John V. Hagopian (essay date July-September 1963)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2263

SOURCE: Hagopian, John V. “The Technique and Meaning of Lionel Trilling's ‘The Other Margaret’.” Etudes Anglaises 16, no. 3 (July-September 1963): 225-29.

[In the following essay, Hagopian examines Trilling's narrative technique in “The Other Margaret.”]

When an eminent literary critic, especially of a moralistic Arnoldian persuasion, takes a...

(The entire section contains 22083 words.)

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SOURCE: Hagopian, John V. “The Technique and Meaning of Lionel Trilling's ‘The Other Margaret’.” Etudes Anglaises 16, no. 3 (July-September 1963): 225-29.

[In the following essay, Hagopian examines Trilling's narrative technique in “The Other Margaret.”]

When an eminent literary critic, especially of a moralistic Arnoldian persuasion, takes a hand at writing fiction, the result is rarely as distinguished an achievement as Lionel Trilling's short story, “The Other Margaret.” As is to be expected, Trilling's fiction embodies ideas and values which occupy a prominent place in his criticism. “The greatness of fiction”, he has said, “and its practical usefulness lay in its unremitting work of involving the reader himself in the moral life, inviting him to put his own motives under examination, suggesting that reality is not as his conventional education has led him to see it.” (“Manners, Morals, and the Novel,” in The Liberal Imagination, London, 1951, p. 222.) No statement could more aptly describe not only the effect of “The Other Margaret,” but also its substance; for in the story we see a man who, as a result of his contemplation of a work of art, is provoked into a ruthless examination of his own moral life and a rejection of the false values of his liberal education. More specifically, Trilling dramatizes the epiphany of a “moral realist,” i.e., one who has “perception of the dangers of the moral life itself.”

Perhaps at no other time has the enterprise of moral realism ever been so much needed, for at no other time have so many people committed themselves to moral righteousness … / … We must be aware of the dangers which lie in our most generous wishes … We have books that point out bad conditions, that praise us for taking progressive attitudes. We have no books that raise questions in our minds not only about conditions but about ourselves, that lead us to refine our motives and ask what might lie behind our good impulses.

(pp. 219, 221)

“The Other Margaret” is appropriately a serious, slow-paced, meditative narrative because the controlling intelligence is that of Stephen Elwin, a 41-year-old publisher of scientific books and an intellectual who cannot observe or act without considering the meaning of every gesture. Hence, the style is E. M. Forster. It is not so much the language but the events that have neither poetic nor dramatic, but meditative—à la Henry James and symbolic power. Two processes of moral education are delineated—the long, slow build-up to an “explosion of light” for Elwin and, at the end, the more swiftly developed insight of his 13-year-old daughter Margaret.

The first part of the story is made up of two public experiences of Stephen Elwin—an examination of a reproduction of Rouault's painting, “The King,” in the company of an art dealer and a young lieutenant; and a disturbing episode on a bus when a mean-spirited conductor cruelly mistreats two little boys. Later, these experiences are recapitulated in the privacy of the Elwin family. All this serves as an elaborate introduction to the heart of the narrative—the episode involving the other Margaret, the Negro maid.

Neither of the two men who observe the Rouault painting with Elwin really understands it or appreciates it. Mark Jennings, the art dealer, eager to satisfy his friend and customer, pretends to admire it but is really more concerned with the frame he has made. (Whether this was unconsciously suggested by Trilling's concern with the “frame” of his story is impossible to say.) The young lieutenant, who insincerely comments “Very nice,” is himself a considerable contrast with the fierce old warrior depicted in the painting. He hasn't the courage of his own convictions: “He used to be against anything like that [militarism]—he said he did not want to miss sharing the experience of his generation.” The art dealer and the lieutenant are not men who “ask what might lie behind our good impulses.” As for Elwin, he is attracted to the picture because he feels that the old king “had passed beyond ordinary matters of personality and was worthy of the crown he was wearing.” The king represents the very qualities that Elwin himself aspires to—wisdom and authority of experience and a stern sense of justice. Later, when he shows the Rouault to his daughter, she too rejects it: “It said something to her that was not in her experience or that she did not want in her experience.” The innocence of youth and the authority of age are incompatible; but at least Margaret is honest enough to admit she doesn't like it. The bonds of family love make it possible to avoid hypocritical politeness and to sustain itself despite occasional disagreement and differences of taste.

The second episode occurs aboard an ancient Didion bus that reminds Elwin of his youth. He has already been meditating about age and death, recalling with poignancy a line from Hazlitt: “No young man believes that he shall ever die.” Elwin realizes that he is no longer a young man, but if age brings an awareness of death it also brings a heightened sense of responsibility which only the wise can bear. As he meditates on these matters he observes two boys waiting for the bus; they seem the kind who “half in awe, half in rowdy levity, troop incessantly through the Egyptian room of the Museum, repeatedly entering and emerging from and entering again the narrow slits of the grave vaults.” In other words they are too young to be aware of death and, therefore, innocent. But the bus conductor, an old man, simply teases them when they ask how much the fare is and allows the bus to pull away without them. Elwin, who has not yet achieved the status of the old king, lapses into the moral equivocations of the soft liberal; i.e., he thinks of reasons for excusing the old man's conduct—the conductor had outlived his fatherhood, and his children “would now have grown and given him the usual causes for bitterness;” he had not the advantage of “the gentle rearing and the good education that made a man like Stephen Elwin answerable for all his actions.” Nevertheless, for the first time in his life, Elwin feels anger at the old man and a sense of wisdom. Hazlitt and Rouault—the awareness of death and the wisdom of age—are at work.

