Think Pieces

Lives of the New York Intellectuals: A Group Portrait BY Edward Mendelson. New York Review Books. Hardcover, 144 pages. $20.

The cover of Lives of the New York Intellectuals: A Group Portrait

Some years ago my employer, Penguin Books, asked me to read Early Auden (1981), by the young literature professor Edward Mendelson, with an eye toward our reprinting it as a paperback. At the time I had only a survey course’s worth of acquaintance with Auden’s canonical poems and knew just a bit about his life in the States. A study of his poetic output from 1927 through 1939 seemed, on the face of it, of small commercial value and marginal interest. Then I actually read it, and I got unmarginally interested real fast. Mendelson’s marvelous, granular feeling for Auden’s writing, penetrating sense of his character, and scholar’s grasp of his sources, methods, and context struck me as the work of a first-rate critic, and I’ve never failed to read anything under his byline since, primarily in the New York Review of Books, where his new book, Moral Agents: Eight Twentieth-Century American Writers, had its origins. Like many of the people he writes about so well, he is a serious, committed academic perfectly comfortable in the wider world of intellectual and political discourse.

Auden, for whom Mendelson serves as literary executor, is one of the eight subjects featured in Moral Agents portrait gallery. (Its original and more beguiling title—Lives of the Intellectuals—better captures the Johnsonian spirit of the exercise.) He, along with Lionel Trilling, Alfred Kazin, Dwight Macdonald, William Maxwell, Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, and Frank O’Hara, forms a sort of frieze of midcentury New York public-intellectual life. Mendelson sketches these figures with swift, deft strokes, and gives each of them a tag—Mailer the “Mythmaker,” Kazin the “Outsider,” etc.—that suggests their place in some broader scheme of literary typology. As the title implies, Mendelson’s overarching theme is the morality of his subjects’ transactions with power, their considerable sway over public opinion and the central political issues of their time. He is anxious to distance himself from any firm, rule-bound definition of morality, stating that “morality concerns the effect of one’s thoughts and actions, for good or ill, on others and oneself.” This accounts, I think, for the unusual degree of inwardness in his portrayal of these public figures. In any case, readers old enough to have lived through at least part of the period when these writers flourished may experience a stab of nostalgia for a time when American intellectuals—let alone novelists, critics, and poets—could be said to have actual power. Macdonald’s long review of Michael Harrington’ s The Other America really did prod the Kennedy administration into undertaking initiatives to combat poverty, and that same administration quite publicly courted intellectuals and lent them some glamour, and from time to time even acted on their advice.

The exclusively masculine character of the roster will not have escaped the reader, and Mendelson invites controversy immediately when he tries to justify the exclusion of such powerful literary women as Mary McCarthy, Susan Sontag, and Hannah Arendt, to name just three, explaining that he deals with “a specific literary culture in which power was available only to men.” Tell that to some of McCarthy’s cruelly skewered victims! His assertion betrays a too-narrow construal of what power, and indeed morality, really are. But I still found much to enjoy in these essays, which are too fluent and alert to the particularities of their subjects to succumb to a schematic rigidity. In each case I came away with an enhanced appreciation of the figures under examination, some of whom I had already learned and thought about a good deal (perhaps too much) over the years.

Batting leadoff, as he must, is Lionel Trilling, the “Sage” of Morningside Heights and the chief avatar of the Age of Criticism. That a literary critic and lecturer in English could have exerted such influence over educated taste and opinion in the 1940s and ’50s still boggles the mind. Trilling was a one-man Weather Channel for the emotional climate of the thinking classes, and he could moreover effect changes in that weather (although it generally came in varied shades of gray). He preached a bleak Freudian morality of manageable unhappiness and worried worried worried that the too easily digested shibboleths of modernism and alienation and a slovenly democratic culture had made it impossible to write the only sort of novel that mattered: the novel of finely calibrated social relations—of manners—that the Europeans and the great American exception, Henry James, wrote. Diving deep into Trilling’s as yet unpublished notebooks, Mendelson unveils a world of hurt behind that perpetually furrowed brow. Trilling entertained real and dismaying contempt for his eager audience, his academic colleagues, his students, and his own professorial career. (“I am ashamed of being in a university. I have one of the great reputations in the academic world. This thought makes me retch.”) It turns out that this palest of palefaces, to borrow Philip Rahv’s terms, hid many internal conflicts, secretly admiring the literary action figure Ernest Hemingway and pummeling himself for his failure to realize his desire to become an important novelist. Cue “Dover Beach.”

