Wednesday, September 03, 2008
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.
For all its mannered sentences, its tedious stretches, its meandering style, its improbable, characters, its airs, its drawing-room dialogue that tends toward homily, its fussiness, its gravity and profondeur, The Journey Abandoned is something original in the Trilling oeuvre, and while the reader will quickly become aware of why Trilling could not muscle it through to a conclusion, let alone commit it to print, the book offers some surprises that give us a subtly different Trilling than the one we were certain we knew. Trilling’s career was not entirely of a piece, and The Journey Abandoned can’t be read simply as a sequel to The Middle of the Journey (1947) or a companion piece to The Liberal Imagination (1951). The effort to read the canonical Trilling back into this odd and discomfiting draft of a novel can only further muddy some already murky waters. Which is not to say that the novel does not have an identifiable Trilling lineage, because it has: particularly two short stories that Trilling had published in 1926 and 1927 in The Menorah Journal: “Chapter for a Fashionable Jewish Novel” and “Funeral at the Club, with Lunch.” I’ll have more to say about these stories later. But finally this novel occupies its own ground and finds Trilling trying out unfamiliar registers of his voice. In subject, though not in method, The Journey Abandoned was Trilling’s effort at experimental fiction. Within the range of what he was prepared to do, he was trying to expand his repertoire. As we might expect, there is a normal distribution of sharps and flats in the result.
The novel is a thin slice out of the life of a young intellectual from the provinces – somewhere in the Midwest – who comes east to seek his fortune. Vincent Hammell’s life at the moment – late 1930s – amounts to “a quarter-time job at the university, a couple of days a month for the Advertiser, oh yes, and the pleasure of instructing the ladies of Meadowfield in creative writing.” Hammell is a disappointment to himself and at twenty-three is devoid of prospects. But that isn’t the whole story. He has opened some eyes in the eastern literary establishment by virtue of a single essay in the journal The Midwestern Review, “The Sociology of the Written Word,” and through that essay alone will quickly gain access to the boardrooms, the luncheons, the tennis courts, the soirées, and the liquor cabinets of some established literary figures. Hammell is ambitious and has his eyes fixed squarely on the main chance, and while this might mark the novel as a classic Bildungsroman, it is also a fairy tale. Hammell has read the requisite novels of destiny: Stendahl’s The Red and the Black, Balzac’s Père Goriot, Flaubert’s Sentimental Education, and he thinks he knows what mistakes the heroes made in each. Hammell is also Jewish in a muted and self-embarrassed way. We are never told so directly, but if by some miracle Trilling did not intend him to be Jewish, then much of the book makes no sense.
In response to a letter of self-introduction, Hammell is invited to lunch with Harold Outram, a one-time rising star in the world of letters who has fallen upon soft times as the Director of the Peck Foundation. Outram’s private sentiments about literature and culture, however, are not what you would expect of a power intellectual fronting for the tax-sheltering side of corporate America, but sound rather like bulletins from some Soviet party congress: “The literary culture of Western Europe – it’s dead, dead, and done with.” (It was to combat such sentiments that The Partisan Review was founded, but that is a different story.) Ah, so there is a liberal imagination in the book after all. As for himself, Outram turns out to be paying for this elevation in the world with no small amount of self-loathing. Not enough to give it up, of course. “I’m finished. I’m through. Get it straight Vincent, so it doesn’t make trouble between us. I know what I am. I know all about myself.” How might it feel to be hit with such bitterness by a foundation director during your first power lunch? Why not just put down your napkin and head back to your parents’ house? However, the lunch has a definite upside, as Hammell, at all of twenty-three, is offered a major assignment: to be the authorized biographer of one Jorris Buxton, an aged colossus of a man who gave up the world of letters at the age of forty to become a physicist, at which occupation he made world-shaking discoveries. (As I say, the book is a fairy tale.) Buxton is now almost eighty and infirm and in need of someone to take on his biography while he can still help with it. Vincent Hammell has been anointed, and he accepts readily an assignment that just might be a Faustian bargain, though who exactly is the Mephisto of the piece we don’t yet know.