Upon his arrival home, Elwin's daughter serves him his usual evening cocktail, youth's ritual service to age and authority. But, being an independent, modern child, she doesn't hesitate to announce her dislike of the picture. Then a family crisis looms when Lucy Elwin, the mother, expresses her anger at “the other Margaret,” the Negro maid who, like the bus conductor, is a mean-spirited, vindictive person. She has broken only the most valuable pieces of China in the house, a fact which suggests deliberate malice. But Margaret, educated in a liberal progressive school, responds to the behavior of the maid just as Elwin had responded to the bus conductor; she feels that no Negro can be held responsible for wrong-doing so long as the Negro race is subjected to prejudice and mistreatment in the American community. Like father, like daughter. The mother attempts to avert a quarrel by telling about her bus incident that day—a conductor had mocked a young woman by pretending that she was Jewish and speaking rudely to her in a simulated Jewish accent. Here Trilling is again invoking “manners and morals” and suggesting that the strict judgment of evil is independent of considerations of race in victim or victimizer. The delicately balanced and oversensitive Margaret, one of the “morally righteous,” misunderstands her mother and angrily defends the bus conductor: “They are underpaid!” Suddenly Elwin feels “a quick impatience with his daughter's sensitivity,” and once again the mother, a forthright, no-nonsense type of woman who takes “no account of finer feelings,” averts a crisis by introducing a family joke.

But the rhythmic drive toward crisis has gained momentum in this narrative and cannot be denied. When the other Margaret arrives late to serve dinner, matters come to a head. Lucy announces firmly that the Negro maid “is a thoroughly disagreeable person, a nasty mean person.” Young Margaret cannot accept such a judgment as anything but a manifestation of anti-Negro prejudice; and when she insists that “it's not her fault, she's not responsible!” Elwin sternly demands, “Why not?” That moment is for Elwin an “explosion of light … an illumination.” His day-long meditations finally result in a breakthrough of truth in the conscious conviction that “in the aspect of his knowledge of death, all men were equal in their responsibility.” Then, as he tries to point out to his anguished daughter that Millie, their former Negro maid, had had pride and dignity and a sense of responsibility, a second powerful insight comes to him: “It came suddenly, as no doubt was the way of moments of wisdom, and he perceived what stupidly he had not understood earlier, that it was not the other Margaret but herself that his Margaret was grieving for, that … she was defending herself from her own impending responsibility.” Here Trilling is embodying in complex narrative form an insight that Gerard Manley Hopkins had expressed in his magnificent poem, “Spring and Fall [Youth and Age]: To a Young Child:”

Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you will weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrows springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

Elwin, “for whatever reason he did not know,” is forcing this insight on his daughter. The reason is, of course, that he is determined to be wise, forceful, and just—like Rouault's king—even at the expense of mercy. (The Lilies in the king's hand are scarcely visible in the painting.) But Elwin needn't have been so aggressive, for the other Margaret behaves in a way that makes any doubt of her culpability, even to the naive defender of the downtrodden Negroes, no longer possible. The maid announces her resignation and then deliberately smashes a green clay lamb that young Margaret had made as a birthday gift for her mother. The distressed parents drop all efforts at hard justice and truth to try and console the poor child with reassurances that it must have been an accident, but Margaret had seen the maid in the act: “She meant to do it!” The green lamb is, of course, a complex symbol signifying not only Margaret's moral innocence but life itself; and the exposed white clay of the fragments signify death and the destruction of moral innocence. “She had seen with her own eyes the actual possibility of what she herself might do, the insupportable fact of her own moral life.”

At this point in the story there is a final crucial development in the sequence of Stephen Elwin's moral insights. He suddenly begins to wonder “if the king, within his line of vision as he stood there trying to comfort his daughter, would ever return to the fine, old tragic power, for at the moment he seemed only quaint, extravagant, and beside the point.” Margaret, curled in the foetal position as if to withdraw from adult reality, lies sobbing on the sofa; and Elwin realizes with a pang that no one can possibly console another for the pain of moral insight. In that respect, we are all ultimately and irrevocably alone in our own skins. Elwin's first two insights tended to reassurances that it must have been an accident, but Margaret has seen the identify him with the king: “in the aspect of his knowledge of death, all men were equal in their responsibility” and “it was not the other Margaret but herself that his Margaret was grieving for;” but his third and final insight is that at the moment a loved one experiences the anguish of initiation, the fierce visage of justice is no longer relevant—the king becomes “quaint, extravagant, and beside the point.”

