In the fall of 1951, I began my senior year at Columbia University and signed up for Lionel Trilling’s course in 19th-century English literature. It met on the fourth floor of Hamilton Hall, on the north side of Van Amringe quadrangle, the leafy and tranquil site of Columbia College, set off from the vast university to its north. Years earlier Whittaker Chambers, whom Trilling had known when they were undergraduates in the 1920s, had sat on a bench in that peaceful quadrangle and tried to decide whether he should join the Communist Party or commit suicide—a Dostoyevskian moment.

Most of the serious English majors took Trilling’s 19th-century course. A friend in the class remarked that Trilling had the most intelligent face he had ever seen. He had dark circles under his eyes which seemed to suggest suffering, and his constant cigarette was evocative of a European intellectual. He wore expensive suits, not academic tweed jackets, and his urbanity placed him in the university but not really of it, a man of larger affairs, cosmopolitan, anything but a chalk-dust pedant.

A year earlier, Trilling had published The Liberal Imagination, which sold 70,000 copies in hardcover and made its author famous far beyond the university. The preface set forth Trilling’s entire program, not only for that important book but for the rest of his career. He memorably 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. … [T]he 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.


By liberalism he meant the view that the right political reforms, economic system, education, and psychoanalysis if needed would lead toward human betterment and happiness. There would be diminishing racial prejudice, less resentment and snobbery, less tragedy, and maybe an end to war. These assumptions, even if not openly argued, nevertheless informed liberalism.

Yet there was a danger. With the force of government behind them, these ideas could lead to the “dictatorship of virtue,” or Stalinism. In 1948, he had warned of “a cultural Stalinism, independent of any political belief,” to which liberals of the Americans for Democratic Action variety were prone. Trilling himself had a brush with the hard Left a decade earlier, when Whittaker Chambers—then a courier for the Communists—asked Trilling’s wife Diana to let him use their mailbox as a dead drop. This indicated how tolerant the Trillings must have been, or Chambers thought they were, to the radicalism of the 1930s. (Chambers appears in Trilling’s 1947 novel, The Middle of the Journey, as a renegade ex-Communist named Gifford Maxim.)

Trilling considered Orwell’s 1984 a momentous work, a vision of the logical terminus of virtuous dictatorship at war with human nature, and in a sense The Liberal Imagination was also a Cold War book. Trilling assigned to literature a corrective role “because literature is the human activity that takes the fullest and most precise account of the variousness, possibility, complexity and difficulty” that characterize actual life.

In The Liberal Imagination he tried to construct out of literature a substitute for the absent conservative tradition. He opposed those liberal authors who, in his judgment, represented a reductive sense of actuality. These included Vernon Parrington, whose Main Currents in American Thoughts showed a preference for a crude conception of reality over the complex discriminations of mind. “He meets evidence of imagination and creativeness,” Trilling wrote, “with a settled hostility the expression of which suggests that he regards them as the natural enemies of democracy.” Theodore Dreiser, Trilling saw, had been admired by left populists because of, not in spite of, his simplifications and awkwardness, Sherwood Anderson for his sentimentality, and Alfred Kinsey for his reductive sense of sexuality.

To counter these terrible simplifiers, Trilling proposed a moral and literary tradition. After his criticisms of the reductionist liberals, Trilling turns to Freud as the hero of a tragic sense of life. Next comes Henry James and The Princess Casamassima, a celebration of civilization and its moral dilemmas. James is a ubiquitous presence in Trilling’s prose, which has a mandarin quality, its syntax reflecting paradox, irony, and complication. Other writers who possessed the necessary feeling for the variousness, possibility, and difficulty of reality included the Mark Twain of Huckleberry Finn, Wordsworth in “The Immortality Ode,” and Scott Fitzgerald for a special kind of love expressed as “gentleness without softness.”

Trilling had written a notable biography of Matthew Arnold, and his enterprise in The Liberal Imagination clearly resembled that of Arnold in Culture and Anarchy. But Trilling rightly did not consider himself a literary critic. He was less comfortable with poetry than with the novel. The so-called New Critics of the time performed close analysis of a text. Such criticism aimed at understanding and enjoying a poem aesthetically, like Keats contemplating that Grecian urn. Trilling wanted to use literature actively, not contemplatively, as a force for shaping the individual.

