Posts by Guest Authors
Saturday, September 20, 2008
Coda to Trilling Book Event: Geraldine Murphy Responds Part II
In the following entry, Geraldine Murphy, editor of The Journey Abandoned, responds to the second batch of contributions by Michael Szalay, Sean McCann, Michael Kimmage, Joseph Kugelmass, and John Holbo.
These responses are rich in insights and associations, and I’m sorry I can’t do justice to them. I’ll just chime in on two points: Joseph Kugelmass and Michael Kimmage are on target in regard to the influence of The Great Gatsby on The Journey Abandoned. Sean McCann and Kugelmass are nicely attentive to the gender and sexual politics of the postwar period that Robert Corber, Elaine Tyler May, Michael Davidson, and James Gilbert have analyzed; Trilling is hardly immune to neo-separate spheres rhetoric, the “crisis of masculinity,” or the homosexual panic of the Cold War period.
Wednesday, September 10, 2008
Book Event on Trilling’s Unfinished Novel, Part II
What follows is the second part of the Valve’s book event on Lionel Trilling’s The Journey Abandoned. In the first entry, Geraldine Murphy, who discovered and edited the book, responds to last week’s entries by Harvey Teres, Mark Shechner, Eugene Goodheart, Miriam Burstein, and Stephen Schryer. Four new entries follow, by Michael Szalay, Sean McCann, Michael Kimmage, and Joseph Kugelmass.
Geraldine Murphy Responds (Part I)
Geraldine Murphy is Associate Professor of Enlish and Deputy Dean of Humanities and Arts at the City College of New York, CUNY. She is the editor of The Journey Abandoned and is working on a book-length study, Anti-Stalinist Poetics.
Mark Shechner’s advice on how to read Trilling’s The Journey Abandoned—“Take it straight, no chasers”—applies to any novel; I always tell my students to skip the preface and read it afterwards. One can only hope that after a maiden voyage into fiction, readers who then do turn to prefaces, introductions, editorial notes, and the like won’t be cut by razor wire or annoyed by airy speculations. Many of Shechner’s own speculations on why Trilling didn’t finish The Journey Abandoned are astute: it was too big and had too many moving parts; the protagonist wasn’t up to moving the burden of the narrative forward; and the subject did, in some respects, threaten Trilling’s public, Arnoldian persona. On the whole, though, in his account of the novel, its genealogy, and its author’s intentions, Shechner distorts more than he illuminates.
Michael Szalay is Associate Professor of English at the University of California, Irvine. He is the author of New Deal Modernism: American Literature and the Invention of the Welfare State. He is finishing a new book entitled Hip Liberalism: The Democratic Party and the Postwar Political Novel.
Having just told us that his novel is set in at some point during the 1930s, Lionel Trilling rushes to let us know that it is not, at least primarily, about the Great Depression: “The time of the story is, let us say, 1937—or any time after 1929 and before 1939 in which is it possible to think about life without the most immediate reference to economic crises.” This is surprising, in part because 1937 is an odd time to set a novel not about pressing economic crises. “I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished,” President Roosevelt declared at the start of that year, in his second inaugural address. Matters would get worse before they got better. The Great Flood of 1937 swamped areas along the Ohio River, leaving thousands homeless. And after recovering for the previous four years, the U.S. economy faltered seriously. Business activity suffered a severe drop and Wall Street’s Dow Jones Industrial Average plummeted from its post-1929 highs. Though the Supreme Court upheld the National Labor Relations Act that year, effectively making the 1935 legislation law, 1937 saw widespread labor unrest. The Great General Motors Strike spread to six states; a total of 45,000 men left their production lines. Another 63,000 working for Chrysler went on strike. The list is, of course, much longer.
Freud Defeats Dewey
Sean McCann is Professor of English at Wesleyan University and a regular contributor to the Valve. He is the author of Gumshoe America: Hard-Boiled Fiction and the Rise and Fall of New Deal Liberalism. His new book project is entitled The Anti-Liberal Imagination: American Literature and Presidential Government.
I agree with John. And I doubt that we’re the only readers who won’t be terribly sorry that the journey was abandoned. It sounds harsh. But so far as I’m concerned, Trilling’s abilities as a novelist were inversely proportional to his gifts as a critic. No dishonor there. You can’t be brilliant at everything. The great majority of us don’t manage to be brilliant at anything.
The Journey Continued and Abandoned
Michael Kimmage is Assistant Professor of History at the Catholic University of America. His forthcoming book is entitled The Conservative Turn: Lionel Trilling, Whittaker Chambers, and the Lessons of Anti-Communism (Harvard UP).