Diametrically opposed to the Rouault is Margaret's green lamb, a “self-portrait” representing youth, tenderness, and innocence; its “eyes stared out with a great charming question to the world.” The destruction of the lamb marks the end of Margaret's innocence and it, too, becomes no longer relevant.

Trilling's complex tale of manners and morals is unusual in American fiction. The common pattern is to present such morally-charged situations from the point of view of a child or adolescent—as in Hawthorne's “My Kinsman, Major Molineux,” Anderson's “The Egg” or “I Want to Know Why,” Hemingway's “The Killers,” Faulkner's “That Evening Sun,” and Warren's “Blackberry Winter.” The standard technique is intrinsically more dramatic and ironic, presenting bare action and dialogue, eschewing adult commentary, and putting the burden of meaning completely on the reader. Trilling's story presents in every episode the conflict between the vision of age and the innocence of youth as seen from the point of view of age. This perspective makes it possible for him to comment explicitly on the moral issue in the story, and it makes natural the meditative rather than the dramatic mode. It transforms the discussion of manners and morals into art through a magnificently achieved meditative, even elegiac, tone.

Diana L. George (essay date winter 1976)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3943

SOURCE: George, Diana L. “Thematic Structure in Lionel Trilling's ‘Of This Time, Of That Place’.” Studies in Short Fiction 13, no. 1 (winter 1976): 1-8.

[In the following essay, George identifies the basic themes of “Of This Time Of That Place”—art and life, subjectivity and objectivity, science and morality—and investigates how they are connected to each other by a complex structure.]

Lionel Trilling has favored his readers with generous explanations of the genesis and meaning of his short story “Of This Time, Of That Place”1; yet the story is extraordinarily subtle, and its meanings are richer than Trilling and his critics have yet demonstrated. In his introduction to the story in his anthology, The Experience of Literature, Trilling explains his own conception of its primary purpose, which is to “present the sad irony of a passionate devotion to the intellectual life maintained by a person of deranged mind” (p. 358). It was, essentially, to be the story of Tertan. But Tertan, the mad student who gives the story its essential structural and thematic unity, is not the primary character whose story this becomes. It is Howe, narrator and professor, whose moral dilemma elevates the story to nearly tragic proportions.

The dramatic situation of the story is relatively simple; it explores the relationship between a young professor of literature and his brilliant but mentally ill student. Through the ironies in their relationship, the underlying themes, far bigger than either Tertan or Howe, emerge. “Of This Time, Of That Place,” undertakes to explore the relationships between art and life, between subjectivity and objectivity. These two basic themes are each represented by intermediary issues in the story, and finally connected to each other by specific characters and situations. The result is a surprisingly elaborate structure—surprising because Trilling is handling themes better suited to the novel genre, but without the sense of incompletion or awkwardness that might be expected in a short story—developed through a carefully crafted network of symbols, heavily overlaid with intense dramatic irony. The conflict of science and morality is the intermediary vehicle used to present the first thematic consideration, the problem of subjectivity versus objectivity. Science and morality are placed in polar opposition to each other, and remain irreconcilable throughout the story. Science is equated with both reason and inhumanity, morality with emotion and humanity. The relationships between the issues are all necessarily negative, and in that fact lies the bitterest irony of the story. To follow reason is to turn against feeling in the small but intense universe of the story. Science is the villain, totally correct but abominably immoral. The relationship that should be able to reconcile the paradox—the relationship between Howe and Tertan—fails miserably. Howe, the subjective and emotional poet, must betray Tertan by using the objective verdict of science. The interplay in the roles of Howe and Tertan becomes symbolic not only of the larger issues of the story, but of the connections and disjunctions among those issues. Compromise is not permitted; opposition through paradox is the only norm.

The story opens and closes with a camera scene. The apparently irrelevant camera becomes a major symbol. An examination of the modification and development of the camera as symbol will serve to demonstrate how Trilling manipulates his material. Professor Howe has arrived on campus for the beginning of the fall semester, and young Hilda Aiken has asked to take his picture with her new camera. She has no sophisticated equipment, and must be very careful in order to get a good shot:

She held the camera tight against her chest. She wanted the sun behind her, but she did not want her own long morning shadow in the foreground. She raised the camera, but that did not help, and she lowered it, but that made things worse. She twisted her body to the left, then to the right. In the end she had to step out of the direct line of the sun. At last she snapped the shutter and wound the film with intense care.

