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Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Atomic Criticism

Posted by Guest Editor, Guest Author, on 09/10/08 at 09:55 AM

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.

But Trilling’s oddly equivocal comment—that his novel is set when economic concerns are pressing but perhaps not “the most” immediate—begins to make sense in light of another signal 1937 event. This was the first year that the newfound Social Security Administration began paying benefits. This was the year, in other words, in which the welfare state became a reality.


My sense is that Trilling is our foremost critic of the middle-class welfare state, less because he represented the interests or concerns of those who actually needed welfare (or the Social Security Administration), than because he tirelessly explored the ramifications of economic security for the class of Depression-era intellectuals and academics of which he was a member. His second novel, I want to suggest, turns centrally on how this class should balance its desire for security and its desire to become more important than it sometimes seemed to be. For if the New Deal made it possible during the late thirties to view the economic as something less than pressingly immediate, the broader atmosphere of the radicalized thirties also encouraged intellectuals and academics to understand themselves as crucially important to the unfolding of current events. For Trilling, the two viewpoints were at loggerheads.


Trilling initially identifies Hammell as part of a young, avant-garde generation suspicious of anything but the higher values of art and culture: “Some taught in the high schools, some in universities, some served as librarians, or worked in department stores. A few held jobs from WPA but that was coming to an end. Whatever they did was only by the way—their gaze was fixed on what they would do. . . . They cherished their youth, for they supposed their gifts to be bound up with it. They saw each unfruitful year as a loss not only of opportunity but of integrity. Hawk-eyed and with apocalyptic imaginations, they watched over the integrity of certain heroes and had their martyrs; some cherished Scott Fitzgerald, some Hart Crane” (15-16). Well and good, but as Trilling tells us more than once, Hammell’s youth has ended. His novel is the story of what comes after the lofty ideals and sense of mission that once sustained working “only by the way.”


Though we don’t know how Trilling wanted his story to end, it’s hard to miss how persistently he dramatizes the waning of Vincent Hammell’s youthful avant-gardism, and how strongly he suggests that Hammell must chose between the secure drudgery of salaried employment and the kind of influence that resides only beyond the university. Hammell passes up a full-time instructorship at a university because he is demonstrably drunk on what he calls “the greater powers of the world, the presidents and the premiers, the marshalls [sic] and the millionaires” (46). His old mentor Professor Kramer— sponsor to the avant-gardism that Hammell slowly rejects—speaks out against “our money economy,” and Hammell seems initially to share Kramer’s view, as he seems to share Kramer’s view of Harold Outram, a fallen star, a once-great mind who, after a brief flirtation with radicalism, “had been appointed director of the new Peck Foundation with power to dispense at discretion those incalculable millions for the advancement of American culture” (16-17). This makes him, to Hammell, “an official, a stuffed shirt” (17), and to Kramer, “corrupted” (32).


But of course Trilling is Jamesian, powerfully so as he reveals this response to be something less than honest. Vincent Hammell is “a young man who thought much of fame, power and success in life” (125). As one character aptly puts it, “he’s on the make” (132). Infatuated with “the greater powers of the world,” Hammell wants what Outram has. Appropriate, then, that the work Outram offers him speaks to Hammell’s ambivalence about power and culture. Hammell has been commissioned to write the biography of Jorris Buxton, whose claim to fame seems to be his decision to leave the life of letters for the life of what is, at least incipiently, military warfare. Initially a minor poet and novelist, Buxton changes tracks and becomes something of a nuclear physicist, the author of tomorrow’s sublime. A charismatic leader, Buxton, too, has gravitated toward power. Indeed, it’s not too much of a stretch to say that he’s gravitated toward the study of power and gravity—so much so that others now orbit faithfully around him.