Lionel Trilling can be seen as a representative man. Born at the turn of the century to a family of Jewish immigrants, he achieved a heroic assimilation into the upper reaches of American intellectual life. He was a man of the 1930s in the early 1930s, a communist, a fellow traveler, an enthusiast of Soviet Russia, very much in the spirit of his generation (of New York intellectuals). Then he was an anti-communist, and in this too he was representative more than he was anomalous. By the 1940s, he was en route to becoming a Cold War intellectual, a liberal to be sure but the kind of a liberal who could train intellectuals for the national security state, from his professorship at Columbia University, and the kind of a figure who could refine American culture for competitiveness in the Cold War status game. Moreover, Trilling was a liberal in the 1950s, not a radical or a conservative, and he was in tune with the decade’s overall moderation. When John F. Kennedy was president, he invited Trilling to the White House, as if to say that Trilling’s intellectual contributions had merited presidential congratulation; Trilling could be a representative intellectual of the Kennedy era, liberal, anti-communist and urbane. When Trilling’s Columbia students looked at their teacher in the radical spring of 1968, they saw a man who was all too representative, and they inverted the terms of Kennedy’s admiration. Trilling represented all that had gone wrong with America since the Second World War, the corruption intellectuals and others had invited with their anti-communism, the regrettable coupling of culture with state power and the enduring mistakes of a generation that had tasted radical excellence in the 1930s, only to drift into a stultifying postwar conformity. Trilling was representative in his multiple assimilations into American life.
The Sexual Resolution: Lionel Trilling’s Indispensable Failure
Joseph Kugelmass is a graduate student at the University of California, Irvine. He is an assistant editor for the Valve and also blogs at his own website, the Kugelmass Episodes.
The novel Lionel Trilling began during the 1940s, and ultimately neither finished nor published, is so replete with basic problems that it is initially difficult to see beyond them. The novel is flatly written, and the dialogue is banal. Numerous scenes develop awkwardly, such as one where the protagonist’s farewell conversation with his father rapidly and inexplicably devolves into a clumsily dramatized fight over Spinoza’s theodicy and then over the son’s indifference to his father’s feelings of sacrifice and failure. The novel gets bogged down presenting scenes from Vincent’s boyhood and frustrated provincial life, and then ends unfinished just when Trilling appears to be getting to his “real” subject matter, a scandal based on one chapter from the life of minor Romantic poet Walter Savage Landor.
Wednesday, September 03, 2008
Valve Book Event on Lionel Trilling’s Unfinished Novel, Part I
What follows is the first part of a two-part Valve book event on Lionel Trilling’s unfinished novel, The Journey Abandoned, recently published by Columbia University Press. A second set of assessments of the novel will appear here next week. In addition, Geraldine Murphy, who discovered and edited The Journey Abandoned, will respond to this first batch of essays. Enjoy!
The Journey Resumed?
Harvey Teres is Associate Professor of English at Syracuse University. He is the author of Renewing the Left: Politics, Imagination, and the New York Intellectuals, and the forthcoming Going Public: Linking the Literary Academy and the Common Reader.
Columbia University Press’s decision to publish an early draft of an unfinished, untitled novel by Lionel Trilling is a welcome reminder that the critic and novelist who loomed so large in American culture until the 1970s continues to have a hold, at least on some of us. Although Trilling’s influence is limited, he’s admired by literary journalists and by those within the academy who address a public audience about public issues. But certainly for the vast majority of traditional academic scholars and their students, Trilling’s a name from the past that connotes a moral and mandarin style of belle lettres that was swept aside by the theory revolution of the past several decades. Of this I can testify with first hand evidence. I recently taught a graduate seminar on the New York Intellectuals; I assigned a dozen or so of Trilling’s most influential essays, and devoted a three-hour class to discussing them. After my students had completed the reading, but before the discussion began, I asked them each to write a paragraph on whether they thought Trilling would be an important critic for them in their future academic career. Here are several unedited samples of the responses I received:
The Journey Adrift
Mark Shechner is Professor of English at SUNY Buffalo. His most recent book is Up Society’s Ass, Copper: Rereading Philip Roth.
