I.

In his essay “The Sharp Edge of Life,” Saul Bellow argued, “The great issue of fiction is the stature of characters. It starts with something like the Psalmist’s question, ‘What is man that thou art mindful of him?’ Responses range from ‘a little lower than the angels’ to ‘a poor bare, forked animal.’” Today we could add to that range of responses, featuring various utopian or apocalyptic suppositions about our shared natural or digital future. But interestingly enough, it seems that contemporary literary criticism has less to say about our expanding range of answers than it does about the presumed futility of the question.

Perhaps the most notable example of this presumption is Mark Greif’s The Age of the Crisis of Man: Thought and Fiction in America, 1933­–1973, where we are told, quite directly, to “stop” asking dubious, socially constructed and (now) exhausted metaphysical questions about ‘M’an, or ‘W’oman. But from what position of authority can a human agent make such an assertion? Whether our social constructs are motivated by sacred revelation or secular information, human beings remain peculiar creatures that persistently investigate themselves, not to mention what Bellow called a superior reality (be it something like God or the Cosmos). From a literary standpoint, “this contrast of a superior reality with daily fact is the peculiar field of the novel,” and if “man is of no importance,” he asks, “how is the novel — how, for that matter, is any human activity — justified?”

Edward Mendelson’s Moral Agents: Eight Twentieth-Century American Writers does not provide a direct answer, as much as it reinforces the legitimacy of asking such questions, both privately and publically. In a collection of entertaining and informative essays we’re introduced to the life and literary development of Lionel Trilling, Dwight Macdonald, Alfred Kazin, William Maxwell, Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, W. H. Auden, and Frank O’Hara. (His book Things That Matter offers similar reflections on the work of five women.) The text shows how varying socio-economic backgrounds, ethnic and religious heritages, political ideals, and sexual longings, influenced the intellectual and aesthetic formation of writers who “seized for themselves power and authority to shape American literary culture.” It also demonstrates Mendelson’s ability to carefully hold together critical reflection and emotional sensitivity. He observes these essayists, novelists, and poets in their darkest hours — lonely, unfulfilled, compulsively jealous, neurotic, and murderous. Though they relished their literary power, each in his own way also recoiled from it, and all confronted “moral tests and temptations that were inseparable from it.” For Mendelson, examining those private tests is essential to understanding the literary culture that emerged in a century of rapid technological change, depression, war, Holocaust, and racial strife.

II.

Writing in a private journal in 1945, Alfred Kazin said that, “More and more, it is clear to me that what I suffer from is the lack of a working philosophy, of a strong central belief, of something outside to which my ‘self’ can hold and, for once, forget its ‘self.’” In a letter to his editor, Norman Mailer said The Naked and the Dead would feature “troubling terrifying glimpses of order in disorder, of a horror which may or may not lurk beneath the surface of things,” forging into “primitive glimpses of a structure behind things […] on the edge of a deeper knowledge.” And Frank O’Hara’s search for the essence of the human person in poetry could travel so far to the edge of deeper knowledge that it became a sickening moral crisis.

Kazin’s absent working philosophy influenced a private life animated by self-aggrandizing myths of erotic heroism and acts of domestic violence. Mailer only had to look in the mirror to catch glimpses of terrifying disorder. He nearly killed his second wife by stabbing her with a penknife. In the case of O’Hara, the quintessential poet of the avant-garde was so artistically insecure that he could descend into states of depressive alcoholism leading to poetic impotence. These are just a few examples of the inner turmoil and private instability, which Mendelson carefully reveals as the backdrop of literary expression in the 20th century. At a time when the question of human nature was of grave public concern, it proved no less compelling behind closed doors.

Though Dwight Macdonald’s work as a commentator and critic was not celebrated like the novels and poems of his peers, he was instrumental in setting the stakes of the literary and humanistic debate. Raised in the cradle of America’s founding elite, Mendelson says that his ancestors were “to Yale what the Adams, Eliot and Lowell families were to Harvard.” In each case, the “family produced one or more soberly respectable presidents of the college or the nation,” but they also “produced a volatile and often tormented moralist-aesthete.” Dwight was his family’s Henry (Adams), T. S. (Eliot), and Robert (Lowell), editing for the Partisan Review, founding Politics, and writing for outlets that ranged from The New Yorker to Esquire. Deeply moved by the horrors of the two World Wars, and America’s numerous moral failures (especially in relationship to the descendants of slavery), Macdonald’s response to moral and political ambiguity was an unfailing attempt to establish supreme clarity. His defining statement remains the essay “Masscult and Midcult.”

