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Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The Journey Continued and Abandoned

Posted by Guest Editor, Guest Author, on 09/10/08 at 09:23 AM

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.

One virtue of The Journey Abandoned, an unfinished Trilling novel salvaged from the archives and published this year by Columbia University Press, is that it is so unrepresentative of Trilling’s career. It is unrepresentative because it is an unknown work, an unexpected novelty from an intellectual whose oeuvre had been “completed” in 1975, when Trilling died, although Trilling’s stature would fade considerably after his death; his name is remembered but the writing not often read. The republished novel is unrepresentative, because it is from a writer who specialized in literary criticism, devoting only a small portion of his energy (or so it seemed) to creating fiction.  Previously he had published one novel and a handful of short stories; he was famous almost entirely for his literary criticism. This newly published novel is unrepresentative, because it was not published by Trilling himself, a self-conscious writer who held himself to a high standard and allowed only his polished compositions into print. Trilling was a celebrated professor in command of his reputation, unlikely to grant the public access to the fragments and failures of his literary imagination. The Journey Abandoned is unrepresentative, finally, for the novel that it is and for the statement it was written to make. It chronicles the same milieu as The Middle of the Journey, Trilling’s 1947 novel of anti-communist manners, but it does so with a different focus and moral impetus. It could almost be described as an anti-capitalist rather than an anti-communist novel, a novel about the pitfalls of American culture or about American culture teetering on the edge of commercialized corruption. In this novel, Trilling explores a certain sterility at the heart of American culture, not a crushing or complete sterility, but a sterility that is definite and distressing.

As a literary critic, Trilling was fascinated by the structure of culture, reading literature almost as an anthropologist might, and in The Journey Abandoned he translated this fascination into literature. The published novel is approximately one third of the novel Trilling had hoped to write. “What is now needed is two other parts of equal length and similar but mounting intensity,” Trilling wrote (to himself) in notes published as “Trilling’s Commentary” at the end of The Journey Abandoned. Perhaps this intensity was hard for Trilling to find, as the human intensity of its first part is so slight. The plot concerns a young man from the Midwest, Vincent Hammell, living in provincial frustration until he meets Harold Outram, a cultural entrepreneur and failed novelist working for a wealthy foundation. Outram gives Hammell the chance to write a biography of Jorris Buxton, who had been an esteemed writer before turning to a career in science. Buxton is living in New England, an eminent figure surrounded by those who have achieved cultural distinction of one kind or another. Hammell travels to New England, enjoying the cultural ambiance around Buxton and setting to work on the Buxton biography. This brings us to the end of The Journey Abandoned. Whatever dramatic turns it might have taken, had the first part ever been followed by a second and a third, what we have is a modest story, and its modesty may be directly responsible for the novel’s troubled destiny, its remaining unfinished and its posthumous publication. The advantage of this plot, for Trilling, is that it enabled him to combine inter-related pieces of American culture: the cultural history possessed by the individual characters; the nature of their cultural ambition; the nature of their cultural frustration; and their position in the culture (from writers, to ex-writers, to the sponsors of culture, to a biographer in the making). The novel is thus an essay on American culture, and the portrait drawn is anything but celebratory.

The Journey Abandoned navigates two distinct polarities. One is the contrast between success and failure, judged in more or less material terms; the other is the opposition between heroism and corruption. In no way does success equal heroism or failure corruption, though success can equal corruption and failure can contain its share of heroism. The novel is set in the Great Depression, and it begins with a comparison of two families. Vincent Hammell belongs to a declining Depression-era family somewhat like Trilling’s own; Trilling’s father was a furrier who was destroyed professionally by the Great Depression. Hammell’s childhood friend, Toss Dodge, comes from a luckier family, one that grows wealthier in the course of the 1930s. At first, Toss and Vincent are similar in their boyish ambition, in their will to be heroes – “who could have known how seriously they lived the heroic life?” Because of this gravitas, they are “great admirers of Babbit,” Sinclair Lewis’ satire of American middle-class vulgarity, a novel of the 1920s, but this is the gravitas of ignorant boys. Toss attends Yale and Vincent goes to his hometown university, because his parents cannot afford to send him away to school, and from this point on their paths diverge. For Toss, culture is an ornament, while ambition means the pursuit of a conventional career; for Vincent, culture is a passion, and it demands that he serve its ideals as a novice might serve God or the church – sacrificing material comfort in order to gain the non-material rewards of high art. Vincent is “a man jealous of the integrity of his own intellect and planning to make his way by it,” a young man stranded in the dull provinces but courageous enough to dream of a greatness no longer accessible to Toss, who has capitulated to the stringent imperatives of American success.