(p. 331)

In this first representation, we see the camera as benign and simple. There is no reason to fear it. It is surely “an instrument of precision,” as Tertan later calls it, but it still requires human judgment to aid it in its work. There is no mention of the camera again until the end; but in the meantime, Howe and Tertan have met and interacted, loved and struggled, and Howe has betrayed the mad Tertan. Howe's alliance with science has been unwilling, but inevitable; and he has more than a little disgust for his own decision, made on behalf of objective facts. In a series of foreshadowing instances, Howe has realized his own power, and been uncomfortable with it. Minutes after the first camera shot, Howe walks into the classroom and begins the “lawful seizure of power” over his students that is part of his role as teacher. He is uncomfortable with it. But a deliberately ironic comment he makes about the nature of that power evokes laughter from the class, and Howe feels “benign and powerful.” Later, in the full knowledge of Tertan's condition and his own ability to expose it, Howe feels the full weight of his power: “He alone could keep alive—not forever, but for a somehow important time—the question, ‘What is Tertan?’ He alone could keep it still a question” (p. 344). He feels a moral obligation to Tertan, and to himself, to keep the secret of Tertan's madness; and as long as he does, his power is not used harmfully. But his knowledge, an objective, scientific knowledge, is at continual odds with his moral perception of the situation.

When Howe finally exposes Tertan and uses his power, he feels intensely guilty, and does not quite know why. In class, looking at Tertan, he is aware that he has “permitted the metamorphosis of Tertan from person to fact.” And Tertan, unaware that Howe has betrayed him, “did not know of its mere factuality [and] continued its existence as if it were Tertan” (p. 351). Howe slowly realizes that he has not only turned his back on a general feeling of humanity, but on love. He has served the interests of science at the expense of the interests of humanity. He did not intend to serve the one and thereby betray the other, and the irony is in the fact that he could not serve both.

At the close of the story, Hilda returns to take Howe's picture again. The camera and Hilda's use of it have changed drastically:

Nothing could have told him more forcibly that a year had passed than the development of Hilda's photographic possessions from the box camera of the previous fall. By a strap about her neck was hung a leather case, so thick and strong, so carefully stitched, and so molded to its contents that it could only contain a costly camera. (But) the appearance was deceptive. … It was only a fairly good domestic camera. Still, it looked very impressive.

(p. 355)

Hilda has a number of precise gadgets that she manipulates with ease, and with a high seriousness that has a touch of the absurd. Suddenly Tertan appears to survey the scene, “in it, his whole bearing seemed to say, but not of it.” He looks somehow superior to all the rest, but “his isolation made Howe ache with pity” (p. 357). Tertan pronounces his verdict on the camera: “Instruments of precision,” he muses, “Instruments of precision” (p. 356). Tertan has nothing but detached contempt for the camera. He is unaware that the camera, and the science of precision that it represents, have also pronounced a verdict on him, cold and irreversible. Science, with its indiscriminate precision, has declared him a fact instead of a person. Only Howe knows this, but he has a moment of wondering whether Tertan's acute perceptions have discovered Howe's betrayal: “Howe was aware that Tertan might not be referring to Hilda's equipment” (ibid.), and he is suddenly uncomfortable in the presence of the instrument. “Just hurry, Hilda, won't you?” he asks impatiently, and he rushes off as soon as the shutter clicks.

The camera that was simple and harmless at the beginning of the story became, by the end, a symbol of the cold indifference of science. But it is not only the “precision” of science, and its mathematical indifference, that the camera represents; it is also symbolic of the inaccuracy of science, or at least of its lack of discrimination. The appearance of the camera is deceptive. It is not as correct and precise as it looks. Its “precision” is actually rather sloppy, but it does look impressive. Similarly, the facts of science that condemn Tertan as a madman and grant a Blackburn the sanction and sanctuary of legal sanity, are really imprecise. It is not that science is mistaken, and that Tertan is really sane; Trilling is aware that this mistake in interpretation might be made, and he cautions in his commentary that “nothing, I fear, can reverse the diagnosis of Tertan's illness” (p. 359). Rather, Blackburn is also quite insane, but in a more subtle and insidious, and therefore less perceptible, way. The “instruments of precision” make no mistake about Tertan, whose aberration is glaring, but totally pass over the more vicious and harmful disease of Blackburn. Hilda's camera takes a decent picture, but misses the subtle discriminations of light and shade that the sympathetic human eye can perceive.

Howe in his role as poet and teacher, and Tertan as ironic counterpart to Howe as poet, lay the basic framework for Trilling's exploration of the other major theme, the relationship between art and life. The vehicle for exploring the theme is a discussion of the role of poet in society.

Howe is involved in a dispute in the literary world, and has been attacked by an old-guard literary critic in a scholarly journal. The critic, Woolley, had framed his career around the necessity of isolation of the intellectual life from social and political concerns. All his literary life Woolley had been “concerned with the relation of literature to morality, religion, and the private and delicate pieties, and he had been unalterably opposed to all that he had called ‘inhuman humanitarianism’” (p. 336). His conception of the role of the intellectual had been narrow, but not divorced from reality. But, as a leading critic who had been shaped by his times as well as shaping them himself, he had “made an about-face, turning to the public life and the humanitarian politics he had so long despised” (ibid.) Within the context of his new public and social concern, Woolley evaluates two poets: Wormser, “admirable” because he wrote about the struggle for wheat in the Iowa fields, and Howe, “almost dangerous” because his is personal poetry, a song only of himself. According to Woolley, there is no place for Howe's “precious subjectivism” in the function of poetry in this society; the “true poet makes what his society needs … in the true tradition of poetry” (ibid.). Woolley puts Howe in the tradition of the mad poet, living in a universe of self-intoxicated insanity.