In it, Macdonald outlined the traditional divide between High Art and Folk Art, which was not fraught with pejorative overtones as it would be today. Rather, it was merely the result of aristocratic hierarchies that made up most of recorded history. For him, the virtue of aesthetic hierarchy was that it emanated from the work of individuals who were expressing the concrete realities of their community. “Folk Art grew mainly from below,” and was “shaped by the people to fit their own needs, even though it often took its cue from High Culture.” Obviously high art and culture were curated by the elite, but clear distinctions allowed for cross-germination that aspired to move in both directions (for example, Picasso’s immersion in African folklore, or the contemporary sign painting of Steve Powers).

With the advent of Mass Culture — “or better Masscult, since it really isn’t culture at all” — the communal context of artistic expression was overrun by industrial mechanisms to produce and deliver (almost anything) to a freshly minted entity known as the public. Where folk art and high culture were unique and respectable in their own right, masscult was a parody of high culture, conceived in executive boardrooms to sell to the masses (the precursor to the consumer and the tax payer). The result was the semblance of art produced on the basis of behavioral patterns and capitalizing on distraction.

In Macdonald’s appraisal, the moral implications of this aesthetic revolution were high, and the ramifications were deeply political. Anticipating a key feature of late 20th-century American fiction, “the mass man,” he argued, “is a solitary atom, uniform with the millions of other atoms that go to make up ‘the lonely crowd.’” Individuals, he argued, thrive in relationship to community, where economic interests, traditions, humor, controversy, and values can be shared, and from which vibrant artistic and political expressions can emerge. On the flipside:

A mass society, like a crowd, is inchoate and uncreative. Its atoms cohere not according to individual liking or traditions or even interests but in a purely mechanical way, as iron filings of different shapes and sizes are pulled toward a magnet working on the one quality they have in common. Its morality sinks to the level of the most primitive members — a crowd will commit atrocities that very few of its members would commit as individuals — and its taste to that of the least sensitive and the most ignorant.

Where he thought the blurring of lines between the upper and lower classes was one of America’s great political achievements, it was culturally devastating. Instead of preserving the nation’s organic ethnic plurality, Macdonald saw a hasty assimilation by immigrants (the “huddled masses”) who were made to feel ashamed of their rich artistic and linguistic traditions, rendering many “at the lowest cultural (as well as economic) levels […] ready-made consumers of Kitsch.” Hasty assimilation and consumption of kitsch led to the advent of Midcult, which “pretends to respect the standards of High Culture while in fact it waters them down and vulgarizes them.”

According to Macdonald, Midcult could neither sustain cultural plurality, nor challenge conventional wisdom. Arguably a precursor of contemporary phenomena such as trigger warnings, Midcult was predicated on being acceptable, uncontroversial, and inoffensive. It promoted a cultural world of aesthetic, political and intellectual homogenization, where “the fear that wakes publishers in the night is,” not that the quality of their acquisitions, but “that the presses may for a moment stop.” In turn, the fear that silences citizens and artists is that they might offend.

For Macdonald, not only did art need to challenge accepted conventions, the formation of sound aesthetic judgments was essential to the sustenance of a robust democracy (a view voiced in greater detail by his friend, Hannah Arendt). As the experience of art, history, and culture is inevitably personal, the task of cultivating (and clearly expressing) sound judgments was “a matter of personal morality, not the expression of impersonal historic forces,” and thus, political. Privately, Macdonald was compelled to use his privileged upbringing and status to voice public appeals for collective repentance in response to the death camps in Germany, slavery and Jim Crow in America, and bombing campaigns in Vietnam. The failure to seek repentance for such devastation was symptomatic of failed political and aesthetic judgment. Macdonald’s grave concern was that the influence of Masscult and Midcult would result in a citizenry that lived as “permanent adolescents,” given to uncritical herd-like behavior, that only ever achieved a superficial appreciation of sex, love, life, and death.

III.

