Novel or Nothing: Lionel Trilling
One of the several advantages of living long is the chance to witness the trajectory of other lives, especially literary lives; to observe the whole, as a biographer might; or even, now and then, to reflect on fame with the dispassion of the biblical Koheleth, for whom all eminences are finally diminished. When we look around at the contemporary scene, we are in the dark, we cannot tell who will live on into the next generation, and who will be dismissed or, worse yet, eclipsed and forgotten. The luminaries of our youth and our prime may turn out to be strangers in the world of our old age.
The “we” and the “our” of the previous sentences are readily seen to be usurpations of Lionel Trilling’s characteristic manner—or would be, if Trilling’s prose style, and Trilling himself, were familiar to twenty-first-century readers. But Trilling’s stature, once prodigious, is so reduced as to have become a joke to certain young critics who favor flippancy and lightness and who, if they are aware of Trilling at all, have learned to despise what he called “moral realism.” Unlike Eliot’s self-anointed “I,” intended as the voice of a visiting archbishop, if not a materializing archangel, Trilling’s all-embracing “we” had the effect both of companionable intimacy and of shared authority. It also implied a kind of humanist common sense, what every honest intellect will acknowledge in contemplating the exigencies of mortal existence. “We” carried certainty and conviction, and an openness to the serious and the tragic that Trilling in his later work would identify as sincerity and authenticity.
The breadth of Trilling’s renown can hardly be understood today. He was a professor of literature at a major university who was at the same time a “figure” (a term he honored) in the culture at large. And what was he really? An essayist; and it is tempting to say, given the expository clamor of the moment—its short views and skimpy topicality—merely an essayist. Yet no present-day magazine writer or blogger or reviewer or critic can aspire to what Trilling as essayist encompassed: his aim was nothing less than to define, and refine, civilization. He meant not only to comment or discriminate or analyze or judge, but to “stand for something.” And at his death at age seventy in 1975, what he finally stood for was a scrupulously perceptive and sinuously shaded interpretation of the moral life as expressed in the literature of the West. If the idea of sage could be applied to any American essayist after Emerson, that is what he had become. A more modulated perspective would settle for Trilling as the most discerning, the most reasoned, and certainly the most celebrated critic of his time.
Sage? Essayist? Critic? He did not wish it. It was neither his desire nor his plan. The acclaim that came to him, at forty-three, with the publication of The Liberal Imagination—a collection of ruminations affirming, as he put it, “the inevitable intimate, if not always obvious, connection between literature and politics” in the light of the mind’s “great primal act of imagination”—was gratifying, but it could not satisfy his earliest and most urgent intent. In a public lecture in 1971 (he was then sixty-six years old) he permitted himself an astonishing confession—astonishing, it was later revealed, only to his disbelieving audience. “I am always surprised,” he said, “when I hear myself referred to as a critic … If I ask myself why this is so, the answer would seem to be that in some sense I did not ever undertake to be a critic. The plan that did please my thought was certainly literary, but what it envisaged was the career of a novelist. To this intention, criticism, when eventually I began to practice it, was always secondary, an afterthought: in short, not a vocation but an avocation.”
Yet this overt admission of self-repudiation had frequently been enacted privately. Portions of Trilling’s notebooks, published after his death, disclosed remorseful longing, hidden competitiveness, envious ambition. He envied Hemingway, whose vitality in his “most foolish postures” Trilling saw as a model and a reproach. He envied Jack Kerouac, “not wanting K’s book to be good.” He envied instinct, physicality, manliness. He scorned his university colleagues as effete. “My being a professor and a much respected and even admired one is a great hoax,” he wrote bitterly. “Suppose I were to dare to believe that one could be a professor and a man! and a writer!” The writer, he insisted—he meant the writer as novelist—was a man of action, carrying “his death warrant in his pocket.”
