How eight mid-century American writers tried to shape the cultureby / May 29, 2015 / Leave a comment
In 1975, Saul Bellow published an essay entitled “Starting Out in Chicago”. His subject was the distance between the “din of politics,” the sheer amount of “noise” generated by the culture, and the “quiet zone” of contemplation that, he believed, was the condition of genuine thought. “The enemy,” Bellow wrote, “is noise. By noise I mean not simply the noise of technology, the noise of money or advertising and promotion, the noise of the media, the noise of miseducation, but the terrible excitement and distraction generated by the crises of modern life… The sounds of the public sphere, the din of politics, the turbulence and agitation that set in about 1914 and have now reached an intolerable volume.”
In his new book “Moral Agents“, the critic Edward Mendelson argues that the Olympian confidence of these pronouncements on the “crises of modern life” is entirely characteristic of the public utterances of a group of eight writers, Bellow included, active in the United States in the middle of the last century. Mendelson examines the careers of “novelists, poets, and critics, who, in addition to practising their craft, seized for themselves the power and authority to shape literary culture.” According to Mendelson, Bellow, Lionel Trilling, Dwight Macdonald, Alfred Kazin, William Maxwell, Norman Mailer, WH Auden and Frank O’Hara all felt that they were in possession of gifts that made them “morally superior,” qualified, indeed “obliged,” to “lead others.”
Last week, I spoke to Mendelson on the phone from New York, where he occupies a chair in the Humanities at Columbia University named after one of his subjects, Lionel Trilling. I began by asking him if he thought the term “public intellectual,” so common today, quite captures the breadth and depth, the sheer seriousness, of these writers’ engagement in public life.
EM: I want to start by being a bit difficult and to say that definitions always falsify. My whole intellectual life depends on putting a label on things until I understand them well enough to take the labels off. I’m not sure I want to put a name or a general label on these people. They were writers who had public influence. And “public intellectual,” as you say, is a contemporary term. It got named as soon as it started disappearing.
JD: The habit of attaching the prefix “public” to the word “intellectual” is a relatively recent one isn’t it? And as you imply, it’s almost invariably reflective of anxieties about the disappearance of writers or thinkers who have the sort of public reach or influence that the writers you discuss did.
I think that’s right. I don’t think there was a name [back then]. I looked at the cover stories in Time magazine for [Reinhold] Niebuhr, Barzun and the rest, and it was mostly about academics speaking to the public. It’d be interesting to know when that label, “public intellectual,” showed up.
A question about the public these writers were addressing themselves to. Do you attach any significance to the venues that they chose to write from? I’m interested, for instance, in the trajectory of Dwight Macdonald’s career. He started off at a “little magazine,” Politics, before eventually moving to the New Yorker.
I’ve been mulling over—and this is a roundabout answer to your question—the kind of audience that was reading Partisan Review and these magazines. I am nostalgic for the audience that was willing to buy these magazines, and read them and pay attention to them.
Macdonald’s a very interesting instance, because he actually had more public effect by going to the New Yorker than he ever did before. He got President Kennedy’s poverty programme going by writing reviews in the New Yorker that got taken seriously in the White House. He never knew, apparently, how much influence his little magazine Politics had, especially in Europe, where it was an influence among a few dozen very intelligent people.
When he got to the New Yorker he could have some public effect. I don’t know quite what to make of this, except that Macdonald was someone who had very little personal vanity, but did want to have a public effect. I suspect he went to the New Yorker for money, but once he was there he found that he could do valuable things with it. One of his first pieces in the New Yorker was a profile of Dorothy Day, the Catholic Worker journalist—this was something almost unheard of for the New Yorker. This was introducing New Yorker readers to something they hadn’t seen taken seriously before.
One of Macdonald’s best known New Yorker pieces was “Our Invisible Poor”, his 1963 review of Michael Harrington’s The Other America, which is said to have inspired first Kennedy and then Lyndon Johnson to launch the “War on Poverty”. Do you think the influence of that piece has been overstated at all?
It got read by someone in the White House—possibly Arthur Schlesinger. It then worked its way up the White House until Kennedy was told about it. It then worked its way down again on the executive side. I don’t think it was overstated. It fired a spark that wouldn’t have taken hold if the kindling wasn’t already dry.
You occupy a chair at Columbia University named after Lionel Trilling. Do you see Trilling as the exemplar for a certain kind of intellectual journalism?
