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Book Review: Moral Agents

By (August 14, 2015) No Comment

Moral Agents: Eight Twentieth-Century American Writersmoral agents

by Edward Mendelson

New York Review of Books, 2015

“Almost all recent thought about history and literature,” asserts Edward Mendelson, in an absurd overstatement, “takes one side or another in a pervasive but unstated argument about what it means to be a person: whether one shapes one’s life through individual choices. . . or whether one’s life is shaped from outside by large impersonal forces of culture, history, gender, ethnicity, class, archetype, or myth.” His own position in this debate (which only exists with such clarity in his own mind) is firmly on the side of individual choice. In his new book of profiles, Moral Agents – most of which are expanded versions of reviews for the New York Review of Books – he tries to situate the work of eight American literary men in the context of their individual choices.

For Mendelson, “individual” in this context seems to mean private, if not secret. Each of Mendelson’s little profiles subvert the common account of his subject by highlighting the significance of a personal secret: Trilling’s bitter marriage, Kazin’s secret journals and “compulsive need for affairs,” the death of Maxwell’s mother when he was 10, Mailer’s sexual preference for partners uglier than himself. It becomes clear after a few chapters that Mendelson is the on-call reviewer when the family member of a famous author publishes a scandalous memoir or their diaries reach posthumous publication. (Where, one wonders, is the essay on Susan Sontag as viewed through the lens of Sigrid Nunez’s Sempre Susan? A missed opportunity, if ever there was one.) The only exception is Auden, whose secret turns out to be that he was an unexpectedly charitable person and didn’t want others to know it. (Unsurprisingly, it turns out that Mendelson is a Professor of literature at Columbia whose primary research topic is Auden. Amazing what sustained study can do for sympathy.)

Perhaps Mendelson should have subtitled his book like this: Moral Agents: Judgmental Gossip As Literary Criticism. The volume fully displays biographical criticism’s glaring drawback, a tendency to find in a salacious detail a hermeneutic key. The frisson of the detail obscures the inadequacy of the key. A reader with more prudence than prurience may bristle at the way Mendelson sums up a life and an oeuvre by overstating his case.

He’s certainly not afraid of generalization. One sentence begins like this: “In the American novel, on the whole, the goal of the plot is…” It doesn’t even matter what he thinks the goal of the plot is, because the most interesting thing about that sentence is that he believes himself qualified to pronounce on the plot of the American novel “on the whole.” But Mendelson doesn’t leave his audacity un-theorized. I think it is probably a deliberate stylistic choice:

Literary criticism can be influential and memorable when it performs the double function of history and aphorism. As history it tells the unique story of a single book, author, or era; as aphorism it offers a general principle through which to understand any of a multitude of books, authors, and eras. The greatest critics – from Samuel Johnson through Virginia Woolf, William Empson, and beyond – could combine history and aphorism because each had a cohesive ethical vision that made sense of the connections between unique persons and general principles, and between literature and life.

Mendelson is, perhaps, straining after what he calls aphorism. Sometimes it works; often it’s just annoying.

But despite the frequent misfire of its mordancy, I recommend this book. Mendelson is an incredibly gifted summer-up. Here he is encapsulating the significance of Lionel Trilling in one paragraph:

Trilling wrote about American culture in a way that was both critical and comforting, and that spoke to the deepest anxieties of the age. Many of his readers – they tended to be thoughtful, educated, more or less liberal in outlook – had been sustained in the 1930s by the moral clarity of the class struggle and in much of the 1940s by the moral urgency of a war against Hitler that ended in triumph. By the early 1950s all this had changed. A cold war between two nuclear-armed superpowers could be won by neither; American culture and American arms now had vast international powers without a clear sense of purpose. Trilling, more fluently and persuasively than anyone else, clarified the mutual entanglements of the collective life of politics and culture and individual private lives. His prose was lucid and urbane, never straying from the reality of mixed feelings and ambiguous purposes into simple pieties and exhortations. He was an establishment figure – professorial, pipe-smoking, with an air of dignified sadness – whose every essay questioned the established order and brought to light its unacknowledged, self-defeating motives.

These profiles should close the book for none of his readers on any of the writers Mendelson discusses; but they might very well open it.

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