Long before I had come know Hilton Kramer and write for The New Criterion, I heard him give a riveting lecture at Amherst College. He recalled that when Delacroix found himself stalled for a moment with a problem, he would dash over to the Louvre, for he was certain that someone, among the masters represented there, had confronted the same problem and found a deft way of dealing with it. He treated the Louvre, or the vast tradition, as a vast reference work. It would be there to draw upon, and to guide, the artists who came later. Hilton’s argument was that the tradition was always living, at work each day. Those who sought to strike out in a path of novelty would find the need to define themselves in relation to that tradition.

That same sense of things was at work in Hilton’s conversations, with a remarkable admixture of warmth and laughter. The talk would range widely, about writers and politics, with a hefty dose...


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