The “willful and selfish obscurity” Woolley accuses Howe of indulging in is not so different from Woolley's own previous intellectual position. But even though Howe loses out in this time and place, he would as surely have lost in the past that Woolley once represented: Woolley's was a moral and religious subjectivism, while Howe's is simply personal. His artistic “sins” would have been measured against another alien norm. Howe's is still “the Phrygian music that turns men's minds from the struggle” (ibid.).

It is through his position as a poet of “precious subjectivism” that Howe's deepest and most ironic connection with the mad Tertan must be viewed. Howe himself never fully realizes why he feels such an intense bond with Tertan, such guilt when he turns his back. He only knows that he feels, inexplicably, unreasonably, far out of proportion to any rational explanations. But the parallels are inescapable, and even Howe cannot completely ignore them. Howe has been accused of a kind of madness himself; he has been branded as a danger to the world of literature because his work has no useful connection to the real. But nobody will lock Howe away in a white-walled room for his “disease.” His “madness” may earn him professional disapproval, but little else. Tertan, on the other hand, has an illness that does permit society and science to cart him away. In a different time and place, under different circumstances, Tertan would be allowed to babble incoherently (and freely) for the rest of his life, and Howe would be incarcerated. But the accident of time and place lets Howe go free (as it should; he is not really mad at all) and also allows him to be the authority that calls attention to Tertan (as he perhaps must; Tertan really is mad).

Howe never allows himself to go this far in acknowledging the reasons for his guilt about Tertan. He desperately tries to avoid anything that would connect him with Tertan in all but the most superficial of student-teacher relationships. He even uses the obvious and valid irony that the obnoxious Blackburn is as deranged as Tertan, and in ways that are more insidious, vicious, and harmful to humanity, in ideals and in action. That juxtaposition allows him to displace his own connection with Tertan, and assists him in avoiding the more subtle (and more important) irony of his own similarities to Tertan.

It is Tertan who forces a partial confrontation with the facts when he says to Howe, “You are a man of letters? You are a poet?” (p. 337). And Howe, uncomfortable about that role and confused about what it should mean, answers ambiguously. But Tertan will not let him escape that easily, and Howe is forced into a declaration of the fact, an acceptance of the role: “Yes. I am a poet” (p. 338). It is difficult for him to admit, and he does not know why. The truly insane Tertan knows what Howe does not, and makes the connection Howe refuses to make. Tertan has read Woolley's article, and expresses his opinion to Howe: “A critic who admits prima facie that he does not understand. It is the inevitable fate” (ibid.). Later, Tertan writes a letter to the Dean about Howe as Paraclete: “For Dr. Howe must be the Paraclete to another aspect of himself, that which is driven and persecuted by the lack of understanding in the world at large, so that he in himself embodies the full history of man's tribulations, and, overflowing upon others, notably the present writer, is the ultimate end” (p. 347). However distorted the connection, it is real. Tertan has pictured Howe standing in his (Tertan's) place, one who has suffered as he has suffered, and will protect him. The irony is that Howe will expose rather than protect his mad counterpart. Howe may balk at being considered “driven and persecuted,” but that is how he feels about Woolley's article. And “the pitiable Tertan pitied him, and comfort came from Tertan's never-to-be-comforted mind” (p. 348).

In the strictest sense, the analogy between Tertan and Howe does break down, and Howe must use this fact as comfort for his feeling that as surely as he has been betrayed, he has also betrayed. And it is himself as well as Tertan that he has betrayed. He has agreed with Woolley against his own will. Tertan may be really mad, and Howe just as certainly sane, but the accusations against Howe are prompted by the same things that precipitate his own actions: a supposed concern for the good of society, and the validity of an objective mass standard. A reference to Plato's myth of the cave earlier in the story helps to validate the connection. “Howe saw it for a moment as perhaps it existed in the boy's mind—the world of shadows which are cast by a great light upon a hidden reality” (p. 341). The reflected, second-remove life is what Howe himself has been accused of indulging in. Later, trying to explain Tertan's madness to the Dean, Howe says that “what he says is always on the edge of sense and doesn't quite make it” (p. 346). The Dean glances at him and Howe flushes. This is the closest he comes to recognizing the parallels between his predicament and Tertan's. Howe cannot help but wonder if the Dean's glance is ironic. He fears it, for he fears any validation of a connection he has only begun to make himself.

