Fiction Bound: Lionel Trilling, James Wood, and other Cultural Cold Warriors

As historian Michael Kimmage notes in “The Journey Continued and Abandoned,” an essay on Lionel Trilling’s second novel (The Journey Abandoned), Norman Mailer showed a way to solve the dilemma of Trilling, or at least of Trilling’s protagonist in The Journey Abandoned, the would-be-writer Vincent, “Vincent’s dilemma” – though it’s not much of a good solution – for both fiction writers and nonfiction writers, and curiously, Mailer never solved it well for himself in fiction, never came close in my view (since both Armies of the Night and The Executioner’s Song are nonfiction essentially). And in any event, Mailer’s solution involves sooner or later (immediately on some topics) a lot of compromise, to the point of utter censorship – obviously, a solution that is soon found wanting. Ideologically based rebuffs from the establishment under the guise of aesthetic criticism – many a progressive or revolutionary minded author quickly encounters plenty of those or decides not to bother testing the waters in the first place.

It’s interesting to compare accomplished critic Lionel Trilling with accomplished critic Maxwell Geismar: Trilling, first tenured Jewish professor at Columbia, and Geismar, first Jewish student at Columbia to be, I think, Valedictorian, or to achieve some such rank (though if I recall correctly from Geismar’s memoir, Columbia might not have been aware he was Jewish). Regardless, it may as well have been Trilling, who showed up on national TV to help torpedo Geismar’s career, as the two men who played a key role: William vanden Heuval and Irving Kristol – the former a “protégé” of the “father” of the CIA and the latter the CIA flack and “father” of neoconservatism who several years earlier had passed on his position as editor of Commentary magazine to Trilling’s student, Normon Podhoretz. As I’ve noted elsewhere, when William vanden Heuvel (father of the current editor/publisher of The Nation Katrina vanden Heuvel) tag-teamed with Irving Kristol (the father of current prominent Fox TV political pundit Bill Kristol) – when these central figures of the political establishment hastened to appear on national TV over four decades ago to attack directly to the face of the silenced progressive literary critic Maxwell Geismar, on the occasion of the publication of Geismar’s book of criticism about Henry James (”a primary Cold War literary figure”), Kristol and vanden Heuvel, two exemplars of the status quo, serving retrograde state interests, executed a prominent role in destroying Geismar’s accomplished literary career and ending his run on a national literary television show, Books on Trial (”or something similar,” in Geismar’s recollection). Geismar posits William vanden Heuvel as “a rich, cultivated, charming, and liberal member of the upper echelons of the CIA [who] had a large hand in embroiling [the US] in Vietnam,” while Irving Kristol “as it later turned out was almost always affiliated with many State Department or CIA literary projects in editing, publishing, and the academic world…a hired hand of the establishment.”

It might be noted that the Trillings of past and present, such as today’s star critic, James Wood, among others, stand shoulder-to-shoulder with establishmentarians like the liberal vanden Heuvels and the neoconservative Kristols in defending Henry James as grand author, in particular against some of the views of past prominent critic Edmund Wilson. Because Wood views some of Wilson’s writing on Henry James as “a scandal” and “barbarous,” he would no doubt also deplore or dismiss Geismar’s book of criticism: Henry James and the Jacobites (1963). Wood’s too often retrograde position is on full view in his recent wildly mistitled book, How Fiction Works. As Gideon Lewis-Kraus notes, writing in the Los Angeles Times, James Wood is a writer who matters. People read him, people of the educated, monied, controlling part of the populace. That’s why it’s important that what James Wood writes does not matter – in central ways – as with any prominent critic of literature. Nowhere is this more on display than in How Fiction Works, a truncated politically-charged though aesthetic appreciation of fiction that is spectacular in its misrepresentation of reality, or “the real, which is at the bottom of [Wood’s] inquiries.” Ask Wood to annotate a novel, and he provides sometimes splendid views of narrative lines by way of an at times “uncannily well-tuned ear,” as Terry Eagleton notes. He is eager to discourse at length, often with quick pith, on how to strive toward reality in fiction (or criticism), reality of the profound sort, the truth, a worthy aim. Unfortunately, HFW is resolute in not accurately representing central elements of reality in both fiction and, call it, actuality, life outside fiction. (A few examples of these crucial misrepresentations show how such blindness chops understanding of fiction and life, and why it makes one safe to be a literary star of the status quo, of the establishment, of money and power. One must bury and falsify crucial reality. To that end, in How Fiction Works, James Wood has written an establishment polemic in the guise of aesthetics – a deeply partisan status quo account of the novel that is also pervasive in its misrepresentations of both reality and aesthetics.) Trilling and his time helped clear the path for Wood and his kind of critic and literature.