After reading Trilling’s unpublished journals, I think he was a wild genius. Having read those, I see things in his prose I didn’t see before. The higher journalism that he practised, I admit, tends to put me to sleep. It’s so even-handed. All this is conscious on his part. He knows that he wants status and authority for various complicated reasons that simultaneously he despises. Those passages I quote from the journals are simply a few examples of how much he hates his public position. But he learned that the way to achieve a public position, to make his lectures into a kind of religious occasion (I forget the exact quotation), was to present a vision of even-handedness, of balance, in which nobody had to act on anything. You achieved morality by not deciding between alternatives, by seeing both sides.
I hadn’t thought this through by the time I wrote the book, but I’ve thought about it since: the way in which Jacques Barzun, Trilling achieved their public status was by reassuring their audience that they were more moral than other people by not doing anything. In other words, it was a quietism that Trilling, in his journals, treated as a form of horrible repression, a failure of the erotic impulse and so forth. He has a passage in which he says it’s strange that I should be warning against various charismatic figures when those are the ones I desire most. That kind of higher journalism I don’t really miss. And I’ve always been baffled by the degree of gratitude it achieved. Certainly, neoconservatives seemed to love it. I think it’s because it presents a world in which nobody has to do anything about injustice.
Trilling’s quietism contrasts with one of his rough contemporaries, whom you don’t write about: Edmund Wilson. Is Wilson someone who interests you and have considered writing about? And I wonder where, were you to write about him, he’d fit into the story you’re telling here?
I guess he’d have been a heroic figure had I written about him. The choices [made in this book] are arbitrary. They happen to be people who the New York Review commissioned me to write about after mutual discussion. I can easily imagine writing a deeply admiring piece about Wilson, who had no hesitation in making himself offensive to his audience and to authority, and whose political passions were real. He’s a kind of serious and more heroic [Dwight] Macdonald, who, as you know, got deeply depressed at the end of his life when he saw the world changing.
You write in the introduction that all eight of your subjects were “troubled by the discordance between a mask and face”. And you’ve just talked about the public mask that Trilling wore. They were all troubled, in different ways, by the burdens of going public. But that conflict appears to have been particularly acute in Trilling’s case doesn’t it?
Very much so. It’s an astonishing example of someone who wanted to be utterly different from himself. He’s visibly the even-handed person in public while desperate to release these orgiastic passions of his, which were so repressed that he became impotent when he became famous.
That sense of his private struggles with his own demonic energies is linked to his understanding of “morality”, one of the central terms in your book. He appears to understand morality in a roughly Freudian way as the renunciation of instinct.
Exactly right. It’s the exact opposite of, for example, Auden’s sense of morality. Auden’s sense of morality is active. And Macdonald’s is active. Morality means loving your neighbour as yourself—it’s an action. But I think that Trilling, in some deep sense, does not understand that other persons exist. They’re objects to be manipulatated. And this obviously makes him tremendously unhappy at the loneliness that results from it. Morality for him is simply a negative. I think this was a fairly common 20th-century idea—that morality requires repressing the impulse rather than active sense of justice and love.
Whereas, as you said, in someone like Macdonald you do find that active sense of morality. Macdonald was a more explicitly political writer than Trilling, but his socialism, if that’s what it was, was still a moral affair wasn’t it? You place considerable emphasis, for example, on his scepticism about the Marxist pseudo-science of historical materialism.
Macdonald says somewhere that the only interesting thing in politics is its moral aspect. When I got the bound volumes of the magazine that he edited, Politics, out of the library and looked at the index, I found that it wasn’t arranged alphabetically like a conventional index. The first entry was “Political Morality”. That’s all that mattered for him in politics. Politics was an instrument of morality for him. And this is what is so impressive, it seems to me, and exemplary: he thinks of political issues from the moral standpoint. He doesn’t think about what’s good for “our” side.
Four of your eight subjects were Jewish—Trilling, Kazin, Bellow and Mailer. Of those four, Kazin seems to have reflected most strenuously on his Jewishness.
He thought of it as something Emersonian. In other words, he was a Lutheran Jew. I think Trilling was also, by the way. They were all were, in some private sense. Bellow, in his journals and letters, had the same Protestant idea of Jewishness—a style, a manner. They liked the style.
