Wednesday, September 03, 2008
The Journey Resumed?
Harvey Teres is Associate Professor of English at Syracuse University. He is the author of Renewing the Left: Politics, Imagination, and the New York Intellectuals, and the forthcoming Going Public: Linking the Literary Academy and the Common Reader.
Columbia University Press’s decision to publish an early draft of an unfinished, untitled novel by Lionel Trilling is a welcome reminder that the critic and novelist who loomed so large in American culture until the 1970s continues to have a hold, at least on some of us. Although Trilling’s influence is limited, he’s admired by literary journalists and by those within the academy who address a public audience about public issues. But certainly for the vast majority of traditional academic scholars and their students, Trilling’s a name from the past that connotes a moral and mandarin style of belle lettres that was swept aside by the theory revolution of the past several decades. Of this I can testify with first hand evidence. I recently taught a graduate seminar on the New York Intellectuals; I assigned a dozen or so of Trilling’s most influential essays, and devoted a three-hour class to discussing them. After my students had completed the reading, but before the discussion began, I asked them each to write a paragraph on whether they thought Trilling would be an important critic for them in their future academic career. Here are several unedited samples of the responses I received:
I think that Trilling’s value lies in his ability to give compelling individual snapshots of ideas and literary works: his definition of “manners” is not only beautifully articulated, but has the ring of truth. Likewise, his intervention into debates on Dreiser and James in “Reality in America” is illuminating, particularly for the way he reminds us that style is not merely ornamental, but fundamentally generative of a writer’s project. But I think that ultimately his concern with morality and literature is not a terribly useful approach to criticism—it seems a holdover from a cold war political mindset. Whether a book has significant “moral” qualities is not a question that leads us to understanding a text’s place within cultural modes of production and political discourse. . . . Our work has shifted to cultural theorization and the understanding of systematic relations of the literary within and to a complex of social networks; the individual and isolated consideration of texts and authors practiced by Trilling doesn’t seem immediately relevant.
Brief excerpts from two other responses confirm the verdict:
I do think Trilling’s use of nuances could be useful, and that his style could serve as a model for writing critical essays that are articulate and forceful. At the same time, most of his content does seem outdated, or at least dated. His interest in psychoanalysis is irrelevant today, and so is his insistence on an objective morality. He is fascinating as an historical figure and a historical intellectual, but the urgency of his writing then does not translate into urgency for me now.
I study Naturalist/Progressive Era writing. Trilling is dismissive of both. His unvarnished elitism discounts everything I love about late 19th-early 20th-century writing. Despite his contributions to the field as a whole, there is no reason to ever refer to him in my work.
Now I think it likely that my students would’ve written somewhat differently about Trilling had I asked them the same question after our seminar. I hope that I succeeded at least in part in disabusing them of some of their notions regarding his understanding of morality, his elitism, and his irrelevance to students of late 19th and early 20th-century writing. But although I probably corrected these several errors, I don’t think I altered very dramatically their sense that Trilling couldn’t reasonably be considered an important critic today. At seminar’s close I couldn’t help but compare my students to Trilling’s—the ones he famously described in “On the Teaching of Modern Literature” who looked into the abyss depicted by modernist writers and dutifully and casually drew the required life (and career) lessons. Whereas Trilling’s students had responded to fierce moral, political, and artistic utterance with nonchalant acceptance, mine had responded with too-easy skepticism. As I considered my students’ responses with growing distress, I felt for a moment that I’d rather have been teaching Trilling’s.
Anyone who’s been teaching in the profession these past few decades will know why my students consider Trilling so alien. Upon his death in 1975 there was no living American literary critic whose standing both inside and outside the academy was higher. But this judgment soon changed, and changed dramatically as continental modes of specialized and professionalized literary theory swept literary studies. Within a decade Trilling’s name had all but disappeared from the syllabus, and it was left to a platoon of prominent public critics—Louis Menand, Leon Weiseltier, David Bromwich, David Remnick, to name a few--to continue in his line and keep his name alive within the public sphere. These have been decades that began in heady excitement but too often ended in moribund scholasticism. What began as an apparent further exploration of the issues Trilling and the New York intellectuals dwelt upon--the intersection of literature and politics; the nature and role of popular culture; the vicissitudes of ideology; and manners, morals, money, and class (the “knot of roots whose flower and fruitage is the world,” in Emerson’s phrase)—these concerns slowly devolved into increasingly hermetic considerations of texts and ideology with no discernible reference to constituencies, movements, parties, or institutions outside the Byzantine world of disciplinary politics.
