Write Like a Man

From The Wall Street Journal:

Many years ago, at a dinner party attended by some of the ex-radicals turned Cold Warriors known as the New York intellectuals, the table talk turned to denigrating writers reputed to be soft on communism and praising the “hard” anticommunists who were fighting for democracy and freedom. Before the guests could become too complacent, however, the literary critic Diana Trilling stood up and declared: “None of you men are hard enough for me!”

In “Write Like a Man,” Ronnie A. Grinberg recounts this scene to illustrate how members of this “testosterone-driven literary circle,” as she calls it, “came to espouse a secular Jewish machismo” as they reinvented both themselves and liberalism to meet the exigencies of Cold War politics. When old anxieties were magnified by new ideological challenges, Ms. Grinberg writes, “a masculinity centered on strength, toughness, and virility” became a defining feature of New York intellectual life.

Ms. Grinberg, a history professor at the University of Oklahoma, briefly takes up American Jewish novelists who were eager to defy stereotypes—of the timid schlemiel or bookish Talmudic scholar—and to overcome what Norman Mailer called “the softness of a man early accustomed to motherlove.” But her real focus is on a group of intellectuals—men and women both—who “prized verbal combativeness, polemical aggression, and an unflinching style of argumentation.”

The principal figure here is Diana Trilling, a brilliant essayist and the wife of the celebrated cultural critic Lionel Trilling. Diana, “the more abrasive of the two,” Ms. Grinberg writes, balanced her husband’s checkbook and deftly edited his drafts. But when she offered similar editorial help to various male friends, they took it (as she herself reported) “as an assault on their masculinity.” According to the novelist and memoirist Ann Birstein, many men in this milieu “feared losing their manhood to literary women.” She noted that “reviews of my books still referred to me in parenthesis as Mrs. Alfred Kazin, as if that were a career in itself.”

Like other “literary wives”—Zelda Fitzgerald, Veza Canetti and, in this book, the essayist Pearl Kazin Bell come to mind—Diana struggled to emerge from the shadow of her husband’s reputation and establish herself in her own right. “I wanted as much for him as he wanted for himself,” she said of Lionel, the first Jew granted tenure at Columbia University’s English department, “and more than I wanted for myself.”

By the time of his death in 1975, she had published a single collection of essays. But along with other doyennes who held their own in this crowd—including the political theorist Hannah Arendt and the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb—Diana showed herself to be a vigorous and productive thinker. She earned a place at the table with her devotion to what she called “the life of significant contention” and to what Ms. Grinberg calls the determination to “write like a man.”

In her criticism and cultural portraiture, Diana Trilling delivered sharp polemical thrusts aimed at all sorts of targets, including male writers from her own milieu. She said that Saul Bellow’s debut novel, “Dangling Man” (1944), was among the “small novels of sterility.” She boasted that “a Viennese novelist, a refugee from Nazi Austria, was said to have remarked that he had lost his country, his home, his language, but that he had at least one good fortune: he has not been reviewed by me.” Such sharpness could cut both ways. On reading her attack on the student takeover of Columbia in 1968, the poet Robert Lowell (a fan of the students, to say the least) dismissed her as “some housekeeping goddess of reason.”

The agitation of the 1960s brought other intellectual polemicists to the fore, not least Norman Podhoretz (longtime editor of Commentary) and Midge Decter, who argued that the left needed to do some housekeeping of its own—by rejecting a political outlook that favored appeasement and opposed the muscular exercise of American power. Together the couple helped define what came to be called “neoconservatism.” Decter in particular found herself at odds with the ascendant women’s liberation movement and the ways it undermined traditional standards—moral and aesthetic both. In a chapter called “the first lady of neoconservatism,” Ms. Grinberg argues that this antipathy was at the very heart of a sensibility Decter shared with other women in this group, including Arendt, Himmelfarb and Susan Sontag. “Despite the sexism they encountered,” Ms. Grinberg writes, they “disparaged feminists.” They expected real writers to address “serious topics with masculine drive and ruthlessness. . . . In their view, feminists did not meet this standard.”

Ms. Grinberg rounds out the group portrait with Irving Howe, the anthologizer of Yiddish literature, author of the magisterial “World of Our Fathers” (1976), and presiding sage of Dissent, the magazine he launched in 1954. Unlike others in this cohort who found themselves “mugged by reality” and moving from left to right, Howe kept his socialist allegiances. But like the neoconservatives, he had little patience for either the strident “desperadoes” of the New Left or the grievances of the feminists. In a piece Decter commissioned him to write for Harper’s, Howe skewered the feminist Kate Millett as a “figment of the Zeitgeist” and scorned her bestseller, “Sexual Politics” (1970), as “intellectual goulash.”

In his essays “The Lost Young Intellectual” and “The New York Intellectuals: A Chronicle and a Critique,” Howe recognized that, despite the internecine quarrels carried out in the pages of Partisan Review, Commentary and Dissent, these Americanized writers striving to “make it” shared two states of mind. First, profound guilt over the helplessness that they or their families felt as they watched, from safe perches on the banks of the Hudson, the destruction of Europe’s Jews during the Shoah. Second, filial impiety: They often saw their immigrant fathers as failed breadwinners, as men who were, Ms. Grinberg writes, “in their own sons’ eyes, emasculated.” Howe’s father, an immigrant to the Bronx from the Russian Pale of Settlement, had gone bankrupt during the Depression. For others, the failure might be less literal, but the judgment seemed broadly to apply.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

1 thought on “Write Like a Man”

  1. many men in this milieu “feared losing their manhood to literary women.”

    If they really did fear that, they were probably right.

Comments are closed.