For W. H. Auden, there was nothing superficial about sex, love, life, and death. Born, raised, and educated in England, his arrival in the United States in 1939 came at a time of existential transformation, which clearly played out in the evolution of his poetry and prose. As Mendelson is Auden’s literary executor, has thus far edited six volumes of prose for Princeton University Press, and written a masterful two-volume biography of the British expatriate (Early Auden and Later Auden), it’s no surprise that this chapter of Moral Agents is especially vibrant. But it is also one of the most challenging. Perhaps because Auden’s orthodox Christianity “was for most of his life the central focus of his art and thought.” For Mendelson, it was also “the aspect of his life and work that seems to have been the least understood by his readers and friends.” This is partly because late 20th- and early 21st-century literary criticism and Christian theology aren’t traditional conversation partners. But it has more to do with the fact that Auden’s life, work, and religious conviction, all resist traditional categories and caricatures.

The origins of his faith were principally familial and mystical. His mother nurtured him in liturgical practices of Anglo-Catholicism, the sensational beauty of which he could not resist. But like many in late adolescence, his attention was drawn in other directions: mostly to poetry, where he discovered a kind of secular beauty that would inspire him for over two decades. As his interest in religion waned his literary ascent began, especially among Britain’s leftists who heralded him as the voice of a generation. Introducing the Selected Poems, Mendelson suggests that Auden was the first writer to confidently situate English poetry in modern language, echoing working class ideals without pretension:

Comrades who when the sirens roar
From the office shop and factory pour
’Neath evening sky;
By cops directed to the fug
Of talkie-houses for a drug
Or down canals to find a hug
Until you die …

In Mendelson’s view, such poems are filled with youthful exuberance, predictably shrugging off the luxuries of a bourgeois youth. But where Auden tired of the church in late adolescence, his revolutionary zeal wore out in early adulthood under the pressure of stark Marxist ideals, and readers who expected commensurate visions from their chosen poet.

In 1933, Auden’s vision unexpectedly changed after a dinner party in the company of three colleagues, and Mendelson rightfully quotes at length:

We liked each other well enough but we were certainly not intimate friends, nor had any one of us a sexual interest in another. Incidentally, we had not drunk any alcohol. We were talking casually about everyday matters when, quite suddenly and unexpectedly, something happened. I felt myself invaded by a power which, though I consented to it, was irresistible and certainly not mine. For the first time in my life I knew exactly — because, thanks to the power, I was doing it — what it means to love one’s neighbor as oneself […] My personal feelings towards them were unchanged — they were still colleagues, not intimate friends — but I felt their existence as themselves to be of infinite value and rejoiced in it.

While it may strike some as the product of unbridled imagination, feeling the eternal value of another’s existence awakened Auden’s dormant Christianity. It would take two grievous personal experiences for him to fully recommit to religious practice, but this epiphany was the preface to a new literary and spiritual path; one that was rooted in the concrete command to love one’s neighbor as oneself. This, Mendelson says, would become Auden’s “absolute obligation — which he knew he could never fulfill.” His attempts, though, were not in vane or without turmoil. Of the two events that fulfilled Auden’s awakening in the early 1940s, the first was the betrayal of his lover Chester Kallman. The second was the death of his mother.

With Kallman, Auden believed he had found a lasting love, rendering the pleasures of his youthful forays in Berlin obsolete, while serving as a manifestation of Christian marital fidelity. It’s no secret that Auden was always challenged by his homosexuality, which he occasionally referred to as crooked, sinful and, echoing the Apostle Paul, a thorn in the flesh. This may seem antiquated to contemporary readers, but as Arthur Kirsch argues in Auden and Christianity, it is consistent with Auden’s approach to theology, philosophy, politics, and poetry: every meaningful aspect of life was worthy of critical investigation, and sexuality was no different. But Kallman’s promiscuity, and refusal to faithfully forsake all others led to a more confounding problem then sexual ambiguity or betrayal. When he eventually wrote his former lover he humbly confessed, “on account of you, I have been, in intention, and almost act, a murderer.” For Auden, reconciling his sex with his faith was an ongoing struggle, but making peace with his violent inclinations toward the man he loved was the central drama of his moral life.

