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Wednesday, September 03, 2008

The Sociology of the Written Word

Posted by Guest Editor, Guest Author, on 09/03/08 at 11:48 AM

Stephen Schryer is a Postdoctoral Fellow at Concordia University.  He has published articles in PMLA and Modern Fiction Studies.

Although it is incomplete, Trilling’s newly discovered The Journey Abandoned should occupy a crucial position in all future assessments of his work.  Throughout his career, Trilling’s central preoccupation was the habits and ideas of the American intelligentsia, a group, he noted in 1939, “that has grown enormously in the last decade.” More than any other literary critic, he helped establish the notion that U.S. intellectuals form a distinct class and that writers, who are themselves members of this class, should turn their attention to it.  “The novel of the next decades,” he predicted in The Liberal Imagination, “will deal in a very explicit way with ideas.” Influenced by this conception of the novel, many American writers of the 1940s turned away from the naturalistic subjects that dominated the literary culture of the 1930s, focusing instead on the role of ideas and intellectuals in U.S. society.  As Saul Bellow later reflected about the period’s literary debates, “it seemed to me at a certain point we had gone as far in America as stupidity would get us.  We were living in a very sophisticated society – on the technological side, extremely sophisticated – surrounded by all sorts of curious inventions and writers still insisted on sitting on the curb and playing poker and talking about whores.” In essays like “Reality in America” (1949), Trilling helped establish one of the core assumptions of this fiction – namely, the notion that with the expansion of the intelligentsia, ideas play a greater role than ever before in determining social reality.  This assumption would eventually culminate in the 1960s / 1970s notion of the “new class,” espoused by writers and social critics associated with both the New Left and neoconservative right.

In the late 1940s, Trilling’s own published contributions to this new genre seemed slight.  His first novel, The Middle of the Journey, focuses on a group of 1930s intellectuals who wrestle with the key political issues of that decade: in particular, the fallout from the Moscow Trials.  For the most part, however, The Middle of the Journey is a weak example of the intellectual novel that Trilling called for in his criticism.  Most of the reviews were negative; it seemed like the kind of fiction that one might expect from a writer who is primarily a literary critic: an overly talky novel of ideas, in which characters pause for long periods to discuss contrasting interpretations of Billy Budd.  It lacks the sense of embodied intellect characteristic of the continental writers whom the New York intellectuals most admired (André Malraux, Ignazio Silone) and of like-minded U.S. novelists such as Saul Bellow and Mary McCarthy.

The Journey Abandoned shares some of the weaknesses of that earlier novel; in particular, it suffers from Trilling’s awkward desire to recreate the Jamesian novel.  Nevertheless, had he completed it, The Journey Abandoned would have been the broadest, most ambitious fiction about the intellectual class published in the immediate post-World War II period.  Whereas The Middle of the Journey focuses on five liberal and ex-liberal intellectuals isolated in a bucolic Connecticut village, The Journey Abandoned constructs an elaborate tableau of intellectual types – from Vincent Hammell, its young protagonist, to Jorris Buxton, the literary and scientific lion whose biography he is hired to write.  Although still a novel of ideas, it is more interested in the manners and customs, class and ethnic backgrounds of U.S. intellectuals.  Moreover, in the figure of Garda Thorne, the novel creates one of the few sympathetic representations of a female intellectual available in 1940s and 1950s fiction.

In constructing this tableau, Trilling is guided by a set of ideas laid out in Vincent’s first published article, “The Sociology of the Written Word,” “a long and rather desperate examination of the various perils that beset the young man who gives himself to the life of the mind.” The essay, whose title sums up the sociological ambitions of Trilling’s own novel, outlines the dilemma that all literary intellectuals encounter, especially if they come from relatively low social origins.  As Vincent notes, literature is one of the few vocations open to ambitious youth from the lower middle class; it requires no outlay of capital, only the courage to put words to paper.  This vocation, however, poses a dilemma for the young writer who takes it seriously.  Literature, Vincent reflects, is “a game with almost impossible rules.  Moral superiority consists in being indifferent to society’s demands and even hostile to them.  Yet praise and fame are being sought – what else can bestow them save this rejected society itself.” Trilling thus outlines the complex logic that governs his various intellectuals as they try to establish a position for themselves in a civilization in which, as one of the novel’s businessmen puts it, “even spiritual values are for sale, like everything else.” In such a society, the intelligentsia is at once dependent upon yet antagonistic toward to the bourgeoisie, and this mixed attitude breeds a pervasive ressentiment.  Trilling thus captures what Pierre Bourdieu describes as the characteristic attitude of the intelligentsia – the sense of being “dominated members of a dominant class.”

