Wednesday, September 03, 2008
Trilling’s Unfinished Novel
Eugene Goodheart is Professor Emeritus of English at Brandeis University. His most recent book is Darwinian Misadventures in the Humanities.
What follows are fragmentary reflections on what is itself a fragment of a novel.
The time of The Journey Abandoned is 1937. In his commentary on the work, Trilling says he wanted a year somewhere between 1929 and 1939. I doubt whether anxieties about the depression and the prospect of world war were absent in 1937, but the choice of the year is revealing about the kind of novel he wanted to write. It ignores the major social and political upheavals of the time. The characters and actions of the projected novel are products of a somewhat insular romantic imagination. This is not to disparage the work. Its realism is in its representation of an aspiring writer at a time when serious literature is threatened by the commercial demands of the publishing industry. The protagonist’s prospective publisher tells him that the novel (the serious novel) is dead. (Trilling’s great ambition, greater than any pleasure he got from writing criticism, was to write novels.) It is a time that hasn’t passed. The power of commerce over the literary imagination is greater than ever.
For me the two most striking qualities of Trilling’s imagination are its gravitas and its fastidiousness. These qualities, missing from contemporary fiction, have their American provenance in Henry James, whose ghost haunts the novel. Consider, for example, the way in which the ceremony by which characters address each other is observed. The writer Garda Thorne (partly based on Mary McCarthy, the editor of the novel informs us) addresses Vincent Hammell, the protagonist, on first meeting him. She begins with “Mr. Hammell,” then quickly asks him whether he would mind being called “Vincent.” Hammell responds by saying he would be “honored.” “She lifted the bottle brusquely and let the whiskey fall into the glass… ‘Honored is not precisely the word I should have wanted you to choose.’ She said it with manifest dryness.” Her motive for becoming friends with Hammell is self-protection: he has been chosen to be the biographer of the great scientist Joris Buxton, her ex-lover and friend. The novel displays and affirms a hypertrophic sensitivity to the complications of human relationships expressed in the way language is used. Every relationship, every moment in an encounter, is sifted through the strenuously discriminating sensibility of the protagonist, often not to be distinguished from that of the narrator. No character can afford to relax in idle chatter. The title of Leon Wieseltier’s anthology of Trilling’s writings, The Moral Imperative to be Intelligent, is apposite here. It’s as if Trilling, through his protagonist was insisting that all his characters be always on the qui vive for le mot juste. A failure of diction or of tone is virtually a sin against “the human spirit”. At one point in the novel, Hammell uses the phrase. Taking issue with the cynicism of Harold Outram, his prospective publisher, he asserts the persistence of the human spirit, “even if it contracts momentarily at times” (58). He is aware that he has already used the phrase twice” and that to do so “would have ordinarily disgusted him, but on this occasion he clung to it and used it again.” Such fastidiousness about the use of language is endemic in the novel. Aestheticism is a word that comes to mind but of a particularly American sort. Its avatar, as I have already remarked, is Trillling’s literary hero, Henry James. As for gravitas, what is graver than the following characterization of the boyhood of Hammell and his friend Tom Dodge, “They were indefatigable moralists. They judged everything and were great partisans of justice in all things, in their relations with each other, in the discipline of school, in the dealings of shopkeepers and their parents, and even in politics” (9).
The Journey Abandoned is saturated with literary allusion. Hammell is going through a rough period. “Sterility” and “despair” (depression in the contemporary psychological idiom) are the narrator’s words for it. Kramer, his former teacher and friend, is sufficiently Freudian to suggest that the problem may be sexual. He thinks that Hammell should have a series of affairs. “You know a boy like you should have many triumphs in his campaigns.” The narrator notes “the old diction of love with its metaphors of warfare.” Goethe’s “amours” come to mind as proof that erotic conquests are a route to artistic success. As it turns out, Kramer is a puritan for whom this “line of action would be [as] impossible as cannibalism. But it was part of the tradition of his youth to war on Puritanism” (29-31). Hammell smiles in response to his former teacher and friend, amused by his awkwardness in the matter, but Kramer belongs to the spirit of the novel in the encompassing literariness in which most of the characters live.