Vincent and Toss divide along a simple polarity, a simplicity challenged by Vincent’s “savior,” Harold Outram, who visits Vincent’s province and helps Vincent to escape obscurity. As a young man, Outram had chosen to be an artist. He had been precocious as a novelist, but then he was drawn to a corrupting success. His path to capitalist corruption, interestingly enough, goes through communism. First Outram immerses himself in the Popular Front, the leftist insurgency of the 1930s, which separated Outram from his art, Trilling implies. Outram could sign petitions and attend rallies and thrive on the spirit of virtue emanating out from the Popular Front; he reaps rewards for the rightness of his political opinions, but, in truth, his discovery of pro-Soviet virtue is a voyage to nihilism. He becomes a journalist and then he starts work for a cultural foundation, compensation for “the wild sense of loss and consequent power to destroy” that has filled his character since giving up on literature. He is no starry-eyed communist idealist; he is a canny cultural cynic, convinced that “’the literary culture of Western Europe – it’s dead, dead and done with,’” as he tells Vincent. This means that its servants, writers and readers, are also dead. Outram notes that, since the revolution, the Soviet Union has generated no good art, and he admires the Soviet Union for its art-less rectitude: “’the fact is that Russia is right. Literature – art – it was a phase of man’s development and Russia is showing the way to a new phase.’” He works for his foundation out of an appetite for power and is less honest than Toss about the substance of his ambition.

Vincent’s means to success, if not to heroism, is the biography of a hero. For Outram, Jorris Buxton is “’the last manifestation of heroism in the human race.’” This is because Buxton anticipated Outram’s decision to jettison the literary life, without corrupting himself. Born some time in the 1850s, Buxton absorbed the fine literary qualities of the culture around him, writing letters “with the literacy and feeling for style that had been a national trait in his youth.” He then educated himself in the European tradition. In both The Middle of the Journey and The Journey Abandoned, what is Greek is good, the lifeblood of Western culture, the ancient source of cultural goodness, and it is hardly accidental that Buxton had taught Greek as a young man. As Outram points out, Buxton “’published a volume of lyrics in the Greek manner’”; but America is not sufficiently Hellenic to appreciate Buxton or to appreciate the kind of work he was trying to do. Buxton published his writing but he did not achieve much with it – not success, not wealth, not fame. (An inheritor of wealth, Buxton never has to worry about financial success.) He did not turn to despair, however. Again in Outram’s words: “’when Buxton was forty, he gave up the arts. Like that!... America didn’t want him as a writer or painter. Perhaps if he had been wanted he would have been better… He had simply outgrown the arts.’” At the age of forty, Buxton transforms himself into a mathematical physicist, finally investing the energy and heroism of his character in a worth-while pursuit, studying at great universities and working at laboratories. Outram wants Vincent Hammell to write Buxton’s story, not simply because Buxton is a great man, but because “’it’s the story of our time.’” Science has displaced literature, and in the twentieth century the hero can no longer be a literary man.

