March 1, 1994
Why do we still care about the New York intellectuals? Partly, perhaps, because they embodied, conceivably for the last time in American history, a venerable modern ideal, practiced also by the philosophes and praised by Goethe and Marx: vielseitigkeit or many-sidedness. Their versatility was astonishing. “The intellectual,” Irving Howe wrote in “This Age of Conformity (1954), doubtless with his fellow New Yorkers in mind, “is a man who writes about subjects outside his field. He has no field.” Their apparent mastery (or at any rate their tone of authority) in pronouncing on both culture and politics, and in relating one set of judgments to the other, now seems as attractive as it does unattainable. In the Age of Information, mastery even of a single field is an implausible aspiration, and casual authority over a whole range of them an anachronistic one.
Then, too, their pronouncements seemed to matter. To the live moral imagination, all times are dark times; but the late Thirties and early Forties have a special pathos. Rarely can so many catastrophes-- global economic depression, world war, the Gulag, the Holocaust-- have thronged a single decade. The need to make sense of these traumas was widely felt; and with so many people listening, even those tough-minded erstwhile historical materialists may be forgiven for forgetting the structural irrelevance of radical ideas in a capitalist democracy-- or, to put it less theoretically, for taking themselves so seriously.
Certainly we have been a long time saying goodbye. In the twenty-five years since Howe wrote the first and best retrospective (“The New York Intellectuals,” Commentary November 1968), one after another of them, like the players in Haydn’s “Farewell” Symphony, has come forward with a valedictory and then bowed off the stage or returned quietly-- for the most part -- to his or her seat: Mary McCarthy, Edmund Wilson, Howe himself, William Barrett, William Phillips (still fiddling away, but rallentando) Norman Podhoretz (likewise, molto agitato). Although by and large I can’t get enough of the genre, I’m glad Phillip Rahv didn’t weigh in-- though a fine and underappreciated literary critic, he was apparently not good at personal relations and was particularly embittered late in life. My chief regret has always been the absence of memoirs by two of my favorite NYints, Dwight Macdonald and Lionel Trilling. A double pleasure, then, this publishing season: the first full biography of Macdonald and Diana Trilling’s memoir of her life with Lionel.
Michael Wrezsin is a diligent, conscientious, fair-minded scholar and so has produced a well-informed, even-handed, thoroughly useful and enjoyable biography. Diana Trilling is a New York intellectual (and so might have been expected to produce either a brilliant, contentious, unreliable, and self-serving portrait of those fraught decades or (depending on where one’s ideological sympathies lie) a brilliant, contentious, and illuminating one. She has confounded expectations. The Beginning of the Journey occasionally takes sides, settles scores, dips into mere brilliance. But in its novelistic proportions and detail and its sustained inwardness, it is what few of those “Luftmenschen of the mind” (Howe) achieved or even attempted: a work of art.
Diana Trilling’s style has often seemed to me a bit fussy. A fine, tortuous line separates the exquisite from the precious. Lionel Trilling navigated that boundary expertly, almost infallibly. But although, unlike some readers of The Beginning of the Journey I have no trouble believing that Mrs. Trilling in good measure formed her husband’s prose style (see, for one example among several that make this claim plausible, her superb essay on Virginia Woolf in Claremont Essays) the pupil undeniably-- she of course does not deny it-- surpassed his teacher. The enchanting combination of lightness and gravity that he regularly attained, she rarely attained.
In The Beginning of the Journey she attains something else: not quite a world but a milieu of lively, rounded, ridiculous, admirable characters, her family and Lionel’s and their friends and colleagues during the first half of their marriage. (The memoir ends in 1950.) She herself is her own most memorable creation, or re-creation. “I was an excessively fearful child,” she announces on page 3, and offers a mind-boggling, side-splitting list of things she feared, above all burglars, for whom she lay awake listening night after night. Fear-- especially “fear of public display,” induced by parental strictures -- is the hidden theme of this formidable woman’s life. A gifted singer, she came down with a psychosomatic illness that foreclosed a musical career. As a beginning writer of anonymous short reviews for the Nation she almost gave up in terror, aborting her career, when offered a byline. To this day, she is “unable to attend a concert or lecture or any public performance without at some moment having my throat tighten with the temptation to scream and thus divert, in a most unpleasant way, the attention of the audience from the onstage display to my own imprisoned self.”
They fucked her up, her Mum and Dad; they may not have meant to but they did. Lionel’s, too. She dramatizes it all marvelously, with impeccable moral delicacy and without a quaver of self-pity.
There are revelations-- Lionel’s rages and depressions, his blissful paternity, their lifelong financial difficulties, Diana’s amazing misadventures in psychoanalysis. But most surprising and affecting of all is her voice: at once elegiac and pungent, magnanimous and unsparing, dignified and intensely, dauntingly intimate. Mrs. Trilling’s intelligence was always been plain on every page she wrote (though I will presently quarrel with her politics). But I never suspected she had so much soul.