Trilling explores this class logic by creating a series of paired male characters, whose friendships are torn apart by the contrary demands of intellectual integrity and economic prosperity.  The first such pairing is between Vincent Hammell and Toss Dodge.  In an early chapter that Geraldine Murphy rightly singles out as one of the novel’s best moments, Vincent reminisces about the development and disintegration of their boyhood friendship.  When the two boys meet, they are immediately struck by their class similarities and differences.  Toss belongs to a more fortunate social class; his father is an architect, his mother will eventually come into a sizable inheritance.  Vincent comes from the lower-middle class; his father is an optometrist who falls on hard times during the Great Depression.  However, Vincent has something that Toss does not – an undefined sense of distinction instilled in him by his anxious, upwardly striving mother; “into Vincent had gone the desire, the tension of Mrs. Hammell’s own life, the delayed marriage, the delayed and difficult pregnancy, all her will in overcoming difficulties.” Lacking Toss’s economic advantages, Vincent channels this ambition into the acquisition of educationally-acquired cultural capital; he is, in short, already on the trajectory that will transform him into an intellectual.  Murphy, in her introduction, notes that Trilling planned to rewrite Vincent as a Jewish character in future revisions, and indeed his exaggerated attachment to culture makes most sense if we read Vincent as a second-generation Jew.

This difference between the two boys rigidifies into mutual antagonism when they go to college.  Vincent attends the local public university, the only institution that his parents can afford.  Here, he falls in with a raffish group of bohemian intellectuals who resemble the Trostkyite cliques that emerged at City College and the University of Chicago in the 1930s.  Toss, in contrast, goes to Yale, where he cultivates the professional and business associations that will serve him well in future years.  As they mature, the two young men “become members of different races.  One becomes a ‘business man’ and the other an ‘intellectual.’ Each one comes to believe that the facts of ingestion, procreation and death are not quite the same with this former friend, once so nearly another self, as with himself.” Trilling, a careful novelist of manners, extends his examination of the two men’s class differences to minor details such as their respective habits in book consumption.  Toss collects expensive books with fine leather bindings, which function as symbols for his desire “to establish himself in life and in life’s fine things.” Vincent’s books are cheap editions, “soiled with much handling” and filled with vocabulary notes. 

The point of this fracture, however, is that the two boys share many of the same class values and retain their boyhood fascination with each other.  Toss admires the life of the mind, even as he eschews the intellectual’s otherworldliness.  Vincent, meanwhile, experiences a sense of awe in the presence of money and power.  Waiting in a gentleman’s club for the meeting that will launch his career as Buxton’s biographer, Vincent reflects that the gathered businessmen are those who “made the things and decisions that affected the lives at least of thousands, perhaps of millions.” In addition, Vincent recognizes the material impetus behind his own career; his intellectual passion, he reflects, “was interwoven with his vulgar will to be ‘successful.’”

This fractured friendship mirrors that between Vincent’s intellectual mentor, Theodore Kramer, and his eventual benefactor, Harold Outram.  Prof. Kramer exemplifies the fate of the intellectual who eschews the lure of fame and money altogether, settling for an obscure lectureship at City University, where he teaches courses in comparative literature.  The cost of this purism, however, is a kind of intellectual sterility.  He is a man “of such scrupulous intellectual honesty that he could bring no work to a satisfactory conclusion.” Outram, in contrast, is an intellectual sell-out – a gifted novelist who sacrifices his talents in order to become a magazine writer and foundation administrator.  For Kramer, Outram represents the threat of compromised intellect allied with economic and political power.  As director of the Peck Foundation, Outram “coordinates culture in America.” In Kramer’s eyes, he is responsible for the middlebrow dilution of culture that results in institutions like Meadowfield – the Midwestern community center that caters to the philistine tastes of the upper middle class.  As in the case of Vincent and Toss, however, the two ex-college friends resemble each other more than not.  Kramer is himself a kind of sell-out who has abandoned the perils of the literary vocation for the professional comforts of academia; Outram’s value for the Peck Foundation lies in the fact that he still carries about him the aura of the independent man of letters.