Hammell’s assignment occasions his departure from his parents’ home only to emerge in Outram’s lavish country villa, where he is to meet Buxton and a whole fair field full of folk who form the moral gauntlet of his pilgrim’s progress. They include one Garda Thorne, a celebrated writer who is an intimate of Buxton’s and was at one time the great man’s lover, having taken up with him when she was seventeen and he fifty-five. She offers Hammell full access to Buxton’s letters to her, on the condition that her identity be concealed in the narrative. Moral challenge #2. She is now in her forties and her presence arouses Hammell’s erotic interest. He meets also one Brooks Barrett, Buxton’s secretary and guardian of the archive as well as the gossip. There is one Claudine Post, a matron whose relation to Buxton is undefined, except that she exercises some sort of influence on him that is said by Barrett to be “not harmless.” Miss (Mrs.?) Post has in tow a very young girl named Perdita or “Perdy” for whom Buxton has been paying for music lessons and whose relation to Buxton is described as magnetically charged. Also on the scene is one Marion Cathcart or “Marry,” a young woman of twenty-two who is the nanny of the Outrams’ children. Given her age, Hammell might be expected to show an interest in her, though he spies on her swimming and finds her a clumsy swimmer, and that seems to be that. Buxton, on the other hand, speaks of her as “a fine bunch of a girl for the right man,” an odd phrase that Hammell finds puzzling. The party is rounded out by the Hollowells, Arthur and Linda, who are classic fellow-travelling liberals who want to start a school in Russia or Spain. They are this book’s versions of the Crooms of The Middle of the Journey. There are other characters who never turn up poolside, including Theodore Kramer, conspicuously Jewish, who had been a mentor of Hammell’s at the City College, who knew Outram back in the old days as a student, and now envies and despises Outram’s rise in the world while Kramer is stuck, as a Jew. And there is one Mr. Rykstrom, headmaster of a school where Hammell does adjunct teaching, who happens to despise Jews.
What does this add up to? For one thing, the novel is a classic pilgrim’s progress, the sentimental education of a young man who is out to find his place in the world and is confronted from the start by temptation and mystery. Everything that happens is a lesson, if only it can be applied. The gathering at the Outrams’ is an initiation without a secret password. In the time frame of the novel, however, Vincent Hammell is overborne and bewildered. People drop into his life helter skelter, and there is no time to assimilate any of them, except Kramer. Moreover, he has been plucked out of his social class. He had grown up in a lower middle class household in a Midwestern city, where his father was an optometrist, and been exposed suddenly to bright lights, big city, big money, fellow-traveling, anti-semitism, radical chic opinions, and sexual intrigue. It is almost tantamount to being plucked out of Peoria and set down in the court of the Medici. He is suddenly on the fast track. Throughout the book he appears to be dazed, and indeed that bedazzlement is as much the reader’s problem as it is Hammell’s. Though Trilling may have had a game plan for getting Hammell through this tsunami of sensations and down to basics, it is also likely that he too is in over his head. He has got his narrative following too many threads: the Buxton thread, the Jewish thread, the erotic thread, and the fellow traveler thread represented by the Hollowells and Outram. The table is set for a banquet, and Trilling gets maybe a sandwich out of it.
Take the Jewish thread. Vincent Hammell is Jewish. A closet Jew no doubt, and maybe even the child of closet Jews, but there is little doubt that while the inner dimension of his Jewishness is closed off to him, the world will know him sooner or later by his heritage. He’ll remove his pants for some woman, and there it will be! Little wonder that he is so chaste. In the 1930s, when this book is set, you couldn’t lapse as a Jew the way you could lapse as a Catholic. Certain identities were not permitted to be whimsically cast off. (Recall the famous anecdote in which Otto Kahn tells the hunchback, “I used to be a Jew,” “I know,” said the hunchback; “I used to be a hunchback.”) Bear in mind that the book is set in the late 1930s but written during or just after the war when the full horror of the Jewish fate in Europe was known. In America before the war, for an aspiring academic in literature, the doors were sealed almost as tightly as the doors of baseball against African-Americans. Trilling had squeaked in at Columbia, finally getting tenure in 1945, but the story of how the gates shut behind him is well-known. Trilling’s Jewishness was at least known, whereas Hammell’s is masked. He is in deep denial.