Ultimately, he determined such love was impossible without accounting for an abundantly flawed human condition. Auden took this to heart as he became deeply invested in the study of Christian history and thought, directly influencing his writing from the 1940s until his death in 1973. There is no clearer example of this development than his lengthy poetic account of the incarnation, For the Time Being; A Christmas Oratorio.[1] His treatment of the Christmas narrative — written shortly after his mother’s death, and dedicated to her — sought to appreciate both the mystery and practical implications of Jesus’ birth and life. With his personal life in a state of disarray, it’s not surprising that the poem begins as “Darkness and snow descend;” and “The clock on the mantelpiece / Has nothing to recommend.” Summoning a sense of emptiness and confusion, Auden announced the fallenness of mankind: visible in the carnage of the 20th century, but antithetical to the central assumptions of human progress in modern political theory. “Outside the civil garden / Of every day of love there / Crouches a wild passion / To destroy and be destroyed.” For him, the incarnation broke the cycle of destruction, not universally but conceptually and spiritually. That is, it provided occasion for human beings to embrace their limitations through a vision of love that was neither erotic, nor aesthetic, but humbly sacrificial.

In his attempt to follow Christ’s charitable and sacrificial model, Mendelson offers numerous examples of what he calls Auden’s “secret life.” When a woman who attended his church was experiencing night terror he voluntarily slept in her hallway to keep watch. To support a friend who needed money for medical care he donated the text of The Age of Anxiety, which was then purchased by the University of Texas Press. He also quietly paid for the education of two German war orphans, and when they finally discovered who the donor was and thanked him in person, “he was too embarrassed to say more than a few words.” All of which points to Auden’s belief that Christian virtue was something to be practiced, but to “be” a Christian was only something one could aspire to become. When friends would ask him “why Jesus and not Socrates or Buddha or Confucius or Mohammed?” he hearkened back to the passion narrative in the gospels: “None of the others arouse all sides of my being to cry ‘Crucify him.’” In this sense, Auden had very little patience for American brands of public theology that trivialized the Gospel by promising health, wealth and happiness. As he wrote in For the Time Being, a “continuous evil runs a / lost mankind.” In other words, human nature and evil went hand in hand. For Auden, the only way to effectively respond to the latter was to investigate and speak courageously to the inner workings of the former.

IV.

In the early stages of Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day, his middle-aged anti-hero Tommy Wilhelm stumbles on an essential truth that runs through Moral Agents: “A man,” he says, “is only as good as what he loves.” In each of Mendelson’s portraits we see that they can also be as bad as what they fear and loathe, but that hiding from, or ignoring, those fears will not lead to truth or love. There’s no end to the mess human beings can make of life. But to avoid confronting the source of the mess, or to assume we can transcend our inner demons will inevitably lead to a bigger mess. As Bellow observed, “there is a widespread disgust, weariness, staleness, resistance and unwillingness to feel the sharp edge of life.”

But in our resistance, we only need to turn on the TV, or scan Twitter, to see that the sharp edge of life will find us whether we like it or not. Maybe even when we ignore it the most. Still, Mark Greif’s assessment of the literary and philosophical production of the 20th century would suggest that, “one of the striking features of the discourse of man to modern eyes, in a sense the most striking, is how unreadable it is, how tedious, how unhelpful.” Which begs the question, unreadable, tedious, and unhelpful to whose eyes?

As one of the great 20th-century contributors to this discourse, Bellow argued, “when we think we are tired of Man, it is the image we are tired of.” And the result is that “Man is forced to live a secret life and it is into that life the writer must go to find him. He must bring value, restore proportion; he must give pleasure. If he does not do these things he remains sterile himself.” Edward Mendelson’s Moral Agents does these things, exploring the secret, dark corners of life and revealing how powerfully creative and frail human beings can be. It also suggests that to better understand who we are, along with what and why we create, we might do well to maintain a relationship with questions like, who am I, and who is my neighbor? Which inevitably leads us back to the question — perhaps more necessary, the more unreadable it becomes — what is Man?

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[1] Alan Jacobs’ introduction to Princeton University Press’s recent critical edition of For the Time Being is an indispensable resource in appreciating the poem, and Auden’s personal transformation.

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Robert L. Kehoe III writes from Madison, Wisconsin, where he lives with his wife and sons. He is a contributing editor at The Point Magazine, and his work has appeared in the Boston Review, 8 by 8, and First Things.