Why Trilling Matters


In 2008, the critic Louis Menand wrote “Regrets Only,” an extended essay on Lionel Trilling, the pre-­eminent literary intellectual of the 1950s. Published in The New Yorker, it depicted Trilling as the symbol of mid­century America, a time when art was placed on a pedestal and the earnest critic stood on a pedestal almost as high. Trilling’s best-remembered book, “The Liberal Imagination,” Menand wrote, “belongs to the age of (it feels a little funny just typing the words today) heroic criticism.” This was an age before the ’60s, before the old heroes had been retired and new ones put in their place, before the nostalgic condescension of “Mad Men.” Menand drew a sharp distinction between 21st-­century Americans and the readers of Trilling’s day. Most people now “don’t use the language of approval and disapproval in their responses to art,” he wrote. “They use the language of entertainment. They enjoy some things and don’t enjoy other things.” The decline of elitist seriousness was inevitable, Menand implied, and this decline is nothing terrible. High-minded Trilling matters because of the way he once mattered and no longer does.

more from Michael Kimmage at the NY Times here.