I have often wondered why Trilling did not employ Edmund Burke as an exponent of the conservative tradition, which he said did not exist in America. It cannot be because Burke was writing about England and the French Revolution. After all, Wordsworth had engaged both, celebrating the revolution and then reacting against it, and for Trilling Wordsworth was exemplary and available. Burke was one of Wordsworth’s heroes. In The Prelude the poet wrote:

Genius of Burke! Forgive the pen seduced

By specious wonders . . .

While he forewarns, denounces, launches forth,

Against all systems built on abstract rights,

Keen ridicule; the majesty proclaims

Of Institutes and Laws, hallowed by time;

Declares the vital power of social ties

Endeared by Custom . . .

(Book VII 1850, 512-53)

Trilling must also have been aware of the celebration of Burke in Arnold’s famous essay “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time.” There the critic quoted the passage from “Thoughts on French Affairs” in which Burke recognizes the momentum that can build up for social change:

If a great change is to be made in human affairs, the minds of men will be fitted to it; the general opinions and feelings will draw that way. Every fear, every hope will forward it; and then they who persist in opposing this mighty current in human affairs will appear rather to resist the desires of Providence itself, than the mere designs of men. They will not be resolute and firm, but perverse and obstinate.

“That return of Burke upon himself has always seemed to me one of the finest things in English literature,” Arnold wrote. “That is what I call living by ideas; when one side of a question has long had your earnest support, when all your feelings are engaged. … I know nothing more striking, and I must add nothing more un-English.” Trilling certainly had the sanction of Arnold if he had wanted to see Burke as exemplary. Yet he did not.

My own understanding of the permanent usefulness of Burke came a few years later in the seminar Trilling and Jacques Barzun taught for selected graduate students. Admission was through a personal interview, which took place in Trilling’s Hamilton Hall office. In her memoir, The Beginning of the Journey, Diana Trilling recalls:

The standard of admission was high. For many years Lionel and Jacques Barzun would teach it together. A list of their students is a Who’s Who of the gifted undergraduate of the thirties, forties and early fifties; it includes Fritz Stern, John Hollander, Louis Simpson, Quentin Anderson, John Berryman, Theoodore de Bary, Jeffrey Hart, Donald Keene, Charles Frankel; also Michael Sovern, who later became president of Columbia.

Hmmm. I must have done something wrong.

The seminar met once a week in the evening, and we discussed a series of books fundamental to modern culture, including Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. Barzun and Trilling had contrasting approaches to discussion. Trilling tended to begin by seeing complexities. To the comments we offered, he would reply in effect, “It’s more complicated …” Barzun, on the other hand, tried to cut directly to the core insight.

Trilling seemed apprehensive about the advent of the 1960s. When I told him that I had voted for Kennedy, who in fact had run to the right of Nixon on foreign policy—which was what the election was about—Trilling said, as we chatted on the steps of Hamilton Hall, “This country is going to go so far to the left you won’t recognize it.” I didn’t know what he was talking about. The Beatles? Kennedy’s New Frontier, the “best and brightest,” seemed anything but counterculture. Youth! Vigor! Touch football at Hyannis Port! Robert McNamara, McGeorge Bundy, Douglas Dillon, Dean Rusk—hippies? Come on.

But had Trilling with his alert antennae sensed something I had missed? I should have paid more attention to his preface to The Opposing Self (1955) in which he wrote, “virtually every writer of the modern period conceives … the experience of art projected into the actuality and totality of life as the ideal form of the moral life.” Accordingly, the artist’s “existence is intended to disturb us and make us dissatisfied with our habitual life in culture, whose nature his existence defines.” Yes. But if the “art” is rock and roll rather than Bach, this makes a difference.

I saw for myself. In 1968, William F. Buckley Jr. persuaded Governor Reagan, who was quietly running for the Republican nomination, that he needed me for a speechwriter. He did not. But I was able to help him with a speech on education and worked on some promotional material. In March, when I went to Sacramento, I found that half the young men seemed to look like Charlie Manson, and you could get high just walking down Telegraph Avenue near the Berkeley campus. Posters of Mao and Che Guevara glared from store windows. Berkeley had seen the first of many student uprisings, led by the demagogic Mario Savio. Reagan wanted to get rid of its chancellor, Clark Kerr, whom he blamed for permissiveness.

The Black Panthers threatened a bloodbath in Oakland. At a press conference in the state capitol, Reagan replied, “If they want a bloodbath they can have a bloodbath.” And things got worse. Martin Luther King was assassinated in April. LBJ went on TV to announce that he would not run for re-election, and after winning the California primary over Gene McCarthy, Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in August. America seemed to have become a banana republic, a shooting gallery.