It was more than simple yearning. He had the will for it—the compulsion, even under the conditions of his professorial constraints, even while engaged in the opposing rhetoric and argumentum of the essays, to commit to a novel. The Middle of the Journey—believed to be Trilling’s sole long fiction—was published the year before The Liberal Imagination, with a very different reception for each: heated praise for the essays, coolness toward the fiction. The disparities of execution were considerable. The complex prose of the essays gave way, in the novel, to plainness—passages of spare, often sparse, narrative logically plotted, and clear colloquial dialogue. The tone was objective and straightforward and nearly bare of imagery, though not of descriptive force or drama. The drama was in the theme, and the theme carried a death warrant in its pocket: the baleful predicament of a brilliant though wayward American, a former secret agent for the Soviets who abandons the Party and is consequently in danger of his life. In an important—and vehement—introduction to a reissue of the novel almost thirty years after its initial publication, Trilling confirmed what had anyhow been generally surmised: that the character of his Communist defector, Gifford Maxim, had been inspired by Whittaker Chambers, with whom Trilling had been acquainted as an undergraduate at Columbia. It was not long before reality intervened to shift speculation into certainty:
From my first conception of it, my story was committed to history—it was to draw out some of the moral and intellectual implications of the powerful attractions to Communism felt by a considerable part of the American intellectual class during the Thirties and Forties. But although its historical nature and purpose are attested to by the explicit reference it makes to certain of the most momentous events of our epoch, the book I wrote in 1946—1947 and published in 1947 did not depict anyone who was a historical figure. When I have said this, however, I must go on to say that among the characters of my story there is one who had been more consciously derived from actuality than any of the others… . This person was Whittaker Chambers.
But only a few months after my novel was published, Chambers’ status in history underwent a drastic change. The Hiss case broke upon the world and Chambers became beyond any doubt a historical figure.
The notoriously controversial espionage trial of Alger Hiss turned on Chambers’s testimony from his knowledge of the Communist underground. The issue was treason, and Hiss, a disarming and plausibly earnest former State Department official who had once been a protégé of Justice Felix Frankfurter, was convicted of perjury, while Chambers was everywhere roundly vilified as a disreputable conspirator and liar favored by Nixon and the redbaiting Senator McCarthy. But what concerned Trilling, both in the unfolding of his novel and in the bitter polemics of his later reflections on it, was the obstinate reluctance of virtue-minded progressives to accept the facts of Stalinist perfidy. “At this distance in time,” he wrote in 1975, “the mentality of the Communist-oriented intelligentsia of the Thirties and Forties must strain the comprehension even of those who, having observed it at first hand, now look back upon it, let alone of those who learn about it from such historical accounts of it as have been written. That mentality was presided over by an impassioned longing to believe… . Once the commitment to belief had been made, no evidence might, or could, bring it into doubt. Whoever ventured to offer such evidence stood self-condemned as deficient in good will.” These few sentences, written in hindsight, still carry the fury of Trilling’s aim in The Middle of the Journey: to expose what he deemed the hollowness of those middle-class fellow travelers—“radical intellectuals, and those who did not claim that epithet but modestly spoke of themselves as liberal or progressive or even only democratic”—who denied “the reality which lay behind the luminous words of the great promise.”
In Trilling’s scheme of moral accountability they are Arthur and Nancy Croom, a goodhearted, do-gooding young couple summering in the country. The Crooms invite their friend John Laskell, who has nearly died from a devastating illness, to recuperate in their pastoral village. Gifford Maxim arrives to join the little group, though he is unwelcome: the Crooms despise and condemn him as a doctrinal deserter. An ideological conflict erupts over the death, through her father’s drunken blow, of a fragile neighborhood child. The liberal Crooms have always sympathized with Duck, the ne’er-do-well father, frequently hiring him for odd jobs on their property. Unreliable as he may be as a man, he is nevertheless a poor and ill-spoken laborer, a victim of his class in an indifferent society; it is the flaws of society that have made him what he is. As Arthur frames it, “social causes, environment, education or lack of education, economic pressure, the character-pattern imposed by society, in this case a disorganized society, all go to explain and account for any given individual’s action.” Then Nancy: “It’s not his fault,” she cries out in Duck’s defense, appalled by his careless brutality to the child yet unwilling, like Arthur, to assign guilt or blame; unwilling also to let the man return to the work he needs. “But I couldn’t stand him around me. I’d think of it all the time. I couldn’t stand seeing him. And yet it’s not his fault, it’s not.” To which Maxim, the repentant Communist who has repudiated social determinism, replies, “In my system there is one thing your system lacks. In my system, although there is never-ending responsibility, there is such a thing as mercy.” He goes on:
Duck can be forgiven. I can forgive him because I believe that God can forgive him. You see, I think his will is a bad one, but not much more, not different in kind from other wills. And so you and I are opposed. For you—no responsibility for the individual, but no forgiveness. For me—ultimately absolute responsibility for the individual, but mercy. Absolute responsibility: it is the only way that men can keep their values, can be thought of as other than mere things. These matters that Arthur speaks of—social causes, environment, education—do you think they really make a difference between one human soul and another? In the eyes of God are such differences of any meaning at all?