It’s striking in this Trilling book event discussion that the CIA and Ford Foundation and the “various Congresses and Committees for ‘Cultural Freedom’” are scarcely directly mentioned. Some of the individuals involved are still alive and doing the exact same work today (one individual who I know of via a close colleague, for example, just launched a major lit project, which I learned of initially through a naive establishment announcement). Then there are all the spin-offs, descendents (literal and figurative), influenced work, and the continued institutional grip of the establishment. (Much more on the CIA’s control or influencing of lit culture:

We can turn to the silenced progressive critic for help in telling the story of Trilling’s role and time. Geismar:

“What was the real truth, the true historical dimension, of the Cold War? As I said in opening this Introduction, a new group of Cold War historians have been giving us a whole new set of impressions, which, alas, most of those who lived through the period, and are so certain of their convictions, will not even bother to read and to think about. For if they did…the Schlesingers, the Galbraiths, the Kristols, the Max Lerners, the Trillings, the Bells, the Rahvs, the Kazins, the Irving Howes: all these outstanding, upstanding figures of our political-cultural scene today…they would have to admit both their own illusions for the last twenty years, and the fact that they have deliberately deluded their readers about the historical facts of our period. Since it was they who fastened the Cold War noose around all our necks, how can we expect them to remove it? – even though, as in the cases of Mary McCarthy and Dwight MacDonald, and the estimable New York Review of Books, they have bowed a little to the changing winds of fashion today. Due to student protests at base, and student confrontations on Cold War issues, Professors Bell and Trilling have indeed moved on from Columbia to Harvard University – but after Harvard what? Mr. Trilling has even ‘resigned’ from contemporary literature, saying at long last that he does not understand it – but only after he led the attack for twenty years on such figures as the historian Vernon Parrington, the novelist Dreiser, the short-story writer Sherwood Anderson, and other such figures of our literary history. And only after the Columbia University English Department had taken the lead in setting up Henry James as ‘Receiver’ in what amounted to the bankruptcy of our national literature. The Cold War Liberals, historians, critics and so-called sociologists, also clustered around a set of prestigious literary magazines like Partisan Review, The New Leader, Encounter of London, Der Monat of Berlin, [also Kenyon Review and “many others”; Peter Matthiesson helped start the Paris Review as “a young CIA recruit…and used it as his cover”], which had in effect set the tone and the values of the ‘Free World’ culture. When it was revealed, about two years ago, that these leading cultural publications and organizations (the various Congresses and Committees for ‘Cultural Freedom’), as well as some student organizations and big unions of the AFL-CIO, were in fact being financed and controlled by Central Intelligence Agency – the game was up…” -(1969) Maxwell Geismar, “Introduction,” New Masses: An Anthology of the Rebel Thirties (Ed. Joseph North)

The “game was up” for some individuals, but not for the establishment as whole, as has been documented in detail. The game had long since been up for Trilling’s fiction. As Michael Kimmage astutely notes, Trilling is clearly “one in a long line of sensitive American novelists, eager to write a masterpiece out of American material and destroyed by the culture that is his subject.” Trilling is a special case though, for as Geismar points out, Trilling was a prominent part of the culture beyond fiction that helped lead the repressive charge. It’s more fitting than ironic, I suppose, that it led to the burial of Trilling’s own aspirations in fiction, his writer character Vincent and real life writers aside.

Trilling fell victim, in part, to apparent self-censorship and an ideology that he helped impose on others. As scholar James Petras notes perceptively in “The CIA and the Cultural Cold War Revisited” an indispensable review of Frances Stoner Saunder’s limited though useful book “The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters”:

“The singular lasting, damaging influence of the CIA’s Congress of Cultural Freedom crowd was not their specific defenses of U.S. imperialist policies, but their success in imposing on subsequent generations of intellectuals the idea of excluding any sustained discussion of U.S. imperialism from the influential cultural and political media. The issue is not that today’s intellectuals or artists may or may not take a progressive position on this or that issue. The problem is the pervasive belief among writers and artists that anti-imperialist social and political expressions should not appear in their music, paintings, and serious writing if they want their work to be considered of substantial artistic merit. The enduring political victory of the CIA was to convince intellectuals that serious and sustained political engagement on the left is incompatible with serious art and scholarship.”