The drama of what we have (though not necessarily of what Trilling promised for the completed work) is in the struggle to find the right words in defining character. Jorris Buxton, a poet turned world famous scientist, is slated to be a hero of the novel, not its protagonist (that role belongs to Hammell). His appearance in this fragment of a novel is minimal, but he is the preoccupation of the other characters. Before meeting him, Hammell, who has been chosen to be his biographer, wants to know what he is like. He queries the wife of his publisher, May Outram, “Will I find him difficult?” She equivocates in response: “Difficult? No, he’s sweet. Well—difficult. Yes, I suppose he can be difficult. He can be tough. He knows what he likes and what he likes he likes.” True to form, Hammell doesn’t find such a characterization “exactly illuminating.” Hammell suggests “crotchety.” “She considered the idea solemnly and then repelled it with energy: ‘No. Wherever did you get such a notion?’” Buxton may be old, but “he’s not old that way.” And then she delivers what promises to be the truth of Buxton: “The one thing about Mr. Buxton is that he’s a man.”
Hero is a word very much in contention in the novel. Philip Dyas, the admirable headmaster of a private school, views Hammell as a hero. He is immediately checked by the worldly, Marion Cathart, who hears irony in his use of the word. Dyas responds with surprise that he means the word without irony and in fact thinks of her as a “heroine.” “Oh, that’s just—language.” Which compels Dyas to define his terms: “I meant only that Hammell is waiting for things to happen to him, the right things, the things that will match him. That’s all I mean by heroism. Perhaps it’s too big a word. And I meant that you were waiting for the things that will match you” (130-31). Marion (Marry) persists in her resistance to what she views as Dyas’s pretentiousness. They are reenacting the dialogue between Marcher and May Bartram in The Beast in the Jungle. Marcher wonders whether his “attitude” in waiting for something to happen could be called “heroic,” to which May replies “certainly—call it that.” She could have stopped at “certainly.” One can’t resist the suspicion of irony in allowing Marcher to use the word. In the match with the beast that will spring at the end, Marcher will be devastated. Did Trilling envisage such a fate for Hammell?
If Trilling’s novel had been fully realized, Dyas’s use of the “hero” would have to be realized dramatically. Dyas, I think, reflects Trilling’s own view of the matter. We can only speculate about Trilling’s attachment to the word. Modernity is the site of the anti-heroic (think of Notes from Underground, where the term first appears.) In reclaiming the heroic, Trilling is implicitly protesting against the modern devaluation of the term. The problem is that the ancient, epic battleground where heroes performed is irretrievable. The site of action in Trilling’s novel is literature (Hammell) and science (Buxton). One antagonist is the commercial world of publishing. Hammell writes in his notebook, as Trilling himself might have written in his: “I felt for [Kramer, his teacher] that he stood like a denial of every vulgar modern assumption, like a rock of refuge from every contemporary cheapness” (106). Joyce tried to carry off the heroism of art in Portrait of the Artist, but he knew that the demon of ironic self-subversion was unbeatable. Stephen’s hapless condition in Ulysses is sufficient evidence that the irony, already potent in Portrait, has triumphed. We don’t know what the outcome of Hammell’s waiting for things to match him will be, but it is hard to believe, given Trilling’s sophistication, that it would be much different from Stephen’s defeat.
Women play relatively minor roles. The novel emanates a quaint, one might say neo-Victorian, eroticism. Here is Hammell, observing May Outram, playing with her children: “The woman who stood at the edge of the pool was sturdy and well shaped. Her thighs were full but her legs were delicate [I can’t recall legs ever described as delicate], and she had a ripe bosom [large?] and pretty rounded arms [pretty, perhaps a comma between pretty and rounded would help]” (81). Only the writer Garda Thorne, among the women characters, achieves a kind of integrity that is mainly available to men—as in the following sentence, “In the perfection of everything she did, in the quiet, delicate integrity of her life [“delicate” encore], she, though a woman, stood to many young men like Vincent as an assurance that virtue was possible” [my emphasis].