The Crooms are horrified—has Maxim turned insane? This is religious talk; it veers into crazy mysticism. Laskell, renewed and illuminated, finds a middle path between Maxim’s fevered metaphysics and the Crooms’ empty detachment from individual culpability. And when he parts from the Crooms, it is in relief and disillusionment: their friendship is at an end.
The Middle of the Journey is a very good novel, far superior to how it has long been rated. As a political novel, it has not grown stale; the politics of belief are with us still. As a novel of ideas, and of elastic characterization and freely flowing incident, it keeps clear of positions held by pasteboard symbols masking as persons. Laskell’s engagement with Duck’s little daughter is deft and intimate, throwing off glints of teasing charm. Eros makes its unexpected appearance on a riverbank. Gestures and conversations ring true. And overall, the tone is level and sober, reflecting an invalid’s fatigued notice as Laskell reawakens to sharper seeing—observation becoming revelation. A good novel, then; even a very good novel; but subjected to scorn by Trilling’s contemporaries, and not yet escaped from their judgment. “The attack on my novel,” he recorded—it was a lasting resentment—“that it is gray, bloodless, intellectual, without passion, is always made with great personal feeling, with anger.—How dared I presume?”
As Trilling saw it, what was being questioned was his right to be a novelist at all. His determination to become one was regarded as impermissible literary transvestism. He had made his reputation as an essayist, a thinker, an inquirer into the nature of culture. Lawrence, Conrad, Mann, Kafka, Orwell, and Matthew Arnold were among his touchstones. His groundbreaking studies of novelists took in (in The Liberal Imagination alone) Henry James, Sherwood Anderson, Mark Twain, Theodore Dreiser, Rudyard Kipling, and F. Scott Fitzgerald; a longer work was given over solely to E. M. Forster. In an essay of provocative psychological audacity, he dared to say of Jane Austen, “She is the first to be aware of the Terror which rules our moral situation… . She herself is an agent of Terror.”
All these unflinching critical sentiments were distinguished by a recognition of the link between feeling and what Trilling construed as “reality,” whose always perilous shadow was illusion. “It can be said,” he wrote, “that all prose fiction is a variation on Don Quixote. Cervantes sets for the novel the problem of appearance and reality: the shifting and conflict of social classes becomes the field of the problem of knowledge, of how we know and how reliable our knowledge is.” Elsewhere he defined fiction as carrying “the cultural assumptions that make politics,” and he was willing to subsume gossip under politics, and vice versa. In brief: more than anyone in his generation, Trilling had penetrated into the secret workings of The Novel: he knew it, he understood it, as an evolving, breathing, expanding, connecting social organism. Then surely it behooved him to bring forth not merely a good novel, and not merely a very good novel, but a great novel? This he had not done. QED: since with all this capacity for greatness he had not produced a great novel, it must follow that he had produced a bad novel—gray, bloodless, intellectual, without passion. For the lauded critic who stakes his truth on a transcendent standard, there may be a lesson in it: do not try to practice what you preach, or your admirers will gather round to pick your bones.