The social pressure, and the guilty pressure, to [adopt] a certain solidarity, especially after 1945, was very, very strong. Any sense that they didn’t take group identity seriously was something they were very reluctant to [give] in public. What I was impressed by in reading all of them was how much they felt obliged to affirm in public a Jewish solidarity and in private to assert their own use of Judaism as a style, a background, something that was on their plate, not something that determined their lives.
You emphasise Bellow’s deep unease with Jewishness as a collective identity.
That’s right. But he was always willing to go out and make the speech. This may be coincidence, but after my first piece on Bellow came out in the New York Review, Bellow’s agent offered to the New York Review, which printed it, Bellow’s public address called “A Jewish Writer in America”, which he wrote within six months of saying in a letter to Cynthia Ozick that “Jewish writer in America” was a “repulsive” category.
William Maxwell, fiction editor at the New Yorker between 1936 and 1975, is an interesting case, partly because he was a much less public figure than the others.
That’s right—well hidden. But revered among circles of writers who thought he was a secular saint.
Is it the invisibility, as it were, of the power he wielded that interests you then?
Very much so. In other words, the realisation that, if he didn’t create the New Yorker style, he certainly made it the official style of the New Yorker. But he was large-minded enough to publish Nabokov and John Hersey—and many other people who did not conform to his style. But dozens of young writers would read William Maxwell to learn how to write fiction. The great man theory of history is both entirely true and entirely false at the same time. But I do think that there is some way in which Maxwell did create the contemporary American short story style in which nothing happens with a great deal of sensitivity on the part of people to whom it doesn’t happen. I think this depended on his invisibility.
Do you think his influence is still felt?
Oh, very much so. You can still see it in the New Yorker. You can still see it in the creative writing programmes. Maxwell is still treated with tremendous reverence in public by the small circle of those who imagine themselves aristocrats because they are artists. That’s the kind of temptation that Auden spent his whole life resisting and refusing, but it’s one that creates the cult of Maxwell as the person who taught us all how to write, who was dedicated to his art.
A question that always arises where the performances of public intellectuals are concerned is where they derive their authority from. Is it a function of institutional location, the occupation of some university chair or other? Or is it just a function of tone of voice? Your essay on Bellow is particularly preoccupied with the question of authority. It begins thus: “ In almost everything he wrote, Saul Bellow asserted his authority as artist, thinker, moralist, and lover.” You seem to be suggesting that Bellow was attuned to the vicissitudes of authority to an almost preternatural degree.
My guess is that Bellow’s authority has so much to do with fatherhood. He was usurping his own father’s authority. And of course he’s become a father figure to writer after writer. You might want to look up a review of Zachary Leader’s biography of Bellow by the American writer Lee Siegel in which he goes on at great length about wanting Bellow as his ideal father.
One of the things that distinguishes Bellow from the other writers you discuss in the book is his tolerance for metaphysical or “spiritual” ideas that others might dismiss as crankish—his enthusiasm for Rudolf Steiner, for example. That’s always struck me as a lapse on Bellow’s part—of taste, if not of intellectual rigour. What do you put it down to? You make the point that he was quite insistent that those metaphysical were central to his intellectual self-image.
The surprise in writing about many of these writers is that they wanted to be religious thinkers and that they were embarrassed, to a great extent, by their wish to think in religious terms. I was struck by something Frank Kermode once said, which was that as they get older, critics tend to write about the bible. He was an example of that himself—he was not religious and had no religious feelings himself. But all he wanted to write about at the end of his life was religion and religious issues.
Bellow, it seems to me, had the admirable ambition to want to understand the great subjects, the largest issues and to connect his own personal experience to something that applied to the whole universe. And Steiner provided a method that was neither Jewish nor Christian. Many things that look crackpot are slightly distorted forms of things that would be admirable if anybody could figure out how to do them. But nobody has figured out how to do them, so they emerge only in these eccentric forms.
This leads me to a question about Auden, who’s unusual in this company in using frankly and more traditionally religious categories.
That’s right, but he’s constantly making clear that he uses them as metaphors. It’s interesting that he has no supernatural beliefs, that he can’t make himself believe in the Resurrection, that [he believes] that the idea of heaven is a Platonic idea not a Christian one. It seems to me that he and Macdonald are seeing the same things, only Auden is calling them Christian and Macdonald is not.
Auden has a late review of Orwell in which he says that Orwell hated Christianity probably because of his experiences at school, but that when he thinks who in the 20th century was the greatest Christian, he thinks of Orwell.
And then in Mailer, in his fiction at least, you get this Manichean obsession with evil and other vast cosmic forces at work.