Buxton’s heroism is both modern and old-fashioned, and, in the logic of this unfinished novel, it is a quality slipping into the past tense. Buxton is manly, respected, cultured, creative and he has a libido for life as well as for ideas. Perhaps this is the most profound way in which Buxton is Greek. At the age of eighty, he is still virile, with an impressive beard, “the great classic symbol of strong age, of masculine power not abdicated.” At the age of fifty-five, he had taken the young writer, Garda Thorne, as his lover, an erotic connection that also has Greek connotations in The Journey Abandoned. Thorne, who still relishes this connection to a great man decades after the fact, observes that “’there is a kind of wisdom in that first hot rush of adventurous feeling.’” The calculating caution and coldness of the characters who must live in the 1930s finds implicit contrast in the belle époque romance between Thorne and Buxton. Trilling had interlaced a similar contrast throughout The Middle of the Journey, in which the bright, bohemian, experimental 1920s are followed by the grim, ideological and fanatical 1930s, a step backwards in the world of culture; and, in The Middle of the Journey, the worst is yet to come. The eighty-year-old Buxton remains in touch with eros; he has a libidinous relationship with a young woman. Vincent can only envy the free-flowing libido of the older man, the gracious eros that exists between Buxton and his lover. “He [Vincent] had, he felt, never given, never seen given, and could never give what was now going from one to the other,” Vincent thinks when he sees Buxton with his lover. This glimpse into the history of love is an indictment of modern times; the modern corruption stretches from literature to the force behind it (for Trilling), to eros, a word that must derive from Greek.

Buxton is important to The Journey Abandoned to the extent that he is observed by his biographer, Vincent. Vincent would surely have developed in some dramatic way, had Trilling been able to finish this novel. He is a character who could travel two different directions: he could ultimately join his friend Toss on some island of professional and financial success within America, or he could forego this pleasure and stick with a life in culture. His father suggests one possibility. He does badly with his optician business but, having rejected religion in his youth, he reads deeply and continuously in the philosophical writings of Spinoza; he reads, in other words, not to show his mastery of Spinoza and to win whatever laurels can be won with such mastery, but for the wisdom Spinoza imparts to him. A melancholic figure, Vincent’s father is undoubtedly living a life in culture. Vincent’s mother supports her son’s literary ambitions and sees in them the means to obtaining non-literary success. If literature is his talent so be it, but his goal should be affluence and comfort and time spent with the right kind of people. Her hope was “that he should have achieved a place amid comfort and elegance and among the powerful and easy people of the earth.” She is overjoyed by Vincent’s relationship to Outram, and, should Vincent become like Outram by the middle or end of his career, it will have been a career well spent. Vincent’s father, on the other hand, is contemptuous of success and considers Vincent’s decision to leave the Midwest a mistake. Vincent will only be used by other people in his journey to literary eminence, a judgment Vincent gradually comes to share after leaving the Midwest and settling on the East Coast. Vincent’s newfound East vaguely resembles the corrupting East of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby.

In short, Vincent must choose between culture and success, and his choice is a tepid via media, not the passionate choice of a Buxton to write poetry and then to stop writing poetry. Vincent makes a decision that is more modern, rational and dry. As a very young man, Vincent writes literary criticism rather than poetry or fiction, an issue surely on Trilling’s mind while writing this novel, since he was a novelist who had already published a great deal of acclaimed literary criticism. Vincent is at work on a history of nineteenth-century American literature, much like the young Alfred Kazin, who wrote On Native Grounds, a history of nineteenth-century American literature, as a young unknown man, sitting night after night in the New York Public Library. Vincent is attuned to the non-literary dimensions of literature, much like Trilling himself at each phase of his career. Vincent writes an essay titled “The Sociology of the Written Word,” which offers an acute analysis of the writer’s relationship to society. The writer rebels against society for the sake of transcending rebellion and becoming society’s darling. According to Vincent, the writer “sets himself up, by his choice, in a moral superiority, he is moved by an impulse of protest and separation. Yet at the same time he sets himself apart, he files his application for praise and fame.” The writer renounces success and by doing so obtains the fruit of renunciation, which is none other than success. Corruption seems to await the writer at every turn. A culture’s indifference can make art appear irrelevant, leading to the corruption of an Outram, who can no longer write; and a culture’s acclaim can also make art appear irrelevant, rendering protest and separation impossible. Buxton has avoided corruption, as established in the logic of Vincent’s essay, by ceasing to be a writer.

