Edward Mendelson is a dedicated celebrant of the individual. In The Things That Matter, his 2006 study of Mary Shelley, Emily and Charlotte Bronte, George Eliot, and Virginia Woolf, he explained that he was driven by a desire to explore how each of these writers created fictions that cherished “the unique inner life of individual persons,” that insisted on “the unique meaning and value of individual life.” Rather than thinking of people as members of a particular gender, class, or group, Mendelson said, “the most intellectually and morally coherent way of thinking about human beings is to think of them as autonomous persons.”
This preoccupation is revived in his latest book, Moral Agents, which is characterized by Mendelson as a sequel to The Things That Matter. Here, however, the focus is concentrated not exclusively on the interiority of individual experience, but “on both the inner life and the life of the political and cultural marketplace. Its subject matter is the effect of power on both private and public experience, and it describes a specific literary culture in which power was available only to men.”
Mendelson offers this as one reason behind his decision to consider only male writers: He wants to explore how public engagement with social and political questions resulted in a conflict in the lives of each of those who made them their concern, and because such engagement was (as he overstates it) “reserved” for men, women have to go. What we are offered here, then, is a consideration of eight male American writers. Each chapter is devoted to a single figure, and each ascribes to its subject a particular quality: We encounter Lionel Trilling (“Sage”); Dwight Macdonald (“Moralist”); Alfred Kazin (“Outsider”); William Maxwell (“Magus”); Saul Bellow (“Patriarch”); Norman Mailer (“Mythmaker”); W.H. Auden (“Neighbor”); and Frank O’Hara (“Celebrant”).
In each chapter Mendelson attends to the moral fallout that was generated by the choices his subjects “continually made between wearing a mask and exposing their faces.” The result is an uneven blend of biography and criticism (“quotation” might be a more accurate word—there is little rigorous analysis here) in which the life and the work often pull in opposite directions. For although they could be penetrating about questions of morality in their writing, most of Mendelson’s moral agents were capable of behaving like moral idiots.
It is one thing for Lionel Trilling to have complained in his journals: “I am ASHAMED of being in a university. I have one of the great reputations of the academic world. This thought makes me retch.” It is another for him to have turned that bitterness and self-hatred on his students, whom he had a tendency to reject after they had enjoyed a few months tutelage. Mendelson: “sometimes it ended in tears.”
Elsewhere we find that Alfred Kazin, beset by an inability to think of others as fully human, was capable of “appalling” behavior (he beat his third wife) and would “routinely” make ruinous decisions in both his erotic and his family life; that the older Saul Bellow had a habit of humiliating his children and grandchildren; that Norman Mailer, in what might be the nadir of his ridiculous (and ridiculously male) “quest for intensity,” stabbed his wife at a party and refused to let a fellow reveller come to her assistance. Mailer’s advice? “Let the bitch die.”
Mendelson is by no means insensitive to such failings. Yet he is perhaps too keen to balance them against the instances of rectitude that can be found elsewhere in the histories of those who populate his book. His difficulty is that almost all such instances are found in his writers’ works. This means allowing himself a rather elastic and unsatisfactory conception of morality, which he duly defines as that which “concerns the effect of one’s thoughts and acts, for good or ill, on others and oneself.”
This strikes me as slippery. There can be no such thing—as Milton, Wilde, and many others (including Dwight Macdonald) have argued—as morality or immorality when it comes to thought. And anyway the effects of thoughts are impossible to determine: They are not deeds. Mendelson knows this, of course: he does also say that morality is “a matter of what one does, not what one is.” But he needs to allow himself the conceptual dilation in order to accumulate for his authors some moral action on the credit side of their collective ledger.
When he does find them arriving at morally agreeable positions, he is almost always praising them for recognizing and exalting the value of individual “persons”—in Mendelson’s lexicon it is always “persons” (plural noun), never “people” (collective).