The Middle of the Journey, despite its variegated successes, was in fact not nearly a great novel. Nor could it have been, and for a reason that cannot be laid at Trilling’s feet: he wrote too soon. In 1947 the smell of executions in the cellar of Moscow’s Lubyanka prison, headquarters of the KGB, had not yet risen to the nostrils of the world. He was compelled to write abstractly of evils that were revealed viscerally only much later. If the fearful idea of a death warrant inflamed the novelist’s intent, it went beyond any threat to the American life of Gifford Maxim. Trilling could readily vivify those progressive intellectuals who spurned the reality behind “the luminous words of the great promise”—they were in his immediate circle. Of the brutish reality itself he could speak, in or out of fiction, only in the screening language of news items, of “politics”: purges, show trials, espionage, the Hitler-Stalin pact. What came to be called the Great Terror would have to wait for its definitive exposure by a novelist who had endured it. Not until the publication in the West, in 1968, of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The First Circle, and of The Gulag Archipelago in 1973, was the human suffering inflicted by the Gulag finally and universally assimilated by its doubters and skeptics.
But even before then—for those who, like Trilling, had eyes to see—it was possible to comprehend the lineaments of that suffering, in particular through the reports and testimonies of Koestler, Souvarine, Silone, Akhmatova, Orwell, Pasternak, and many others. From writers such as these, Trilling could deduce the primal ruthlessness of the Soviet system: he could deduce it, he could infer it, but he could not disinter it—not in the darker corridors of the fictive imagination (as in House of Meetings Martin Amis would, sixty years on, when the brokenness and the heinousness had long been laid incontrovertibly and bloodily bare). Inference is distanced cognition, not a cudgel, and Trilling’s theme in The Middle of the Journey was nothing if it was not the reality of the cudgel. The mind that had uncovered terror in so seemingly pacific a source as Mansfield Park was prevented by simple chronology from closer, more fleshly knowledge of the conditions of the Gulag.
Still, it is reasonable to ask, if Trilling had known, with the completeness of a later time, the violently corporeal conditions of the Gulag, could he have done them—done them, that is, novelistically? Would he have had the blood, the passion, the death warrant in his pocket?
This is not a question that will ever be answered. He did not again approach, in fiction, a subject that intimated physical cruelty on a large scale, invoking the anguish of whole populations. To those who disparaged his novel, and to the few who regretted its failure, the letdown for Trilling appeared to be so complete that it must clearly choke off any future attempt at a sustained fiction. His was the cautionary tale of the critic who had published a handful of short stories and a single novel, which, justifiably, had no successor. As a literary thinker he was preeminent. As a novelist he was beaten.
But he was not beaten. “How dared I presume?” was not, as it turned out, the cry of defeat it looked to be; it was the herald of renewed ambition. Another novel—a second one—was under way, though it may have begun earlier, as a first novel. In any event, Trilling was wholeheartedly preoccupied with it in the years following the unhappy reception of The Middle of the Journey. Disappointment spurred him: in a letter to Richard Chase, a Columbia colleague, he confided that he hoped for a “richer, less shaped, less intellectual, more open” work. “I think the next one will be better,” he said. Chastened yet emboldened, he confessed to his journal, “There comes an impulse to take myself more seriously, for although measured against what I admire I give myself no satisfaction, yet against what I live with I have something to say and give and might really interest myself—and all this gives to the novel a new validity—the notion is right and I begin to see it substantively.”
