The Magazine

Pen Pals

What draws writers together in fraternity?

Jan 4, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 16 • By JAMES SEATON
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Lionel Trilling

and Irving Howe

And Other Stories

of Literary Friendship

by Edward Alexander

Transaction, 134 pp., $34.95

Edward Alexander can be a devastating polemicist, as his 1989 essay on Edward Said, "Professor of Terror," memorably demonstrated. Much of the appeal of his most recent book, however, derives from his willingness to subordinate the expression of his own views to careful, dispassionate presentations of a series of "literary friendships"--notably that of Lionel Trilling and Irving Howe, but also Thomas Carlyle and John Stuart Mill, D.H. Lawrence and Bertrand Russell, Theodore Roethke and Robert Heilman, and finally, George Eliot and Emanuel Deutsch.

These odd couples come together and sometimes break up over the often conflicting claims of science and religion, criticism and poetry, reason and imagination, but Alexander's purpose is not to push a thesis for one side or the other. If he has a thesis, it is to suggest that attempts at reconciliation of the opposing claims of, say, reason and imagination, are preferable to assertions of the absolute superiority of one side or the other. His studies reveal how George Eliot and Emanuel Deutsch, Robert Heilman and Theodore Roethke, and eventually Lionel Trilling and Irving Howe, achieved varying degrees of personal and intellectual reconciliation, while Carlyle and Mill, like Lawrence and Russell, did not.

The young Mary Ann Evans, contemptuous of religion in general, judged that "everything specifically Jewish is of a low grade" and even speculated that "extermination" might be the inevitable fate of "the Hebrew Caucasian." The mature George Eliot, however, provided in Daniel Deronda one of the most powerful and most sympathetic depictions of Jewish life and aspirations ever written. Gertrude Himmelfarb's recent study, The Jewish Odyssey of George Eliot explores the intellectual and emotional journey of the novelist; but Alexander's short essay, subtitled "The Novelist and Her Rabbi," focuses on the "rabbi," Emanuel Deutsch, whose meeting with Eliot in 1866 marked "the real turning point" in her attitude toward Jews and Judaism.

Deutsch was a scholar equally at home with Plato and the Talmud, "a living embodiment of Arnold's ideal union of Hebraism and Hellenism." Deutsch died in 1873 after suffering three years of excruciating pain from cancer, before Daniel Deronda was written, and before he could finish his long-planned work on the Talmud. Deutsch was tempted to commit suicide in the years before his death, not only because of his physical suffering but because he despaired at having accomplished so little. Alexander writes that "the only lasting effect that Deutsch's labors had was on George Eliot's writing about Jews and Zionism."

Yet the one "lasting effect" of his work turned out to be significant indeed: In her last novel Eliot "endowed Deutsch with a life beyond life in the fictional character of .  .  . Mordecai," while Daniel Deronda itself has, for more than a century, elicited sympathy and understanding for Jewish life in a venue where those qualities have been frequently in short supply--English literature.

Robert Heilman was one of the first Northerners to embrace the New Criticism first developed by Southern agrarians like John Crowe Ransom and Robert Penn Warren, while the poet Theodore Roethke "was contemptuous of literary critics," definitely including what he called "the constipated agrarians, and the other enemies of life." The two met when Heilman left Louisiana State, where he had been a colleague of Warren and Cleanth Brooks, to become chairman of the English department at the University of Washington, where Roethke was teaching poetry. Alexander observes that "Roethke intensely disliked academics as a class, and academic administrators in particular: they were all stupid or crooked or both."