Vincent must operate in the domain of this American culture. Initially, he is defiant, seeing himself as capable of protest and separation. When Outram argues that literary culture is dead, Vincent has the temerity to disagree. “’I think you’re wrong,’” he tells Outram, “’the human spirit does not change its needs so easily as you seem to think.’” The human spirit can push against the narrowing of cultural options or the deadening of a culture’s vitality. Trilling characterizes Vincent as someone with “the sense of destiny, which is what chiefly marks him for us.” The fate of his defiance must remain an open question, since we know only a part of his destiny. His defiant spirit is first tested in a creative writing class that he teaches to wealthy women. They do not need to earn money from culture, but when it comes to literature this is their primary concern. They wish to get published in New York, which is why they are taking Vincent’s course, and they are unembarrassed about equating literary success with the dollar value of literature. When he teaches a particular short story to his class he is asked whether “’in your opinion a story like that has marketable value.’” “’Does this writer sell well?’” he is later asked. Vincent is disgusted by these women, and by the time he is teaching this class, he knows that he will be leaving the humdrum Midwest for the marvelous East Coast, to write Buxton’s biography. Yet on the East Coast the same mentality is evident. At a dinner party, Vincent is surprised when he hears talk about buying and selling a school, as if culture or education were a thing that could not be bought or sold. One of the guests must instruct him in the facts of life: “’In our society with its morality of profit and loss, we have to recognize that things are for sale. It is a dreadful fact, of course. It seems to deny the moral potentiality of the human race. But it is the fact with which we have to live.’”

Vincent can contribute to the transformation of American culture, or he can be transformed by American culture. For Trilling, there may well have been ambiguities between these two options. Perhaps the battle against commerce, the loss of this battle, the re-fighting of this battle, the changing of the battle’s terms – perhaps this is the record of American culture, a canvas rich enough and colorful enough to include those who succumb to corruption (like Outram) and those (like Buxton) who assert their heroic force, with or against the main currents of American culture. Trilling captures the rhythms of an oscillating American culture in a vivid image. The Connecticut town where Buxton lives has a few beautiful seventeenth-century buildings and some interesting eighteenth-century buildings. Until recently, its nineteenth-century buildings had been overlooked by tourists or dismissed as vulgar and ugly. Knowing all this, the narrative voice focuses on a row of Gilded Age houses, whose cultural meaning had changed over time: “the bedeviled tourist who, twenty-five years before, would have hated these post-Civil War buildings as the visible signs of the corruption of life that was at the root of his own uncertainties, can now think of them as the monuments of a more successful attempt at security than of his own time.” Culture can work in this unexpected way, lending dignity to a style that has once been a visible sign of corruption and reversing the calculus of uncertainty and security. The plutocrat’s gaudy mansion can be of genuine cultural value to later generations. If this does not make a Greek temple out of a Gilded Age villa, it does offer some hope for a culture as commercially oriented as American culture.

Vincent is attractive for his advanced understanding of his cultural surroundings – one might say of his cultural dilemma. He is neither naïve nor cynical. Yet his is the desiccated understanding of the critic, not the visionary or erotic genius of the artist. It is questionable how much Vincent can truly accomplish in his limited universe, with his limited gifts. One cannot read much into the pages of a novel that were never written, though one cannot help but suppose that Trilling had first-person experience with the dilemma he was scrutinizing in The Journey Abandoned. He was not one to build a Gilded Age villa, to mingle creativity with vulgarity, to make concessions to the market or to try to sell well as a novelist. He was no Norman Mailer, a writer with the highest literary ambitions and an outsized appetite for American success, whose subject was often his appetite for success and his own exuberant vulgarity. Mailer embraced the roiling commercial energies of American culture, titling one of his books Advertisements for Myself and thereby solving Vincent’s dilemma by confronting it head-on and doing his best to enjoy it. Trilling’s overwrought elegance as a writer, achieved in every paragraph and in almost every sentence, is purchased at the price of sterility. He may have been undone by Vincent’s dilemma, undone by American culture as he perceived it. In “Trilling’s Commentary,” he mentions “the drunken destroyed Scott Fitzgerald,” a Midwestern writer who hit upon spectacular success in the 1920s (in the East) and whose poignant later years in Hollywood – his success vanished, his reputation lost – are mythic in what they say about the writer in America. Kinship with Fitzgerald suggests an unknown, unrepresentative Lionel Trilling, not the self-confident essayist of the 1950s or the anti-communist teacher of Norman Podhoretz and other eventual neoconservatives, but one in a long line of sensitive American novelists, eager to write a masterpiece out of American material and destroyed by the culture that is his subject.