As Trilling uses a network of camera symbolism in his representation of the science-morality problem, he uses clothes symbolically in the representation of the art-life theme. Howe carries his doctoral hood and gown proudly: “These were the weightly and absurd symbols of his new profession, and they pleased him” (p. 335). The significance is understated. Trilling has been examining the role of the poet in society, and the gown is an unmistakeable symbol of the academic and intellectual side of Howe's professional life. Howe is engaged in the process of trying to integrate himself emotionally and intellectually, to decide on his role, and then defend it to himself and others. And although he does not like to think of himself as a willfully obscure poet, his chosen route is undeniably one detached from the modern social context. The description of the decorous absurdity of the doctoral hood reasserts this: “Howe carried his voluminous gown over his arm, he swung his doctoral hood by its purple neckpiece, and on his head he wore his mortarboard with its heavy gold tassel bobbing just over his eye” (ibid.). Nothing could be more divorced from context, of time if not place. Tertan, whose dress of “shabby formality” has elsewhere singled him out from his contemporaries, is present in the final camera scene where Howe is wearing his gown and Hilda is doing a “character study” in light and shade. Tertan is also ridiculously dressed, “in a panama hat … [and] a suit of raw silk, luxurious but yellowed” (p. 354). Howe is ironically unaware of the silliness of his pity for Tertan, as he looks at him through an eye covered by an absurd, bobbing tassel.

“The question was, at whose door must the tragedy be laid?” (p. 340).

The place is Howe's classroom, and the play being discussed is Ibsen's Ghosts. In this classroom scene, in the middle of the story, Trilling brings together the problems of art and life, science and morality, with Tertan and Howe as vehicles for the exploration of both. In a college class, taught by a poet, young students that include at least one madman are engaged in the effort to connect literature with life, discussing a play that deals with science and morality. It is a quiet day, and in the classroom there is “a common sense of pleasure in being human” (ibid.). The students run the gamut of expected responses: it is the fault of heredity; no, of Pastor Manders, or perhaps Mrs. Alving; then again, in another way it is Mr. Alving's fault; but that is not quite reasonable either, and maybe it is no one's fault; yes, of course, it is the fault of society.

DeWitt, in his constant struggle to prove the superiority of science to literature, offers his opinion that the issue is not one of morality or humanity, but of science only:

If the society of the time had progressed far enough in science, then there would be no problem for Mr. Ibsen to write about. Captain Alving plays around a little, gets a venereal disease. If the disease is cured, no problem. The problem of heredity disappears, and li'l Oswald just doesn't get paresis. No paresis, no problem—no problem, no play.

(p. 340)

For DeWitt, literature has no real connection to life, since life is always changing and literature reflects only stasis. Science outmodes it immediately. In contrast, Tertan begins to speak about rebellion against the universe, and “transmutations beyond these to a contemplation of the utter whole” (p. 342). It is then that Howe knows Tertan is mad. His mind is continually roving around the edges of an imaginary cosmos that is certainly more interesting than DeWitt's, but is quite crazy. Tertan oozes humanity, puts it into everything, even where it has no place. DeWitt's scientific answer, with all the humanity drained out, is no more satisfactory. The lives of thought and feeling remain at total odds in the story, and Howe, in his own effort to unite the two, only drives them further apart. By acting rationally, he cannot avoid the betrayal of feeling and humanity; had he leapt to defend feeling, he would have to share Tertan's madness and acknowledge it in himself.

The question becomes, of course, at whose door must the tragedy of Tertan (or of Howe, for that matter) be laid? Trilling offers no real answers to this or any of the other questions he raises. He connects and connects, but always in negative terms, always with irony. And yet, even caught in an inescapable dilemma, Howe has grown and developed. Even if there are no answers, the issues of art and life, subjectivity and objectivity, brought together in desperately personal connection for one man, have at least made him aware of the question. That is perhaps more than most men experience. And that is far more than most short stories dare to ask.

The idea that gives the story its title—the accident of time and place—does not answer any of the questions, but does make the reasons for the problems clearer, while intensifying the irony. The chance of time and place have brought Tertan and Howe together. The element of time, in particular, pervades the story; Howe feels he must keep Tertan's secret for a somehow important time; time has brought about the changes in circumstances, created the juxtapositions, increased Hilda's camera equipment. If penicillin had been invented, Mr. Alving wouldn't have had a venereal disease. And so on and on. Most important, the particular irony of the art/life, science/morality dilemma is a largely temporal one. Tertan is mad and would be made in any time and place, as we meet him at the beginning of the story. But his context may have created his madness; or, in another time, his madness would be regarded as harmless, and Howe would have had no weighty decision to make. (It is DeWitt's argument again, turned back on itself.) The science of the time captures the Tertans and lets the Blackburns go by, or even creates them. And the time stresses the poignancy of the predicament of the poet's role in society, makes him a slave to science. It is the time that demands such connections between life and art, and yet maintains a distorted hour, scientifically incorrect, in “academic time” (It lacks ten whole minutes.). The problems raised here will all continue to recur, shaped and shaded by the particular context, but always continued in another generation of cameras and gowns, madmen and poets. Howe's dull but coherent students think they know who they are: “I am Arthur J. Casebeer, Jr. My father is Arthur J. Casebeer. My mother is Nina Wimble Casebeer. I was born in St. Louis. …”

But the mad Tertan writes: “Tertan I am, but what is Tertan? Of this time, of that place, of some parentage, what does it matter?” (p. 334).


  1. Lionel Trilling, The Experience of Literature, Fiction (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1967), pp. 357-360. All subsequent page numbers refer to this edition of the story and Trilling's commentary.