The 1968 student uprising at Columbia shook Trilling profoundly—obscenities scrawled on his office door, buildings occupied, student-police violence. All this—and the national counterculture—pushed him to the right. The Id had taken over from the Superego and was running down the streets. The Baby Boom generation was reaching 18 in 1968 and amounted to almost half the population. It had it own music, dance, clothes, hair, and marijuana sacrament. During the 1950s we wanted to be adults. They ran the world. During the 1960s adults wanted to be kids. Even Trilling grew sideburns.

In 1971, with Sincerity and Authenticity, he addressed the new cultural situation. Sincerity required that we act and really be as we present ourselves to others, reflecting “our station and its duties,” in the old phrase. By contrast, authenticity, admired by Rousseau, demands finding and expressing the true inner self, emotional and instinctual, and judging relationships accordingly. Sincerity affirms society. Authenticity opposes it as superficial and hypocritical. Sincerity and Authenticity continued and concentrated the cultural analysis of The Opposing Self.

These works suggest some of the affinities between Trilling and Burke. The Englishman’s criticism of the abstract ideas and unjustified hopes of the French revolutionaries had much in common with Trilling’s criticism of the liberalism of his day. Yet both were critics and reformers, not reactionaries, and earned the enmity of former friends who thought they had betrayed the sacred cause of progress. In a Partisan Review article, Delmore Schwartz attacked Trilling from the left, assailing his essay “Manners, Morals and the Novel” (in The Liberal Imagination) for its high valuation of social class and manners as subjects for literature—“pitying the plumage,” as an earlier writer had said of Burke. In 1956, Joseph Frank, another critic from the Left, complained that Trilling “now feels that his urgent task is not to defend freedom but the virtues of acknowledging necessity.” Frank added, “From a critic of the liberal imagination … Mr. Trilling evolved into one of the least belligerent and most persuasive spokesmen of the conservative imagination.”

Trilling would have rejected that. He thought of himself as a man of the Left but also a liberal realist—though he resisted being categorized in any way. Anti-Stalinism had been his last unambiguous political cause.

Burke was also a complex, unclassifiable figure. It should be remembered that he was a Rockingham Whig—Trilling liked to describe him as a man of conservative tendency in a Whig party of liberal tendency—whose On Conciliation With the Colonies argued realistically for giving the Americans everything they demanded except independence. He was no authoritarian. In Parliament Burke thundered for the impeachment of Warren Hastings for offenses committed in India. Most of his colleagues thought Burke’s ethical fervor a nuisance and a distraction. When he denounced the use of American Indians against the colonial army, Lord North laughed out loud. The economic reformer Adam Smith, on the other hand, said Burke understood his thinking better than any man in England.

In my judgment, Trilling could have used Burke and should have. But most New York intellectuals probably saw Burke as an icon of conservatism, not a complex political philosopher who understood social change, and for Trilling to have drawn from Burke might have been the last straw for many of his old friends, former Marxists and radical modernists in culture.

Things were already getting difficult for Trilling within the English Department well before 1968. One evening in 1962, I and a few others met for cocktails and dinner at Trilling’s apartment on Claremont Avenue. The occasion got ugly. Richard Chase, a professor in the department, had too much to drink and began abusing Trilling as “the conscience of the bourgeoisie,” and the critic from “the bowels of Howells”—Trilling had been writing favorably about William Dean Howells. Chase tried to pick a fight with me, too. Just a nice academic evening. As an undergraduate I had been friendly with Chase, and all of this was very disappointing. A few years earlier he had published The Democratic Vista, echoing Whitman and advocating a radical direction for American high culture. In fact, despite coming from a largely conservative society, American high culture had often been radical: Emerson, Thoreau, Melville, Whitman.

Chase died, possibly by suicide, in the same year as that unpleasant scene at Trilling’s party, missing the coarse radicalization of the counterculture, which he would not have liked. The culture of the 1960s did not give us writers comparable to Melville or Whitman.

But at least we had Trilling. Like Burke, he may be better understood in the years following his death. The past year has seen a Trilling renaissance of sorts, with the publication of his unfinished novel The Journey Abandoned and new editions of The Liberal Imagination and the essay collection The Moral Obligation to Be Intelligent. Trilling’s doubts and fears have certainly been validated in virtually every area of our public, literary, and personal lives. Conservatives today should heed his lessons. 

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