He’s finding something that is not part of the Judaism he grew up with, which he thought was repellent. He told his mother how disgusted he was by having a Jewish marriage for her sake. Any variety of mysticism seemed [to him] like a way of getting in touch with the divine.
It’s hard to be a genius without some sense of a universe of meaning, however that’s expressed. It’s all over Virginia Woolf, for example. And it seems to me that the only way to understand Beckett sensibly is to think of him as spectacularly moral-minded. In other words, the man who went to work for the French Resistance even though he could have lived through the war as a neutral, the man who gave away most of his Nobel Prize, is not someone who thinks the world is meaningless.
Your most important insight into the shape of Mailer’s career, it seems to me, is the following: “The same habits of mind that kept Mailer from writing a great novel made him a great journalist.” Could you unpack that a little? How did his novels go wrong and, conversely, where does the journalism and reporting go right?
I’m grateful to you for noticing that sentence. Mailer seemed to me to be the only political writer who recognised the deep mythical currents in contemporary politics. When Jung was writing in the late Thirties there are some lectures in which he talks about—it’s a line which Auden quotes in “September 1, 1939”—waves of anger and fear circulating over the earth. He was thinking in archetypal ways about 1930s fascist politics. But then that style of thinking disappeared because it got associated with fascism.
Mailer’s genius, it seems to me, was in part to bring these ideas back without all the bad associations they’d developed. Mailer found a way of talking about politics in a mythical way that represented a lot of the reality of the politics of utopian fantasy. This full-throated sense of politics driven by mythical laws was something Mailer picked up on, and was already in his thinking as early as The Naked and the Dead, in those passages about deep, hidden, unknowable forces.
The trouble was that when he tried to write a novel about them, everybody became symbolic. You can’t represent a human being as representing something, because then you’re not representing the human being at all. You’re pushing aside everything in that human being that doesn’t fit the model you’ve created. Fairy stories can work with mythical figures, but the medium that Mailer was trying to write in was one that required recognising the particularity of human beings. And he was always being distracted into their mythical significance.
What do you consider Mailer’s greatest political, non-fiction book to be?
I guess The Armies of the Night is the one that always affects me the most. Partly because I was there, on the fringes of it. And he seemed to capture that simultaneous sense of mythical, archetypal energies and local absurdities. He also caught the awful anxiety of that era better than anyone else did. Those were terrible times to live through in one’s twenties. And there was Mailer, who caught what was awful even about things that you favoured.
I recently re-read The Fight, about the Foreman-Ali fight in Africa, and that has the same quality—of great political events together with the dreaded possibility of local violence, in which the large mythical forces are set loose.
As a novelist, Mailer was probably more in thrall to the idea of the “Great American Novel” than any of his contemporaries. That idea, or fantasy, was clearly a deforming one in his case.
I think so. The idea that a novel can be something that expresses a national identity seems to be false. Not even War and Peace does that.
We were talking earlier about the religious cast of much of Auden’s language. There is a sense in which each of the writers you discuss in the book is searching for a kind of language best fitted to the articulation of universal moral truths.
Auden’s love of the aphorism is an attempt to do that. He loves Wittgenstein’s aphorisms, almost any aphorism, because while it is the statement of a general rule, it is obviously the work of an individual intelligence. I guess in Mailer the term for this in myth. But the trouble with myths is that they inherently amoral, because they’re not about individual choices; they’re about necessities. That, I think, got Mailer very confused. Though his impulses seem to me to be always in some way admirable. His own myths led him astray, led him to fantasise about people as if they would live up to myth.
One aspect of the effort to find a moral language in Auden and Macdonald is that they had to clown about to some degree. Auden once said that a teacher has to be a bit of a clown. The implication being that if the teacher is not a bit of a clown, then the teacher calls attention to him or herself as the embodiment of wisdom. Whereas the clownishness lets the teacher say something that points to something worth knowing, but doesn’t make him or her the embodiment of it.
There’s a word that appears in the chapter on Frank O’Hara but doesn’t appear anywhere else in the book, and that’s the avant-garde.
The avant-garde as an idea, that sense of “we know the future,” the collective sense of having special access to truth—Auden hated [it] and Macdonald disliked [it] intensely. O’Hara saw what was tempting about the sense of one’s own status as a member of the avant-garde.
Edward Mendelson’s “Moral Agents: Eight Twentieth-Century American Writers” is published by New York Review Books