The best advice I can give to a reader who wishes to read Lionel Trilling’s unfinished novel of the 1940s, The Journey Abandoned: The Unfinished Novel (as Columbia University Press calls it), is to read it cold, without preliminaries of any sort. Don’t fortify yourself with prefaces, introductions, reviews, hype, and any of the other razor wire that coils around this book. Take it straight, no chasers. Ignore Trilling’s twin prefaces and avoid detours through commentary that places Trilling in the context of his time. The published text is sandwiched between two prefaces by Trilling that are arbitrarily assigned as “Trilling’s Preface” at the front of the book and “Trilling’s Commentary” at the back. This is purely editor’s caprice, as Trilling gave no indication of where he wanted them placed or if he wanted them read at all. Skip them initially. They are best saved for later, after one has read the book. The same with Geraldine Murphy’s long and meandering introduction. Though it contains impressive amounts of sound information about the book’s origins and Trilling’s career during the years he worked on it – somewhere around 1943-1946 – Professor Murphy treats herself to airy and unfocused speculations about Trilling’s deeper intentions that will only distract, and I think misinform, the reader and possibly dissuade him or her from reading the book. Columbia University Press ought to have insisted on something more circumspect and compact than the present introduction.
Trilling’s Unfinished Novel
Eugene Goodheart is Professor Emeritus of English at Brandeis University. His most recent book is Darwinian Misadventures in the Humanities.
What follows are fragmentary reflections on what is itself a fragment of a novel.
The time of The Journey Abandoned is 1937. In his commentary on the work, Trilling says he wanted a year somewhere between 1929 and 1939. I doubt whether anxieties about the depression and the prospect of world war were absent in 1937, but the choice of the year is revealing about the kind of novel he wanted to write. It ignores the major social and political upheavals of the time. The characters and actions of the projected novel are products of a somewhat insular romantic imagination. This is not to disparage the work. Its realism is in its representation of an aspiring writer at a time when serious literature is threatened by the commercial demands of the publishing industry. The protagonist’s prospective publisher tells him that the novel (the serious novel) is dead. (Trilling’s great ambition, greater than any pleasure he got from writing criticism, was to write novels.) It is a time that hasn’t passed. The power of commerce over the literary imagination is greater than ever.
The Meaning of this Moment
Miriam Burstein is Associate Professor of English at SUNY Brockport and a regular contributor to The Valve. She is the author of Narrating Women’s History in Britain, 1770-1902.
One of the continuities between Trilling’s only published novel, The Middle of the Journey, and what has been titled The Journey Abandoned is how Trilling’s characters converse. It’s tempting to put down Trilling’s handling of dialogue to the influence of Henry James, but there’s not much Jamesian about exchanges like this:
Kramer, [sic] said, “Vincent, you look tired.” His tone was admonitory, even querulous, and Vincent knew that in this way he expressed and masked the affection he was feeling.
“Do I?” The interest of his friend and former teacher made Vincent feel young and heroic. “I was working late last night.”
“On the book?” Kramer asked. “Is it going again?” He spoke in an almost hushed voice and Vincent knew that Kramer was seeing the lonely light in the little room and was hearing the intermitted rattle of the typewriter. He knew that Kramer was having a vision of his young friend “wrestling” with his work, for only in this way could Kramer imagine the process of thought and creation.
At this moment, Kramer would have liked to say that no idea of material gain, no glimpse of mere popular success must intrude to spoil the purity of the work. He wanted to utter his belief that Vincent’s long months of sterility and despair were the marks of the virtue of his enterprise. He did not say what he believed, but his feminine solicitude shone from his face. All he said was, “I’m glad you’ve broken through again. That’s bound to happen—the ideas find their place.” (29)
Trilling’s characters do not, to borrow a Jamesian turn of phrase, speak “quite wonderfully.” Usually, they speak quite normally; in fact, as in this excerpt, they often speak in banalities. Dialogue is subservient to the “true” intellectual play of mutual interpretation and misinterpretation—which, thanks to the narrator, is fully available only to the reader and not to the characters. The characters’ fictional depths and shallows are well wadded up in their verbal stupidity; if they manage to connect, it seems almost an accident. Trilling’s constant cuts away from one character’s speech to another character’s interpretation of the unspoken suggests an impatience with dialogue, perhaps even James’ dialogue. Either the nuts-and-bolts of everyday speech produce the effect of psychological depth (characters may or may not connect by realizing what the other “really” means) or they prove absolutely adequate to the character’s shallowness (because s/he is adequately summed up in his/her speech).
The Sociology of the Written Word
Stephen Schryer is a Postdoctoral Fellow at Concordia University. He has published articles in PMLA and Modern Fiction Studies.