There was, of course, never any doubt on that score about Dwight Macdonald, and there are altogether fewer surprises in A Rebel in Defense of Tradition. He drank a lot, had a squeaky laugh, and drove recklessly; he was not the best of fathers; he occasionally-- e.g., when exercised by Rahv’s or Phillips’s subtleties-- tossed off an anti-Semitic crack; and his late-life writer’s block makes painful reading. But for the most part he was what he reads like, decency itself, universally liked even if not always (by truly serious people, that is) respected.
No major historical or interpretive novelties in Wrezsin, either, though a few nuggets. His versions of the 1949 Waldorf-Astoria Conference and Macdonald’s stint at Encounter are full and entertaining. There are generous selections from Dwight’s correspond ence, most notably with Nicola Chiaromonte. And the NYints’ summer frolics on Cape Cod are high comedy. But for all Wrezsin’s thorough ness and judiciousness, Stephen Whitfield’s much shorter A Critical American (1984) is still the best introduction (apart from Macdonald) to Macdonald.
Whatever they may have disagreed about (practically everything), the New York intellectuals seem to have been virtually unanimous in regarding Macdonald with exasperated condescension. He was “Yogi Macdonald” (Rahv and Phillips), a “sentimental dilettante” (James Burnham), “Bohemian ... irresponsible” (Sidney Hook), “the 13th disciple” (Howe), a “kibitzer ... thinks with his typewriter” (Paul Goodman, “has made a fetish of confusion and drift” (C. Wright Mills), a “truant” (William Barrett) , a “dandy” (Hilton Kramer) , a “boyish innocent ... singularly lacking in self-consciousness” (Diana Trilling, 1957); “Nothing was easier than to be angry at Macdonald, whether in or out of print, but it was difficult to stay angry at him; he was too childlike, too seemingly innocent. Certainly he was innocent of the consequences of his ideas” (Diana Trilling, 1994). Even Trotsky chimed in: “Everyone has the right to be stupid on occasion, but Comrade Macdonald abuses the privilege.”
Can so many and diverse eminences have been wrong? I think so. Turgenev once observed that “in politics, the honorable man will end by not knowing where to live.” He might have added that such a man’s less brave and imaginative contemporaries will mock his homelessness. The Thirties and Forties (even more than the Fifties, Sixties, Seventies, and Eighties) confronted political critics with dilemmas to which one, perhaps the only, honest response was confusion and despair. Macdonald initially opposed American participation in World War II, believing that capitalist governments could not effectively prosecute the war without themselves veering toward fascism. His more dramatic predictions, at least, were mistaken and occasioned much sarcasm. But they proceeded from a sound intuition-- that war is the health of the state -- which his polemical opponents gave no evidence of sharing. This inchoate, global skepticism allowed Macdonald to perceive the Allies’ criminal misconduct: the mass bombings of civilians, the insistence on unconditional surrender, the refusal of asylum to the Jews, and “the annihilation of all European underground movements against fascism and Nazism, which succeeded because it was the one of the very few items on which the Allied powers wholeheartedly agreed ... [and] for which only now are we beginning to pay the full price” (Hannah Arendt, “Introduction to Politics Past, 1968). It was Macdonald and his fellow contributors to Politics who documented and denounced all these things and so in a small way redeemed the honor of American intellectuals, not the Partisan Review “realists” (nor Diana Trilling, who in The Beginning of the Journey rebukes even the latter for their insufficient partisanship). NSC 68, the existence of high-level State Department and Council on Foreign Relations planning groups that in effect designed the Pax Americana, and the evolution of huge, uncontrollable national security bureaucracies originating in this period also seem, in retrospect, to validate Macdonald’s confused intuitions about the untrustworthiness of governments. At least one can say (adapting a celebrated formulation of Susan Sontag) that a reader Politics probably would not have been surprised by these developments, while a reader of the post-Macdonald Partisan Review very well might.
Macdonald’s “negativism” also earned him a good deal of superior admonition. In “The Root Is Man” (1946) and elsewhere, he confessed his disenchantment with all the available forms of organized political action. (That essay prompted a young wiseguy named Irving Howe to send Politics a 6000-word [!] critique, which Macdonald published in full.) “What seems necessary,” Macdonald wrote, after surveying in the preceding pages (and embracing in the previous decade) virtually every form of radical ideology, is to encourage attitudes of disrespect, skepticism, ridicule towards the State and all authority, rather than to build up a competing authority.” The only hope he could see, modest enough, “seems to be through symbolic individual actions, based on one person’s insistence on his own values, and through the creation of small fraternal groups which will support such actions, keep alive a sense of our ultimate goals, and both act as a leavening in the dough of mass society and attract more and more of the alienated and frustrated members of that society.”
It is difficult to understand why, except to the terminally tough-minded, any of this should have sounded frivolous, irresponsible, quietist, or defeatist. It’s not as though there were practical alternatives, then or now. “Negativism” did not mean abandoning radical politics, just pruning it of empty pretensions and bad faith. It meant resisting the simplifying urgencies of war and Cold War, admitting one’s impotence and uncertainty, sitting tight, listening. It required moral poise, a kind of ideological negative capability. It required genuine-- rather than professed, which is a very common article -- intellectual humility. No wonder his fellow New York intellectuals thought him wacky. (Others, however, saw his floundering differently. Czeslaw Milosz, for one, paid tribute to Macdonald as a successor to “Thoreau, Whitman, and Melville ... a specific American type-- the completely free man, capable of making decisions at all times and about all things strictly according to his personal moral judgments.”)
