Regrets Only: Lionel Trilling and His Discontents

Menand, Louis. "Regrets Only: Lionel Trilling and his discontents." New Yorker, September 29, 2008.


Most people who picked up the book in 1950 would have understood it as an attack on the dogmatism and philistinism of the fellow-travelling left, but the term “liberal” is never defined in “The Liberal Imagination.” And there are, as a matter of political theory, very different types of liberals. There is, in Isaiah Berlin’s famous distinction, the liberal who believes in negative liberty, “freedom from,” and the liberal who believes in positive liberty, “freedom for.” There is the classical liberalism of free markets and individual rights, and the left liberalism of state planning and class solidarity. In Trilling’s time, many liberal anti-Communists insisted that membership in the Communist Party was a disqualification for teaching or for joining a labor union, and many liberal anti-anti-Communists vehemently disagreed. So when, in the preface, Trilling says, “In the United States at this time liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition,” he is indicating, in the elliptical manner that is characteristic of his prose, that he is treating all liberals alike.

In Trilling’s view, the faith that liberals share, whether they are Soviet apologists, Hayekian free marketers, or subscribers to Partisan Review, is that human betterment is possible, that there is a straight road to health and happiness. A liberal is a person who believes that the right economic system, the right political reforms, the right undergraduate curriculum, and the right psychotherapy will do away with unfairness, snobbery, resentment, prejudice, neurosis, and tragedy. 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. In Trilling’s celebrated statement: “To the carrying out of the job of criticizing the liberal imagination, literature has a unique relevance . . . because literature is the human activity that takes the fullest and most precise account of variousness, possibility, complexity, and difficulty.” This is why literary criticism has something to say about politics.

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