Accordingly, the poems of Frank O’Hara’s that Mendelson likes best are those in which he finds the poet conducting “private conversations with individual readers.” Saul Bellow’s youthful artistic attachment to Jewishness is to be admired because it embraced “irony and independence,” and was not motivated by a desire to be part of a “collective, ritualized identity.” William Maxwell’s best moral thinking is to be found not in his plotless realistic novels, which deny or evade questions of individual agency, but in his magical folktales, which make these questions central; Alfred Kazin’s occurs when he says that “the future is shaped by voluntary moral choices, not by the impersonal force of history;” Dwight Macdonald’s when he insists that the future will be shaped not by “destiny or any immutable force but by conflicts among free individual choices.”
The obverse of this is that when Mendelson does find a particular writer’s work to be morally deficient, it is because that writer imagines his characters more as impersonal forces than he does as “persons.” Norman Mailer is found guilty here.
Mendelson works his way towards these positions in a meandering, almost dithering fashion, without ever convincingly demonstrating that the view that prizes the sanctity of the individual is axiomatically the most moral view to take. And while we might temperamentally or intuitively assent to such a suggestion, there is a frustrating reluctance here to substantiate it. This weakens what has the potential to amount to a valuable contribution to the relationship between culture and morality. And it makes Mendelson uncharacteristically insensitive to the impulses behind a given writer’s aesthetic choices: Mailer might sometimes treat his characters impersonally, but he tends to do so in ways that honor through inversion the individuality Mendelson so values.
This is not to suggest that Moral Agents is without interest or insight. Mendelson is capable of writing amusingly and incisively about his subjects (“Reality kept knocking him [Mailer] to the mat, but he always sprang up again, punching his way to transcendence”), and his refusal to romanticize the bad behavior of artists (“Had Bellow done less damage in life he might have written even better novels”) is admirably clear-sighted. The book is also full of enjoyable—and sometimes obscure—anecdotes.
Some of the most compelling, if not the most amusing, of these are to be found in the chapter on Auden. This is by far the best section of the book (unsurprising: Mendelson is perhaps our most eminent scholar of Auden), and it distinguishes its subject from most of those with whom he is here grouped by showing how committed he was not just to writing well, but to living well, too. Perhaps the most pleasing example of this concerns the advice Auden offered in the ’60s to a grammar-school girl he noticed was feeling out of place at a literary gathering: “Everyone here is just as nervous as you are,” he said, “but they are bluffing, and you must learn to bluff, too.” The girl wrote to the Times to record the experience: “His sensitivity and empathy left an indelible impression on me.”
Of all of the writers considered in this book, it is Auden who offers himself most readily for a consideration of the relationship between writing and morality. He addressed this subject himself, most notably in the magnificent and stirring obsequy, “In Memory of W. B. Yeats.” In this poem, Auden moves tentatively towards articulating a notion of what we might term the latent moral intelligence of literature, an intelligence that arises not from what is said, but from the reverent use of language, and from the ineffable operations of
Time that is intolerantOf the brave and innocent,And indifferent in a weekTo a beautiful physique,
Worships language and forgivesEveryone by whom it lives;Pardons cowardice, conceit, Lays its honours at their feet.
Time that with this strange excusePardoned Kipling and his views,And will pardon Paul Claudel,Pardons him for writing well.
Auden later excised these lines from his poem, but that in no way diminishes their force—their sense that, properly honored, language will resist its own politicization, yield moral truths that are at odds with the affiliations of its users, recognize the individual humanity that lies behind every human face.
To engage with this idea, as Mendelson occasionally threatens to, might have made Moral Agents a more interesting and original work. What we have in its place is a vague and directionless volume that purports to have been written in celebration of the individual, but often ends up feeling as generalized and impersonal as the world-views it so persistently but unconvincingly condemns.
Matthew Adams is a writer and critic. He contributes to a number of publications, including the Guardian, the Independent, the Financial Times, the Spectator, the Telegraph, the TLS, and Literary Review.