As Michael Kimmage notes above, Mailer showed a way to solve the dilemma of Trilling, or at least of Trilling’s protagonist in The Journey Abandoned, the would-be-writer Vincent, “Vincent’s dilemma” – though it’s not much of a good solution - for both fiction writers and nonfiction writers, and curiously, Mailer never solved it well for himself in fiction, never came close in my view (since both Armies of the Night and The Executioner’s Song are nonfiction essentially). And in any event, Mailer’s solution involves sooner or later (immediately on some topics) a lot of compromise, to the point of utter censorship – obviously, a solution that is soon found wanting. Ideologically based rebuffs from the establishment under the guise of aesthetic criticism - many a progressive or revolutionary minded author quickly encounters plenty of those or decides not to bother testing the waters in the first place.

It’s interesting to compare accomplished critic Lionel Trilling with accomplished critic Maxwell Geismar: Trilling, first tenured Jewish professor at Columbia, and Geismar, first Jewish student at Columbia to be, I think, Valedictorian, or to achieve some such rank (though if I recall correctly from Geismar’s memoir, Columbia might not have been aware he was Jewish). Regardless, it may as well have been Trilling, who showed up on national TV to help torpedo Geismar’s career, as the two men who played a key role: William vanden Heuval and Irving Kristol – the former a “protégé” of the “father” of the CIA and the latter the CIA flack and “father” of neoconservatism who several years earlier had passed on his position as editor of Commentary magazine to Trilling’s student, Normon Podhoretz. As I’ve noted elsewhere, when William vanden Heuvel (father of the current editor/publisher of The Nation Katrina vanden Heuvel) tag-teamed with Irving Kristol (the father of current prominent Fox TV political pundit Bill Kristol) – when these central figures of the political establishment hastened to appear on national TV over four decades ago to attack directly to the face of the silenced progressive literary critic Maxwell Geismar, on the occasion of the publication of Geismar’s book of criticism about Henry James (”a primary Cold War literary figure”), Kristol and vanden Heuvel, two exemplars of the status quo, serving retrograde state interests, executed a prominent role in destroying Geismar’s accomplished literary career and ending his run on a national literary television show, Books on Trial (”or something similar,” in Geismar’s recollection). Geismar posits William vanden Heuvel as “a rich, cultivated, charming, and liberal member of the upper echelons of the CIA [who] had a large hand in embroiling [the US] in Vietnam,” while Irving Kristol “as it later turned out was almost always affiliated with many State Department or CIA literary projects in editing, publishing, and the academic world…a hired hand of the establishment.”

It might be noted that the Trillings of past and present, such as today’s star critic, James Wood, among others, stand shoulder-to-shoulder with establishmentarians like the liberal vanden Heuvels and the neoconservative Kristols in defending Henry James as grand author, in particular against some of the views of past prominent critic Edmund Wilson. Because Wood views some of Wilson’s writing on Henry James as “a scandal” and “barbarous,” he would no doubt also deplore or dismiss Geismar’s book of criticism: Henry James and the Jacobites (1963). Wood’s too often retrograde position is on full view in his recent wildly mistitled book, How Fiction Works. As Gideon Lewis-Kraus notes, writing in the Los Angeles Times, James Wood is a writer who matters. People read him, people of the educated, monied, controlling part of the populace. That’s why it’s important that what James Wood writes does not matter – in central ways – as with any prominent critic of literature. Nowhere is this more on display than in How Fiction Works, a truncated politically-charged though aesthetic appreciation of fiction that is spectacular in its misrepresentation of reality, or “the real, which is at the bottom of [Wood’s] inquiries.” Ask Wood to annotate a novel, and he provides sometimes splendid views of narrative lines by way of an at times “uncannily well-tuned ear,” as Terry Eagleton notes. He is eager to discourse at length, often with quick pith, on how to strive toward reality in fiction (or criticism), reality of the profound sort, the truth, a worthy aim. Unfortunately, HFW is resolute in not accurately representing central elements of reality in both fiction and, call it, actuality, life outside fiction. (A few examples of these crucial misrepresentations show how such blindness chops understanding of fiction and life, and why it makes one safe to be a literary star of the status quo, of the establishment, of money and power. One must bury and falsify crucial reality. To that end, in How Fiction Works, James Wood has written an establishment polemic in the guise of aesthetics – a deeply partisan status quo account of the novel that is also pervasive in its misrepresentations of both reality and aesthetics.) Trilling and his time helped clear the path for Wood and his kind of critic and literature.

