Moral Agents: Eight Twentieth-Century American Writers By Edward Mendelson New York Review Books 224 pp.

'Moral Agents' dissects the critics who shaped mid-20th-century literature

One of today’s most trenchant literary critics digs into some of the voices who defined American letters for their generation.

So here they are, the big cheeses. The nabobs and the he-men and the high-flying aesthetes, all in their haze of testosterone. Eight essays, by an eminent scholar and professor, on eight of the great competing masculinities of mid-century American letters: Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, Lionel Trilling, Alfred Kazin, Frank O’Hara, William Maxwell, Dwight MacDonald, and W. H. Auden.

A random-looking crew? Perhaps, says Edward Mendelson, but these were writers (and editors) who “seized for themselves the power and authority to shape American culture.” They seized it swaggeringly, or broodingly, with high frivolity or quiet distinction; they seized it with varieties of genius and religious feeling and/or politicking; they seized it at a time when it was there to be seized. And once they’d seized it, what did they do with it? What did it do to them? This is the brief Mendelson gives himself in Moral Agents: to examine “the conflicts between [their] inward, intimate private lives ... and the lives they led in public” and the extent to which the latter may have been determined by the former. Very good. Lead on, Edward Mendelson.

But first allow me to cavil briefly and pedantically at something I found in the introduction. Fearing that sensitive readers may recoil from the vulgar word moral, Mendelson hastens to reassure them that morality has nothing to do with “supernatural decrees” but is in fact “a matter of the inner logic of actions and consequences, not of precepts and rules.” (Surely it’s both, the precepts and rules – the laws, if you will – being simultaneous with the inner logic?)

He goes on to say that “the clearest statement of this view of morality is Thucydides’ history of the Peloponnesian War.” Which demands rebuttal — even from someone like me, who’s never read the history of the Peloponnesian War. Thucydides, really, over all other explicators and transmitters of morality down the ages? Confucius? Jesus? P. G. Wodehouse? It seems a bit arbitrary.

Enough quibbling around in the shallows. Let’s meet some of our moral agents. Mendelson has helpfully given each of them, in the chapter headings, a Tarantino-style street name: Lionel Trilling is “Sage,” Frank O’Hara is “Celebrant,” and so on. I went straight to Norman Mailer – “Mythmaker” – always, for me, the most lovable and misunderstood literatus of this era.

Critics tend to make one of two errors when they size up Mailer: either they become preoccupied by his bozo exploits in the realm of head butting and feminist baiting, missing completely his uniquely ironic outer-space humility, or they take him more seriously than he took himself. Mendelson’s critical compass is steady. “The archetypal impulse that blurred and abstracted his fictional characters made his political reportage vivid, focused and convincing.” Spot on. “Mailer wrote prolifically about gods, devils, and divine forces.... He was not being metaphorical.” Also spot on. And I enjoyed the characterization of Mailer’s universally insulting (to his fellow authors) essays “Quick Evaluations on the Talent in the Room” and “Some Children of the Goddess” as “cheerful bumper-car mêlees.” I didn’t enjoy the movement of the essay from potted biography to erotic-therapeutic speculation: all psychoanalysis, I suppose, is armchair psychoanalysis, but Mendelson seems particularly detached from his flesh-and-blood subject when he starts to get into the Mythmaker’s “real sexuality” and hypothesizes a Mailerian fetish for “stout older women.”

These findings in the realm of the private (and unknowable) are a slight deformity of Mendelson’s book. Alfred Kazin – “Outsider” – becomes involved with “a beautiful young woman with a history of affairs with writers and artists.” Poor Alfred Kazin: how was he to know that “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 become better-looking by going to bed with fashion models”? This is, basically, high-toned tittle-tattle, bristling with giveaway gossipy certitude and scorn.

Later, in his chapter on Saul Bellow – “Patriarch” – Mendelson takes the part of Greg Bellow, Saul’s son, in a family squabble about Saul not showing up at Greg’s daughter’s wedding. He quotes Greg’s memoir, to the effect that Greg and his daughter “had a heart-wrenching conversation about how Saul could inflict so much pain by making commitments and failing to fulfill them.” Is this any of his, or our, business? Maybe Saul had a clonking depression that day and had to lie on the floor. Maybe he had diarrhea. It occurs to me that the prime moral agent at these moments might be Mendelson himself, lasering confidently through the layers of his subjects and passing his post hoc judgments.

Nonetheless, these eight essays are considerable, and useful, feats of compression and instruction. And of reclamation, in some cases – where else am I going to get an 18-page primer on William Maxwell (“Magus”), the novelist who, as fiction editor of the "New Yorker," “quietly exercised his power to shape a literary culture in which his own plotless narratives and subdued syntax were the dominant fictional mode”?

Mendelson creates some potent images, too. “Although he began many novels and published one,” he writes of Lionel Trilling, “he kept retreating into despairing academic dignity.” Awful. Indelible. And Mendelson, like me, adores W. H. Auden. (He has edited several Auden collections and is the literary executor of Auden’s estate.) His chapter on Auden – “Neighbor” – is as lovely and expert as one would hope, with a particular emphasis on Auden’s “secret life” of generosity and human brotherhood. “A few years later I got a phone call from a Canadian burglar who told me he had come across Auden’s poems in a prison library and had begun a long correspondence in which Auden gave him an informal course in literature. Auden was especially pleased to get him started on Kafka.”

If the occasionally insider-ish, intramural tone of "Moral Agents" is the price we pay for the phone call from the Canadian burglar, it’s worth it.

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