Magazine | February 23, 2015, Issue

Midcentury Mores

Moral Agents: Eight Twentieth-Century American Writers, by Edward Mendelson (New York Review Books, 224 pp., $21.95)

Edward Mendelson is one of our mandarin humanistic intellectuals — Lionel Trilling Professor in the Humanities at Columbia, literary executor of the estate of W. H. Auden, an expert on Auden’s life and writings, and a regular writer for The New York Review of Books. The idea for his new book is a good one: portraits of eight prominent American (mainly New York) writer-intellectuals in terms of the congruity between their public selves, their private lives, their times, and their literary works. He chooses his mid- to late-20th-century intellectuals largely based on his intimate acquaintance with their lives and works, and they make an interesting lot: literary critic Lionel Trilling (“Sage”), left-wing-gadfly editor-essayist Dwight Macdonald (“Moralist”), literary critic and celebrant of American literature Alfred Kazin (“Outsider”), influential New Yorker fiction editor and writer’s writer William Maxwell (“Magus”), Nobel Laureate novelist Saul Bellow (“Patriarch”), bombastic antinomian Norman Mailer (“Mythmaker”), poet W. H. Auden (“Neighbor”), and poet and art critic Frank O’Hara (“Celebrant”).

Lest anyone suspect Mendelson of filiopietism toward Trilling, Columbia, or the “humanities,” let it be said that — despite his own professorship — his portrait of Trilling is very hostile, and he shows no loyalty to the tradition of the teaching of the humanities pioneered at Columbia after World War I by John Erskine (1879–1951) and developed with doggedness and distinction over the last century by Mark Van Doren, Trilling, Jacques Barzun, and Edward W. Tayler, memorably portrayed in David Denby’s Great Books (1996). In a memoir so deeply felt, justly observed, and beautifully written as to be an American classic, The Truants: Adventures among the Intellectuals (1982), the philosopher William Barrett portrayed Trilling in a chapter aptly entitled “Beginnings of Conservative Thought.”

Having read the unpublished Trilling diaries in the Columbia University Library, Mendelson is keen to promote the idea of Trilling’s duplicity — the public urbanity of the fastidious neoconservative moralist and stylist contrasting with the various, sometimes anarchic, private ruminations of a largely unhappy life: a difficult wife (and marriage), failure to complete a novel after the unjustly neglected The Middle of the Journey (1947), deep ambivalence about writers such as Hemingway, and professional exhaustion.

No one should go to Mendelson’s essay for a rounded or sympathetic view of Trilling’s aims and accomplishments. Mendelson is very sympathetic to the bombastic, misogynistic life and work of Norman Mailer, and to the alcoholic-homosexual mess of W. H. Auden’s life and its incongruity with his stated Christian convictions, but he extends no such sympathy to Trilling: It doesn’t seem to occur to him that each person is dualistic, and that even decent individuals who see and approve the good do not always, regularly, or completely follow it. Trilling was loyal to a difficult marriage and family (over three generations) that gave him little joy; he eloquently defended, in teaching and writing, an Anglo-American humanistic tradition in which he believed; he remained devoted to a great university when it was assaulted from within and without in 1968 by radical-leftist rage; he was a man of measure, for whom the terms “gentility” and “courtesy” were not objects of contempt.

The best of Mendelson’s portraits is, unsurprisingly, about the subject he knows best: Auden. He devotes a good deal of discussion to the English immigrant Auden’s adult reconversion, in New York, to Christianity, and its subsequent effects, though neglecting his important relationship with the distinguished American Protestant theologian and moralist Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971) and Niebuhr’s intellectual English wife Ursula. Mendelson asserts that “Auden’s Christianity shaped the tone and content of his poems and was for most of his life the central focus of his art and thought,” and he tellingly observes Auden’s private practice of Christian lovingkindness in a non-pharisaical way. (Jonathan Swift acted similarly, “doing good by stealth.”) But he cannot refrain from making an invidious moral comparison between Auden and T. S. Eliot, who published Auden’s first book of poems in 1930 and whom Auden venerated. It can hardly be doubted that Eliot took traditional Christian doctrine, and its demands on his life, more seriously than did Auden, who wrote well, wittily, and sometimes profoundly about Christian history and doctrine, but felt free to ignore or redefine its claims on him when they conflicted with the decadent, libertine lifestyle he had picked up in Oxford, developed in 1928–29 in Weimar Berlin, and pursued in Manhattan. Love and lust were not very securely distinguished in Auden’s life.

#page#Auden was what Mendelson calls “a literary hero of the English left” in the ’20s and throughout the ’30s until his arrival in Manhattan in 1939, when the oppressive weight of contemporary European history from which he had just escaped — Nazism, Communism, another World War — forced on him a radical reconsideration of his fellow-traveling Marxist views (Lenin was “a potent agent of freedom,” he had written in 1934) and led him to a Christianity influenced by Kierkegaard, Eliot, Niebuhr, and the English writer-publisher Charles Williams (later a close friend of C. S. Lewis). The apocalyptic ’30s, he wrote, “made it impossible any longer to believe that the values of liberal humanism were self-evident.” For the convert Auden, Mendelson says, “the moral significance of one’s neighbor becomes clear [only] when one thinks of him as created in the image of God”:

O stand, stand at the window

   As the tears scald and start;

You shall love your crooked neighbor

   With your crooked heart.

