; and Talcott Parsons, whose formal paradigms shaped much of American sociology, participated in the AAUP's [American Association of University Professors] special survey of the Cold War academic freedom cases. (340)(1)

Although the work of Lionel Trilling has received a wealth of attention, the relationship between his views on liberalism--shaped by his particular understanding of the Cold War scenario--and his role in American letters remains comparatively unexamined.(2) An exceptionally lucid cultural critic, Trilling quickly absorbed the country's generalized conservatism towards communist ideas. He subsequently proposed his version of political liberalism as the only logical option to the perceived communist threat. Using the most conservative premises of liberalism as a philosophical background for his literary theories, Trilling managed to recast the literary in the light of the political. It might have been Trilling's greatest achievement that in so doing he forged aversion of the literary similar to his vision of American culture.(3) But insofar as he thought American culture was to become "exceptional," Trilling imagined fiction as that idealized realm where society could become truly unfettered from constraints. Insofar as his particular brand of liberalism permeated his literary thinking, Trilling has helped create an understanding of fiction parallel to what is culturally known as American exceptionalism. In restricting the political and the cultural only to a super-refined sense of freedom of the individual, Trilling's understanding of the political paradoxically ignores precisely what is most inherent to politics: a definition of individuals in relation to social, economic, and historical institutions. Conceiving of society as an abstract force, and often relegating politics to simply the level of the individual, Trilling thus harnessed the connection between politics and literature that was supposedly his main concern in his most important work, The Liberal Imagination.

Trilling's aversion to Communism has long been pointed out; the consequences of his views have not.(4) In The Liberal Imagination, as a result of that aversion, under the constant, imagined Soviet threat, and invoking geopolitical security, Trilling replaces the tragically political sense of what Henry James calls "the imagination of disaster" by the "liberal imagination. …

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