Underrated: Lionel Trilling

Himmelfarb, Gertrude. “Underrated: Lionel Trilling.” Standpoint, April 2009.


When Lionel Trilling died in 1975, he was not only the most eminent literary critic in America, but also, some would argue, the most eminent intellectual figure. Three years before his death, he received the first of the Thomas Jefferson Awards, the highest honour the federal government confers for “distinguished intellectual achievement in the humanities”. Today, his name is unknown even to graduate students of English literature. More disquieting, the mode of thought that was uniquely his is not so much in disfavour – it is simply ignored, not even a matter of contention.

Trilling, who was so sensitive a recorder of the culture, may have anticipated this turn in his own reputation as well as the culture. His Jefferson Lecture, “Mind in the Modern World”, was exhortatory rather than celebratory, cautioning about tendencies in the culture apparent to him although not yet to many others, which had the effect of diminishing the force and legitimacy of mind. He did not use the words “postmodernism” or “deconstruction” – they were not in common usage then-but that was what he had in mind when he deplored the increasingly esoteric and dehumanising, as he thought it, nature of the humanistic disciplines.

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