I can recall reading Althusser on ideology, and wondering what the commotion was, for Trilling had handled the issue of ideology in superior fashion in “Manners, Morals, and the Novel.” Althusser’s formulation, “Ideology is a representation of the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence,” despite seeming to be a revelation to many, always struck me as flawed by the same buried scientism, overly cognitive bias, and crude sociology found in the doctrinaire notions of ideology it was meant to replace. Compare Trilling: ideology “is the habit or ritual of showing respect to certain formulas . . . [to which] we have very strong ties of whose meaning and consequences in actuality we have no clear understanding” (from “The Meaning of a Literary Idea”). Trilling preferred to discuss “manners,” or
a culture’s hum and buzz of implication. I mean the whole evanescent context in which its explicit statements are made. It is that part of a culture which is made up of half-uttered or unuttered or unutterable expressions of value. . . They are hinted at by small actions, sometimes by the arts of dress or decoration, sometimes by tone, gesture emphasis, or rhythm. . . .In this part of culture assumption rules, which is often much stronger than reason” (from “Manners, Morals, and the Novel”).
Trilling’s idea makes it impossible to know the operations of manners, or ideology, without immersion in a given culture, and it rules out the condescending notion that all but the privileged few are the benighted bearers of false consciousness.
I recall also reading Gramsci appreciatively on hegemony, and preferring the Trilling of “The Fate of Pleasure,” in which, as part of a limpid discussion of Werner Sombart’s Luxury and Capitalism, he commented on “the growing tendency of power to express itself mediately, by signs or indices, rather than directly, by the exercise of force.” Or, finally, again reading Gramsci, this time on organic versus traditional intellectuals, and sensing a greater understanding in Trilling of the multiple possibilities available to intellectuals in the modern setting that a binary model such as Gramsci’s could not accommodate. In “The Function of the Little Magazine” and in his response to the famous 1952 Partisan Review symposium “Our Country and Our Culture,” (later expanded and published as an essay entitled “The Situation of the American Intellectual at the Present Time”), Trilling offered a cautious appreciation for the opportunities available to the critical intellectual who chose to address the world of experience available to most American citizens rather than posing himself or herself against that world as an advocate of an alternative one. If one returns to his remarkable response to the symposium, one cannot but conclude it’s a very un-Trillingesque statement, at least as defined by his critics, who like to emphasize his remoteness, mandarinism, or, in the words of Ann Douglas, his “omnivorously elegiac prose.”. In point of fact Trilling’s response was very nearly Whitmanesque in its appeal for communion, or adhesiveness, between intellectuals and what he actually calls “one’s own people”:
. . .[T]here comes a moment when the faces, the gait, the tone, the manner and manners of one’s own people become just what one needs, and the whole look and style of one’s culture seems appropriate, seems perhaps not good but intensely possible. What your compatriots are silently saying about the future, about life and death, may seem suddenly very accessible to you, and not wrong. You are at a gathering of people, or you are in a classroom, and, being the kind of unpleasant person you are, you know that you might take one individual after another and make yourself fully aware of his foolishness or awkwardness, and that you might say, “And this is my country! And this is my culture!” But instead of doing that, you let yourself become aware of something that is really in the room, some common intention of the spirit, which, although it may be checked and impeded, is not foolish or awkward but rather graceful, and not wrong. . . .Something of this sort of feeling is, I think, at work among American intellectuals at this time (The Moral Obligation to be Intelligent, 277).
Trilling wrote this as a momentous shift was taking place in American society, for it was then that the chief agencies of American society—government, finance, industry, journalism, and the academy—availed themselves of a large new educated class of people with considerable training and intellectual skill. Trilling reminded his readers that although the use to which this immense pool of talent was put was rarely defensible, nonetheless the sociological fact that the place of intellect had changed could not be denied. “Intellect,” he bluntly declared, “has associated itself with power, perhaps as never before in history” (Moral Obligation, 280). For this reason alone—his awareness of the incorporation of intelligence in American society and his desire for some sort of adhesion to American actualities--Trilling ought to interest us. It is the reason I think his example has something to contribute to any current reconsideration of what role we might wish to have as academic humanists in the world beyond our campus borders.