So, again, we might note the usefulness of Mailer’s example (deplored by Geismar, incidentally) for fiction but also the severe limits – which leaves us today with the almost meaningless skirmishes between the so-called “hysterical realists” and Flaubertian intimatists, between the free-wheeling fabulists and the empathetic realists, and other establishment fronts and alignments. It leaves us with the many misrepresentations of star critics like James Wood, of the overt or de facto cultural cold warriors still going strong – including Leon Wieseltier who “edited and introduced Trilling’s collection ‘The Moral Obligation to Be Intelligent’,” published in 2000, and then in 2004 promptly hatcheted the first prominent novel critical of the US invasion of Iraq. Even before release for sale by its publisher, Checkpoint, the proclaimed (yet self-nullifying) antiwar short novel from established writer Nicholson Baker, was denounced in 2004 by the New Republic’s literary editor Wieseltier in the New York Times, in easily one of the longest “reviews” the book received, as “This scummy little book,” which opened his review and set the tone of Wieselstier’s screed, a fraudulent and hypocritical defense of capitalism and subservient literature.

While a number of other establishment reviews were much more sympathetic than the pitiful New York Times hatchet job, it was easy to be so, since Baker himself carried the establishment water, doing war resisters no favors by putting a sometimes meaningful criticism of the US conquest into the mouth of a homicidal lunatic set upon committing a murderous crime himself, the assassination of the president, which basically nullified any serious effect the book might have. The protagonist assassination intent, not the “supreme crime” of state aggression, was greatly publicized and primarily discussed and the book sold poorly. Regardless, the status quo smears by Wieseltier (a “liberal thinker” and one of the “ideas men of the liberal intellegentsia”) made sure that any other potential antiwar writers of the establishment consider carefully what they would face in trying to bring out a more popular, more considered, and more investigative antiwar novel. There has scarcely been a trickle since. (My own novel Homefront was very politely, even respectfully, declined by a couple of the most liberal of establishment presses for ostensibly aesthetic reasons. Given the lack of any other such novels, US state criminals can be relieved that, apparently, novels revolving overtly and directly around “the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself all the accumulated evil of the whole,” in the words of the judgment of Nuremberg, is an aesthetic impossibility.) This part of Trilling’s legacy and Mailer’s as well, also Wood’s and many others’, highlights some of the subservient nature of establishment literature past and present. Of course these are not writers without their qualities and worthwhile work. These are writers whose would be greater works are “destroyed by the culture that is [their] subject” and object too. They participate greatly in their works’ own self-destruction. Trilling aborted his fiction. And Geismar was prescient to see Mailer, and fiction generally, cavorting essentially manic or obtuse (when not in sheer false denial), away from any too close depiction of some of the most urgent central realities of our time. For his character Vincent, Trilling could manage no way out, but this remains not so much fiction’s dilemma as its self imposed chains. Mailer clanked and rattled in his bondage too, the “hysterical realists” and Flaubertian intimatists and the rest likewise, whether miasmic or fastidious, or otherwise status quo ensconced. The plight of fiction today, in many crucial ways, is a journey arrested.

SEE RELATED – Fiction Gutted: The Establishment and the Novel


10 thoughts on “Fiction Bound: Lionel Trilling, James Wood, and other Cultural Cold Warriors”

  1. “A few examples of these crucial misrepresentations show how such blindness chops understanding of fiction and life, and why it makes one safe to be a literary star of the status quo, of the establishment, of money and power. One must bury and falsify crucial reality.”

    Perhaps you could provide some examples… instead of simply throwing around ridiculous unsubstantiated charges

  2. Glad to, see below. Ridiculous, no? Dozens more in this essay form. Know anyone who will publish it?

    Misrepresentation 15 – “No one is literally run off their feet”: Just listen to those darlings, the poor. They say such endearing things about being “literally run off” their feet. As if! Everyone knows, says Wood, that “No one is literally run off their feet.” The very idea! of being harried or hurried by an assembly line, by another machine, by a manager, by a boss so that a worker might slip, trip, or collapse onto a chair, floor, the ground. It’s literally unimaginable (to a status quo star), which makes Wood literally wrong. No one literally gets run off their feet by injury or to injury on stressful or dangerous jobs; no one is ever pushed that hard. How quaint! “Lily, the caretaker’s daughter” was not really run off her feet in Joyce’s famed story “The Dead,” says Wood. Evidently so, yet Wood is blatantly wrong about “no one” being run off their feet in households and on other jobs – ask any soldier who may be literally launched and detached from his feet, or any other body part. Is it possible that Wood neither knows nor can imagine anyone like this? Has he never read Les Misérables? Has he never seen Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times? In both great literary works (also popular and useful), being run off one’s feet is among the primary themes, and in Hugo’s great novel of the people, little Cosette is one of the literal examples. Chaplin is swept off his feet by the assembly line and ground through the gears of a machine. Literal reality that impossible fantasy.

