The Moral Obligation to be Intelligent cover

The Moral Obligation to Be Intelligent: Selected Essays

Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2008. Original edition: New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2000.

Summary: Bringing together the thoughts of one of American literature’s sharpest cultural critics, this compendium will open the eyes of a whole new audience to the work of Lionel Trilling.  Trilling was a strenuous thinker who was proud to think “too much.”  As an intellectual he did not spare his own kind, and though he did not consider himself a rationalist, he was grounded in the world.

This collection features 32 of Trilling’s essays on a range of topics, from Jane Austen to George Orwell and from the Kinsey Report to Lolita.  Also included are Trilling’s seminal essays “Art and Neurosis” and “Manners, Morals, and the Novel.”  Many of the pieces made their initial appearances in periodicals such as The Partisan Review andCommentary; most were later reprinted in essay collections.  This new gathering of his writings demonstrates again Trilling’s patient, thorough style.  Considering “the problems of life”—in art, literature, culture, and intellectual life—was, to him, a vital occupation, even if he did not expect to get anything as simple or encouraging as “answers.”  The intellectual journey was the true goal.

No matter the subject, Trilling’s arguments come together easily, as if constructing complicated defenses and attacks were singularly simple for his well-honed mind.  The more he wrote on a subject and the more intricate his reasoning, the more clear that subject became; his elaboration is all function and no filler.  Wrestling with Trilling’s challenging work still yields rewards today, his ideas speaking to issues that transcend decades and even centuries.


Introduction by Leon Weiseltier

The America of John Dos Passos

Hemingway and His Critics

T.S. Eliot’s Politics

The Immorality Ode


Reality in America

Art and Neurosis

Manners, Morals, and the Novel

Isaac Babel

The Morality of Inertia

“That Smile of Parmenides Made Me Think”

The Last Lover

A Speech on Robert Frost: A Cultural Episode

On the Teaching of Modern Literature

The Leavis-Snow Controversy

The Fate of Pleasure

The Kinsey Report

Huckleberry Finn

The Princess Casamassima

Wordsworth and the Rabbis

William Dean Howells and the Roots of Modern Taste

The Poet as Hero: Keats in His Letters

George Orwell and the Politics of Truth

The Situation of the American Intellectual at the Present Time

Mansfield Park

James Joyce in His Letters

Mind in the Modern World

Art, Will, and Necessity

Why We Read Jane Austen


Under Forty

Preface to The Liberal Imagination

Preface to Beyond Culture

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