The Liberal Imagination by Lionel Trilling

The Liberal Imagination (1950) by Lionel Trilling ( and is one of the most admired and influential works of criticism of the last century, a work that is not only a masterpiece of literary criticism but an important statement about politics and society.

Published at one of the chillier moments of the Cold War, Trilling’s essays examine the promise, and limits, of liberalism. It challenges the complacency of a naïve liberal belief in rationality, progress, and the panaceas of economics and other social sciences. The book asserts in their stead the irreducible complexity of human motivation and shows how inevitable is tragedy. Only the imagination, Trilling argues, can give us access and insight into these realms and only the imagination can ground a reflective and considered, rather than programmatic and dogmatic, liberalism.

Writing with acute intelligence about classics like Huckleberry Finn and the novels of Henry James and F. Scott Fitzgerald, but also on such varied matters as the Kinsey Report and money in the American imagination, Trilling presents a model of the critic as both part of and apart from his society, a defender of the reflective life that, in our ever more rationalized world, seems ever more necessary.

To follow up and understand why Trilling still matters 60 years on go to Kirsch, Adam. Why Trilling Matters Yale University Press, 2011 (

304 pages in Penguin paperback edition

ISBN 978-0140550900

Lionel Trilling

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