All of these considerations bring me to the unfinished novel The Journey Abandoned, a text that portends what would likely have been a novel that beautifully addresses these all-important matters. Of course, we have to be cautious when it comes to interpreting a text as partial as this; as Robert Warshow once wrote of Trilling’s only complete novel The Middle of the Journey (quoted by Geraldine Murphy in her useful Introduction) we should avoid the “tendency to place upon the material a greater weight of meaning than it can bear.” This said, I want to focus on some of the important moral and social issues raised by the novel, and discuss their relevance to the matters I have broached above. As Murphy observes, this is a novel that above all explores the class and institutional contingencies of intellectual life in mid-century America. It asks what it means to be an academic, what it means to be “a man of letters,” to use the old-fashioned term, and whether the two can be at all compatible. More dramatically, it asks whether the idea of moral integrity is consistent with power and success. Trilling certainly planned for a novel that would be consistent in precisely this way. He clearly wanted to produce a morally complex novel, but he also wanted to appeal to a broad readership and thus to achieve commercial and critical success. He states in his commentary on the novel that he wants to treat “the profession of the arts” in a matter of fact way in order “to make the ordinary reader more at home, less likely to think that he is engaged with a book that has a merely private—professional—reference” (155-156). To this end, Trilling sought to write what he termed a “less intellectualized, more open” novel than The Middle of the Journey.
The characters Trilling has depicted, and the unfolding dilemmas they face (or more accurately, will likely face), suggest a finished novel that would have confronted some morally complex matters with a great deal of subtlety and nuance, and moreover would likely have done so by manifesting a greater degree of negative capability than The Middle of the Journey, whose anti-Stalinist moral and political stance was unambiguous. Although Popular Front politics remains a concern of Trilling’s in The Journey Abandoned and comes in for consistently ironic treatment, it does not seem the bete noire it once was. Rather, the developing drama surrounding Jorris Buxton, the heroic figure modeled on Walter Savage Landor, will inevitably provoke most of the characters, especially Buxton’s young biographer Vincent Hammell, the central character of the novel whose shoulder Trilling looks over. Buxton’s drama, like Landor’s, is precipitated by a romantic relationship between the eighty-year-old humanist and scientist, a man of enormous scholarly distinction, and a teenage girl. It would seem that Buxton, following Landor, will publicly defend himself and the girl, who he believes has been used by a scheming and ambitious caretaker, Claudine Post. According to Trilling, writing in his Preface, a modernized version of these events will provide him with the opportunity to explore “what a really heroic person like [Landor] might be in modern America” (xlix). (It is interesting that a decade or so after producing this partial draft of a novel Trilling would be so taken with Nabokov’s Lolita. In the 1950s he published the influential essay “The Last Lover,” and, apropos of the larger matter of public intellectual life, he appeared with Nabokov in a televised discussion of the novel [you can view the conversation at www.youtube.com]. And not to put too fine a point on it, Buxton’s plight in The Journey Abandoned raises some of the same seminal issues explored in Philip Roth’s recent work, particularly The Dying Animal.)
What Buxton might be to Vincent Hammell, his biographer, no doubt will matter most. Hammell’s career parallels Trilling’s early career in some important respects. Like Trilling he is an outsider to academia--Trilling because of his Jewish faith, Hammell because of his Midwestern background and his inferior class status. Both in their early careers teach part time and lecture to non-traditional students from the community. Both write for local newspapers (Trilling wrote twenty-eight reviews for the New York Evening Post from December, 1927 to September, 1929, which I explore in my forthcoming book). Both become involved with literary circles of mostly Jewish students partial to modernism, and both are deeply concerned with the role of intellectuals. Hammell’s chief publication is an essay entitled “The Sociology of the Written Word,” described as an account of intellectual life as a profession. As Buxton’s biographer, Hammell is strategically positioned to observe and meditate on a number of conflicts that illuminate the moral and institutional status of intellectual life in America. His response to Buxton’s simmering scandal will force him to take full stock of the subject of his book and wrestle with the changing priorities of Buxton’s unusual career, his troubled private life, his sense of honor, his courage, his innocence, and his recklessness. The wisdom of Hammell’s own decision to write Buxton’s biography, will likely hang in the balance and perhaps in the end will provide the basis for a revised version of “The Sociology of the Written Word.”
The other character that looms large in Trilling’s exploration of the possibilities and confinements of intellectual life is Harold Outram, a brilliant scholar who, as Trilling describes it in his Preface, has established himself by a “complication of professions.” “It is at least a question,” continues Trilling, “if he has not made his success by some compromise with his best talents” (l). Outram receives his doctorate in his early twenties, publishes a series of extraordinary essays and a well-received novel while still young, and then becomes the darling of the left, “the pet of a hundred committees, clubs, leagues, and guilds” (16). He joins the proletarian literary movement, but soon renounces the Communist Party and suffers a breakdown. Once recovered, he becomes a successful magazine writer and is then appointed director of the Peck Foundation, where he controls the dispensation of millions of dollars “for the advancement of American culture” 17). What I find most interesting about Trilling’s handling of Outram is his apparent commitment to complicating his role. There are several strong clues that suggest Trilling will challenge the established binary behind the sentiment so pervasive within the left in Trilling’s day, “there’s no failure like success.” The first clue is that the most vehement critic of Outram, the man who most vociferously claims him to be a sellout, is his jealous erstwhile friend, the unsuccessful, unstable and unreliable academic Teddy Kramer. Whereas Kramer sees Outram as a monster, Hammell’s old friend Toss Dodge doesn’t buy the guilty verdict assigned to Outram. By no means a normative character, Toss is nonetheless capable of insight, so his unwillingness to demonize the man who’s lost his “integrity” (Trilling’s scare quotes) raises real questions. It’s impossible to know just who the cautionary figure of the novel will be, but I’d argue that given the evidence at hand, Kramer is more likely to be that figure than Outram.