It’s striking in this Trilling book event discussion that the CIA and Ford Foundation and the “various Congresses and Committees for ‘Cultural Freedom’” are scarcely directly mentioned. Some of the individuals involved are still alive and doing the exact same work today (one individual who I know of via a close colleague, for example, just launched a major lit project, which I learned of initially through a naive establishment announcement). Then there are all the spin-offs, descendents (literal and figurative), influenced work, and the continued institutional grip of the establishment. (Much more on the CIA’s control or influencing of lit culture: http://apragmaticpolicy.wordpress.com/2007/01/26/art-literature-and-the-cia/)

We can turn to the silenced progressive critic for help in telling the story of Trilling’s role and time. Geismar:

“What was the real truth, the true historical dimension, of the Cold War? As I said in opening this Introduction, a new group of Cold War historians have been giving us a whole new set of impressions, which, alas, most of those who lived through the period, and are so certain of their convictions, will not even bother to read and to think about. For if they did…the Schlesingers, the Galbraiths, the Kristols, the Max Lerners, the Trillings, the Bells, the Rahvs, the Kazins, the Irving Howes: all these outstanding, upstanding figures of our political-cultural scene today…they would have to admit both their own illusions for the last twenty years, and the fact that they have deliberately deluded their readers about the historical facts of our period. Since it was they who fastened the Cold War noose around all our necks, how can we expect them to remove it? – even though, as in the cases of Mary McCarthy and Dwight MacDonald, and the estimable New York Review of Books, they have bowed a little to the changing winds of fashion today. Due to student protests at base, and student confrontations on Cold War issues, Professors Bell and Trilling have indeed moved on from Columbia to Harvard University – but after Harvard what? Mr. Trilling has even ‘resigned’ from contemporary literature, saying at long last that he does not understand it – but only after he led the attack for twenty years on such figures as the historian Vernon Parrington, the novelist Dreiser, the short-story writer Sherwood Anderson, and other such figures of our literary history. And only after the Columbia University English Department had taken the lead in setting up Henry James as ‘Receiver’ in what amounted to the bankruptcy of our national literature. The Cold War Liberals, historians, critics and so-called sociologists, also clustered around a set of prestigious literary magazines like Partisan Review, The New Leader, Encounter of London, Der Monat of Berlin, [also Kenyon Review and “many others”; Peter Matthiesson helped start the Paris Review as “a young CIA recruit…and used it as his cover"], which had in effect set the tone and the values of the ‘Free World’ culture. When it was revealed, about two years ago, that these leading cultural publications and organizations (the various Congresses and Committees for ‘Cultural Freedom’), as well as some student organizations and big unions of the AFL-CIO, were in fact being financed and controlled by Central Intelligence Agency – the game was up…” -(1969) Maxwell Geismar, “Introduction,” New Masses: An Anthology of the Rebel Thirties (Ed. Joseph North)

The “game was up” for some individuals, but not for the establishment as whole, as has been documented in detail. The game had long since been up for Trilling’s fiction. As Michael Kimmage astutely notes, Trilling is clearly “one in a long line of sensitive American novelists, eager to write a masterpiece out of American material and destroyed by the culture that is his subject.” Trilling is a special case though, for as Geismar points out, Trilling was a prominent part of the culture beyond fiction that helped lead the repressive charge. It’s more fitting than ironic, I suppose, that it led to the burial of Trilling’s own aspirations in fiction, his writer character Vincent and real life writers aside.

