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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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Around 1950, when The Liberal Imagination was published, Irving Howe was more likely to feel that liberals were already too inclined to indulge their "sense of variousness" rather than move in one definite direction--left. In 1954 Howe attacked Trilling, among others, in "This Age of Conformity," an essay that, as Alexander observes, lamented the failure of American intellectuals to embrace "a life dedicated to values that cannot be realized by a commercial civilization"--in other words, their failure to embrace socialism.

Yet Alexander finds a common element in Trilling's liberalism and Howe's socialism: Trilling's "critique of liberalism was analogous to [Howe's] own socialist critique of socialism, a Third Way that made both men anathema to, respectively, liberal fundamentalists and dogmatic socialists." And even though Howe's most important work of literary criticism, Politics and the Novel, takes issue with Trilling's interpretations of particular writers such as Henry James and George Orwell, Alexander observes that the work as a whole "confirms Trilling's assertion that critics of a progressive cast of mind are attracted precisely to those high priests of modernism who are either indifferent or hostile to progressive ideas." Far from applauding only novels sympathetic to the left, Howe argues that the "greatest of all political novels" is one whose condemnation of political radicalism is unqualified and unrelenting: Dostoevsky's The Possessed.

The moral and cultural assumptions Trilling and Howe shared could be taken for granted in the 1950s, but when these came under attack in the '60s, the liberal and the socialist both reaffirmed their commitment to what Howe called "the preservation of the cultural heritage." Equally repulsed by a New Left whose ingredients Alexander sums up as a "lethal combination of Stalinism and native American know-nothingism," each replied in his own way. Howe wrote "direct and cogent responses to the depredations and attempted coups of the New Left" while, in Sincerity and Authenticity, Trilling analyzed the ideas through which the modernist ideal of authenticity had led to the contemporary "glorification of insanity," leaving the political implications of this "glorification" for readers to work out on their own.

Religion in general and Judaism in particular were elements of the cultural heritage about which both Trilling and Howe remained ambivalent. Neither was a believer, but neither was entirely comfortable with the resolutely secularist worldview their intellectual commitments seemed to entail. Trilling's great hero of the intellect was Sigmund Freud, doubts about whose doctrines Trilling never permitted himself and whose views on religion are summed up in The Future of an Illusion. Trilling explicitly rejected the suggestion that his intellectual stance had anything to do with his Jewish heritage. He claimed in a 1949 Commentary symposium that expressions of anti-Semitism in English literature posed no particular issue for him, while Howe in the same symposium wrote that "gross caricatures of Jews in English literature make it impossible for one to be totally at ease with its tradition." It was Howe, the leftwing socialist, who found sustenance in the Jewish past and did what he could as a writer to keep it alive.

In one of his finest insights, however, Alexander notes that it is Trilling's prose, not Howe's, that conveys the oblique suggestion that the world and human beings are mysterious and complicated, beyond even the understanding of a Sigmund Freud. Trilling gives us, Alexander asserts, "more than a revision of the dominant liberalism of our times, more than a chastened commitment to mind, and more than a heightened awareness of literature as a criticism of life. What he gives us is a sense of yearning toward something beyond any of these."

James Seaton, a professor of English at Michigan State, is the editor of The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy and Character and Opinion in the United States.