March 2015

Dan Froid

nonfiction

Moral Agents: Eight Twentieth-Century American Writers by Edward Mendelson

D. A. Pennebaker's Town Bloody Hall captures on film a 1971 Town Hall debate on women's liberation, which Norman Mailer chairs. At one point, Cynthia Ozick takes the microphone. Before even asking her question, she prefaces by explaining that Mailer is not uncomprehending or patronizing to the women participating. He cannot interest himself in issues of justice, the basis for civilization, for in fact he represents a "return to the primal erotic basic religion of the world"; she calls him "a sacerdotal sexual transcendentalist priest." As for the question, she asks, based on his statement that a writer can do without anything but the remnant of his balls, "For years and years I've been wondering, Mr. Mailer, when you dip your balls in ink, what color ink is it?" Ozick ridicules not only his all-too-obvious misogyny but also his own self-styled mythology, his image of himself as sublime leader of our time: sexual transcendentalist priest indeed.

That sort of grandiose mythology is also, to some extent, the subject of Edward Mendelson's Moral Agents: Eight Twentieth-Century American Writers. Moral Agents attempts to develop a kind of literary/cultural/moral history of twentieth-century American life, shaped from the stories of "individual writers finding their own unique ways of responding to a shared world": Lionel Trilling, Dwight Macdonald, Alfred Kazin, William Maxwell, Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, W.H. Auden, and Frank O'Hara. Mendelson's eight sketches show how the writers, all white, all male, heterosexual with two exceptions, exercised their cultural authority as writers or editors or public intellectuals, while working through, in private, their own conflicted senses of a moral life. Each of these writers was aware of his artistic gifts, and each found himself tempted by the thought that those gifts made him morally superior -- and that therefore he could and should lead the culture. But as a cultural history, Moral Agents ends up a little different from what the introduction suggests. It's less about the shaping of American literary and cultural life than it is about the sorts of mythologies writers create for themselves; it's an exploration of a particular type of writer.

As Mendelson admits, this book forms a "highly selective cultural history of almost a century of American life." He does head off the easiest criticism of his book -- the lack of subjects who are not white men -- early on. He explains that, like his previous book, which focused on five women writers, "the selection of authors deliberately reflects nineteenth- and twentieth-century social realities that were the product of stereotyping and prejudice." He's right that men have had an easier time making social and political judgments -- he notes that the "hate-campaign" surrounding Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem "would have been far more cautious had the book been written by a man" -- but he might overstate the case somewhat. That is, to call this book a "cultural history" seems rather disingenuous. The book loses credibility by too easily tossing out the possibility of other voices -- and if anything, the twentieth century, more than any other before it, allowed for the emergence and influence of non-white, non-male voices. The book's true subject remains the determined self-mythologizing of these eight men not just as those mythologies influenced the American literary landscape but as they allowed the men to sustain over the course of their careers a justification for writing: They wrote to lead.

I can't deny that Mendelson comes off as a genial guide. He relays the writers' literary and personal histories, placing them into the context of twentieth-century American cultural life, with warmth and intelligence. So the book is easy to enjoy: you want to take him at his word. But as I suggested, even if Moral Agents elides counterpoints and alternatives into the stories it presents, the trajectory of twentieth-century American literature is not so simple. It's not impossible to tell the history of writers-as-moral-leaders, or even the story of writers' self-mythologies, without including a more varied cast, is what I'm saying. And in fact not to do is to present not just a selective history, but an incomplete one.

The book opens with Lionel Trilling, a singularly famous literary figure: "For the first and last time, a literature professor enjoyed public eminence and adulation of a kind unimaginable for intellectuals today." Trilling was a celebrated, influential critic, a public figure who hated his public self. Mendelson quotes from his private journals, where he records his "intense disgust with my official and public self." Trilling, "whose reign over literary culture was secure because it was so evidently just," longed for more.  Essentially, he was a frustrated artist; he agonized over the novels he didn't write. Unable, for the most part, to make the art he felt he should have made, he fashioned himself into a figure of authority on others'. And although he disliked his public self, he transmuted his goals as a critic into something more. In his last book, he ends by making "a single straight-faced claim that his life and career had been Christlike."