The Journey Abandoned betrays ambivalence toward money and status. Certainly the preoccupation with money and its acquisition belongs to “the vulgar assumptions” that Kramer, Hammell and Dyas, characters with integrity (a recurrent, honorific word), repudiate. But life’s advantages clearly go to those who already possess wealth and the status that goes with it, for they can take them for granted and can use the wealth for disinterested purposes that foster, for instance, the arts and sciences. Disinterestedness has a talismanic presence in the work of Matthew Arnold, another inspiration in Trilling’s work. But the ambivalence toward wealth, of course, does not have the purity that disinterestedness suggests. Hammell, for all his refinement and sensibility, is the offspring of a lower middle class family (as was Trilling); it is hard to avoid suspicion of envy on his part toward those in possession of a fortune. We are made to feel that his childhood friend, Toss Dodge, intellectually less endowed, from a family wealthier than his own, is the recipient of an undeserved entitlement. Hammell aspires toward the kind of freedom that wealth provides. His mother “had bred him” to achieve “a place amid comfort and elegance and among the powerful and easy people of the world” (118). His teacher Kramer, whose integrity consisted in his “ [disinterested] preoccupation with things of the mind,” had warned him about the temptations of things of the world and “elegance,” which he had always mistrusted. Hammell finds himself torn between the desire for elegance and power and the desire for integrity. When he meets Outram, his prospective publisher, for the first time at the Athletic Club, he is confronted with powerful men dressed in “dark, softly hanging clothes distinguished from each other only by differences of pattern of the subtlest kind” (36). Impressed by a lack of pretentiousness in the dress that reflects a confidence in status and power, he, nevertheless, despises himself for being seduced by the look of things, at the same time finding that he can’t help himself. There is, however, consolation in the fact that “such matters had not seemed trivial to Balzac and Stendhal.” It is a touching scene, one of the more successful in the work.
How this inner conflict would have been resolved if the novel had been completed we can only guess. I suspect from what we are given of Hammell and what I know of Trilling that there would be no resolution. Or perhaps the conflict would be viewed as illusory, since elegance that comes from abundance may become a route to integrity. The possibility is embodied in the character of Miss Anderson, one of Hammell’s adult creative writing students. “…wealth had been a condition of life, shaping and marking her as nothing else could have done. She alone bore something of the imagined appearance of wealth, the serenity and disinterestedness to which wealth is suppose to ideally aspire” (63). This may be playing with words since Kramer’s view of integrity depends upon renunciation whereas the world of comfort and elegance depends on acquisition. Integrity and disinterestedness require struggle and Miss Andersson’s achievement seems too easy. What the two visions do have in common is distaste for the vulgarity of modern life.
At times the novel brings to mind Eliot’s famous remark about James’s “mind so fine.” It also brings back to me my own time as Trilling’s student. I took his seminar in nineteenth-century literature in college and wrote my doctoral dissertation on D.H. Lawrence under his direction. He was a teacher who contributed immensely to a generation of students, me among them, for which gratitude is the appropriate word. I must confess, however, that I never found confidence in his presence and was unable to say exactly why. I thought perhaps it had something to do with his preeminence as a literary critic. But now I think it had more to do with the sensibility that the novel amply demonstrates. I knew instinctively that I could not achieve the grace of expression in his presence that he expected. I could not be myself, which included some “vulgar assumptions” that for all the education and experience I have acquired since my time as a student in college and university I have never completely shed, nor for that matter want to shed. I find myself at once admiring and in rebellion against the authority that Trilling’s text means to impose.
’I must confess, however, that I never found confidence in his presence and was unable to say exactly why.’
It is clear why, for the same reason there are no comments here, intimidation: ‘in his presence’ - good grief! You sound like Moses. I hate to think that this type of misplaced reverence is admired anywhere but it is alive and well at ‘The Valve’.