Lionel Trilling

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Lionel Trilling (1905-1975) was a highly influential American literary critic and Professor of English at Columbia University in New York. His most influential book was The Liberal Imagination: Essays on Literature and Society (1950).

A Communist when young, Trilling turned anti-communist in the 1930s. Trilling was an architect of liberal anti-communism and political pluralism who sought a reasoned moderation as the antithesis to Soviet communism. Downplaying his Jewish heritage he became an icon of secularism and cosmopolitanism that transcended the ethnicity of Jews or Yankees.


He was deeply rooted in New York City; he was the son of Fannie Cohen and David W. Trilling, a wealthy manufacturer of men's fur-lined coats. His parents were Orhtodox Jews; his mother was well-read in literature. He spent nearly his entire career at Columbia University, starting with a B.A. in 1925, M.A. in 1926, and Ph.D. in English literature in 1938. Trilling married Diana Rubin in 1929; she too became a noted author and critic. They had one son.

After short spells teaching English at the University of Wisconsin (1926-1927) and Hunter College in New York City (1927–30), he moved up to Columbia, as instructor (1931-1939), assistant professor (1939-1945), associate professor (1945-1948), full professor (1948-1965), George Edward Woodbury Professor of Literature and Criticism (1965-1970), university professor (1970-1974), and university professor emeritus and visiting lecturer (1974-1975). He was a visitor at Harvard and Oxford. He was the first Jew to receive tenure in an English department at an Ivy League university.

Initially known as a scholar of Victorian and modern British fiction, his influence grew after 1945, reaching its peak in the early 1950s after the publication of his most brilliant work, The Liberal Imagination (1950), and declining somewhat between 1965 and 1975 when he was seen either as an elder literary statesman or as a kind of dusty intellectual monument. Since his death his legacy has been claimed by both Left and Right, but the intricacy and dualities of his work ensure that he will remain a quietly controversial' figure within American intellectual life.[1]

No conservative ideas in America?

Reilling is notorious for a short passage in the preface to the Liberal Imagination to the effect that intellectually America is totally liberal and there is no place for conservative ideas. He does allow that idea-free reactionary and conservative impulses do exist and affect politics. he 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. This does not mean, of course, that there is no impulse to conservatism or to reaction. Such impulses are certainly very strong, perhaps even stronger than most of us know. But the 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."[2]

The statement is abrupt and is not backed by the analysis of writers in the book. He thought about liberals a great deal—especially when he criticized their acceptance of Communist themes—but he failed to study any conservative writers of his era. Indeed, Trilling deliberately left out major conservative writers such as William Faulkner and the Southern Agrarians because he could not handle them. He said Faulkner was too regional to pay attention to.[3]

But perhaps Trilling should not be taken too literally. He can be interpreted as saying America in 1950 urgently needs a conservative counterbalance to the uncritical acceptance of liberal ideas. And by ideas he had reference only to literature—he did not read economics or historiography or political science.

Trilling never followed up on his brief comment, even in the 1950s and 1960s when conservative writers became more prominent. However, his quip has been often recycled by historians, including conservatives who use 1950 as ground zero to start their history of conservative ideas.[4]


While he died too soon to join the neoconservative movement, Trilling inspired many writers who later became neocons, including Irving Kristol, Gertrude Himmelfarb, and Norman Podhoretz. Kristol reports that Trilling was one of the "two thinkers who had the greatest subsequent impact on my thinking."[5] Trilling's novel The Middle of the Journey (1947) contains the ideological dilemmas out of which the neoconservative movement would grow in the 1970s. One main character is based on his college friend Whittaker Chambers. The origins of this movement lie in the novel's subject, the break with Communism. Trilling was Jewish, as were many neoconservative intellectuals, but his novel is conspicuous for its lack of Jewish characters.[6] The novel's ideological content helps to explain this. Trilling made a stark separation between religious conservatism and the secular liberalism to which he personally adhered. He foresaw the ways in which anticommunism would legitimate both liberalism and conservatism, yet his novel offered no room for its characters to synthesize ethnicity or religion with involvement in the modern world. The absence of Jewish characters allowed Trilling to explore a liberalism uncomplicated by religion or ethnicity. Jewish neoconservatives perpetuated the anti-Communist world of Trilling in 1947, but they discovered within it the possibility of being Jewish, conservative, and modern; hence the complexity of Trilling's relationship to them.[7]

Further reading

  • Kimmage, Michael. The Conservative Turn: Lionel Trilling, Whittaker Chambers and the Lessons of Anti-Communism (2009), by a conservative scholar
    • Kimmage, Michael. "Even in a simple color scheme, there is no red without blue and no blue without red," (2009) online interview
    • Kimmage, Michael. "Lionel Trilling's The Middle of the Journey and the Complicated Origins of the Neo-Conservative Movement," Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies, Volume 21, Number 3, Spring 2003, pp. 48–63 in Project MUSE
  • Rodden, John. "The Opposing Selves of Lionel Trilling," Modern Age 1996 38(2): 164–174. , by a conservative scholar online edition
  • Rodden, John, ed. Lionel Trilling and the Critics: Opposing Selves (1999) 490pp online edition, reviews of Trilling's books by numerous scholars and writers


  1. Rodden (1996)
  2. online version p xv. Possibly " some ecclesiastical exceptions" refers to the great poet T.S. Eliot, but he had permanently removed to England.
  3. "Of our novelists today perhaps only william Faulkner deal with society as the field of tragis reality and he has the disadvantage of being limited to a provincial scene." Liberal Imagination p. 213.
  4. George H. Nash, The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America (1976) pp 86-7, 202.
  5. The other was Leo Strauss. Irving Kristol, Neoconservatism (1995) p. 6
  6. His generation downplayed their Jewish identity, as shown by Terry A. Cooney, "New York Intellectuals and the Question of Jewish Identity," American Jewish History; 1991 80(3):344-360.
  7. see Kimmage, The Conservative Turn: Lionel Trilling, Whittaker Chambers and the Lessons of Anti-Communism (2009)