The most elevated book club in the history of American literary commerce had forty thousand subscribers but only three members, and was organized mainly to make money. It was endorsed by a poet of renown: “Poets and Professors and all those whose love of books exceeds their love of automobiles,” he wrote, “will welcome a chance to save in excess of 50% on their book purchases.” The club, of course, was a marketing venture, and its entrepreneurial sales force consisted of Lionel Trilling, Jacques Barzun, and W. H. Auden (it was he who trumpeted the discount). Initiated in 1951 and named The Readers’ Subscription, it mimicked the very successful Book-of-the-Month Club, with this difference: it was consistently and confidently highbrow. Barzun and Trilling, professorial colleagues at Columbia University, had, in fact, together invented the term “culture” as we now know it—or so Barzun claimed in a 2011 review of Adam Kirsch’s Why Trilling Matters, a robust attempt to reassess and resurrect Trilling’s currently faded stature.
But by the time The Readers’ Subscription was under way, all three luminaries were already at the peak of their eminence, Barzun as a leading cultural historian, Trilling as the nation’s most esteemed literary essayist, Auden as one of the two preeminent midcentury poets (the other being the towering Eliot). Each, then, was what Trilling was pleased to call a “figure”: a distinctive thinker or artist who in one way or another stands for the inmost meaning of an era; an interpreter of society and its mainspring. Their common task as facilitators and admen was to select the books offered to subscribers, and to accompany each choice with a clarifying and enriching critical essay. The themes were various, but no volume was less than serious. Auden, for instance, wrote on Colette, Dostoyevsky, Robert Graves, Philip Larkin, John Betjeman, Eliot, Stravinsky, Berlioz, Faulkner, Muriel Spark, Tolkien, Hannah Arendt, and more. Surprisingly, Trilling took up subjects like audio recordings, contemporary theater (“It is not true that I hate the theater”), movies (chiefly Ingmar Bergman), nudity, architecture, James Baldwin, Golding’s Lord of the Flies, Lawrence Durrell, James Agee, The Wind in the Willows (“not one of the sacred books of my childhood, but it might have been”), Isak Dinesen, Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March (“in the comic tradition”), and other ruminations one might not have expected. Barzun, meanwhile, was reflecting on Montaigne (“It was a hill, really, that Montaigne lived on and drew his name from”), Dürer, Virginia Woolf’s diaries, Henry James’s autobiography, Oscar Wilde, Japan, Eskimos, the origin of language, Proust, D. H. Lawrence, Shaw, Molière, and, in Barzun’s own phrase, an encompassing “sense of history.”
There was a kind of playful daring in the vastness of these choices, and Barzun, describing the companionable meetings that led to the final decisions, revealed that they were sometimes lightened by the mutual composition of clerihews. He quoted one of his own: “Henry James / did not name names, / but all the Bostonians knew / who was who.” None of this could disguise the gravity that enveloped not only the advantageous undertakings of the “club,” but the literary tone of the period itself. In an ambitious novel Trilling left unfinished, a character declaims his belief in what was then all-important: “novel or nothing.” But it was also a time of high art or nothing, an Arnoldian idea soon to be scattered and dissolved by the coming of the Beats—for whom “the best which has been thought and said” was turned, ecstatically, into “the best which I have thought and said.” The figure, with all its restrained and dignified sobriety, was being ousted by bards with beards and zithers and weed. And today, half a century later, the figure is no more. Even the pinnacle of fame cannot make a figure: who can conceive of Philip Roth, or Saul Bellow, as an equivalent of Trilling?
Yet we can think of them as critics, at least as a sideline—though Roth’s Reading Myself and Others, together with his Shop Talk: A Writer and His Colleagues and Their Work, could, all on their own, qualify anyone less anointed to be seen as a significantly ample critic. And Bellow poured out essay after essay, catching in his critical net everything from Mozart to Jerusalem to preliterate societies to Wyndham Lewis to Khrushchev, all via a muscular intellect unafraid to be provocative and against the grain. He practiced criticism much as Augie might, “go[ing] at things as I have taught myself, free-style.” In the course of his 1970 Nobel lecture he asked, “And art and literature, what of them? Well,” he answered, “there is a violent uproar, but we are not absolutely dominated by it. We are still able to think, to discriminate, and to feel. The purer, subtler, higher activities have not succumbed to fury or to nonsense. Not yet. Books continue to be written and read. It may be more difficult to cut through the mind of the modern reader, but it is still possible to reach the quiet zone.” It was a hopeful but disenchanted talk.
Nearly fifty years on, there is very little left of the quiet zone, and the fury and the nonsense may have increased, thanks to the proliferation of communication devices not dreamed of when Bellow accepted his medal. He was of the generation of the founders of The Readers’ Subscription, but too restless to have been counted among them as a likely fourth: who can imagine him sitting diligently in meetings while now and then spouting a clerihew or two?
Bernard Malamud, born a year before Bellow, was also a contemporary of the club triumvirate. Himself a figure, one of unique idiom and feelingful moral sensibility, his narrative irony never devolved into raw cynicism. This set him apart from the newer cohort of insouciant novelists who came into prominence decades after The Readers’ Subscription was long forgotten and at least two of its members obscured by time and change; and perhaps it is easier now to see him among them, patiently abstracted in a corner of the sofa, encircled by angels from Harlem and impoverished grocers, shoemakers, and rabbinical students, all invisibly gyrating overhead.