One of Trilling’s characters declares, “We have to recognize the fact and work with it—that in our culture even spiritual values are for sale, like everything else” (112). Trilling recognized this time and again, and his response to this indisputable fact was usually as ambivalent as his novel. This was a literary critic, after all, who though comfortably employed at Columbia University wanted to write the Great American Novel. He refused to think of himself as what he was: a “professional.” Abjuring the graduate program, he cultivated undergraduates, and played Aristotle to the Alexanders who would have him.  More to the point, this was a critic eager to guide the tastes and values of America’s new professional middle class; he did so by appearing on television, in popular magazines and through book-of-the-month clubs. He did so, most of all, by toggling back and forth between modernism and romanticism, but adapting the implicitly anti-bourgeois stance of the former to the mass-market populism of the latter.


I don’t criticize. I only suggest that Trilling’s second novel concatenates a set of issues important not only to Trilling’s career, but to postwar American intellectuals generally, especially those employed after the Second World War by rapidly growing research universities (where fields like Buxton’s were supported lavishly with federal monies). Possessed of great security, liberal intellectuals like Trilling—for whom the university was a social ideal more than a haven—couldn’t help but feel that their security had been purchased at the expense of any real role in the unfolding of grand human events. Gripped by an undeniably genteel and stilted idiom, he nevertheless spoke powerfully and intelligently to this tradeoff, most powerfully as he described a paradoxical form of academic ambition that understood true influence and success as necessarily beyond the purview of the university. Here again, Buxton functions as an ideal. Explaining what a “mathematical physicist” is, Outram asks Hammell, “Do you know that there are men who with paper and pencil construct the plan of the universe down to its subtlest, most secret aspects, sitting alone, with no tools but their minds?” (60). This is an irresistible fantasy to an academic in training, mainly because Outram conflates an essentially descriptive act of scholarship with an agency-rich act of creation. It’s almost as if Buxton—like the novelist that he once was—invents the world even as he discovers it. Impossibly, Buxton “constructs the plan of the universe”—he does far more than simply study it.


It’s here that we find the secret dream informing Trilling’s literary criticism, and the reason his criticism and career remains so powerfully emblematic of his (and our) era: though The Journey Abandoned analogizes the desire to write the Great American Novel to the desire to make an atom bomb (“We expected to blow everything to bits with our honesty” [54], Outram tells Hammell), it also suggests, more subtly, that otherwise secure literary critics desire the world-shaping power grasped at by novelists, and literalized by nuclear physicists. There is a distinctly Cold War lesson lurking in Trilling’s second novel: atomic bombs take you to the bank; only they bring the influence that you need. Thus we might speculate that, writing Buxton’s biography, Hammell will learn from the nuclear mathematician how to take his place among “the greater powers of the world.”


Comments

"Do you know that there are men who with paper and pencil construct the plan of the universe down to its subtlest, most secret aspects, sitting alone, with no tools but their minds?”

In the late-20th-century subculture of astronomers, there were/are a number of folk anecdotes (essentially) circulating about Chandrasekhar, a famous theoretical astrophysicist.  One of them goes like this: Chandra is giving a talk at a conference and he complains that observational astronomers always get to hold the interest of their audience by spending several slides showing pictures of their equipment and talking about it.  He then goes to his next slide, a close-up of a #2 pencil…

There’s something mythic about the identification of a pencil with this boast (besides the Freudian element).  It’s a pencil, something which follows the individual hand of the creator; it’s not mechanical like a typewriter or, later, a computer.  It’s erasable, unlike a pen, which implies a gradual approach towards perfection; the writer can not be held back even by their own prior marks.  It’s permanent, unlike chalk on a blackboard.

I’m not sure, though, that Outram (or Trilling, possibly) is really wrong in “conflat[ing] an essentially descriptive act of scholarship with an agency-rich act of creation.” If you’re talking about the plan of the universe, you’re talking about cosmology or particle physics.  Theoreticians in those fields don’t really work descriptively.  They take descriptions provided by observers and try to come up with a mathematical model that fits them and provides testable suggestions for new observations.  Outram’s mysticism is overdone—they aren’t constructing the single, never-to-be-replaced plan, and they aren’t going down to the universe’s subtlest aspects—but if you’re looking for a myth of the intellectual as demiurge, it’s a good one.

By on 09/10/08 at 04:37 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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