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This article is taken from PN Review 247, Volume 45 Number 5, May - June 2019.

on Lionel Trilling
‘My tennis improves’
David Herman
Adam Kirsch, Why Trilling Matters (Yale University Press), 2011, 185pp, $24.00;
Adam Kirsch (ed.), Life in Culture: Selected Letters of Lionel Trilling (NY: FSG), 2018, 449pp, £35.00 hb

‘ONLY YESTERDAY,’ wrote Lionel Trilling in a letter in 1967, ‘having asked a class of mine to read T.S. Eliot’s The Sacred Wood, I found that they really couldn’t understand anything of the situation out of which Eliot was writing. It was a shock to me, for the book had been of the greatest importance to me when I was in college. But after all, it had first appeared in 1920, forty-seven years ago, nearly half a century, which is a long time in literary culture.’ Trilling was right. Half a century is a long time in literary culture. It is now about fifty years since he wrote this letter. What do we make of Trilling’s reputation today?   

For thirty years after the Second World War Trilling was the most influential literary critic in America. No American critic today enjoys the prestige Trilling enjoyed during those years. No wonder that it mattered so much to Edward W. Said that he should have Trilling’s old office at Columbia. He knew what that office symbolised, at Columbia, but also far beyond.

And yet when I arrived at Columbia as a graduate student in 1979 Trilling’s reputation was already in decline, just four years after his death. Literary theory was at its heyday. Harold Bloom had just written The Anxiety of Influence (1973), Derrida’s Of Grammatology had just been translated ...

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