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: https://apragmaticpolicy.wordpress.com/2007/01/26/art-literature-and-the-cia/)
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