Loads of Learned Lumber

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Edward Mendelson, _Moral Agents: Eight Twentieth Century American Writers_

AS IT HAPPENS, I had read all eight of these essays when they appeared in the NYRB over the last few years, but I enjoyed them all so much that I figured I would enjoy reading them again, straight through, all in one place, and that is exactly what happened.

The essays work extraordinarily well together to create a short (just under 200 pages) but vivid portrait of many of the people broadly described as the Partisan Review crowd or the New York Intellectuals: Lionel Trilling, Alfred Kazin, Dwight MacDonald, Saul Bellow (all of whom Mendelson writes about), Philip Rahv, Irving Howe, R. P. Blackmur, Delmore Schwarz (whom he doesn't, directly, but they sometime flit across the background).

The first such portrait I ever read--the main reason, really, I got at all interested in them--was Poets in Their Youth by Eileen Simpson, who was at one time the wife of John Berryman. A brilliant, unforgettable book, which I am sorry to see is out of print (NYRB Classics, you should remedy this situation). Mendelson's book does not carry, as Simpson's does, the authority of a contemporary eyewitness, but it rivals hers in being both generous and clear-eyed, and it has the extraordinary scholarship, literary intuition, and graceful prose Mendelson brings to all he does.

The parallel is imperfect, but this book almost does for the literary-critical world of 1950s-60s what Murray Kempton's Part of Our Time did for the 1930s. It's not that wide-ranging, but it's that intelligent, and as Kempton's chapters can be profitably read separately but also generate thematic unity, so Mendelson's attention to the conflicts, relationships, and religious convictions of the eight figures helps us recall a time when writers often had a sense that they should be something like a teacher or a prophet, that they could clarify, name, heal...pretty far from anything taught in the average MFA program today, I imagine, and one can understand why that conception fell from favor, but I miss it sometimes.

There were small disappointments.  I wish there had been citations for the quotations, for instance. And while I am glad to read anything Mendelson writes about Auden, I wish he had done a little more  to connect him to the Partisan Review/New Yorker scene he was (in his own way) a part of in his American years. Auden's essay "The Public Vs. the Late Mr, William Butler Yeats," which gives a useful sidelight on the famous elegy, appeared in the Partisan Review, if I'm not mistaken. Great chapter even so, though, especially for bringing to light Auden's many private acts of kindness, "the best portion of a good man's life," as Wordsworth wrote.

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