In contrast to these two failed literary intellectuals, Jorris Buxton and Garda Thorne exemplify the successful intellectual life.  Buxton fuses a literary and scientific vocation in a manner impossible since the professionalization of the disciplines in the nineteenth century; at the age of 40, after a successful literary career, he decided to become one the world’s foremost mathematical physicists.  This is extremely improbable, but it allows Trilling to construct Buxton as a fantasy figure for the ideal American intellectual.  When Vincent first encounters Buxton, now in his eighties, he experiences a sensation of “pure disinterestedness, the emotion of contemplation.” This strange passage, in which an octogenarian embodies the Kantian beautiful, highlights the fact that for Vincent, Buxton exemplifies the pure life of the mind, untouched by economic temptations.  As Vincent writes to Kramer, “You would find him, as I do, the negation of everything you have ever fought against.” The irony of this claim is that Buxton only achieves this disinterestedness by abandoning the arts for the most abstract of all the physical sciences – one of the few pure scholarly endeavors generously funded by the state.  Garda similarly embodies the uncompromised intellectual life; she is a writer’s writer who carefully crafts short stories, which she publishes at infrequent intervals.  Geraldine Murphy, in her introduction, sees Garda as a portrait of Mary McCarthy.  She also resembles Katherine Anne Porter, who similarly produced finely polished short stories at an infrequent rate and was known for her glamorous beauty and active erotic life.  Even Garda, however, must ultimately contend with the logic of the marketplace that corrupts the novel’s other literary intellectuals.  As Vincent explains to his writing class at Meadowfield, Garda’s slow writing pace increases the rarity and marketability of her stories, which are eagerly bought up by editors.

All of this serves as exposition for the novel Trilling never completed; The Journey Abandoned ends with the introduction of Perdita Post, the nymphet whose erotic entanglement with Buxton will destroy his reputation.  However, the finished third of the novel that we do have is fascinating for the way that it captures Trilling’s thinking about U.S. intellectuals at a crucial point in his career.  Later in life, Trilling would help inspire the neoconservative notion that liberal intellectuals are a hegemonic “new class,” responsible for disseminating the adversary culture to a broad, educated public.  “Between the end of the first quarter of this century and the present time there has grown up a populous group whose members take for granted the idea of the adversary culture,” he argued in Beyond Culture.  This group “is not without power, and we can say of it, as we can say of any other class with a degree of power, that it seeks to aggrandize and perpetuate itself.” Broadly disseminated in the 1970s and 1980s, this conception of intellectuals as members of a dangerous liberal elite would become a staple of conservative cultural rhetoric, used as an argument for cutting back funds for public education and dismantling redistributive social programs.  One of the merits of The Journey Abandoned is that it highlights the more complex understanding of U.S. intellectuals that always underlay Trilling’s work.


"The irony of this claim is that Buxton only achieves this disinterestedness by abandoning the arts for the most abstract of all the physical sciences – one of the few pure scholarly endeavors generously funded by the state.”

I haven’t read the Trilling work in question, but, speaking as an ex-physicist, this sentence metaphorically squeaked along the blackboard.  The most abstract?  In the late 40s?  I don’t know how a foremost mathematical physicist of the era funded by the state could have avoided some sense of connection to the atom bomb.

By on 09/04/08 at 09:14 PM | Permanent link to this comment

You’re absolutely right, Rich; I should have caught this.  It nicely ironizes the novel’s depiction of Buxton as removed from vulgar, material concerns.

By on 09/04/08 at 09:39 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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