Skip to content

Edward Mendelson is the Lionel Trilling Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University and the literary executor of the estate of W. H. Auden. His new book is Moral Agents: Eight Twentieth-Century American Writers (New York Review Books, $21.95), which contains portraits of Saul Bellow, Alfred Kazin, Norman Mailer, Dwight Macdonald, William Maxwell, Frank O’Hara, and, as it happens, Lionel Trilling and W. H. Auden. Moral Agents is dedicated to Robert B. Silvers, editor of the New York Review of Books, where earlier versions of these portraits appeared. John Summers, a great deal less distinguished, is editor of this magazine. Even so, Mendelson agreed to answer some of our questions about his book in the wee days of the New Year (that would be January 1 and 2). —Eds.


Lionel Trilling
© David Johnson Lionel Trilling

John Summers: Lionel Trilling was the first tenured Jewish professor in Columbia’s English Department and a public figure whose literary essays “served as some form of national therapy,” as you write. Yet you also quote the following passage from Trilling’s journals: “I am ashamed of being in a university. I have one of the great reputations in the academic world. This thought makes me retch.” What gives?

Edward Mendelson: It was part of Trilling’s genius that he saw that his own status as a campus sage was harmful to himself and to everyone who admired him for it. He let himself be revered as a calming presence who, merely by being there and talking in his measured, deliberate way, suggested that rational, well-meaning people can solve all problems. But in order to do this, he had to suppress all the unsettling things he knew about his own and everyone’s irrational impulses, everyone’s self-deceptions, and he despised himself for suppressing what he knew. He never blamed anyone but himself—he never thought he was forced to be decorous because he was the first tenured Jew in his department—but he knew he was betraying his own genius by presenting himself as the kind of loyal “beloved professor” whom universities always honor but don’t actually care about because they don’t increase the endowment. Trilling might have taken deep pleasure from his teaching if he had let himself say what he believed, instead of letting himself get frustrated with Columbia because it was the place where he suppressed himself.

JS: This year’s freshman class at Columbia will be graduating during the fiftieth anniversary of the 1968 protests. What do you think of the university now as a host for Trilling’s kind of calming sagacity?

EM: The calming figure of the “beloved professor” is just as prevalent now as in Trilling’s day. The “beloved professor” becomes loved by telling people the comforting things they want to hear. What Trilling wanted to say—but seldom did, except in the most roundabout way—were things that people don’t want to hear because it would make them uncomfortable about themselves.

JS: Are you worried that, like their predecessors, today’s students will wise up to what America has in store for them and tear through the campus for old time’s sake? Granted, students in U.S. history have almost never been a hinge of social change. But you never know. Trilling himself seemed merely bewildered back in 1968, when they rebelled the first time.

EM: People who are staring at their cell phones never rampage. They merely bump into things.

Norman Mailer
© David Johnson Norman Mailer

JS: But thousands of people are protesting police brutality on the streets of New York even as we are enjoying this Very Serious Conversation. At least a hundred Columbia University students have joined in. Some of them have been pepper-sprayed.The cohort of writers in your book embodies the ideal of free-ranging skeptical inquiry and the fact of social mobility. How can we imagine a contemporary university capable of carrying on this kind of inquiry, and a city with its economic prerequisites, without waging some sort of adversarial struggle? What quality of culture may we expect to flow from the present atmosphere of frustration and intimidation? Maybe it will soon be time for the “beloved professors” to desublimate!

EM: Maybe so, though I don’t have any specific recommendations. It seems to me that what’s wrong with universities right now can’t be fixed without massive changes in the whole national economy and the way universities are run and funded. As long as intelligent, strong-minded people see that a career in the university is likely to mean teaching six sections of remedial English while leaving them unable to pay the rent, they’re going to go into other work, and the kind of university that you ask about isn’t going to exist.

