Wednesday, September 10, 2008
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.
His recap of The Journey Abandoned molds it into a coming-of-age story closer to Harold Robbins than Stendhal or Flaubert: Vincent’s essay in The Prairie Review opens “the boardrooms, the luncheons, the tennis courts, the soirées, and the liquor cabinets of some established literary figures”; with hay in his hair, so to speak, Vincent arrives at Outram’s “lavish country villa”; he’s suddenly thrust into “bright lights, big city, big money, fellow-traveling, anti-Semitism, radical chic opinions, and sexual intrigue,” as though transported from Peoria to “the court of the Medici.” This dichotomy is misleading. Vincent had his power lunch, drank liquor, played tennis, and (it is implied) had sex back in the heartland, where he parted ways with his fellow-traveling friend and where anti-Semitism had already reared its head. Garda Thorne, Jorris Buxton, and Harold Outram are distinguished figures but not exactly household names, and while the members of this circle are far wealthier than the Hammells, the style is understated New England, not Gotham. Indeed, when Vincent arrives at the Outrams, he thinks the cab driver has made a mistake in dropping him at such a modest house. The equally subtle interior teaches him a lesson in taste: “He believed that money was only for the striking and the chic, for what was intended to overpower the beholder,” says the narrator. “He did not know how expensive was the modesty of some simple fabric or the intellect that inhered in a cherrywood lowboy” (81). Shechner has nothing to say about the class differences to which Vincent is so attentive; he focuses instead on Trilling breaking new ground with “Jewishness, sex, and pedophilia,” making the novel sound more sensational than it is.
Sexual attraction is there and duly noted, yet, as in The Middle of the Journey, it’s lukewarm, discreetly addressed, and generally serves as an index of some other kind of value; in other words, it’s not about heat but ideas. John Laskell, the protagonist of The Middle of the Journey, has sex with Emily Caldwell on a riverbank (although the reader who blinks may miss it); despite her sad, dopey allegiance to 1920s bohemianism, Emily represents the eternal feminine and serves as a foil to the insidious, fellow-traveling Nancy Croom. Vincent is attracted to Garda Thorne, who is lovely and vivacious but also has considerable talent and artistic integrity; on the other hand, he feels nothing for the slim, golden-haired, beautiful Perdita, who has no voice or feeling for music. His appreciation for May Outram needs to be seen in context: when he arrives at the Outram home, the leisure, grace, and plenitude of Outram’s well-compensated literary life is making its first full impression and exerting its pull on Vincent.
Both Shechner and Harvey Teres mention Nabokov in regard to Buxton’s interest in Perdita. It is intriguing that Trilling, having The Journey Abandoned languishing in his files, would in 1958 publish an essay on Lolita in which he argued that rape and incest were the shock paddles that brought romantic love back to life in the contemporary novel. (In the televised discussion about Lolita that Teres mentions, Nabokov brings up pedophilia but Trilling, when he can get in a word at all, talks about Vronsky and Anna Karenina.) Shechner is off base, however, when he says The Journey Abandoned “screeches to a halt with Trilling staring into the abyss of pedophilia and refusing to take another step.” The donnée of the novel was Walter Savage Landor’s susceptibility to the charms of Geraldine Hooper and the manipulations of Mrs. Yescombe, and Perdita Aiken and Claudine Post closely parallel those two figures. What interested Trilling were the moral and social ambiguities of the situation, not so much for Buxton but for his entourage. If the old man’s attentions to Perdita were both benevolent and self-interested, paternalistic and erotic, if he was blind to Claudine’s designs when he should have been aware of them, then his admirers would be justified in a range of responses—from exasperation to censure on the one hand, or compassion to admiration on the other—or some uneasy combination thereof. Trilling didn’t write himself into Buxton’s questionable interest; he started from it.
The question of Vincent’s Jewish identity is worth exploring, although Shechner has no doubt that he is Jewish—a closet Jew in deep denial. Nevertheless, Vincent’s penis will broadcast what he is determined to repress. (What about Jewish women? Lacking the sign, could they lapse like Catholics? Most ethnic and religious identities, including Catholicism, cannot be as easily discarded as Shechner assumes.) The notion that “Hammell’s Jewish amnesia is one of the explosive devices that Trilling rigged up to detonate later in the novel” is absurd. In the two early stories Shechner mentions, “Chapter for a Fashionable Jewish Novel” and “Funeral at the Club, with Lunch,” Trilling explicitly examined Jewish identity, but that wasn’t the reason I considered publishing them along with the unfinished novel. Diana Trilling hadn’t included them in the standard edition, and the idea was to make previously unknown or little-known fiction available in one volume. “Funeral” is a better story, and it does provide evidence for a subterranean Jewish connection to The Journey Abandoned through the Spinoza reference. Vincent’s father dwells on the Ethics, and the protagonist of “Funeral” ruminates on the philosopher’s complicated relationship to Judaism:
Why were the Jews always dragging in Spinoza? They had kicked him out; why hadn’t they the decency to let him stay out? Perhaps because he was the Jew of Jews …; perhaps because he was the only man who could have taken the boot that had been set against his rump and have made of it a high throne of aloneness, and with the laces of that boot have made new and purer phylacteries, particular to himself.
