Many years ago, I invited Hilton to Indiana University where I was then teaching. I had never met him, but admired the seriousness of his criticism, its originality, its independence and his courage. I called unannounced and he graciously accepted, crossed the Hudson, and landed in the Hoosier state. When he arrived, he told me that this was a sort of homecoming because he had spent several years at IU in the Fifties, which he recalled with fondness.
Hilton’s lecture, which was attended by graduate students and faculty from several university departments, was, of course, brilliant, witty, and highly opinionated, just the sort of thing I was hoping for. But equally enjoyable, was his handling, crushing would be less polite word, of the hostile questions thrown at him by outraged faculty who he left gasping in the dust of his deft and devastating answers. All in all, it was a most entertaining evening.
Fast forward to 2004 when, as Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, I put forward Hilton’s name as a candidate for the National Humanities Medal, the government’s highest award for lifetime achievement in the study and criticism of the humanities. It was, I thought, high time for Hilton’s achievement to be recognized by the nation.
President Bush okayed the nominating and then it was my pleasure to make another phone call to Hilton whom I reached in Maine. To say that he was surprised would be an understatement; he accepted with humility and grace and a touch of barely suppressed excitement. I had already made a number of these calls, but Hilton’s was one of the best.
In due course, he came to the White House with his fellow medalists, an especially distinguished company, including Gertrude Himmelfarb, John Searle, Harvey Mansfield, and Shelby Steele. As I stood in the Oval Office watching the president put the Medal around Hilton’s neck, I recalled his visit to Indiana long before. That was good, but this was much better.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 30 Number 9, on page 28
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