The Journey Abandoned creates morally complex characters, unfolds dramas, and sounds themes that remind us of why its author should matter to us. Contrary to the claims of some critics that Trilling no longer counts because he was merely a critic of the middle class, it’s precisely because Trilling immerses himself in that class—a class that lives inside and outside the academy—that he has something to say to a professoriate that aspires to speak for others but rarely manages to speak to others. Trilling’s purview of the middle class is undoubtedly blinkered insofar as it lacks a view of the diverse sectors of that class, but who among us has developed stronger connections? Until we do, dismissals of Trilling ring hollow. Like all of Trilling’s work—the fiction and the criticism both—this unfinished novel was a situational and pragmatic effort to bore through calcified ideology and explore the possibilities for developing a more discerning and honest public intellectual life. There’s of course much else in Trilling’s oeuvre with a similar perspective on the scholar or critic or novelist’s public role. His famous essay “George Orwell and the Politics of Truth” is nothing if not a celebration of that writer’s willingness to share the lives of ordinary Englishmen because “he is not happy in the institutionalized life of intellectuality.” His “passion for the literal actuality of life,” in Trilling’s words, resembles that of the great 19th-century working class leader William Cobbett’s Rural Rides. Among Orwell’s books Trilling most admired were Down and Out in Paris and London and The Road to Wigan Pier, both of which describe the author’s experiences living among working people.
There’s also the famous revisionist essay “William Dean Howells and the Roots of Modern Taste,” which sought to revive the reputation of a writer scorned by those whose apocalyptic politics and taste for the tragic in literature caused them to condescend to this Victorian writer who had the unmitigated gall to direct his fellow writers to concern themselves with “the more smiling aspects” of American life. As Leon Wieseltier points out in his fine introduction to The Moral Obligation to be Intelligent, Trilling ardently praised Howells for devoting many chapters of a novel to its hero’s hunt for an apartment. Earlier, of course, in one of his most influential essays “Mr. Parrington, Mr. Smith, and Reality” (subsequently given the less polemical title “Reality in America”) Trilling had dealt a knockout blow to the reputation of Theodore Dreiser, but in doing so he nonetheless praised Dreiser for having “the saving salt of the American mind, the lively sense of the practical, workaday world, of the welter of ordinary undistinguished things and, of the tangible, quirky, unrefined elements of life. He knew what so many literary historians do not know, that emotions and ideas are the sparks that fly when the mind meets difficulties” (Moral Obligation, 72). Today, having come to terms with Dreiser, but not with Trilling, we tend to forget that Trilling said such a thing. Last, there’s the extraordinary biography of Matthew Arnold, still definitive, whose insistent engagement with issues of Trilling’s own day, namely anti-Semitism and fascism, continues to surprise, and please.
I want to mention as well, before closing, an important but overlooked project which Trilling undertook in 1951 in partnership with W.H. Auden and Jacques Barzun, the founding of The Readers’ Subscription Book Club, which, after folding in 1963, was revived, although now it looks like it might be folding once again. The Club’s pitch, written by Auden, was as follows: “Poets and Professors and all those whose love of books exceeds their love of automobiles will welcome a chance to save in excess of 50% on their book purchases.” As Jacques Barzun has reminded us, this was no grassroots affair. It started from the business end of things and its primary purpose was to increase the sales of books. During the eleven years they wrote for the book club Auden, Barzun, and Trilling produced some 173 reviews and essays. I have not made a count of Trilling’s contributions, but they number in the dozens. They cover novels, poetry, plays, history, art, and film, and they are written in an informal, relaxed, and sometimes quite personal manner, unlike his more vaunted essays. In his memoir of Trilling written a year after Trilling’s death in 1975, Jacques Barzun recalls “taking in stride” Trilling’s entreaty to “disseminate good books,” for Trilling never regarded the general public with scorn. On the contrary, he directed his remonstrances at those of his fellow professions who lacked appreciation for the denizens and dignities of ordinary life.
