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.
Several writers comment on the historical context of the novel, although their emphases vary. Kimmage describes Trilling the Cold War liberal as the “representative intellectual of the Kennedy era, liberal, anti-communist and urbane.” Michael Szalay focuses on the relationship between the novel and the rise of the New-Deal welfare state. A generation of intellectuals who came of age in the 1930s faced the competing attractions of security and power, yet the postwar university’s integration with the military-industrial complex eclipsed any illusions that literary intellectuals might entertain—hence the attraction of a figure like Buxton, a former novelist whose government-sponsored scientific creativity is power. McCann also takes up the role of the university, noting that it was “about to become the dominant institution of postwar literary culture.” (During this period, creative writing programs were established on campuses, and despite a good deal of hand-wringing, novelists and poets migrated to the academy.) Trilling intuits that the literary intellectual’s task is not to enforce “rationalization and efficiency” but to restore irony, magic, and “the deep, pre-rational sources of passion and power.” Freud is important in the postwar period, particularly to Trilling, because he recognizes the power of the unconscious. If I’m reading McCann correctly, he’s extricating Marx (Dewey) and Freud from the narrative of radical disillusionment and making a case similar to John McClure, who in Late Imperial Romance described the recovery of magic, folklore, and enchantment in postmodern American literature as a reaction to the Weberian “gridding” (rationalization, mapping, systematizing, etc.) of the globe. I’m not sure I find all these frames equally persuasive, but the focus on US developments after World War II enriches Cold War critical paradigms of the 1980s and 1990s.
The other theme that emerges from the second set of responses is that Trilling is a bad novelist. According to Kugelmass, The Journey Abandoned is flat, banal, awkwardly developed, and digressive. John Holbo takes apart the tennis game of the opening chapter, and McCann opines that few readers will be sorry “that the journey was abandoned.” I’d like to consider that game and that viewpoint for a moment, and, since Lolita has already been mentioned, to see what a master rather than a servant can do with a tennis match. Here is Humbert describing Dolly’s game:
She would wait and relax for a bar or two of white-lined time before going into the act of serving, and often bounced the ball once or twice, or pawed the ground a little, always at ease, always rather vague about the score, always cheerful as she so seldom was in the dark life she led at home…. At match point, her second serve, which—rather typically—was even stronger and more stylish than her first (for she had none of the inhibitions that cautious winners have) would strike vibrantly the harp-cord of the net—and ricochet out of court. The polished gem of her dropshot was snapped up and put away by an opponent who seemed four-legged and wielded a paddle. Her dramatic drives and lovely volleys would candidly fall at his feet. Over and over again she would land an easy one into the net—and merrily mimic dismay by drooping in a balletic attitude, with her forelocks hanging.
These lyrical passages reveal a good deal about Lolita, Humbert, and the game of tennis. Trilling can’t approach this level of play. And yet I can’t agree with Holbo that the tennis match at the beginning of The Journey Abandoned is simply social padding around an idea—what idea, exactly? True, the analysis overwhelms the action, and that “brain in the wrist” is particularly infelicitous, but sizing up and psyching out the competition, setting magical stakes on winning, courting a streak by making an effort not to think or care are typical of athletes. The hilarious scenes devoted to pitching in Bull Durham come to mind here. (I’m no sports enthusiast, so my range of reference is limited.) Furthermore, as Vincent will encounter external and internal obstacles in the quest he is about to embark on, the tennis game with Toss nicely introduces one of the major themes of the novel.
I’m not arguing that Trilling was a good novelist, but he was a competent novelist. Faint praise, perhaps, but both sets of responses in “The Valve” support that view. It takes considerable skill to get a reader to keep turning the pages, and no one said The Journey Abandoned was so awful that he or she couldn’t finish reading it. A couple of commentators—Teres and Kimmage—provided detailed and discriminating readings of the unfinished novel, and everyone managed to find an idea, a passage, a context to riff on. Even though we read Trilling’s fiction because of his criticism, The Journey Abandoned is good enough for stretches to make us wish it were better and to wonder what happens next. It may be, too, that Trilling’s commitment to creative writing, his quiet, ambitious efforts, and his respect for the high office of the novel helped him to be the critic that he was. We can still read Trilling’s essays with pleasure today, even when we’re opposed to his views, because of the distinctive voice of his prose.
I’ll go farther out on a limb here and say that creative writing enabled Trilling the critic not simply as a training ground for his non-fiction but as a psychological and emotional mainstay. In New York Jew, Alfred Kazin mentions a chance meeting with Trilling on Broadway near Columbia. When Kazin suggests they have a cup of coffee at Bickfords, Trilling is aghast—it’s beneath his dignity, it’s not the sort of thing Matthew Arnold would do. Trilling, in short, is a snob. He’s at Columbia, Kazin’s not, he doesn’t frequent local diners, Kazin does. Kazin may be right—McCann agrees with him—but exclusionary behavior on Trilling’s part goes far deeper than maintaining social or professional hierarchies. Trilling’s journals reveal an acute and constant level of insecurity not only about his career and standing and reputation but also his abilities, his worth. It is characteristic that, having struggled to become the first tenured Jewish member of the English Department, he would try to disengage himself as much as possible from it. (Like Groucho Marx, he didn’t want to belong to any club that would have him as a member.) For whatever confluence of reasons, Trilling was often thwarted in his conscious desires and intentions; what he wanted most he couldn’t achieve, or if he achieved it, he didn’t want it. In The Journey Abandoned, for example, he runs out of steam when he gets to the germ of the novel, the Landor/Buxton plot; the novel he managed to write was a rich, leisurely drum roll leading up to … nothing. Given this tendency, it is not surprising that the deflected career became the primary career. Trilling the writer was the alter ego (the secret sharer, the portrait in the attic) that allowed Trilling the critic flourish.