“What I want to make plain,” wrote Lionel Trilling in a 1947 letter to a friend, “is my deep distaste for liberal culture.” Coming from a purported liberal and the soon-to-be author of The Liberal Imagination, Trilling recognized such a sentiment was “difficult to explain.” He found himself to be “in accord with most of the liberal ideas of freedom, tolerance, etc.,” and yet
the tone in which these ideals are uttered depress[es] me endlessly. I find it wholly debased, downright sniveling, usually quite insincere. It sells everything out in human life in order to gain a few things it can understand as good. It isn’t merely that I believe that our liberal culture doesn’t produce great art and lacks imagination—it is that I think it produces horrible art and has a hideous imagination.
One could read this passage as demonstrating Trilling’s openness to the criticisms of liberalism, and therefore as exemplifying what the well-known contemporary liberal critic Adam Gopnik calls, in his latest book A Thousand Small Sanities: The Moral Adventure of Liberalism (2019), liberalism’s “tolerance for difference.” But that would be to miss, from the perspective of much of what we call liberal cultural criticism today, what is most striking about it. Trilling was not just open to critics of liberalism; he was one. He did not merely tolerate the distaste others expressed for liberalism’s “sniveling” imagination; he felt it himself.