Morality was synonymous for Trilling with a suppression of one's will; self-preservation was tantamount to the same impulse; art's value lay in its moral intelligence. When the will grows tired, there is art. Longing to express himself in art, in a novel, he saw in this self-expression the potential to exorcise his own anguish. The trouble is that, as Mendelson puts it, "Trilling wrote fictions about other people's novels and made them seem like truth."  Unable to create the novels he envisioned, Trilling's criticism ended up being an extension of his artistic frustration.  It's not so startling an idea that a critic might not be objective, might be influenced by his emotions and desires. The interesting point is about the critic's place in our culture. That he was the critic who emerged as our "leader" is interesting. Why him? One thinks again of Mendelson's gesture toward "twentieth-century social realities." So, did we get him because he's the critic we deserve? Because we, too, longed for art's moral guidance? Perhaps: those are dots we can connect for ourselves. But plenty of other critics have also delivered judgments on or devised notions of art that were often closely linked to conceptions of morality: Susan Sontag, to name one. The upshot, then, is that we can also acknowledge that "social realities" have let writers like Trilling fall out of fashion. This chapter is interesting in its implications about our literary culture. Reading the chapter, though, I had to acknowledge the narrowness of its story. And it's hard, too, to mourn the fact that he's fallen out of fashion, and not to be glad that plenty of other critics have gained cultural traction since the reign of Mr. Trilling.

If some, like Lionel Trilling, come off as slightly distasteful, others seem downright repugnant. I'm looking at you, Mr. Mailer. Even Mendelson reports on Mailer with a sense of irony. We learn that he wished "to write a novel great enough to cause 'a revolution in the consciousness of our time.'" Not only that, he wanted to launch himself into the limelight. His concern was ever on his public image -- or not so much his image as his presence. He wanted us to know who he was. Mailer's morality was predicated on archetypes and notions of collective mythology; he was interested less in humans than in the unconscious undercurrents that shape history. His was not a moral sense as we might typically understand it, but a sense of the impulses that drive our behavior. He saw these impulses manifest themselves in politics and literature; for him, both real people and fictional characters were embodiments of impersonal forces. I suppose this might explain his seeming inability to behave with compassion or respect. Let's call it sincerity. I recall, for example, his misogynistic rant against women writers, in Advertisements for Myself (the same passage in which he declares that a writer "can do without everything but the remnant of his balls"). He dismisses women writers as "fey, old-hat, Quaintsy Goysy, tiny, too dykily psychotic, crippled, creepish, fashionable, frigid, outer-Baroque, maquillé in mannequin's whimsy, or else bright and stillborn." If he's the archetypal writer-hero, these women must be so many sirens or Medusas, villains to be resisted as he makes his way toward apotheosis. There's also the incident in which he stabbed one of his wives, which Mendelson refers to as the "nadir of Mailer's quest for intensity." I believe it: everything for Mailer formed part of a quest. All others could rot.

Mailer's sense of morality is interesting, if frightening in his particular case. Our trends and desires are certainly influenced by less-than-conscious drives not fully accessible to us, both personal and collective. Sure, during his lifetime Mailer was a significant cultural figure, a widely read and respected novelist. It makes sense that a jerk like Mailer -- surely no word describes him better -- would become popular. In this way the book makes a provocative, if implicit rather than literal, movement toward a discussion of our culture's less-than-conscious drives, the kind that Mailer was concerned with, and perhaps the kind that would allow Mailer to seize our interest. The introduction suggests a connection between all of these men's places in our culture and the nature of American literature: "American culture has always been troubled by the question of what it means to be an individual person." Mendelson also points out that "in the American novel, on the whole, the goal of the plot is the liberation of the hero." The suggestion is, then, that our cultural fixation on the development of the individual might be responsible for such figures as Mailer gaining traction. As a diagnosis, it's believable, and smartly executed. But as a prognosis, it's not so clear, especially when we have no recourse to a counterpart, to how our culture has fared since Mailer's passing. As with Trilling, a narrative of our hero's self-styling emerges, one that is focused but incomplete.