If academic literary and cultural studies are once again to experience the excitement and vitality of the 1970s when theories and methodologies proliferated and the narrow agenda of the New Criticism was burst asunder, and if the humanities are to end its long hibernation by establishing vital links to the larger world, we could do worse than to look to the writing and practice of Lionel Trilling as an imperfect but compelling, model for “elements that are wanted.” Columbia University Press’s publication of The Journey Abandoned affords us yet another opportunity to do just that.
I think that ultimately his concern with morality and literature is not a terribly useful approach to criticism . . . Whether a book has significant “moral” qualities is not a question that leads us to understanding a text’s place within cultural modes of production and political discourse. . . . Our work has shifted to cultural theorization and the understanding of systematic relations of the literary within and to a complex of social networks; the individual and isolated consideration of texts and authors practiced by Trilling doesn’t seem immediately relevant . . .
Understandably, but perhaps also regrettably, these evaluations (at least from the samples you’ve given) seem intensely professional (’that’s not what “we” do today’) rather than principled (I don’t mean that word to be particularly loaded, but it’s the best I could come up with on the spot for the opposite of ‘driven by professional or market concerns’). They don’t address what they think criticism ought to do, that is, but focus on how closely Trilling’s work reflects current critical trends. For instance, might the kind of, say, moral analysis of literature they see in Trilling be intrinsically valuable or important, even though it is not currently a professional priority?
It’s certainly understandable that grad students would be focussed on professional concerns. I think that one can treat that at a matter of life-stage, not as anything intrinsic to contemporary ideas about Trilling or his era’s replacement by theoretical modes.
But this continues a long conversion at the Valve, which Trilling via Holbo has certainly strongly influenced. People may really want to go back and read some of the early Theory’s Empire posts. My opinion, stated baldly because I’ve argued it too many times already: the theoretical approach that the student refers to is essentially apolitical. “[...] understanding a text’s place within cultural modes of production and political discourse. . . . [...] understanding of systematic relations of the literary within and to a complex of social networks”—it’s bland scientism inflected with the worst, deterministic part of Marxism, pre-chewing every individual text into a paste of baby food that actual sociology has grown up past and doesn’t want any longer. It’s supposed to be about politics, and therefore supports an attitude of etiolated leftism, but it’s suitable for analysis of no actual political event or idea.
It may or may not be professional—what’s professional in the academic humanities is whatever academic humanists agree is professional, mostly—but it’s in no way suitable for the public intellectual concerned with politics. I think that’s a better way of phrasing it; starting with “what criticism *ought* to do” seems to bring in the assumptions of moral analysis as an argument for it.
starting with “what criticism *ought* to do” seems to bring in the assumptions of moral analysis as an argument for it
You’re right, Rich, and that’s not really what I was going after so much (or not just--my own interest in moral / ethical criticism, which is not, after all, a dead field today, is no doubt part of what makes me restless with these sorts of definitions of what kind of criticism is ‘useful’).
As great an essayist as Trilling was, the Jamesian diction sometimes defeats me; I’m more comfortable in the worlds of Kazin, Schwartz, and Baldwin.
As to his canonicity, I see the greatest reverence for Trilling expressed in the work of philosophers, Taylor and Appiah. And the lectures constituting Sincerity and Authenticity are, I think, worthy of all that (not that I’d want to do without Gramsci, Williams, and Hall on ideology, myself: all the guys I’ve mentioned do a great job of supplementing each other’s limitations).
IMO This is precisely why The Valve is destined to remain a very exclusive (in every sense of the word) club. Not many browsers will be able to follow this convoluted critique, worthy though it doubtless is, and therefore will be alienated.
Frankly, if you don’t like politics, comics or deliberatly obscure (oh, what a clever boy/girl am I ...) ‘lit. crit.’ you’re not welcome or wanted here and I write as a supposed ‘academic’.
Reading should defy categorisation not encourage it but ‘The Valve’ does just that i.e. ‘categorise’: ‘never be clear when you can be obscure’ appears to be the modus operandi and it’s working very well, chaps, as the same dozen names turn up on every post.
If that’s what you want, fine, but don’t look any further than your own posts to see why more potential bloggers are turned off and tune out!
"Not many browsers will be able to follow this convoluted critique…”
Hmm. Have your plug-ins been updated? Make sure you have the latest version of Adobe Clarify.
Seriously, do you go to science blogs and complain that they keep mentioning the same dozen scientists and theories in every post? Logging on to a lit criticism site just to complain that you don’t understand lit crit, is near the top of the least productive things you can do with your time or anyone else’s.