Lionel Trilling and the Critics: Opposing Selves

By John Rodden | Go to book overview

68
Excerpts from On Looking Into the Abyss {adapted from “The
Abyss Revisited,” The American Scholar}
1994 {summer 1992}

Gertrude Himmelfarb

Gertrude Himmelfarb (1922—) is Professor Emeritus of History at the Graduate School of the City University of New York, a notable scholar of British history (especially John Stuart Mill and Victorian England), and a frequent contributor to intellectual magazines. She is the author of Victorian Minds: Essays on Nineteenth-Century Intellectuals (1968), On Liberty and Liberalism: The Case of John Stuart Mill (1974), The Idea of Poverty: England in the Industrial Age (1984), The New History and the Old (1987), Poverty and Compassion: The Moral Imagination of the Victorians (1991), and The De-Moralization of America: From Victorian Virtues to Modern Values (1995), among other books. She has also edited works by Lord Acton, Thomas Malthus, and Mill.

Much of Himmelfarb’s work focuses on historiographical issues, such as consensus-formation among historians, the rise and fall of cultural fashions, and the historical development of “the moral imagination” (a phrase of Trilling, of whom she is a strong admirer). A historian with a strong, conservatively toned revisionist sensibility, Himmelfarb is an outspoken defender of the leading values of Victorian morality. She is also opposed to the dominance within academic historiography of left-oriented social history (which she criticizes as a form of covert radical propaganda), preferring instead traditional historical approaches that emphasize politics and “high” culture.

A well-known neoconservative critic and scourge of “radical orthodoxy”—especially in the American academy—Himmelfarb views Trilling as a neoconservative forebear. In the following essay, originally titled “The Abyss Revisited,” Himmelfarb returns to Trilling’s famous essay, “On the Modern Element in Modern Literature” (1961)—collected in Beyond Culture

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