Lionel Trilling and the Conservative Imagination

Frank, Joseph. "Lionel Trilling and the Conservative Imagination." Sewanee Review, Spring 1956. Reprinted in Lionel Trilling and the Critics: Opposing Selves, edited by John Rodden (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1999).


The career and reputation of Lionel Trilling as a literary critic pose something of an anomaly. Not, we should hasten to add, that Mr. Trilling does not deserve all the encomiums that have been lavished on him or the considerable influence he enjoys as a spiritual guide and mentor. But Mr. Trilling is by no means the kind of critic who has dominated the American literary scene since the end of the Second World War. His concern with literature has always been broadly moral and historical–like that of his master Matthew Arnold–rather than more strictly aesthetic or formal–like the group of New Critics who sprang into prominence exactly at the time Mr. Trilling’s own star was on the rise. The anomaly posed by his career is that of explaining his reputation, when the whole drift of American literary opinion seemed to be moving in the direction opposite to the one he chose to take.

Part of the answer may be found in an observation of Mr. Trilling himself about such men as John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and R. P. Blackmur. It is an illusion, he writes in The Liberal Imagination, to believe that these critics are as free from ideology as they pretend; in reality their so-called aesthetic judgments are profoundly steeped in concealed cultural preferences and moral assumptions. This remark is perfectly just. In defending the autonomy and integrity of the work of art, the New Critics were repulsing the claims of the liberals and radicals to appropriate it for social or political ends; their influence was part of the wave of disillusionment with politics that marked the generation of the fifties. And, though Lionel Trilling approached art with overt moral and historical assumptions, the substance of what he had to say was by no means dissimilar to what the New Critics were advocating in their own away. For the pervasive disillusionment with politics was given its most sensitive, subtle, and judiciously circumspect expression in the criticism of Lionel Trilling–and this is the real answer to the anomaly of his success.