From all indications, the desiccated Trilling seems never to have been touched by the joy and consolation that a life of the spirit promises (and may even deliver). But it is surprising how often Mendelson resorts to a religious vocabulary in grappling with his other, outwardly secular subjects. Alfred Kazin, again as discovered in his notebooks, appears to have been a seeker after mystic experience whose presiding guides in that search were Emerson and Blake. (Mendelson does allow himself to offer some firm, rule-bound moral judgments on Kazin’s messy sexual behavior and aggressive social ineptness.) Mailer, the prophet of existential hipster kicks, evolved something like his own private, gnostic, Manichaean cosmology, in which reality was only a screen behind which titanic forces of God and the Devil were doing battle. (So much for the novel of manners.) Bellow, much of whose fiction was driven by a quest for so-called masters of reality, and whose own will to power was considerable, is characterized as a man “driven throughout his life by his search for some ultimate and invisible spiritual reality”—which he believed he found in the esoteric stylings of Rudolf Steiner. William Maxwell, the legendary New Yorker editor and certainly the odd man out of these eight figures (and the one, moreover, he least values as a writer), is termed a “Magus” for the hypnotic power he exercised over his literary acolytes and disciples, whom Mendelson calls nothing less than a cult practicing the religion of art. Macdonald, a “Moralist-Aesthete” who could bring an Old Testament wrath to bear on a novel or political adversary that displeased him, is finally seen by Mendelson, who admires his tireless quest to put the human before the ideological in politics, as “the most entertaining of the great prophets.” And Auden, of course, was an intermittently devout and practicing Anglican, who cherished ritual and who drew explicitly on scripture and Christian morality in his work and life. (Generally cool and balanced, Mendelson slips toward hagiography when extolling the secret acts of kindness and charity that Auden performed in the latter years of
his life.)

Things wrap up with a lighter touch as the book ends with the irresistible Frank O’Hara, who embodied everything playful and attractive about stylishly artistic New York. Mendelson sees O’Hara’s energetic sociability as a hedge and defense against his true nature, that of an isolato, and (here we are again) finds strong traces of O’Hara’s cradle, lapsed Catholicism in his poetic practice and preferences. Here’s how the book sums up his uneasy relation with the avant-garde coteries of his time and place: “O’Hara was a major writer who tried to convince himself he was a minor one.” And one, moreover, who gracefully eludes the categories of morality and power and the masculine character Mendelson imparts to them, if you exclude the immense social influence O’Hara wielded by virtue of his charisma.

It is a commonplace bit of critical deprecation to say that a book would be twice as good at half its length. In the case of Moral Agents, it would have been (and might yet be) twice as good at twice its length. Mendelson’s essays gain resonance from being placed in close juxtaposition, and it would be nice to think of his book as a work in progress, intended to grow by accretion as edition follows edition. Nobody asked me, but in addition to the women mentioned early in this review, may I suggest he consider considering Edmund Wilson, Gore Vidal, Reinhold Niebuhr, Harold Rosenberg, Clement Greenberg, Allen Ginsberg (so many -bergs, so little time), and Irving Howe (suggested tag: “Scold”)? Even more nervily, why not have Mendelson depart from his NYRB-centric comfort zone and take on two figures he clearly despises, Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz, the two founding fathers of neoconservatism? Say what you will about neoconservatism (and Mendelson would say plenty, none of it good), it is an intellectual movement that has no ambivalence about reaching for and associating with power, and it is not inclined to give any ground regarding the essential morality of its positions. I have no doubt that Mendelson would be powerfully illuminating about them, and the need to bend over backward to be fair would push him into more interesting and less predictable territory.

In his influential 1968 essay “The New York Intellectuals: A Chronicle and a Critique,” Irving Howe characterized them as “perhaps the only group America has ever had that could be described as an intelligentsia.” Almost fifty years on, at a time when the public intellectual seems an endangered species, that statement still rings true. The issues that exercised the New York intellectuals and the positions they staked out are still up for grabs, although it’s unlikely their present-day inheritors will ever match their sway in the wider world. Still, we have great need of writers such as Edward Mendelson, who know in their bones what made these complicated people tick and can help us grasp them in fresh and intellectually fruitful ways.

Gerald Howard is a book editor in New York.