Although it is incomplete, Trilling’s newly discovered The Journey Abandoned should occupy a crucial position in all future assessments of his work. Throughout his career, Trilling’s central preoccupation was the habits and ideas of the American intelligentsia, a group, he noted in 1939, “that has grown enormously in the last decade.” More than any other literary critic, he helped establish the notion that U.S. intellectuals form a distinct class and that writers, who are themselves members of this class, should turn their attention to it. “The novel of the next decades,” he predicted in The Liberal Imagination, “will deal in a very explicit way with ideas.” Influenced by this conception of the novel, many American writers of the 1940s turned away from the naturalistic subjects that dominated the literary culture of the 1930s, focusing instead on the role of ideas and intellectuals in U.S. society. As Saul Bellow later reflected about the period’s literary debates, “it seemed to me at a certain point we had gone as far in America as stupidity would get us. We were living in a very sophisticated society – on the technological side, extremely sophisticated – surrounded by all sorts of curious inventions and writers still insisted on sitting on the curb and playing poker and talking about whores.” In essays like “Reality in America” (1949), Trilling helped establish one of the core assumptions of this fiction – namely, the notion that with the expansion of the intelligentsia, ideas play a greater role than ever before in determining social reality. This assumption would eventually culminate in the 1960s / 1970s notion of the “new class,” espoused by writers and social critics associated with both the New Left and neoconservative right.
Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Straw Man and Other Superheroes
This is a guest post by Martyn Pedler, his contribution to our Doug Wolk “Reading Comics” Event. I found the following bio of Martyn lying around somewhere on the web, so presumably it must be true. (It’s on the web, right? So it must be true?) “Martyn Pedler is a Fitzroy writer of all kinds of pop- and pulp-fiction. He completed his Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Melbourne with a novella about how disappointed we all were when the world failed to end on New Year’s Eve 1999. His fairly terrifying comic book collection is stored safely in long, white boxes under his bed, and no, you can’t touch them.” - the former editor
Right now, respectable graphic novels are winning enough awards that it’s no longer shocking, and superheroes loom larger than ever in the popular imagination. Douglas Wolk’s book Reading Comics straddles both extremes of comic-bound stories. One of the pleasures of the book is his wide analytical sweep – from Tomb of Dracula to David B. to Grant Morrison to Cerebus the Aardvark. It’s wide enough that Wolk interrogates himself about exactly what he will and won’t include, creating a handily-labelled ‘Straw Man’ who asks questions like: "Have you noticed that that’s mostly a description of what you’re not writing about?"
I don’t doubt the need to clarify this point, as defining what the hell ‘comics’ actually are is a herculean task. I do find it interesting that the first section of Reading Comics shares so much in common with Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, and that the authors of both books build themselves straw men with which to argue. (McCloud casts himself as a stand-up comedian, while hecklers call him on his taxonomical errors.) Part of Wolk’s argument is that it’s time to lose the "Team Comics" mentality – the rah-rah, comics-are-art-I-swear-! defensiveness that’s come from too many years of seeing comic books languish at the bottom of the cultural heap; perhaps this need to imagine rhetorical opponents tells a different story.Continue reading "Straw Man and Other Superheroes"
Sunday, July 20, 2008
Talent and the Passionate Tradition
This is a guest post by Peter Paik, assoc. prof. of comp lit. at the University of Wisconsin. John Holbo is friends with Peter, ever since Peter invited John to be on a Zizek panel, once upon a time. And that was fun. And they both like comics, so why not invite him to contribute to our Doug Wolk event, eh? So here he is. - the former editor
Once upon a time there were troubling reports that the sages of the realm were abdicating their solemn duties, which were to study and teach the sacred texts that comprised “the best which has been thought and said in the world.” Instead of dedicating themselves to composing erudite commentaries upon the timeless and exalted works of the literary canon, the priests and priestesses of culture were reputed to be indulging an appetite for rubbish and waste, immersing themselves in the dregs of sensationalistic stories aimed at titillating semi-literate audiences of sex and violence-obsessed teenagers and sociopathic brutes, like gangbangers and wiseguys. The sterner tribunes of the people were appalled to learn, moreover, that the holy scriptures were being denigrated by their erstwhile guardians as stuffy and elitist, and denounced for reinforcing oppressive and discriminatory hierarchies. They sounded the alarm bells that some apocalyptic cataclysm, such as the disintegration of the barriers separating the infinite dimensions of the multiverse or the arrival of a certain purple-helmeted, planet-consuming menace, was surely around the corner as a fitting retribution for the failure of the custodians of culture and tradition to maintain the bright green light of the eternal wisdom shining from the great books.Continue reading "Talent and the Passionate Tradition"