JS: I’ve read a whole bunch of Norman Mailer’s books, but even after appreciating your portrait of his life and work, where you argue that his “whole career was a quest for transcendence,” I have trouble regarding him as any kind of “moral agent.” I can’t seem to get past his deplorable treatment of women. Given all the horrible things he did and wrote in this respect, I’m sometimes tempted to think of Mailer (since he loved sports analogies) as the Ray Rice of American novelists—only that’s unfair to Rice, who never stabbed his wife with a penknife during a party held to announce a quixotic run for New York City’s mayoralty. Is it wrong to hold Mailer’s immoralities against his books?

EM: “Moral agent” doesn’t mean “a good moral agent” (or a bad one); it means someone who is morally responsible for his or her own acts, who wasn’t forced into them involuntarily by culture, biology, parental mistreatment, or anything else. Mailer was certainly that, and he knew it. One thing that’s especially interesting about him is that he took ideas seriously enough to act on them, and he acted on some very bad ideas. He’s a classic example of how bad ideas (about hipsters and psychotics, for example) lead to bad actions in someone who might not have done anything of the kind if he hadn’t had those bad ideas. And those bad ideas were Mailer’s own moral choices, his own inventions—he wasn’t driven to find some merit in a shopkeeper’s murder (as he did in one of his more theoretical essays) because someone else propagandized him about politics. What went wrong in many of Mailer’s books is essentially what went wrong in a lot of his life: he was more comfortable with theories about human beings than he was with human beings.

As for holding someone’s bad acts against their books, I think everyone is selective about this. Louis Althusser murdered his wife, and, for me, that just confirms what I don’t like about his political writings. But Carlo Gesualdo also murdered his wife (and her lover), and it doesn’t stop me from being moved by his music. I have the same mixed feelings about Mailer’s books that I have about his life.

JS: Yes, as you suggest here and say in your introduction, Moral Agents alights on “the conflicts between the inward, intimate private lives of its eight authors and the lives they led in public.” So you read their public and private writings, plus the memoirs about them (Diana Trilling’s, Ann Birstein’s, Greg Bellow’s, Adele Mailer’s, for starters). And in knuckling through their conflicts, you don’t stoop to accusing any of your subjects of hypocrisy, which must have been tempting, given the sometimes reckless and unpleasant emotions they displayed in the service of their personal ambition. Mailer was not the only writer in your group to make the “quest for transcendence” look a bit ugly now and again. Did you find a common attitude toward the aesthetic use of private experience that these writers shared and that influenced your own method?

Alfred Kazin
© David Johnson Alfred Kazin

EM: Only in that all these writers—like every other writer—saw the world in ways that were shaped by their private experience. Human beings can’t avoid that, but that doesn’t mean that everyone’s view of the world is equally valid or invalid. Auden says somewhere that goodness can imagine evil but evil can’t imagine good, and it’s fairly obvious that one sign of intelligence is the ability to recognize that someone else is even more intelligent. What struck me about all these writers—some more than others—was their ability to see that their own perspectives shaped what they saw. I hope that by telling their stories as parables—as truthfully as possible, but in the shape and form of a parable—people who read those stories can decide for themselves whether the stories tell them anything worth thinking about.

JS: I spent some time during the George Bush years reading Ralph Waldo Emerson’s journals, maybe as gesture of mental dissent from the war technique. So I’m fascinated that you say Alfred Kazin’s journals “portray him, unexpectedly, as Emerson’s Jewish heir.” Later in the same chapter, you applaud Kazin for standing up to the bellicose leaders of the neoconservative movement. Do you ever wonder whether Emerson himself wasn’t something of a neocon, with his “spiritual laws” projecting noble justice and all?

EM: I think Kazin read Emerson selectively. Some of Emerson—the parts that sound like libertarianism—seemed to him merely childish. What he admired were the parts that made him feel independent-minded, not freed from social responsibility. When he said, “Emerson made me a Jew,” this was basically what he had in mind. Even that lifelong socialist Irving Howe wrote an approving book on Emerson late in life, and Howe’s approach had a lot in common with Kazin’s. The point in each case was to read an earlier writer in order to find out what that writer had to say that was worth learning, not in order to condemn him for having some ideas that intellectual thugs later endorsed.