Six decades were to pass before we were permitted to learn of this novel’s existence. Untitled, it was left unfinished—cast out midway, after twenty-four chapters and a hundred and fifty pages. News of it has erupted like a secret exploding; yet all along it was hiding in plain sight in Columbia’s Trilling archive. Columbia University Press has now brought it out as The Journey Abandoned, with a valuable introduction by Geraldine Murphy, the Trilling scholar who uncovered it, and who serves as its impeccable editor. And though Trilling had vowed a departure from the “intellectual,” the new work was inevitably more so, since a number of its characters derived from the fevered arena of literary high culture. At the same time, and contrary to his hopes, Trilling’s second venture was more enclosed than the first, where politics had led outward to intimations of the great world and its deadly upheavals. But the progress of Victor Hammell, the ambitious young biographer who is its hero, takes him largely into intricately internalized psychological musings. Professor Murphy’s edition includes a preface by Trilling, or what she has chosen to present as a preface. To forestall easy mockery (“Henry James had the forbearance to finish a novel before writing its preface,” for instance), one ought to consider Trilling’s two opening sentences: “I am sure there is no need for me to explain why I do not want to make a precise formulation of my novel so early in the game. A novel must eventually be conceived through its writing even more than through its originating idea and an abstract statement of the story’s impulses at this point might well freeze them and make them useless.” Like any preface, this has a public voice—but it may also be the kind of explanatory statement that accompanies an inquiry to a publisher. Whether the manuscript ever fell under a publisher’s eye apparently remains unknown. Nevertheless, to attach the term “preface,” with its Jamesian reminders, to Trilling’s searching reflections and suppositions is exactly right. It is James who presides over Trilling’s aspiration; it is James whom he consciously summons, and who serves as his cicerone and mentor. During the period when Trilling was seriously at work on the novel, he was also writing an introduction to The Princess Casamassima, and it was here that he set down what must be regarded as his novel’s true preface:
The Princess Casamassima belongs to a great line of novels which runs through the nineteenth century as, one might say, the very backbone of its fiction. These novels, which are defined as a group by the character and circumstance of their heroes, include Stendahl’s The Red and the Black, Balzac’s Père Goriot and Lost Illusions, Dickens’ Great Expectations, Flaubert’s Sentimental Education; only a very slight extension of the definition is needed to allow the inclusion of Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot.
The defining hero may be known as the Young Man from the Provinces. He need not come from the provinces in literal fact, his social class may constitute his province. But a provincial birth and rearing suggest the simplicity and the high hopes he begins with—he starts with a great demand upon life and a great wonder about its complexity and promise. He may be of good family but he must be poor. He is intelligent, or at least aware, but not at all shrewd in worldly matters. He must have acquired a certain amount of education, should have learned something about life from books, although not the truth.
This, fully elaborated, was Trilling’s new theme, and also its line of literary descent. The idea appears again in the unfinished work’s preface (the characterization we are obliged to use). “Think of him,” he says of Vincent Hammell,
as practical, energetic, not a dreamer or a mooncalf. He has real talent and he does not have the mechanical “shyness” of a sensitive young hero; indeed, one of the notable things about him is his active charm. He has what in a young man passes for maturity. He is decent, generous; but he is achingly ambitious. He has considerable insight into the conditions of his society, he wishes to be genuine, a man of integrity; yet he also wishes to be successful. His problem is to advance his fortunes and still be an honest man. He is conscious of all the dangers; he is literate and knows the fates of Julian Sorel, of Rastignac, of Frederic Moreau—all the defeated and disintegrated young men of the 19th century cycle of failure. He, for his part, is determined not to make their mistakes.
How much Trilling knows! He has already warned himself not to risk knowing too much, lest his story “freeze.” But his tone here is strangely after-the-fact—that of a critic who is discussing a recognizable character in an established novel he has frequently read with profit and appreciation. How can Vincent Hammell breathe and freely act if he is designed according to an acknowledged template, if he is swaddled in layers of social and psychological and literary preconceptions? A novelist must understand that one cannot imagine one’s characters—they must be at liberty to imagine themselves. And this too Trilling understood: understood so well that he took care to instruct his characters in how to observe and judge independently, thereby imprisoning them ever more deeply in his own mind.
Vincent Hammell is a character prescribed. Born in a small town in the Midwest, he is the son of an optometrist. The time is the 1930s; money is scarce. The world of opportunity and hope lies, and lures, elsewhere, and the means of attaining it is through the life of letters. Vincent is a literary aspirant who has already abandoned a work on “nothing less grandiose than a history of American literature in the latter part of the nineteenth century” (Trilling’s own field of scholarship, Professor Murphy notes). “I’m twenty-three,” he tells his mother despairingly, “and my fine success consists of a quarter-time job at the university, a couple of days a month for the Advertiser, oh yes, and the pleasure of instructing ladies … in creative writing. Quite a success.”
