The great American Jewish literary critic and Columbia professor Lionel Trilling long aspired not just to write about fiction, but to produce it. In 1947, he published his only completed novel, The Middle of the Journey, about a group of American middle-class socialists in the 1930s. Reviewing a recently published collection of Trilling’s letters, Joseph Epstein uses one particular review of the novel to shed light on Trilling’s blind spot regarding the Jews :
Of all the reviews of The Middle of the Journey, Trilling was especially aggrieved by that of Robert Warshow in Commentary. Among other deficiencies Warshow noted in the novel was its author’s failing to make any of his characters Jewish, when so many radicals in 1930s America had themselves been Jews. Trilling had a Jewish problem. He was nothing so pathetic as a self-hating Jew. Nor was he of that rarified type, the anti-Semitic Jew, or the superior Jew who looked down on other Jews. The problem was that he just didn’t see how his own Jewishness in any way influenced or had any connection with, or meaning for, him.
This comes up over and over again in his letters. This first time was in 1945 when he turns down the offer of becoming a member of the board of contributing editors of the newly fledged Commentary, [then the magazine of the American Jewish Committee], responding to the offer by saying, “I do not think I am a man who should—let alone could—have a quasi-official position in Jewish life.” He also informed the rabbi who was the counselor to Jewish students at Columbia that he could not accept his invitation to attend services because “I am not a synagogue goer and cannot properly appear as an example of one.”
To another correspondent he wrote that the culture of East European Jewry “has injured us all dreadfully,” adding that “the anti-sexual impulse of Eastern European Jews is extreme.” [Trilling, Epstein notes elsewhere, spent much of his life in psychoanalysis.] He wrote to [the art critic] Clement Greenberg that “I feared and disliked everything I knew about American Jewish life.” If he saw little value in Jewishness, he had little better to say about Judaism, the religion itself. To the English philosopher Alan Montefiore he wrote that “the nature of my alienation from Judaism is in large part an irritable response to the unsatisfactoriness—the dimness—of its theological utterances.” All this can seem, as the English say, a bit of a muchness coming from a man whose middle name was Mordecai.
Lionel Trilling wished not so much to disown or even to deny his Jewish connection as to seem above it or above any parochialism implicit in the connection with religion or ethnicity. He wanted to stake out a position of philosophical detachment, the detachment of a true critic of the culture. This he may have achieved, but at high cost to the would-be novelist. In a letter to Saul Bellow’s editor at Viking, Pat Covici, he praised Bellow’s 1953 breakthrough book The Adventures of Augie March, remarking that it “is Saul’s gift to see life everywhere” and going on to praise Bellow for forging a new style that “is really wonderful in its vivacity and energy, in its fusion of the colloquial and the intellectual tradition.”
It is an irony that critics have noted the uniquely Jewish voice of Augie March’s narrator.