  3. The quote I’m referring to is on page 19. “But no one is _literally_ run off her feet.” (Not “their” feet, as I quoted, and “literally” is italicized – a couple typos.) Regardless, it’s a generalization that is false. Is anyone _literally_ run off her feet? Absolutely. Wood doesn’t write “But she [Lily] is not _literally_ run off her feet.” He states that “no one is…”

    Even if we give Wood the benefit of the doubt that he is referring only to Lily in the story, he’s still misrepresenting the situation, which is ultimately ambiguous with regard to Lily being literally run off her feet. “Literally” is not necessarily “precisely the most inaccurate word,” as Wood claims.

    The author is under no obligation to clarify all that happened to Lily, to fix it with utter precision. In fact, Wood typically lauds authors who do not, authors who “blur” meaning, “blurring the question of who is noticing” the world, “all this stuff,” and what it might mean. Wood really can’t make his claim based on the evidence. Yes, “evidently so,” as I stated in my initial comments (consciously trying to give Wood the benefit of the doubt there), she is not run off her feet, not with certainty. Rather, it’s ambiguous. What actually happens is not conclusive as Wood details it.

    Joyce opens the story: “LILY, the caretaker’s daughter, was literally run off her feet. Hardly had she brought one gentleman into the little pantry behind the office on the ground floor and helped him off with his overcoat than the wheezy hall-door bell clanged again and she had to scamper along the bare hallway to let in another guest.”

    All that aside, Wood’s sentence (“But no one is _literally_ run off her feet.”) stands out to me as a blanket generalization, especially given how unimaginable an actual, “literal,” fall seems to be to Wood: “precisely the most inaccurate word.” Far from it.

  4. The way I read it is that Wood is comparing Joyce’s use of the word ‘repair’ in Portrait of an Artist, to his use of ‘literally.’ Joyce, with his acute eye for cliche, would only use such a word knowingly, says Wood.

    No one is ‘literally’ run off their feet…except perhaps in the most bizarre circumstances…like the ones you describe… this phrase is a cliche … and as such illustrative of free indirect speech, a subtle inflection… a cliched phrase carefully chosen by Joyce…

    I think it’s an interesting observation… far from the ‘blanket observation’ you call it. And nothing to do with an attack on the poor…as you seem to suggest.

  5. It’s not bizarre to be literally run off one’s feet on a machine line, on a farm, in athletic training, in the military, and yes in some demanding or excited households. We simply disagree on the reality.

    Regardless of Joyce’s intent, and whether or not he uses “literally” “knowingly,” it’s still ambiguous. It’s as mistaken to claim that Lily fell as to claim, as Wood does, that she did not.

    I agree that Wood is making an interesting observation. One could write books about the many interesting observations Wood makes, as many people have piecemeal. Unfortunately he too often ties his insight with misrepresentations of the same sort you are making: it’s bizarre to be literally run off one’s feet. I don’t imagine it happens much in cloistered dens. Wood is not attacking the poor, of course. He’s expressing a serious ignorance of not atypical features of low-income working conditions and how they might be spoken of by workers – and he presents Lily as imagined example. Insightfully, he imagines well one way such work events are spoken of, figuratively, but he misrepresents reality by entirely ruling out (“most inaccurate”) the literal possibility. That’s a serious misrepresentation.

    And again, he appears to generalize the misrepresentation far beyond Lily, just as you do.

    Yes, to be run off one’s feet is a cliché. It’s a cliché that you mistake for unreality, Wood too apparently. Cliché, third definition: “something overly familiar or commonplace.” Its use in this case is ambiguous. Wood claims otherwise in particular, and gives the impression that it generalizes, as do you. We disagree.

  6. (A) To be “run off your feet” is an idiomatic expression meaning “to be extremely busy (so that one does not have time to do everyone one needs to do).”

    (B) To be “literally” run off your feet presumably means something like “getting knocked down by someone or something,” perhaps in the course of work. If taken very literally the phrase might mean “to be compelled to run so quickly that you fall down.” It is by necessity logically distinct from the ordinary use of the expression.