P. N. Furbank (review date 21 August 1981)

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SOURCE: Furbank, P. N. “The Gravities of Grown-upness.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4090 (21 August 1981): 951.

[In the following favorable review, Furbank traces a connection between the stories in Of This Time, Of That Place and Trilling's critical work and identifies growing up as a central theme in the collection.]

Lionel Trilling's fictional output was, so far as I know, a very small one: one published novel and a small handful of stories, from which Diana Trilling has now selected just five [in Of This Time, Of That Place]. We need not therefore conclude that he was not “really” a novelist. A couple of his stories, “The Other Margaret” and “Of This Time, Of That Place”, seem to me remarkably fine and likely to live. Nor need we entertain the stock notion of the critic in Trilling stifling the creator. For criticism is the whole theme of his stories. They deal in cases of conscience and critical dilemmas, dilemmas involving the rival claims of good enlightened causes; and the life of their protagonists—typically, intellectuals—is a continual process of self-criticism. Their strength is exactly the strength of his literary criticism, and the excellence of the one heightens our sense of the excellence of the other.

A different doubt is whether these stories are too literary; and I suppose the answer is “occasionally so”. It gives us just the slightest twinge of discontent that “The Other Margaret” depends on an unstated allusion to Hopkins's “Spring and Fall”. The story concerns a girl, Margaret, and the very hurtful step in her growing-up when—brought up as she has been with intensely “enlightened” views on colour and class, etc—she is forced to acknowledge that her parents' black maid (“the other Margaret”) is actually a nasty person. Now I don't suppose many readers of Partisan Review, where the story first appeared, failed to catch the allusion to this “other Margaret”, and I don't imagine many readers of the Times Literary Supplement will fail today. Still, there are other kinds of reader. And, more important, those three Margarets savour faintly of the lecture-hall and the “stimulating” critical essay—an effect injurious to so poignant a story. A small objection. And these stories can also be “literary” in a good and positive sense. Trilling has done something valuable and creative with a Coleridge allusion when he writes, of the incipiently-schizophrenic student in “Of This Time, Of That Place”, that “The sense of the thrice-woven circle of the boy's loneliness smote him fiercely”.

The three best stories in the present volume are all about growing up; and so, if we reflect, is The Middle of the Journey. It was indeed, pretty plainly, Trilling's central preoccupation. It is what links his interest in Matthew Arnold to his interest in E. M. Forster, the two authors to whom he devoted whole books. With Arnold, of course, his affinities were many, and much in what he says in praise of Arnold as critic applies unaltered to himself. For him as for Arnold the law of criticism's nature is “to be a free play of the mind on all subjects which it touches”. And it can be said just as truly of his own style as of Arnold's that “It was a style which kept writer and reader at a sufficient distance from each other to allow room between them for the object of their consideration”. But more important even than these aspects, for Trilling, was Arnold's commitment to “seeing the object as it really is”. It was here that Arnold most commanded his allegiance. It was not that Arnold always succeeded in his aim; other literary critics, probably, achieved it more effectively. Eliot did, and Eliot was no doubt right to consider Arnold as limited and as too genteel and incomplete. The point, more, was that he so thoroughly grasped it as a principle—a principle extending far beyond literature.

For Trilling this was the definition, or at least the justification, of liberal humanism. The famous “conscience” of liberal humanism, in so far as it was not just a sentimental cheat, consists in strenuous cultivation of a sense of fact—a sensitivity to facts of all kinds, including the unexpected, the unpleasant and the conflicting. It is not just a matter of nobly “facing” facts, when pointed out. (And here a remark of E. M. Forster, Trilling's other liberal-humanist mentor, is relevant: “How can I face facts? They're like the walls of a room, all round you”.) What was involved was not a posture, however high-minded, but rather a skill and an arduous self-discipline. Nor, if the facts conflict, is it a matter, merely, of saluting complexity and preening oneself on being ondoyant et divers. If facts conflict, they cannot be facts, not at least in the light in which they are presenting themselves; and by their conflict the honest mind, the liberal-humanist mind, is propelled, dialectically, towards some new vantage-point. This motion of mind, this fluid but directed movement, is what most characterizes Trilling as a critic. No critic has more stamina; none takes us so far, such a long, logical journey, in a single critical essay—so that we look back at the end wondering how on earth we got there.

If this was the character of Trilling's critical essays, it was also the character of his stories. They are full of motion and precipitancy, which is what makes one feel them to be genuine. They catch the intricacy, but also the sheer restless speed, with which cause and effect take place in the ethical life. The inner life of motives, scruples and self-discoveries is not just in dialogue with the other life of fact and necessity but in ceaseless and moment-by-moment interaction with it. And, moreover, according to laws unlike those of physics, consequences are not proportioned to causes, nor is there any certainty after all what is “inner” and what is “outer”. Dream as you may of private freedom, circumstances and your own vanities and unconscious fears are ceaselessly ensnaring you into public postures. In “Of This Time, Of That Place” the hero, a young lecturer, is in difficulties over a student, whom he suspects may be mad. Something tells him that, at whatever risk to himself, he must not “release Tertan to authority”. He listens, self-approvingly, to this “sure instinct”; and at this very same moment he hears himself speaking the fatal words “Is the Dean busy at the moment? I'd like to see him.”

