Fathers & Daughter
Trilling, Barzun, Fadiman--and Carolyn Heilbrun.
Jan 28, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 19 • By MARTIN LEVIN
When Men Were The Only Models We Had
THE ARCHIVIST Otto Bettman once published a book entitled "The Good Old Days, They Were Terrible." You could call this a subtext in Carolyn Heilbrun's intellectual memoir. What was good about the old days at Columbia University was a collection of stars in the liberal arts division. What was bad, according to Heilbrun, was institutional anti-Semitism and male hegemony. No argument: I was at Columbia in the 1940s and can bear witness.
What is distinctive about Heilbrun is her focus on the good. Notwithstanding her credentials as a pioneer feminist in the academy, the best word I can find for Carolyn Heibrun is paradoxical. Married for a half century and the mother of three, the author of a book called "Toward a Recognition of Androgyny," she is no androgyne. A self-proclaimed women's libber, she nonetheless offers this book as an intellectual love letter to three male academics: Lionel Trilling, Clifton Fadiman, and Jacques Barzun. "The three men . . . remain in my imagination still as the object of my hopes, as a lovely dream that satisfied some of my longings." She is even large-souled enough to overlook the antifeminist vibes emitted by Trilling and Fadiman. And her admiration for Barzun is undimmed by his having "expressed agreement with Jesse Helms" and being, on occasion, "male-centric."
BARZUN is the only one of Heilbrun's idols still standing. Now in his nineties, he has recently published an illuminating work of modern history, "From Dawn to Decadence." Its arresting but well-supported conclusion is that, culturally speaking, "nothing has occurred after 1920." (She admires the book, but Heilbrun scolds Barzun for being "sadly unappreciative of contemporary art and culture, though he is marvelously correct in matters of teaching.")
From Barzun Heilbrun got intellectual approval--"He encouraged me in my endeavors"--and something more. Of the three, "Barzun alone served not only as an example of how one might think and write and speak," but "reached across the abyss that divided us . . . to tender something close to friendship."
Clifton Fadiman was a classmate of Trilling's at Columbia, but he was denied a job at Columbia's English department because, as he was told, "we have room for only one Jew, and we have chosen Mr. Trilling." This Semitic minimalism propelled Fadiman into becoming a literary celebrity. His supple rhetoric as the New Yorker's book critic enchanted Heilbrun, who was not turned off by the legendary Dwight MacDonald labeling him "the high priest of mid-cult."
Heilbrun regarded Lionel Trilling as her "intellectual father," albeit a distant one: "Because Trilling could balance gains and losses without disregarding either, because he was not convinced of the magnitude of his achievements, because he knew that the keenest expressions of morality and honor are in literature...he will remain perhaps the best exemplar left to us . . . of the literary mind and the literary consciousness."
The holder of an endowed chair in Columbia's English department and past president of the Modern Language Association, Heilbrun resigned from her job because she felt she was slighted because of her sex. ("I was made to feel unwelcome in my own department, kept off crucial committees, ridiculed, ignored," said Heilbrun in a New York Times interview.) In fact, Heilbrun had a generous share of recognition. And when she did resign, it was on the cusp of retirement after thirty-two years. There wasn't much to lose.
So it was a surprise that I found myself regularly on the same page as the professor. We suffered through the same seminar in contemporary British literature under James Joyce groupie William York Tindall ("a man frightened of women"). She prefers Dickens to Flaubert, agreeing with Fadiman that "Madame Bovary" is "without magic, without personality, it is not rereadable." And unlike Trilling she distrusts Freud ("because of his views of women and because of the Freudian psychoanalysts I had come to know").
Heilbrun drops a few duds, such as a disparaging reference to the male department brass as "the old triple named WASPS" like Harry Morgan Ayres and George Densmore Odell. The department head I recall was a tough tootsie named Marjorie Hope Nicolson who regularly kept full professors cooling their heels in the outer office while she schmoozed with her assistant. And there are left-kneejerk references to such things as "the bombing of Cambodia." Heilbrun needs to brush up on Cambodia via something more recent than 1972.