In 1950, Lionel Trilling published The Liberal Imagination, a collection of essays that established him as the most subtle and influential mind in contemporary American culture. Sixteen discussions of the interplay between literature and society taught a generation of Americans to believe in the power of literature (for mischief as much as elevation). Trilling’s subjects ranged from Tacitus to Wordsworth, Mark Twain, Scott Fitzgerald, Theodore Dreiser and Henry James. The essays were not political, but they assumed an intimate connection between literature and politics. They also staked out, on “the dark and bloody crossroads where literature and politics meet”, an adversarial position with respect to the liberalism that had hardened into Stalinism in the early years of the Cold War.
Trilling’s “first mature critical undertaking” had been his book entitled Matthew Arnold (1939), which he called a biography of Arnold’s mind. He had been drawn to Arnold, he said, for two reasons: a desire to understand Arnold’s melancholy (exemplified in Dover Beach) and a sense that, like Arnold, he was a liberal whose major effort in criticism was to call into question the substance of contemporary liberal thought. He felt himself to be, in Arnold’s words, “a Liberal, [but] a Liberal tempered by experience, reflection, and renouncement, and … above all, a believer in culture”. Arnold’s critique of Victorian liberalism deplored certain habits of mind, especially the herd instinct. Trilling, similarly, declared 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 righteousness but rather in putting under some degree of pressure the liberal ideas and assumptions of the present time”. Trilling also had a target: those American liberals who had been living contentedly as supporters of Stalinist totalitarianism.
There was a third, unacknowledged reason for Trilling’s attraction to Arnold. If you sat in Trilling’s undergraduate course in 19th-century English literature, as I did in 1956-57, you could notice his interest in Arnold’s justification, in the 1865 essay The Function of Criticism at the Present Time, of his “career move” from poetry to criticism, from “creative” to “critical” activity. Readily admitting that “the critical faculty is lower than the inventive”, Arnold asked: “Is it true that Johnson had better have gone on producing more Irenes instead of writing his Lives of the Poets; is it certain that Wordsworth himself was better employed in making his than when he made his celebrated Preface? ”Some of us were aware that Trilling had published several short stories as well as a novel, and we assumed he was invoking the precedent of Arnold to justify his own shift from creation to criticism. (By creation, Arnold meant poetry, not fiction. Indeed, he once haughtily remarked: “No Arnold could write a novel.")