The Liberal Imagination Essays On Literature And Society

The Liberal Imagination Essays On Literature And Society-71
But they mark significant differences that extend beyond personal disputes into the post -war culture.

But they mark significant differences that extend beyond personal disputes into the post -war culture.

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Tapping into strong personal feelings, Kazin creates in Trilling a harsh, thoughtful and compelling portrait of an era.) describing his Brooklyn childhood and his early successful efforts to become a writer, had received very strong reviews, many of which took note of the author’s gift for vivid, shrewd literary portraiture. “But it should also make the viewer wonder at what self-serving rascals most of our literary heroes are.” Richler was exaggerating.

Thus expectations were high for his third memoir billed as an insider’s account of the post-war literary-intellectual world in which Kazin was still a prominent figure. There are admiring, affectionate portraits of Edmund Wilson, Hannah Arendt, and Saul Bellow.

“What happens whenever we convert a writer into a symbol is that we lose the writer himself in all his indefeasible singularity” ( 10). So, now we are ashamed of him because he brings up everything we should like to leave behind us” (10).

“Literary people as a class can get so far away from the experience of other classes that they tend to see them only symbolically. By the time of Kazin’s response to the attack on Dreiser Trilling’s political/cultural intentions had been long been evident.

Instead there were “cultured minds, “intellectual contentment,” and “middle-class claustrophobia,” as well as a notable reluctance to espouse or defend views that could be interpreted as a challenge to the “New Liberal” consensus that anti-Stalinism must constitute the bed-rock of all serious intellectual discourse. He had had his say on a subject that had been troubling him for years—not through debate but by creating a Trilling “character.” “Trilling, the pompously respectable professor, is a character in 3/5/66). The Trilling “character” was both an expression of personal grievance and an opportunity to focus attention on long-standing matters of contention in Trilling’s Cold War America, among them: the narrowing and hardening of intellectual-political discourse, the discrediting of the progressive impulse in American writing that Kazin had celebrated in , the subordination of “class” to “culture” in discussions and evaluations of American writers, and the changing status of American Jews in the post-war years.

It was a time when “it seemed impossible in public to admit doubts, divisions, nuances, contradictions, hesitations, lost illusions. These were not the only factors shaping relations with Trilling: incompatible temperaments, evident in Trilling’s personal diary discussed below, were perhaps even more determinative.They also shed new light on some of the personal/ideological tensions and disagreements at work in the forties and early fifties that rarely broke the surface of the so-called Cold-War “liberal consensus.” Staunchly anticommunist and centrist in its politics, that consensus, perhaps more accurately labeled “liberal conservatism,” discouraged the kind of intellectual dissent (including serious discussions of socialism) that had characterized the pre-war and progressive years (Hodgson was Kazin’s latter-day effort to be heard, to place on the record his thoughts about the Cold War years and, more specifically and personally, his feelings about a writer whom he admired, distrusted, and resented and who more than any other single figure shaped the literary culture of an era he (Kazin) had found constricting, frustrating, and alien -- “I feel I do not belong to any of it” (), and adds that “Trilling was an intense intellectual admiration of mine.” Anticipating later difficulties, he follows up with the observation that Trilling, who was ten years his senior, “had absorbed the more gentlemanly style of the twenties much as [Saul] Bellow and I had absorbed the social angers of the abrasive lower-class thirties” (43).He notes Trilling’s good looks and graceful public manner, but he also sees them as a form of disguise—“white hair over a handsome face that seemed to be furrowed, hooded, closed up in constant thought.In fact, there had been serious differences and difficulties between them as far back as the early forties, differences that did not produce a sustained public debate but that had long troubled Kazin and that extended into the culture at large.A look back at the portrait and some relevant entries from both writers’ diaries together with a brief review and discussion of their relationship (or non-relationship) will indicate some of the personal and political sources of Kazin’s difficulty with Trilling and why he chose to make him a pivotal figure in his chronicle of the post-war years.In a later chapter, “The Times Being What They Are,” describing life during the Mc Carthy years, the portrait shifts to Trilling’s role in the Cold War—“Trilling’s high moment” (191).A one-time radical, who in the 1930s had been fiercely critical of America, Trilling became “the most successful leader of deradicalization” in the post war years” and an enthusiastic “convert [to]America as an ideology” versus the Soviet Union (190–1)., and his use of that character to critique significant features of the country’s Cold War literary culture.Among these are: the narrowing and hardening of intellectual discourse in a cultural-political climate dominated by the “liberal consensus,” the discrediting of the progressive impulse in American writing, the subordination of “class” to “culture” in evaluations of American writers, and the changing status of Jews and Jewish writers in post-war America.This collection of previously published pieces included charges against Parrington, Dreiser, Dos Passos, Thomas Wolfe, Sherwood Anderson (another Kazin favorite), and Trilling’s celebrated 1948 essay, “Manners, Morals and the Novel,” in which he slights Faulkner for his provincialism, quotes approvingly Henry James’s “cogent” remarks on the items necessary for the novel missing from the American landscape, observes that the American’s resistance to considerations of “class” and “manners” leaves their novelists without the material on which the “classic” novel depends, and argues that if the democratic impulse has broadened our “social sympathies,” it has done so at the expense of “our power to love, for our novels can never create characters who truly exist” (217).Trilling’s counter-progressive arguments and his critique of the American novel would prove extraordinarily influential leading to what has been called a “paradigm revolution” in the critical-scholarly assessment of American literature (Wise that he feared would make him appear “ridiculous,” they confirmed his sense of being stranded in an alien zeitgeist, and his growing conviction that there was an “irremediable opposition” between himself and Trilling and that “nothing whatever can be done about this” (, 11/8/51).


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