A Modern Burke: Lionel Trilling Was Also a Liberal Reformer of Conservative Temperament

By Hart, Jeffrey | The American Conservative, March 9, 2009 | Go to article overview

A Modern Burke: Lionel Trilling Was Also a Liberal Reformer of Conservative Temperament


Hart, Jeffrey, The American Conservative


IN THE FALL OF 1951, I began my senior year at Columbia University and signed up for Lionel Trilling's course in 19th-century English literature. It met on the fourth floor of Hamilton Hall, on the north side of Van Amringe quadrangle, the leafy and tranquil site of Columbia College, set off from the vast university to its north. Years earlier Whittaker Chambers, whom Trilling had known when they were undergraduates in the 1920s, had sat on a bench in that peaceful quadrangle and tried to decide whether he should join the Communist Party or commit suicide--a Dostoyevskian moment.

Most of the serious English majors took Trilling's 19th-century course. A friend in the class remarked that Trilling had the most intelligent face he had ever seen. He had dark circles under his eyes which seemed to suggest suffering, and his constant cigarette was evocative of a European intellectual. He wore expensive suits, not academic tweed jackets, and his urbanity placed him in the university but not really of it, a man of larger affairs, cosmopolitan, anything but a chalk-dust pedant.

A year earlier, Trilling had published The Liberal Imagination, which sold 70,000 copies in hardcover and made its author famous far beyond the university. The preface set forth Trilling's entire program, not only for that important book but for the rest of his career. He memorably wrote,

   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 general circulation.
   ... [T]he 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.

By liberalism he meant the view that the right political reforms, economic system, education, and psychoanalysis if needed would lead toward human betterment and happiness. There would be diminishing racial prejudice, less resentment and snobbery, less tragedy, and maybe an end to war. These assumptions, even if not openly argued, nevertheless informed liberalism.

Yet there was a danger. With the force of government behind them, these ideas could lead to the "dictatorship of virtue," or Stalinism. In 1948, he had warned of "a cultural Stalinism, independent of any political belief," to which liberals of the Americans for Democratic Action variety were prone. Trilling himself had a brush with the hard Left a decade earlier, when Whittaker Chambers--then a courier for the Communists--asked Trilling's wife Diana to let him use their mailbox as a dead drop. This indicated how tolerant the Trillings must have been, or Chambers thought they were, to the radicalism of the 1930s. (Chambers appears in Trilling's 1947 novel, The Middle of the Journey, as a renegade ex-Communist named Gifford Maxim.)

Trilling considered Orwell's 1984 a momentous work, a vision of the logical terminus of virtuous dictatorship at war with human nature, and in a sense The Liberal Imagination was also a Cold War book. Trilling assigned to literature a corrective role "because literature is the human activity that takes the fullest and most precise account of the variousness, possibility, complexity and difficulty" that characterize actual life.

In The Liberal Imagination he tried to construct out of literature a substitute for the absent conservative tradition. He opposed those liberal authors who, in his judgment, represented a reductive sense of actuality. These included Vernon Parrington, whose Main Currents in American Thoughts showed a preference for a crude conception of reality over the complex discriminations of mind. "He meets evidence of imagination and creativeness," Trilling wrote, "with a settled hostility the expression of which suggests that he regards them as the natural enemies of democracy. …

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