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Pen Pals

What draws writers together in fraternity?

Jan 4, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 16 • By JAMES SEATON
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Eventually, however, Roethke came to appreciate Heilman's willingness to stand up for the poet on the numerous occasions when what Alexander calls "the turbulence of Roethke's mental illness" forced him to miss classes and, repeatedly, entire terms. Defending Roethke's sick leaves with pay to the university's provost in 1959, Heilman wrote "one of the most remarkable letters ever written by a university administrator, a perfect blend of .  .  . moral clarity, rhetorical nimbleness, and shrewd pragmatism." Emphasizing how Roethke's reputation as a poet had grown while he was at Washington, Heilman first appealed to the provost "in the most materialistic terms," arguing that "no one else has given us so much free public relations of the most excellent sort." At the same time, he noted that poetry is "one of the oldest creative arts," and asserted that the university, in supporting a poet like Roethke, was "helping to create a certain type of human being and thereby contributing to the quality of American civilization itself."

These sentiments were not just rhetoric for the occasion. Toward the end of his long life, Heilman reflected that, in Roethke, "I felt something that, I came in time to know, was to be called greatness."

The brief friendships Alexander chronicles between Carlyle and Mill, and between Lawrence and Russell, did not end with such mutual respect. Alexander does suggest that whatever the literary achievements of Carlyle and Lawrence, it would be imprudent to trust their political judgments, given their shared "anti-Semitism .  .  . love of autocrats and fondness for dictatorship." In contrast, Mill and Russell seem models of prudence--though Russell's undeniable intelligence and commitment to reason did not always prevent him from making unreasonable political judgments of his own. During World War I, for example, Russell worked out a "philosophy of social reconstruction" that called for both "world government" and the "abolition of private property," as well as the elimination of "patriotism, national loyalty, and established religion"--without, of course, explaining how such revolutionary changes might be effected without adding to the violence already engulfing Europe.

Russell was not nearly radical enough for Lawrence, however, since the philo-
sopher failed to recognize the superiority of "blood-consciousness" to reason and foolishly (in Lawrence's view) "seemed still to cling to democracy." Mill broke with Carlyle when, in 1849, Carlyle published an "apologia for slavery" that presented those with African blood as "animal-like blockheads with graceful bodies, who should obey superior beings." Here Alexander's sympathies are with Mill, but he does note that earlier expressions of Carlyle's racism had not aroused similar scruples: "His racism had previously been directed against Jews and therefore gone unnoticed by Mill."

What was it that drew Mill to Carlyle in the first place, or Russell to Lawrence? Alexander wisely does not attempt an answer, hoping instead that his discussion "may shed some light on the paradox whereby the liberal and rationalist readers and critics of modern literature have so often found themselves in thrall to writers .  .  . whose reactionary politics and mystical inclinations were diametrically opposed to their own."

It would be a mistake, he suggests, to simply reject the claims of the imagination and poetry in favor of reason and science. Alexander finds in Mill's willingness to believe, at least for a time, that Carlyle had access to truths unknown to him, not a foolish credulity but a wise skepticism about the ability of Benthamite reason to explain the universe:

Here Mill shows himself to be not only the opposite of the dogmatic prophet Carlyle but also the opposite of the dogmatic liberal: He allows that Carlyle may see things by a light invisible to him, but does not therefore assume that light to be darkness.

Trilling offered Mill as a model in the preface to The Liberal Imagination, citing his respect not for Carlyle but for Samuel Coleridge. Trilling noted that "Mill urged liberals to read Coleridge" just because Coleridge "stood in critical opposition to the liberalism of the day." Mill turned to Coleridge, Trilling asserts, for much the same reasons he himself turned to the modernist poets and novelists--none of them political liberals and some downright reactionaries--to "recall liberals to a sense of variousness and possibility."