But even at his most confused, discouraged, or doctrinaire, Macdonald criticized. He quotes Alexander Herzen on “two Russian liberals who made their peace with Czar Nicholas I: ‘I shall be told that under the aegis of devotion to the Imperial power, the truth can be spoken more boldly. Why, then, did they not speak it?’ So, too, with the critical supporters of the war -- why, then, do they not criticize?” Actually, a similar question crossed my mind when I came upon Diana Trilling’s remark in The Beginning of the Journey that after she and Lionel left a Communist-front organization in disillusionment, “we never again raised our voices on behalf of the workers’ homeland.” Well and good. Macdonald himself was as sharp and effective a critic of Stalinism as anyone in the history of the American left. But did the Trillings ever again raise their voices on behalf of their homeland’s workers? Not that I can discover. Whereas Politics was read fervently in army camps and union halls across the country, and frivolous, irresponsible Yogi Macdonald more or less single-handedly launched the War on Poverty with “Our Invisible Poor,” his essay review of Michael Harrington’ s The Other America. Altogether, Hook-Burnham-Rahv-Phillips Kramer-Trilling disparaging Macdonald strikes me as no less implausible than, say, James Gould Cozzens ridiculing D.H. Lawrence or Mortimer J. Adler lecturing Wittgenstein.
(Having praised The Beginning of the Journey, I must here parenthesize to defend Macdonald against a more particular reproach in it. Mrs. Trilling writes: “In 1968, with the outbreak of the campus disturbances at Columbia, [Macdonald] was at once on the scene, loaded for bear. He had no connection with Columbia; to him it mattered not at all if the institution lived or died -- he had found himself a revolution. ... He and I quarreled during this period ... he found my indignant refusal to help the SDS ‘hilarious’ -- what more laughable than to want a university to endure?”
On the contrary, as an invited speaker at Columbia’s counter—Commencement, Madconald told the strikers:
"While I find your strike and your sit-ins productive, I don’t think these tactics can be used indefinitely without doing more damage than good to the university. It would be a pity if Columbia became another Latin American type of university in which education is impossible because student strikes and political disruptions have become chronic. Nor do I think that our universities should be degraded to service as entering wedges to pry open our society for the benefit of social revolution. I’m for such a revolution but I don’t think it is a historical possibility in the foreseeable future in this country, and premature efforts to force it will merely damage or destroy such positive, progressive institutions as we have. Their only effect -- if any -- will be to stimulate a counterrevolution which have far more chances of success."
These remarks probably contributed as much to Columbia’s survival as anything Mrs. Trilling said or did in the spring of 1968.)
From the 1950s on, Macdonald mainly occupied himself with what he called (borrowing T.S. Eliot definition of the function of criticism) “the correction of taste.” He became, as Stephen Whitfield put it, mid-century America’s Mencken as well as its Bourne, slaying various middlebrow dragons such as the pseudo-populist 3rd edition of Webster’s Dictionary, the vulgarized Revised Standard Version of the Bible, and the ineffably pompous University of Chicago Great Books project. He justified this flight from politics with an eloquent 1950 anti-manifesto:
"The scale of things is too big, the levers of power too far removed from people like us (and perhaps from people like Stalin and Truman), the mood of the general population, after generations of Pavlovian conditioning by industrialism, world wars, and state bureaucracies, too demoralized and apathetic to respond to our appeals. Even if we could make them with the old fervor and rationality. Which we can’t. For fervor we now have routine moralizing; for reason, the old stock of antiquated abstractions. ... The pacifist and socialist writings of today are to those of two generations ago as hay is to grass. Which is why I am no longer a pacifist, a socialist, or any kind of ist."
But of course it was not really a flight from politics; it was a continuation of politics by other means. In the decades since Macdonald resigned as a revolutionist, systematic social theory, both liberal and radical, has lumbered around to an understanding of the strategic importance of mass culture and moral psychology; has begun to appreciate the ideological functions of cant, kitsch, crudity and superficiality. Macdonald bit himself (his 1953 essay, “A Theory of Mass Culture,” was fairly widely reprinted), but mostly he went in for practical criticism, with significant effects on American intellectual hygiene.
Eventually he took to calling himself a “conservative radical”-- partly, one suspects, to pull everyone’s leg, but also because the standards he sought to apply to our culture, the strict standards of honest intellectual craftsmanship, are at once deeply conservative and deeply subversive. “To think clearly is a necessary first step towards political regeneration,” Orwell wrote in “Politics and the English Language,” ”so that the fight against bad English [all the rest-- G.S.] is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers.” Macdonald’s career is an almost unimprovable gloss on Orwell’s essay.