This places the novel in curious contrast to the fiction Trilling was writing some twenty years earlier for The Menorah Journal, when he was 21 and 22, almost the age of Hammell in this novel. In those stories, the young men who are the closest in sensibility and self-awareness to Vincent Hammell are openly Jewish, though in problematic ways: fretful, self-conscious, secular, and feeling at once disabled and privileged. But they never disavow that identity. No doubt the publication milieu is responsible: The Menorah Journal was an enabling publication. But these stories have openness about identity that is missing from The Journey Abandoned. (Columbia University Press had contemplated including these stories in this volume. I wish they had carried through with that intention, since they make for illuminating contrasts.)
We can be quite certain of this. Hammell has a father who sits at home reading Spinoza’s Ethics, and how many Midwestern American fathers do that? Indeed virtually the only discourse we ever see between father and son is about Spinoza, as if Trilling were nudging us in the ribs. Hammell recalls that during college he hung around with a gang of “raffish Jews,” and of course he shares his greatest intimacy in this book with his mentor at City College, Theodore Kramer, the man with the “little Jewish face,” who admits to him “I’m stuck – I’m a Jew. I’m a married man, with children. I’m stuck.” That moral is hammered home by the headmaster at Meadowfield School, where Hammell is an adjunct instructor, in speaking to Outram and boasting of having found out that a painter on the staff named Solocheff had been posing as a Czech but was in fact a Jew. “And like all Jews, a radical in secret.”
Hammell’s Jewish amnesia is one of the explosive devices that Trilling rigged up to detonate later in the novel, but how could Trilling have been certain that it would not blow up on him as well? How would readers have taken Kramer’s “little Jewish face” or his “old-fashioned Jewish pride, which Vincent had come to see as consisting of the belief that being Jewish meant being a physically small man of such scrupulous intellectual honesty that he could bring no work to a satisfactory conclusion?” What Jewish stereotypes was Hammell himself living with? For that matter, could Trilling stand accused of underplaying the Jewish card by playing it at all? In 1947, after all, Saul Bellow published The Victim, and a new era of openness was underway. The Jewish terrain in this novel is strewn with land mines, and for that alone Trilling proved himself prudent to keep the novel out of sight.
The book is also supersaturated with sex, though with sex as portent, as temptation, as enigma rather than as Henry Milleresque saturnalia. This was untested ground for Trilling and none of his other fiction appeared even to acknowledge women. The Journey Abandoned is a monument to baffled testosterone. Sex appears in a minor key rather early, but with the appearance of May Outram in chapter 12 the air is thick with it. He sees her first at the pool. “The woman who stood at the edge of the pool was sturdy and well shaped. Her thighs were full but her legs were delicate, and she had a ripe bosom and pretty rounded arms. Her damp hair hung to her shoulders.” A siren? A Rhinemaiden? The other man’s wife? Noli me tangere, for I am Outram’s. But look all you want. Heady stuff for a Midwestern boy from the provinces. Tame as this may sound now, recall that this is Lionel Trilling writing, not Henry Miller, and that there is nobody like this in anything else he ever wrote. The descriptions of her talking to her children in the pool are highly sensual. Upon Hammell’s appearance, she offers him a chance for a swim and a drink. A child runs off to get highballs. Then he is left alone with Garda Thorne, who takes a whisky bottle and offers Hammell another drink. Within minutes she is smoking and confessing to Hammell that she was once Jorris Buxton’s mistress and even boasting of the abandon with which she gave herself to Buxton. Vincent Hammell’s climb up the ladder of success is also a fall into the world of sexual intrigue, alcohol, and cigarettes. A midsummer day’s dream, I would say.
Then there is Claudine Post, the older woman who is said to have Buxton in her thrall but is capable of charming Hammell as well. “She was not delightful – she had a charm, in the sense of a magic which had no connection with anything visibly hers, with any observable grace or interest. It was, as it were, something concealed under her dress, like the battery of a hearing-aid or a religious medal, or an amulet.” Yes, it is concealed under her dress, and call it a battery if that suits you. This is not the Trilling we know.