His release from these petty circumscriptions comes through an unexpected proposal from Harold Outram, the powerful director of the Peck Foundation. From a beginning as obscure as Vincent’s, Outram contrived to gain importance and acclaim in successive stages: first as a critic, then as a novelist esteemed as “one of the legends of the new American promise,” then as a radical agitator, then as an apostate from radicalism (a whiff of Whittaker Chambers again), then as the dean of a celebrated magazine (Chambers wrote for Time); and finally as the head of an influential cultural institution, the apogee of it all. But Vincent is cautioned against Outram by his former teacher, Teddy Kramer, a man “of such scrupulous intellectual honesty that he could bring no work to a satisfactory conclusion”—a trait Vincent equates with Kramer’s “Jewish pride.” “Let me tell you, Vincent,” Kramer warns, “you will see [in Outram] a man utterly corrupt.” According to Kramer, Outram is a danger and a sellout: he has abandoned literature’s sacred calling for worldly domination.
Outram’s offer to Vincent is dumbfounding—the chance to write the biography of the still living but elderly Jorris Buxton, the paramount figure of the age. Buxton’s background borders on the improbable: a professor of Greek, a poet, a painter, a novelist—all this before his fortieth year, following which, Outram explains, “he became a physicist. He engaged a tutor and in a year he had learned everything that a brilliant student learns in four years … everything he had learned seemed to be there inside him ready to be unfolded. That is, he was a genius. He went to M.I.T. and his doctoral thesis is still famous… . He took jobs in several of the great physical laboratories. He went to Europe and studied mathematics… . It’s the story of our time.” It is also implausibly conceived: science and math prodigies are generally known to manifest and pursue their gifts very early, proceeding in concentrated unipolar fashion. But what Trilling was after—to accommodate his plot and its anticipated climax—was some mammoth all-encompassing persona, a type of muscular masculinity steeped in lasting fame: he would have such a man turn imprudently wild in consequence of a reckless obsession with a young girl four decades his junior. Trilling’s real-life model, he informs us, was at first Walter Savage Landor, a nineteenth-century English poet “of heroic size,” similarly infatuated in old age. Yet Buxton as he develops (insofar as he is developed at all) is closer to an amalgam of William James, the scientist-adventurer, and Henry James, the closeted imaginer—on whom Trilling purposefully bestows a robust heterosexual lust. (Or so Professor Murphy acutely parses it.)
That Outram should choose an unseasoned twenty-three-year-old, evidently talented but lacking any literary standing, for this daunting biographical project—an interpretive likeness of a man “weighty with years, wisdom, power”—is a puzzle. It will not occur to Vincent until much later in the progress of the narrative to suspect Outram of a clandestine motive for so grand an anomaly, and the novel breaks off before any such motive is revealed. In the meantime, Vincent is catapulted into a sophisticated circle light years from his shabby midwestern origins. In the cultivated interiors and environs of Harold and May Outram’s home, situated “in a New England town of considerable tradition,” he is introduced to a series of half-explained persons, all deeply implicated with one another in ways not immediately apparent. The cumulative effect of these characters as they enter their respective scenes singly or in clusters is reminiscent of those familiar Hollywood whodunits where all the likely suspects, each with a reasonable alibi, are assembled for interrogation by a shrewdly knowing investigator. Vincent, however, is not shrewd; he is intelligent and alert, though still youthfully uncomprehending, and always tagged with variations of the epithets of incompleteness Trilling tirelessly attaches to him: “so immature and inexperienced,” “waiting for things to happen to him,” “like a foreigner in a new land,” “the various perils which beset the young man who gives himself to the life of the mind,” “with how many attempts to master its own inchoateness would this young mind of his move,” “he was a young man who thought much of fame, power, and success in life,” and on and on.
In this cloud of unknowing, the emphatically untried Vincent is made to confront a formidably bearded Jorris Buxton, an octogenarian who turns out to be frightened by a thunderstorm; his inscrutable assistant, Brooks Barrett; Garda Thorne, a middle-aged short story writer of some renown, who at seventeen was mistress to Buxton, then fifty-five (her name purloined from a novel by Constance Fenimore Woolson, a Henry James connection); Linda and Arthur Hollowell, a wealthy couple eager to buy a school to further their social views; Philip Dyas, the school’s headmaster, reluctant to sell; Marion Cathcart, the Outram children’s young caretaker, to whom Buxton appears attracted; and Claudine Post, whose infantilized teenage charge, Perdita, is described as being in a “not harmless” relation to Buxton.
