The Liberal Imagination Essays On Literature And Society

The Liberal Imagination Essays On Literature And Society-66
In a later chapter, “The Times Being What They Are,” describing life during the Mc Carthy years, the portrait shifts to Trilling’s role in the Cold War—“Trilling’s high moment” (191).

Instead there were “cultured minds, “intellectual contentment,” and “middle-class claustrophobia,” as well as a notable reluctance to espouse or defend views that could be interpreted as a challenge to the “New Liberal” consensus that anti-Stalinism must constitute the bed-rock of all serious intellectual discourse. He had had his say on a subject that had been troubling him for years—not through debate but by creating a Trilling “character.” “Trilling, the pompously respectable professor, is a character in 3/5/66). The Trilling “character” was both an expression of personal grievance and an opportunity to focus attention on long-standing matters of contention in Trilling’s Cold War America, among them: the narrowing and hardening of intellectual-political discourse, the discrediting of the progressive impulse in American writing that Kazin had celebrated in , the subordination of “class” to “culture” in discussions and evaluations of American writers, and the changing status of American Jews in the post-war years.

It was a time when “it seemed impossible in public to admit doubts, divisions, nuances, contradictions, hesitations, lost illusions. These were not the only factors shaping relations with Trilling: incompatible temperaments, evident in Trilling’s personal diary discussed below, were perhaps even more determinative.

Trilling makes no mention of Parrington or of his 1940s attack, but he could only have been gratified by Kazin’s second thoughts about . “It was so snobbish and so overtly political.” He was only slightly more measured in his 1954 Dreiser defense.

Kazin’s next critical encounter with Trilling came more than a decade later in a 1954 essay introducing a collection of essays on Theodore Dreiser. Instead of engaging with Dreiser’s novels, Trilling, according to Kazin, has turned him into a symbol of Stalinoid liberalism.

, and his use of that character to critique significant features of the country’s Cold War literary culture.

Among these are: the narrowing and hardening of intellectual discourse in a cultural-political climate dominated by the “liberal consensus,” the discrediting of the progressive impulse in American writing, the subordination of “class” to “culture” in evaluations of American writers, and the changing status of Jews and Jewish writers in post-war America.They also shed new light on some of the personal/ideological tensions and disagreements at work in the forties and early fifties that rarely broke the surface of the so-called Cold-War “liberal consensus.” Staunchly anticommunist and centrist in its politics, that consensus, perhaps more accurately labeled “liberal conservatism,” discouraged the kind of intellectual dissent (including serious discussions of socialism) that had characterized the pre-war and progressive years (Hodgson was Kazin’s latter-day effort to be heard, to place on the record his thoughts about the Cold War years and, more specifically and personally, his feelings about a writer whom he admired, distrusted, and resented and who more than any other single figure shaped the literary culture of an era he (Kazin) had found constricting, frustrating, and alien -- “I feel I do not belong to any of it” (), and adds that “Trilling was an intense intellectual admiration of mine.” Anticipating later difficulties, he follows up with the observation that Trilling, who was ten years his senior, “had absorbed the more gentlemanly style of the twenties much as [Saul] Bellow and I had absorbed the social angers of the abrasive lower-class thirties” (43).He notes Trilling’s good looks and graceful public manner, but he also sees them as a form of disguise—“white hair over a handsome face that seemed to be furrowed, hooded, closed up in constant thought.“What happens whenever we convert a writer into a symbol is that we lose the writer himself in all his indefeasible singularity” ( 10). So, now we are ashamed of him because he brings up everything we should like to leave behind us” (10).“Literary people as a class can get so far away from the experience of other classes that they tend to see them only symbolically. By the time of Kazin’s response to the attack on Dreiser Trilling’s political/cultural intentions had been long been evident.Kazin’s Trilling may be highly intelligent, subtle and handsome, but he is also defensive, ambitious, vain, and affected—a cultural snob.Moreover, he is a reluctant, invisible Jew, “this extraordinarily accomplished son of an immigrant [Jewish]tailor” who “quietly defended himself from the many things he had left behind” (43).Tapping into strong personal feelings, Kazin creates in Trilling a harsh, thoughtful and compelling portrait of an era.) describing his Brooklyn childhood and his early successful efforts to become a writer, had received very strong reviews, many of which took note of the author’s gift for vivid, shrewd literary portraiture. “But it should also make the viewer wonder at what self-serving rascals most of our literary heroes are.” Richler was exaggerating.Thus expectations were high for his third memoir billed as an insider’s account of the post-war literary-intellectual world in which Kazin was still a prominent figure. There are admiring, affectionate portraits of Edmund Wilson, Hannah Arendt, and Saul Bellow.That opposition, or Kazin’s feelings of opposition, derive in no small part from his disdain for the cultural role Trilling had carved out for himself as the mentor to what he (Trilling) repeatedly referred to as “the educated class” or “the reading class.” In his Dreiser piece, Kazin laments the separation dividing “literary people” from the “other classes.” Whether or not Kazin’s “literary people” qualify as a “class,” they constitute a group whose interests are not those of the other classes, including presumably those of the working class. As now taught, accepted and carried out, are not the processes of culture rapidly creating a class of supercilious infidels” (Whitman , 479)?It is this group of “literary people” and their “genteel uninvolvement” that Kazin identifies with Trilling-- Trilling, who championed Henry James over Dreiser at the “dark and bloody crossroads where literature and politics meet” (, 192); and who convinced or deluded himself, as Kazin would have it, into believing that the second coming of Matthew Arnold as Lionel Trilling would somehow make the difference between culture and anarchy in twentieth century America. The effect on American society, Whitman argued, was to create and deepen class divisions.


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