The chapter on W.H. Auden is both the most fleshed-out and the most arresting. The British-born Auden's morality was rooted in Christianity. In fact, as Mendelson says, "Christianity shaped the tone and content of his poems and was for most of his life the central focus of his art and thought." But his understanding of Christianity was rather particular: "Love thy neighbor" was the crucial, all-important precept. His sense of prayer was as an egoless absorption in something other than oneself, and in his devotion to others he likewise attempted to shed the ego. Like most of the others in this book, Auden externalized this sensibility. He saw human indifference as a moral failure. He also attempted to work through his homosexuality, feeling Christian guilt about it but clinging to his conviction that "loving thy neighbor" remained important above all. In a tale of American culture, a Christian writer must surely be included, but this chapter really is moving. The overview of his personal practice also provides an interesting lens with which to consider his body of work. The readings of Auden's poetry here are excellent: I value the understanding of Auden's poetry as informed by the complex negotiation of guilt, a desire for egolessness, and an earnest attempt at absorption in something wholly other. "September 1, 1939," for example, subtly indicts those who think "anyone's private life could be innocent of the evils that so obviously drove public life." Reading this chapter, we can understand this poem as rooted in frustration at others' lack of charity, as well as their willful ignorance -- feelings that also drove Auden's personal life. On that note, Auden's charity, his "secret life," provides an unmatchable example. For example, he defrayed the cost of a friend's medical operation with the gift of the manuscript of The Age of Anxiety. Auden was charitable, lavishly generous, but full of guilt and anxiety. He was always determined to love his neighbor, but likewise ready to condemn the moral failures of his culture. This chapter most successfully balances this sort of mythological biography with cultural criticism. Auden's conflicted mélange of sentiment and reaction, generosity and distaste, reveals as much about Auden's wonderful poetry as about American social and moral life.

As I read this book, I recognized an emerging counter-narrative, which perhaps has more to do with my own sensibilities as a reader and thinker than with the book. There is, on the one hand, the very subject, this literary-cultural-moral lineage in American writing. But there is, on the other hand, a desire -- my desire, at any rate -- to buck this history. I keep referring to other writers, which stems not from a desire that Moral Agents be a different book, but from a concern that the story this book tells is skewed. As a cultural history this book is willfully, frustratingly blinkered. I can't argue that most of the men Mendelson selected have exerted a great deal of influence on American literature. The book prompts us to consider the ways in which these influential writers figured themselves as leaders, and, more significantly, the ways in which that has been possible in this country, in this culture. For that reason, this book is worth our consideration. This is about reverence and influence. Moral Agents is a little history of who's allowed to exert the latter, who comes to accrue the former. It has the most to say about the many weirdnesses of American cultural identities, on the micro-level of its subjects and the macro-level of the country in which they flourish -- even if those weirdnesses might be a little more complex than this book suggests.

Moral Agents may be frustrating, but it's also invigorating. Invigorating because it's so easy to see through the self-mythologizing it discusses. Are we better off, now that many of these men have fallen out of fashion, that Lionel Trilling and William Maxwell ever less frequently occupy our time and minds? That their influence wanes as new literary powers wax? Perhaps, perhaps not. The more significant issue is the presence of others: for they've been there, lots of them, even in these men's lifetimes, and they were just as influential and a little less distasteful. We can take comfort in the fact that this is not the only cultural history possible to tell in this country. And as for the myth, the leader or lion or transcendentalist priest, who sees it as his rightful duty to take us by the hand and lead us toward the light? We're better off without it.

Moral Agents: Eight Twentieth-Century American Writers by Edward Mendelson
New York Review Books
ISBN: 978-1590177761
224 pages