It is a crowded gallery of carefully delineated portraits, whose innerness is divulged partly through dialogue but far more extensively in passages of cannily analyzed insight. And like pictures on a wall, it is all static—inevitably so, to begin with, since the problem of the story (every story implies a problem) is still undefined when the novel is cut short. Also, it should not be forgotten that the manuscript Professor Murphy unearthed was a draft in formation. The crucial proof of this middle-of-the-journey uncertainty is an appendix she has titled “Trilling’s Commentary,” yet another overview of the novelist’s intentions. There are self-admonitory reminders such as “the chapter should glitter more,” “make the likelihood of the choice of Vincent the greater and also the more acceptable,” and “what is making the difficulty is that I have not yet got a new point at which to aim.” Despite these strictures and doubts, Trilling’s narrative skill is now and then on bright display, especially in the earliest chapters touching on Vincent’s childhood and adolescent friendship with a boy whom Vincent will ultimately outgrow intellectually. Toss Dodge is the little boy who has just moved into the neighborhood:
Vincent stood on his part of the sidewalk and looked at the newcomer, who looked back and then turned his attention to the moving-men. Vincent kicked his way over to the curb and examined something at the edge of the road. He looked at it with a deep, rather amused curiosity. He touched it with the toe of his shoe. The object, whatever it was, engaged his attention as a Naturalist, a person to whom all things were significant. Actually he was examining nothing at all. But to justify his attention, he picked up a fallen seed-pod, peered at it a moment with a discerning eye, then threw it away… .
Meanwhile Toss had taken a position of responsibility near the van. He stood with his hands behind his back, supervising with quiet vigilance the operations of his men. He said nothing but he was sharp-sighted and a slight frown showed that he was not to be imposed on by his subordinates.
They were both now established in sufficient importance and could acknowledge each other.
Vincent said, “Hello,” carelessly, take it or leave it.
Toss answered in kind.
“You moving in?” said Vincent.
“Uh-huh. You live here?”
This is a mastery of boyhood worthy of Mark Twain. Nor was Trilling unaware of the intuitiveness through which it was consummated. “The first part,” he confirmed, “did grow into something. And it grew with a kind of unconsciousness. This unconsciousness was very beguiling and reassuring.” It will not often recur in the remainder of the narrative. Trilling’s habit of theorizing perceptiveness ordinarily overrides the Keatsian negative capability he so much reveres—that openness to the oarless vagaries of the mind he regularly invokes in the essays. Yet the beguiling and reassuring intervals did come. Sentence by sentence, in striking set pieces and in short breaths and long, the freed imagination at times felicitously crops up—a staccato phrase here, a winding image there: wild flowers peeping through monuments of sculptured topiary. One such specimen, visual and tactile, is Buxton’s beard:
It was the best kind of beard that a man can wear, it was short and firm and jutted forward. It gave a base to the head and did not mask the face. It suggested fortitude and the possibility of just anger… . No one had happened to mention to [Vincent] that Jorris Buxton wore a beard. Out of the haze of other people’s attitudes this immediate fact emerged with a happy, bristly reality.
But this happy, bristly reality, impulsively observed and weighed, is too soon dowsed by metaphysics. Trilling is almost never sufficiently free of the burden, or the constriction, of understanding a character too well—even before that character is moved into action or speech. What ought to have been vividly revelatory—the force of the great man’s spirit when at last he sits down with his biographer—is somehow deflected into humdrum brooding discursiveness. Its immediate ground is the intrusive presence of Buxton’s servile assistant, whose “striking repulsiveness” Buxton mutely erases through a kind of contemplative transcendence, sweeping Vincent into what purports to be sudden feeling:
Vincent tried to give words to the emotion he felt. It was, he could say, the emotion of pure disinterestedness… . Vincent made use of the word “pure” because that word suggested the sensation of crystalline, translucent being that he had felt. He eventually hit upon another word, “peace,” remarking that what was probably meant by that word was a perfect poise of energies without the alloy of personality. He reminded himself that the ancient philosophers, when they spoke so passionately to recommend death, probably had these conditions in mind. They obviously could not mean non-existence. They must have meant an existence in perfect equilibrium of the impulses and powers with no element of that greed which they identified as the personality. This condition of being was sometimes permitted by life, but life was always presenting demands that brought the experience to an end. Hence, Vincent supposed, the recommendation of death.