Trilling fell victim, in part, to apparent self-censorship and an ideology that he helped impose on others. As scholar James Petras notes perceptively in “The CIA and the Cultural Cold War Revisited” an indispensable review of Frances Stoner Saunder’s limited though useful book “The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters”:

“The singular lasting, damaging influence of the CIA’s Congress of Cultural Freedom crowd was not their specific defenses of U.S. imperialist policies, but their success in imposing on subsequent generations of intellectuals the idea of excluding any sustained discussion of U.S. imperialism from the influential cultural and political media. The issue is not that today’s intellectuals or artists may or may not take a progressive position on this or that issue. The problem is the pervasive belief among writers and artists that anti-imperialist social and political expressions should not appear in their music, paintings, and serious writing if they want their work to be considered of substantial artistic merit. The enduring political victory of the CIA was to convince intellectuals that serious and sustained political engagement on the left is incompatible with serious art and scholarship.”

So, again, we might note the usefulness of Mailer’s example (deplored by Geismar, incidentally) for fiction but also the severe limits – which leaves us today with the almost meaningless skirmishes between the so-called “hysterical realists” and Flaubertian intimatists, between the free-wheeling fabulists and the empathetic realists, and other establishment fronts and alignments. It leaves us with the many misrepresentations of star critics like James Wood, of the overt or de facto cultural cold warriors still going strong – including Leon Wieseltier who “edited and introduced Trilling’s collection ‘The Moral Obligation to Be Intelligent’,” published in 2000, and then in 2004 prominently hatcheted the first prominent novel critical of the US invasion of Iraq. Even before release for sale by its publisher, Checkpoint, the proclaimed (yet self-nullifying) antiwar short novel from established writer Nicholson Baker, was denounced in 2004 by the New Republic’s literary editor Wieseltier in the New York Times, in easily one of the longest “reviews” the book received, as “This scummy little book,” which opened his review and set the tone of Wieselstier’s screed, a fraudulent and hypocritical defense of capitalism and subservient literature.

While a number of other establishment reviews were much more sympathetic than the pitiful New York Times hatchet job, it was easy to be so, since Baker himself carried the establishment water, doing war resisters no favors by putting a sometimes meaningful criticism of the US conquest into the mouth of a homicidal lunatic set upon committing a murderous crime himself, the assassination of the president, which basically nullified any serious effect the book might have. The protagonist assassination intent, not the “supreme crime” of state aggression, was greatly publicized and primarily discussed and the book sold poorly. Regardless, the status quo smears by Wieseltier (a “liberal thinker” and one of the “ideas men of the liberal intellegentsia”) made sure that any other potential antiwar writers of the establishment consider carefully what they would face in trying to bring out a more popular, more considered, and more investigative antiwar novel. There has scarcely been a trickle since. (My own novel Homefront was very politely, even respectfully, declined by a couple of the most liberal of establishment presses for ostensibly aesthetic reasons. Given the lack of any other such novels, US state criminals can be relieved that, apparently, novels revolving overtly and directly around “the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself all the accumulated evil of the whole,” in the words of the judgment of Nuremberg, is an aesthetic impossibility.) This part of Trilling’s legacy and Mailer’s as well, also Wood’s and many others’, highlights some of the subservient nature of establishment literature past and present. Of course these are not writers without their qualities and worthwhile work. These are writers whose would be greater works are “destroyed by the culture that is [their] subject” and object too. They participate greatly in their works’ own self-destruction. Trilling aborted his fiction. And Geismar was prescient to see Mailer, and fiction generally, cavorting essentially manic or obtuse (when not in sheer false denial), away from any too close depiction of some of the most urgent central realities of our time. For his character Vincent, Trilling could manage no way out, but this remains not so much fiction’s dilemma as its self imposed chains. Mailer clanked and rattled in his bondage too, the “hysterical realists” and the rest likewise. The plight of fiction today, in many crucial ways, is a journey arrested.

By Tony Christini on 09/13/08 at 07:16 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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