It is a virtual certainty in American cultural life today that any official prize, award, or distinction that is established in the name of some recently deceased eminence will be conferred upon a living figure whose work is in every way hostile to the spirit of the person in whose name the honor has been created. We seem to know of no better way to “honor” the admired dead than to profane their memory by giving awards in their name to their political and intellectual enemies.
Thus, no sooner was the Lionel Trilling Book Award established by Columbia University two decades ago for the express purpose of “recognizing a new book by a faculty member that best exhibits the standards of the late Columbia professor’s own work” (as the Columbia University Record recently put it) than its first recipient, in 1976, proved to be Professor Edward Said, a writer on literature and politics whose work stands in opposition to everything Lionel Trilling wrote on those subjects.
Now, to compound the offense, the Lionel Trilling Book Award has once again this year been conferred upon Professor Said for his latest work, Culture and Imperialism, which represents precisely the kind of ideological criticism that Lionel Trilling devoted a considerable part of his writing to opposing. We must therefore assume that the Columbia students who voted to confer this award upon Professor Said—for this is an award determined by a student committee—are either unacquainted with Trilling’s writings or dedicated to discrediting the “standards” upheld in them.
As if this were not enough for one season, this year the same committee voted to give a “special” additional Trilling Award to Diana Trilling, the writer’s widow, for her recently published memoir, The Beginning of the Journey. The Trilling Award to Mrs. Trilling is “special” in two respects. As originally conceived, the award was of course intended to go to a member of the Columbia faculty, but in order to allow Mrs. Trilling to qualify, the terms of the award have been revised to include members of what is now described as “the Columbia community.”
The other sense in which the awarding of this honor to Mrs. Trilling is “special,” however, is more grotesque, for The Beginning of the Journey is itself an extremely hostile and mean-spirited attack on the character and personality of the author’s late husband. “I very much disliked the image of Lionel as someone immune to profanation,” Mrs. Trilling wrote in her memoir. She therefore set out to unmask—or, as we now say, deconstruct—this despised “image” of Lionel Trilling as “a kind of moral exemplar” for his students. And since she is a writer of some talent, Mrs. Trilling succeeded only too well in sullying his memory.
That it should now be thought appropriate to honor this attack by conferring the Lionel Trilling Book Award upon its author is more than a distasteful paradox. It constitutes the endorsement of an indictment that has little to do with the great contribution that Lionel Trilling made to Columbia and even less to do with his own literary achievements. Least of all does Mrs. Trilling’s indictment of her late husband’s character have anything to do with meeting “standards” set in his own work. This is an award that disgraces Lionel Trilling’s memory, and thus disgraces the institution that allowed it to be conferred.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 12 Number 9, on page 2
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