    At the start of “The Dead,” Lily is not “literally” run off her feet (in the sense of B); she is instead very busy (in the sense A). Joyce highlights a gap between the sentence as it appears (B) and what is happening in the scene (A).

    This is a formal means through which Joyce renders Lily’s inner monologue, aka free indirect discourse. Wood is correct in his interpretation of Joyce’s intention, though he’s incorrect to say that no one *ever* gets literally run off their feet (B); it could happen, if understood as in (B).

    [As a side note, there’s nothing *necessarily* class-coded either about being extremely busy (A) or getting knocked down (B), though the working class is obviously quite distinct from the white-collar or professional-managerial class. Ghengis Kahn or General MacArthur or some superwealthy NBA athlete may all on occasion have been very busy (A) or have gotten knocked down in the course of decidedly non-working-class activity (B).]

    Joyce may intend to demean Lily’s inaccurate description of the opening scene — she is not *literally* run off her feet, just run off her feet in the ordinary idiomatic sense — or he may want to show how social hierarchies get imprinted into different registers of real-world language use. Whatever the case may be, Wood interprets the scene correctly, though he is imprecise in his description of what Joyce is up to. Wood is also correct in saying that free indirect discourse is a common technique through which authors introduce the characteristic “language” of a particular character into third-person prose, mixing the character’s language with the narrator’s language.

    There’s plenty of more solid evidence one could use to oppose Wood’s critical project — you’ve obviously written much more than this on Wood — and I am quite happy to see it opposed. But given the facts I outline above, Wood’s interpretation of the this sentence does not seem particularly telling or damning to me.

  7. As I note, “Insightfully, [Wood, with Joyce] imagines well one way such work events are spoken of, figuratively, but [Wood] misrepresents reality by entirely ruling out (”most inaccurate”) the literal possibility.” That’s a useful point to make.

    I’ve never claimed there is anything “damning” about this misrepresentation, and I’ve also considered it a minor point compared to most of the other misrepresentations I’ve discussed. Because it is a limited misrepresentation I chose it in response to query for the confines of a comment box discussion (this was a month or so before I published the 30,000 word essay).

  8. If Wood’s misstatement on the possibility of “literally” being run off one’s feet is a symptom of his distorted picture of reality — part of a worldview which enables him to be the “literary star of the status quo, of the establishment, of money and power,” as you put it — I would consider that pretty damning. Wouldn’t you?

    It’s minor, yes, but when you say that it’s “literally unimaginable (to a status quo star)” that one might be literally run off one’s feet, you seem to be saying that Wood thinks no one ever gets knocked over the in the course of working — and that Wood categorically is incapable of thinking about that reality, which evinces a mentality pleasing to ruling elites.

    Furthermore, you associate getting knocked down — being literally run off one’s feet — with being “harried or hurried by an assembly line, by another machine, by a manager, by a boss so that a worker might slip, trip, or collapse onto a chair, floor, the ground.” This suggests that your explanation for Wood’s lack of imagination is that getting literally run off one’s feet is a situation characteristic of the working class, ergo off-limits for Wood. Again, if true, a damning indictment.

  9. As you can see in the rest of my commentary on this, I question whether he can possibly believe it. He certainly gives that impression in this case. However, it’s nothing very believable for anyone to think, including Wood. So I point out the misleading impression he gives. I emphasize the misimpression, ridiculing such a notion, because of how it comes across and because of how serious the problem of overwork is. The mistake here might be something on the order of grievous sloppiness, at least, or grievous carelessness. It’s too much a part of a broad pattern of mistakes to overlook or even treat lightly.

    It can be argued that there are places in my commentary and comments where I at least imply that Wood believes what he is expressing. So I’ll make a point here of noting that it’s not something I’ve believed of him, nor felt in a position to know, nor tried to show. There’s no point in guesswork when so many concrete problems can be pointed out instead. One would think that everyone knows that overwork happens, let alone class-based overwork. However, I remain very critical of this mistake, as I’ve tried to emphasize, not least for the reason I’ll clarify here: that especially given Wood’s relative position of privilege, this mistake, this misleading impression, is exacerbated and galling – all the moreso when put in the larger related context of the other misrepresentations.

    This mistake is one of various kinds that I loosely group under an umbrella term “misrepresentation,” a problem that contributes to forming a larger pattern, which, as I argue in detail, is debilitating to literature and life. I did not order the dozens of misrepresentations by magnitude or consciously in much of any other way, though there is some rough and ready grouping that seems useful.

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