Auden became, in poetry and prose, a witty critic of secular, evolutionary, “progressive” accounts of human history, Whig-liberal or Marxist. He continued to lead a far more duplicitous, promiscuous life than the Trilling for whom Mendelson shows so little sympathy.

Auden’s middle and later poetry and his fine literary criticism flourished simultaneously in the ’40s and ’50s with the neo-orthodox Protestant and Thomist Catholic revivals whose key figures were Niebuhr, C. S. Lewis, and Jacques Maritain. On the arts, he quoted Simone Weil’s profound pensée: “Imaginary evil is romantic and varied; real evil is gloomy, monotonous, barren, boring.” On the contradictions of pharisaical left-wing moralism, Mendelson says Auden “observed to friends how common it was to find a dedicated anti-fascist who conducted his erotic life as if he were invading Poland.”

If anyone perfectly fits this description, it must be Norman Mailer, but Mendelson’s portrait of him is oddly ambivalent. The distinguished Italian idealist philosopher Benedetto Croce had criticized Gabriele D’Annunzio (1863–1938) for popularizing a bombastic, violent, narcissistic egotism that bore terrible fruit in preparing the way for Mussolini and his Fascist gangsters by seducing Italian young men with its bogus, preening, self-indulgent melodrama. Mailer should rightly be seen as a similar figure, in both writing and behavior: his sadistic, misogynist literary depictions of the anal rape of women; his incessant macho bragging; “his outrageous theories of race and sex, . . . his six marriages and uncountable affairs, and the drunken fights, in one of which, on a bourbon-and-pot-addled night, he stabbed his second wife almost to death” (Mendelson). With “the mind of an outlaw,” he indulged “archetypal fantasies about inherently manly and unmanly actions . . . that impelled him to fistfights and head-butting.”

As Trilling put it in “On the Teaching of Modern Literature” (1961), “Nothing is more characteristic of the literature of our time than the replacement of the hero by what has come to be called the anti-hero, in whose indifference to or hatred of ethical nobility there is presumed to lie a special authority”: a perfect characterization of Mailer and Allen Ginsberg and their “aesthetic.” Mendelson says Mailer’s “‘hipster’ is ‘a philosophical psychopath’ whose drama ‘is that he seeks love’ through an ‘apocalyptic orgasm’ that has much in common with the thrill of mere psychopathic violence.” (The inner quotes are Mailer’s own phrases.)

Mendelson quotes The Last Party, the 1997 memoir of one of Mailer’s wives, Adele Morales, the one he nearly stabbed to death. Mailer and a stranger are standing over her prone, wounded body:

“My God, man,” [the stranger] said to Norman. “What have you done? We’ve got to get her to a hospital.”

I felt Norman kick me. “Get away from her, let the bitch die.”

Norman grabbed the guy, punching him, as they wrestled all over the room.

Give me the stranger any day.

Mendelson seems surprised that, after a version of his essay on Mailer was published in the New York Review in 2013, “a half a dozen men wrote to me declaring their admiration for Mailer as . . . a ‘cocksman.’”

There are valuable insights in Mendelson’s remaining essays, but one cannot help noticing a certain amateurism: Discussing these writers as moralists tempts him onto terrain where his assumptions seem banal and jerry-built. In contrast to the great, profound philosophical-ethical deliberations of Reinhold Niebuhr and Jacques Maritain (who also wrote on aesthetics), Mendelson’s view from Morningside Heights seems parochial, fussy, and inadequate. He seems to me to make excessive claims for Dwight Macdonald as a moralist, however appealing he was as a person. His condemnation of the cold aestheticism of the New Yorker “magus” William Maxwell is persuasive and refreshing. His celebration of O’Hara doesn’t make me want to read O’Hara; his praise of Kazin seems to be trying to sustain an inflated reputation in which Mendelson himself perhaps doesn’t believe.

Though ambivalent, the discussion of Saul Bellow is more poignant and substantive, perhaps because Bellow is himself a more substantial writer than most of the others. Mendelson tells the story of the poor, dangerously ill young Jewish Bellow’s six-month stay in a Montreal hospital, where a Christian missionary-visitor lady reads to him from the New Testament and gives him a copy. He later secretly devours it on his own. Sixty-eight years later, in a letter, he remembers the experience with gratitude and joy, and Mendelson quotes a passage from the memoir of Bellow’s son Greg: “A well-worn copy of the New Testament was on Saul’s bedside table during his final illness.”

– Mr. Aeschliman was a student of Lionel Trilling at Columbia and a colleague of Saul Bellow at Boston University. His essay on G. K. Chesterton and modern literature, “The Shock of the True,” appeared in Essays in Criticism in 2013.

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