Moral Agents: Eight Twentieth-Century American Writers
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A deeply considered and provocative new look at major American writers—including Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, and W.H. Auden—Edward Mendelson’s Moral Agents is also a work of critical biography in the great tradition of Plutarch, Samuel Johnson, and Emerson. Any important writer, in Mendelson’s view, writes in response to an idea of the good life that is inseparable from the life the writer lives.
Fusing biography and criticism and based on extensive new research, Moral Agents presents challenging new portraits of eight writers—novelists, critics, and poets—who transformed American literature in the turbulent twentieth century. Eight sharply distinctive individuals—inspired, troubled, hugely ambitious—who reimagined what it means to be a writer.
There’s Saul Bellow, a novelist determined to rule as a patriarch, who, having been neglected by his father, in turn neglected his son in favor of young writers who presented themselves as his literary heirs. Norman Mailer’s extraordinary ambition, suppressed insecurity, and renegade metaphysics muddled the novels through which he hoped to change the world, yet these same qualities endowed him with an uncanny sensitivity and deep sympathy to the pathologies of American life that make him an unequaled political reporter. William Maxwell wrote sad tales of small-town life and surrounded himself with a coterie of worshipful admirers. As a powerful editor at The New Yorker, he exercised an enormous and constraining influence on American fiction that is still felt today.
Preeminent among the critics is Lionel Trilling, whose Liberal Imagination made him a celebrity sage of the anxiously tranquilized 1950s, even as his calculated image of Olympian reserve masked a deeply conflicted life and contributed to his ultimately despairing worldview. Dwight Macdonald, by contrast, was a haute-WASP anarchist and aesthete driven by an exuberant moral commitment, in a time of cautious mediocrity, to doing the right thing. Alfred Kazin, from a poor Jewish émigré background, remained an outsider at the center of literary New York, driven both to escape from and do justice to the deepest meanings of his Jewish heritage.
Perhaps most intriguing are the two poets, W.H. Auden and Frank O’Hara. Early in his career, Auden was tempted to don the mantle of the poet as prophet, but after his move from England to America he lived and wrote in a spirit of modesty and charity born out of a deeply idiosyncratic understanding of Christianity. O’Hara, tireless partygoer and pioneering curator at MoMA, wrote much of his poetry for private occasions. Its lasting power has proven to be something different from its avant-garde reputation: personal warmth, individuality, rootedness in ancient traditions, and openness to the world.
conception is society in thought, how mean in actuality—death or surrender of passion and desire . . . ” This was a more explicit statement of his sense that liberalism distrusted the emotions. He wrote after Ernest Hemingway died: Except Lawrence’s thirty-two years ago, no writer’s death has moved me as much—who would suppose how much he has haunted me? How much he existed in my mind—as a reproach? He was the only writer of our time I envied. Hemingway, like the other “charismatic
Charles Swann. III. Kazin’s first wife, Natasha Dohn, seems to have been sane, intelligent, and appealing—and resolute enough to refuse to take him back after his first extramarital affair. That affair began after a Greenwich Village party where Kazin met a beautiful young woman with a long history of affairs with writers and artists. She called these lovers her “educators,” and imagined she would become more intelligent by going to bed with them, much as young stockbrokers imagine they can
happens can be comprehended, so nothing can be changed. As a young man Maxwell had made one deep friendship, with the poet Robert Fitzgerald, a friendship of equals made possible by Fitzgerald’s sympathetic understanding of Maxwell’s darkest and most vulnerable feelings. In the years when Maxwell was writing The Château, as his cultural power increased, he began to attract a different kind of friendship among the happy few whom he and his wife admitted to their circle of admirers. Emily Maxwell
alienated from his wife, startled by his own anger, hungry for philosophical answers, and lost in the universe. At the end, he rushes gratefully into the army, writing: Hurray for regular hours! And for the supervision of the spirit! Long live regimentation! Bellow said at the time, “I was only making an ironic statement,” but the irony masks his deeper wish for someone to bring order to his inner chaos. That wish drives the story of The Victim (1947), another Dostoyevskian variation, this
culture cannot reach.” This, and this alone, “proposes to us that culture is not all-powerful.” Trilling ignored, as too unlikely to bother with, any possibility that a private conscience or individual will could resist its surrounding culture. Unnoticed by everyone, he had invented the historical vision proclaimed by Michel Foucault, using the mild-sounding word “culture” to name what Foucault more strikingly called “power.” IV. Trilling published a few short stories in the course of his life,