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The Liberal Imagination (New York Review Books Classics) Paperback – September 23, 2008

4.6 out of 5 stars 12 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Review

The Liberal Imagination (1950) applied the dialectical method to cultural themes by exploring the ways in which literary masterworks deflated the pieties of trendy left-wing politics. Trilling, who identified himself as a liberal, called for a new kind of criticism that '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.' That statement was almost a blueprint, or prophecy, of the neoconservative creed.” –The New York Times

“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

“A literary critic of major stature.” –The Times (London)

“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)

"The Liberal Imagination, [is] a book that sold more than seventy thousand copies in hardcover and more than a hundred thousand in paperback, and that made Trilling a figure, a model of the intellectual in Cold War America... The argument of The Liberal Imagination is that literature teaches that life is not so simple for unfairness, snobbery, resentment, prejudice, neurosis, and tragedy happen to be literature's particular subject matter." --Lewis Menand, The New Yorker

“Lionel Trilling...is undergoing a slow but effective resurgence...everything suggest that both his persona and oeuvre are attracting a young generation of scholars eager to understand his echoes, present and future.” –Forward

“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

The author "shows that literature is relevant to politics not because it affirms any political doctrine but because it provides a corrective to any political ideology whatsoever." –Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI)

“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

“This liberal critic of liberalism was revered for his reasonableness, the elegance of his dialectical style, the refinement of his ideas.” –The New York Times

“After his death, Lionel Trilling still exerts great influence on the landscape of American culture.” –The New York Times

“‘The Function of the Little Magazine’ is as enchanting as when it first appeared in 1946 and remains a superior lesson on the juxtaposition of the highbrow intellectual elite and a democratic mass audience.” –Foreword

“The dialectical method at its peak, honed to revelatory art.” –Sam Tanenhaus

About the Author

Lionel Trilling (1905–1975) was born in New York and educated at Columbia University, to which he returned as an instructor in 1932, and where he continued to teach in the English Department throughout his long and highly distinguished career as a literary critic. Among the most influential of his many works are three collections of essays, The Liberal Imagination, The Opposing Self, and Beyond Culture; a collection of lectures, Sincerity and Authenticity; a critical study of E.M. Forster; and one novel, The Middle of the Journey (available as an NYRB Classic). The Journey Abandoned, an unfinished novel, was published posthumously in 2008. Lionel Trilling was married to the writer and critic Diana Trilling.

Louis Menand is the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of English at Harvard University, and a staff writer at The New Yorker. He is the author of Discovering Modernism, The Metaphysical Club and American Studies.
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Product Details

  • Series: New York Review Books Classics
  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: NYRB Classics; Main edition (September 23, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1590172833
  • ISBN-13: 978-1590172834
  • Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 0.7 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 11.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #223,756 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Publication date: 1950

Lionel Trilling was a professor at Columbia, and the familiarity with the "Great Books" engendered by teaching the Common Core is evident on nearly every page. Thus he invokes Stendhal in an essay on Sherwood Anderson, and, in an essay on Huckleberry Finn, he brings up Moliere:

"... In form and style Huckleberry Finn is an almost perfect work. Only one mistake has ever been charged against it, that it concludes with Tom Sawyer’s elaborate, too elaborate, game of Jim’s escape. Certainly this episode is too long—in the original draft it was much longer—and certainly it is a falling off, as almost anything would have to be, from the incidents of the river. Yet it has a certain formal aptness— like, say, that of the Turkish initiation which brings Molière’s Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme to its close."

... which has always struck me as somewhat far-fetched, although it has stuck in my mind for more than twenty years.

The essay on The Kinsey Report, which certainly contributed to the surprise best-sellerdom of this uncompromisingly highbrow book, has some of Trilling's funniest remarks, and shows that with a little common sense, an intelligent layman can prick holes in the methodology of 'social science,' and that literary criticism need not feel subservient to anyone in a lab coat.

Here is the opening of the magnificent "Tacitus Now":

The histories of Tacitus have been put to strange uses. The princelings of Renaissance Italy consulted the Annals on how to behave with the duplicity of Tiberius.
Read more ›
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Format: Paperback
It is an undeniable asset to have this classic work by one of America's greatest twentieth-century critics readily available again. Let me mention right off that the vast majority of the essays here have nothing to do with the fashionable Freudianism or bygone politics of the 1950's. Trilling's concerns as a literary critic and commentator on society go much deeper. He wishes to perform for his time a similar service to that John Stuart Mill rendered contemporaries in the nineteeth-century: the reminder that in disputable questions one has the obligation to see if one's intellectual opponents may possess some necessary portion of the truth. Mill, Trilling reminds us, found in the thought and poetry of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a man, by the way, Mill profoundly disagreed with from metaphysics on down, a vivifying opposition and a liberating opponent, surprisingly able to cure the disabling aridity in Mill's earlier emotionless soul. Trilling feared that the majority "liberals" of the 1950's were especially open to the perennial temptation of bien-pensants of all sides, times, and places - a devolution into mere conformity and rigid ideology, an abandonment of the necessity as thinkers and citizens to be ever vigilant. Trilling's equivalent of Coleridge in this volume is the Master, Henry James, an author he thought certain to offend progressives mindlessly resentful of social hierarchy and supposed aestheticism. Trilling maintained that the James of "The Princess Casamassima" had much insight about art and politics that such "advanced" types ignored at their peril. (In a later volume, the self-identified "liberal" Trilling assigned a similar teaching function to Jane Austen's "Mansfield Park," a novel heavily on the side of tradition whose greatness he declared "was commensurate with its power to offend" the complacent "liberals" of its own day, his day, and most importantly - of any other day.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Simply put, there's no better argument for the political and social relevance of literature. This is Trilling at his best. Stylistically, it's also a pleasure to read. Deservedly, one of the classics of 20th century literature. I've been re-reading it every five years or so since leaving college - time well-spent, for no one writes like Trilling any more.
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Perhaps because I came to this book late, after hearing much of its reputation, I found my self nit-picking as I read. And yet I found the author's augments and turn-of-phrase would stick with me long after I closed the book. He makes a compelling case on every subject he touches. And the result for the lover of literature (and of ideas, generally) is to sharpen and deepen that love. How Trillng does that is; much like the critical attribute he ascribes to literary art, surprising. This is a great book.
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By pep on January 22, 2015
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
You want to read a book written by the master? This is it. As relevant today as when it was published. I would have given anything to study with Lionel Trilling.
PS
Any argument made that demeans the study of literature? Trilling beats them senseless in this volume.
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What today passes for unchallenged forms of theoretical discourse are chastened by the intellectual courage, independent-mindedness, and literary skills of Mr. Trilling. One reviewer calls his thought "anachronistic," which is a bit like saying that Rousseau is anachronistic. It's a kind of generational chauvinism with we are sadly afflicted.
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