And what of Jorris Buxton? Buxton is on stage only briefly, and toward the end of the draft we have, so we can’t get a proper fix on him, but it is just possible that this double-barreled intellectual with feet in both the literary and scientific worlds may also harbor some odd sexual mysteries. (The science/humanities divide would remain a constant of Trilling’s thought for many years, and he would play it out farther in his essay on the Leavis-Snow controversy in 1962.) His affair many years ago, at fifty-five, with the seventeen-year-old Garda Thorne may have been entirely in the realm of the ordinary, but whatever does one make of what happens in the book’s concluding chapter when the pre-teen Perdita, for whom Buxton has been supplying music lessons, enters the room, sings for Buxton and Hammell, and the following takes place. “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, made for Vincent a moment of the strangest intensity, the more intense because he could attach no significance to it, could not understand what generalizations could be drawn from it . . . . The intensity of the moment seemed to become the greater when Claudine Post stood beside Perdita and put her arm around the girl’s shoulder. ‘It was lovely, wasn’t it,’ she said.” Within a page of this scene, the novel breaks off for good. Little wonder that Hammell’s gift for generalization has been suddenly held at bay. Cleveland (or wherever he is from) was never like this. Let me just suggest that the novel had no place to go after this scene because Trilling had stumbled upon sensitive territory that only a Nabokov could open up for America a decade later. The novel screeches to a halt with Trilling staring into the abyss of pedophilia and refusing to take another step.
I could go on here, since this novel, truncated though it is, is richly suggestive and can be spun out in many ways. I simply want to propose reasons why Trilling might have shied away from completing it. It had grown complicated; the array of characters was beyond his capacity to develop; it featured a protagonist who was too pallid and retiring to carry the action; the narrative never settled on a firm voice of its own; the novel presented risks that Trilling was not prepared to take. The Journey Abandoned threatened to disturb Trilling’s carefully-assembled persona: decorous, ruminative, combative, post-liberal, anti-Stalinist, severe. Might the novel be regarded as an inconvenient return of the repressed? Trilling could not afford it. Jewishness, sex, and pedophilia are three areas that the book had opened up, but they would have been enough to consign the wayward performance to the filing cabinet for another generation to discover and worry over sixty plus years in the future.
The science/humanities divide would remain a constant of Trilling’s thought for many years, and he would play it out farther in his essay on the Leavis-Snow controversy in 1962.
I’ve been puzzling over Trilling and generally, the way the New Left and neoconservatism began to spin out of dissatisfaction with liberalism towards the end of the 1950s. On the relationship between humanism and science, I recently found the following from his book on Forster (in the Norton Critical Ed. of Howards End):
Liberalism likes to suggest its affinity with science, pragmatism and the method of hypothesis, but in actual conduct it requires “ideas” and absolutes[.]” (328)
I’m not yet sure how to place this; it is certainly not self-evident. I suppose Dewey’s influence might be a partial explanation, though the vocabulary of the preceding paragraphs sounds more Marxist (is there also a possible confusion between pragmatism and positivism?)—and both are out of place in a discussion of E.M. Forster. In any case, it demonstrates Trilling had strong views on a humanism/science split as early as 1943.
I’m afraid I didn’t follow the admirable suggestion from the opening paragraph above--I looked at Professor Murphy’s introduction and at Trilling’s notes before getting into this intriguing work (and I’m only about fifty pages into it). I was particularly struck by Trilling’s short appraisal of his achievement, which appears on page 160 and is also reproduced on the dust jacket: “I think we can say this: that it has point, immediacy, warmth under control, and even size.”
“Warmth under control” is a remarkable phrase, partly because I think it captures something rather precise about much of Trilling’s critical prose, but also because it clearly relates to your account of his inability or unwillingness to finish the novel. Especially in light of the moment cited in your penultimate paragraph, when Hammell sees “all of Buxton’s warmth flowing toward this ungrown, unrealized child,” it does become tempting to identify the controllability of warmth as an essential problem.