It’s hard to recall now the enormous prestige of Lionel Trilling as a literary and social critic during the post-war years. The Liberal Imagination (1950), his first collection of essays, is said to have sold more than 70,000 hardback copies. For the first and last time, a literature professor enjoyed the public eminence of normally reserved for an economist like John Kenneth Galbraith or a sociologist like David Riesman. Trilling was a quietly dominating figure, sensitive, sensible, and reassuring in his emergence from 1930s radicalism and his nuanced Freudianism. His essays served as a form of national therapy. Writing about Henry James’s The Princess of Casamassima, for example, he guided readers away from the political certainties of the 1930s and toward the difficult complexities of ‘ambiguity and error’ that they must learn to accept if they wanted to fulfill their generous intentions.
—the first paragraph of Edward Mendelson’s review of Why Trilling Matters by Adam Kirsch in The New York Review of Books. NYRB Classics has published both The Liberal Imagination and Trilling’s only novel, The Middle of the Journey, which is talked about later in the piece.