Stephen Schryer reads Vincent as a second-generation Jew in light of his commitment to culture, and some critics have assumed that John Laskell of The Middle of the Journey is Jewish, although that novel, like the unfinished novel, is silent on the subject. Since both protagonists are autobiographical to some extent, it’s plausible to think of them as implicitly Jewish—which is not to say they are in denial. Trilling uses the word “passability” to describe his revised conception of Vincent. African American literary criticism has enriched our understanding of passing: it may represent self-hatred, but it can also be seen as a strategy of resistance that both destabilizes whiteness and provides certain minorities some measure of self-determination. Trilling moved away from the “positive Jewishness” of The Menorah Journal because it came to represent constraint to him rather than the openness and possibility of “negative capability.”
I’d like briefly to address the “Jamesian” heritage of the novel, one of the points that most interests me. Eugene Goodheart observes that the ghost of Henry James “haunts the novel.” Miriam Burstein, however, observes that the dialogue between the characters is ordinary rather than Jamesian. No one speaks “quite wonderfully.” I think both observations are accurate. James was not the only model for Trilling the creative writer, but he was the most important American model, both in terms of subject, style, and craft and for what he symbolized in the larger context of Anglo-American letters. If it were shorn of all narrative commentary, the dialogue in The Journey Abandoned would be more Pinter-like in its brevity, but it would still lack dramatic tension because the characters are rarely revealed in what they say; they don’t get much of a chance to speak. James the formalist refined the balance of mis-en-scene and narrative (think of the quite wonderful dialogue in The Portrait of a Lady and Chapter 42, the long narration of Isabel’s awareness of her husband’s treachery); both advance the story in a James novel, but not in Trilling. As I say in my introduction, he was a Jamesian observer but not a Jamesian dramatist.
Both Schryer and Teres situate The Journey Abandoned in the broader context of the American intelligentsia and the academy. The conundrum that Vincent sketched in his essay, “The Sociology of the Written Word,” echoes some of Trilling’s critical commentary not only on novelists but on intellectuals as a class: the stance is adversarial, yet the rejected society is the only audience worth winning over. I think Schryer is right about Buxton symbolizing (however implausibly) the ideal American intellectual. Teres’s account of the novel—as is and as planned—is richly textured and insightful. I especially appreciate the thoughtful introduction that addresses Trilling’s relevance for the current generation of graduate students and the relationship between Trilling’s ideas (about ideology, power, and the intelligentsia) and those of theorists like Althusser and Gramsci who quickly eclipsed Trilling in influence. Teres asserts that Trilling’s example as a public intellectual (my use of a term he may have wanted to avoid) is worth pondering. The provocations and polemical traction that Shechner provided are absent here, so my comments are briefer than these responses deserve. I look forward to Teres’s book!
Just a couple of quick comments about Professor Murphy’s reply. We agree and don’t agree, and that is fine. But here are some brief notes that pop to mind.
Vincent Hammell as the Jew in hiding. There can be no doubt about that. He makes no sense - the novel makes no sense - unless he is. The question is what Trilling planned to do with that. The normal movement of a novel of self-discovery would be toward some moment of revelation that would cause Hammell to “come out,” usually in some explosive context. But Trilling, who was already “out” as a Jew - who indeed cut his teeth as a critic and fiction writer at The Menorah Journal - had little to gain from writing a Jewish protest or identity novel at that point in his career, and much to fear from it. That was one good reason for not continuing.
The other issue is the hint of child love on Jorris Buxton’s part at the very end of the manuscript, before it breaks off. In the presence of Hammell, Claudine Post, and Buxton, “Perdy” has just finished playing a piece on the piano that has left her trembling and Buxton all aglow. They come together in a kind of tableau “And the two of them, Buxton in his achieved oaklike age, Perdy in her odd, excessive youth, their hands meeting, all of Buxton’s warmth flowing toward this ungrown, unrealized child, make for Vincent a moment of the strangest intensity, the more intense because he could attach no general significance to it, could not understand what generalization could be drawn from it about youth, age, about life and death . . . . “ On the very next page, the character of Brooks Barrett, who is Hammell’s Virgil on this tour of the intellectual Inferno, says about the general human relations of that scene: “Those relations, Mr. Hammell, are not - - harmless.” And he tells Hammell again as the manuscript breaks off, “You are not ready for what you could know, but perhaps you will be.”
The novel then went into the drawer and the archive for Professor Murphy to uncover. Trilling - and I give him props for this - had screwed up his courage enough to get this far, and then understandably walked away, having much to lose by taking the next steps. What does he say about the abyss of human knowledge in his essay on the teaching of modern literature. “Interesting, is it not?”