W.H. Auden
© David Johnson W.H. Auden

JS: Well, in a country that continually subverts its own cultural traditions, one must scramble to explain how the thugs have won the realm of politics. In that same spirit, let me ask you about W. H. Auden, another independent, religiously committed poet. You write that “he was less interested in the obvious distinction between a responsible citizen and an evil dictator than he was in the more difficult question of what the citizen and the dictator had in common, how the citizen’s moral and psychological failures help the dictator to succeed.” What might Auden have said, or helped us to understand, about the contents of the U.S. Senate’s torture report, released in part in December? Are they our fault?

EM: Auden wrote half-seriously that political history is something far too criminal to teach to children. What are surprising are the moments when dreadfully evil things don’t happen, not the moments when they do. I don’t want to guess what Auden or anyone else would have said about current events. But I am reminded of many things Auden said about temptations to power, about everyone’s sense that justice means one-point-one eye for an eye, about the fantasy that what “works” is worth doing—also the passage in his “Christmas Oratorio” where Herod massacres the innocents in order to save civilization, and much else. But these are things that everyone knows, or ought to know, without anyone telling them.

JS: If the torturers and their handlers knew their actions were evil, then they should be in jail. If they didn’t know, maybe the rest of us should be. What might Auden have said to us pie-eyed citizens who cannot accept as real the premise of his “Christmas Oratorio”—humanity lying low in its fallen state, etc.—or who, for whatever reason, insist on our right to be surprised when we encounter evil done in our name?

Many younger persons today who haven’t traveled far enough into the professional middle class to be saddled with its go-along/get-along mode of resignation are aroused with half-articulate and semi-organized fervor over the crimes of their government. They’re struggling to connect the up-close realities of police misconduct with the world-historical bullshit peddled by the secret intelligence agencies. What can the next generation learn about the moral imagination from the writers discussed in your book?

Dwight Macdonald
© David Johnson Dwight Macdonald

EM: I hope you’re right about younger persons, and, if so, they seem to me to be facing structural problems in world society that are almost as intractable as the ones that people faced in the Cold War. It’s not exactly easy to deal with a world where governments and corporations seem to share the idea that if something is technically possible (information gathering via spying or torture, for example), then they ought to go ahead and do it. Governments used to think that way about bombs, and now they think that way about “enhanced interrogation techniques” and data-gathering. Maybe the only thing I would feel comfortable saying about the relation between moral imagination and political reality is something like this: When you think mostly in terms of partisan politics—our side versus their side—then you inevitably start worrying about whether an action or attitude helps your side or the other side, and you lose sight of what your real goal is, which (I hope anyway) has something to do with a social world that might be fit for free and responsible persons to live in. But if you think about politics as a way of putting your moral intelligence into effect, then you make it harder for other people to obfuscate the issue in order to serve their own immoral purposes.

It seems to me that in recent years the people who have done the most to make some worthwhile change possible have been the truth-tellers, those who said things that did themselves no good—they’re going to be on the run from the authorities more or less forever—but that they couldn’t stop themselves from saying because of a moral, rather than a partisan, motive. There’s a pretty clear contrast between such truth-tellers and the Nobel Prize–winning president who campaigned on a platform of moral action and then decided it was safest to forget about it. Parables about this kind of thing run through the book, and some of them complicate the whole issue. Norman Mailer, for example, was always committed, in what seems to me a thoroughly admirable way, to the democratic left, very much like Dwight Macdonald, but Mailer got himself tangled up in the idea that his own personal mythology and vision mattered more than what happened to other people. Macdonald never made that mistake, but Macdonald paid a price for seeing things as clearly as he did: he spent many years in something like passivity and despair, which didn’t do him any good, and certainly didn’t do any good for the kind of society he wanted.

Auden once said something to a friend that I think may get to the heart of both the difficulty and hopefulness of all this. He said (I’m paraphrasing from memory), “Americans get very angry when you tell them there are no answers, but in a crisis, they look forward, unlike Europeans, who look backward.”