Death, yes! Deadly prose, dead on the page. Where is Buxton in all this? Where, as a matter of fact, is Vincent, through whom these cerebrations course? The beard is written; the beard is alive; the beard is a character in a novel. But Buxton has vanished, and Vincent himself recedes behind the privet hedge of abstraction. The fault is not that Trilling’s recitation here deals solely with ideas, and not so much that it is repetitively clotted, and not even that it eschews drama. Thought as drama, the act of thinking as a vehicle of high excitement, is anyhow central to Trilling’s credo. Vincent’s story, the authorial preface points out, “is of a kind that will inevitably throw off ideas; and the characters are articulate, intelligent, and embody certain moralities.” Then why does the novel fail—fatally—in this crucial first encounter between its two supposedly articulate and intelligent major figures? Novels—great novels—are known to be studded with meditative insertions that not only do not produce longueurs, they leave behind traces of glory. Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor may be too heatedly elevated an instance; but think of James’s Isabel Archer, alone and motionless before the fire, sunk in rumination for twenty uninterrupted pages. The Portrait of a Lady can sustain this dialogueless island of inaction because it is preceded and followed by everything that a novel is and does to seduce us into feeling it is alive.
Trilling’s refusal—or his inability—to allow Buxton to speak at the very juncture it is most urgent for him to speak collapses what is to come. Or, rather, he does speak, he is said to speak, but we cannot hear him. It isn’t enough for Vincent to send out signals or symptoms of Buxton’s thought: “the eyes lived with the life of the contemplating mind … the eyes showed, or so Vincent felt, a life beyond the words that Buxton was speaking.” But this is dumbshow, a silent movie—where are the words? The snatches of Buxton’s talk scattered through the few remaining chapters are no more than mannerly clues on the style of “show them in,” “do sit down,” “a fine bunch of a girl,” and one or two meager remarks on Darwin. Vincent can insist, on one occasion or another, that “in whatever way Buxton judged what he saw, he certainly saw a great deal,” and still the reassurance will instantly wither. What Buxton sees we cannot see. What Buxton feels we cannot feel. Buxton has no voice and no movement. Buxton is dead; a wraith.
Perhaps Trilling knew it. He knew what his novel was made of. It would be wrong and unfair, even brutal, to say, as many have said, that he was too intelligent to succeed at fiction, which courts fancy more than reason. After all, he had the conditions and trappings of a novel; he had its language, masterly and penetrating; he had the novel’s shape and its emotional furnishings; he had the different tenors of his intellect, its analytic capacity and its deep historical wisdom. He had his spurts of beguilement. He had, in short, all the equipment for the engineering of a novel. Yet he must have felt, finally, that he also had a dead man on his hands. Worse, in the end he took himself to be a simulacrum of that man. At fifty-seven, long after he had abandoned what was to have been his second novel, he lamented in his journal, “Nothing has so filled me with shame and regret as what I have not done.” He had not become what he hoped to be: a novelist commanding, authentic, and recognized. Instead, he had turned into his own Teddy Kramer, that enervated effigy of “Jewish pride,” a creature of such scrupulous intellectual honesty that he could not bring the longed-for work to a satisfactory conclusion.
And why was it imperative to write novels? “In my time,” Outram, who gave up fiction for social influence, ruefully tells Vincent, “it was novel or nothing.” Outram speaks for Trilling: in his time, novel or nothing. Then was that resplendent body of literary and cultural essays, and the university, and the authority, and the fame, and ultimately the legend—was all that nothing?