To revert to the critic's “sense of fact”: this sense can also be called “a recognition of limits”. The liberal humanist's accusation against his absolutist and card-carrying adversaries (political and religious) is that they do not recognize limits and in this are being childish, not grown-up. Now, in ordinary human existence the most imperative “recognition of limits” is the acknowledging of death. And here is the strongest link binding Trilling to Forster, whose whole outlook is based on death—on acceptance of the idea of death. (“Death destroys a man, but the idea of death saves him …”.) So another name again for “seeing the object as it really is” is “growing up”—growing up being considered as the facing of one's own mortality. And what is plain about Trilling is that he thoroughly relished “maturity”. It was his style and his “note”; it was what made him tick. Not for him Arnold's melodious complaints at giving up poetry for the grey prose of philanthropy. For Trilling, one feels, it was the cheerfullest day in his life when he gave up childish things—so that for him Wordsworth's Immortality Ode is the most optimistic of poems. A certain grave grown-upness, an especially responsible use of the pronoun “we”, is what typified Trilling's work and gave it its centrality. It perhaps became a bit of a “mantle” towards the end, but not enough to stifle him.

This brings us to The Middle of the Journey, the novel he published in 1947 and in which, so extraordinarily, he had depicted an obscure acquaintance, Whittaker Chambers, due a few months later to occupy the world's headlines. The novel, metaphorically speaking at least, is about growing up. The hero, John Laskell, has just been near death, from scarlet fever, and has also had a brief love-affair with the idea of death. Invalidish and self-centred, he goes to convalesce with his friends Arthur and Nancy Crooms—committed Stalinist fellow-travellers—and, finding no-one there to meet him at the country railway-station, he falls suddenly into panic terror. It is a “vastation” or Tolstoyan Night at Arzamas which he himself does not understand, but which the reader interprets as his real (as opposed to self-indulgent) encounter with the idea of death. Soon, under the care of the Crooms, his dearest friends, he climbs back to health and normality. One thing, however, puzzles him: these enlightened intellectuals will not let him talk about his illness or his feelings about death—the subject seems to offend them. The puzzlement grows to a grievance, and eventually it brings him to the knowledge that he must break with the whole admired Crooms scheme of values, including communism. The recognition is described by Trilling in terms of “maturity”. Laskell reflects, with pleasure, that now the Crooms no longer represent a moral challenge to him, he also need no longer bear any grievance against them:

… now, where there had for so long been this strength of moral ambition, there was simply a vacancy. He did not feel the vacancy as a loss, only as a space through which the breeze of his mind blew very freely. He thought, “I am getting middle-aged, I am beginning not to care”. The accusation carried no conviction. He did not think if true and this in itself was surprising.

This catches exactly Trilling's own pleasurable elation, his exhilaration, at the idea of growing up.

The novel, though, full of brilliant things as it is, strikes me as a failure, for reasons that have to do with maturity versus the childish. Where it fatally goes wrong is in the climactic fifth-act exchange between Laskell and Gifford Maxim, the Whittaker Chambers-like defector from the Party. We are to suppose that Maxim is determined at all costs, for reasons deep in his own guilt-stained political past, to destroy Laskell's new-found maturity and freedom of mind. And we are to suppose, too, that so formidable a man is Maxim and so grandiose is the duel fought between him and Laskell (“Laskell wondered if any man had ever made an attempt on another man such as Maxim was making upon him”), he comes near to succeeding. Now, this is intellectual melodrama or opera; it is self-indulgent and not really worthy of Trilling. After all, as he himself would have held, to choose to be a liberal intellectual must entail a certain renunciation. It means you are not going to re-unite the Papacy or split the Liberal Party over Home Rule or ever cut such a figure under the heavens as do saints or men of action. Nobody is going to care that much about your opinions. This is a loss, of course; but it is childish, surely, to try to redress it in fantasy. There is a great place for intellectual debate in novels and plays, but not, I think—except for purposes of irony—in realistic ones. The carefree Shavian or Chestertonian method, of making the debate the important thing and staging it Lord knows where—under a mid-Western gallows or on the dome of St. Paul's—seems much wiser.

One further reflection suggests itself. In “The Other Margaret” a socio-political debate is staged, partly in actual dialogue and partly in action and emotional gesture. It concerns the choice to be made between explaining anti-social behaviour (on grounds of social deprivation, oppression, etc) and judging such behaviour; and it is, we feel, conducted truly and plausibly. The reason is that a child takes part in it. A complaint one feels against The Middle of the Journey is that, though the Crooms are purportedly intellectuals, there is nothing remotely intellectual about their politics, at least as these are conveyed to us. They recall precisely the little girl in “Of This Time, Of That Place”, with her unspoken cry: “In that world one knew where one was, one knew that to say things about Jews was bad and that working men were good. And therefore.” Admittedly, Trilling wrote later that the Communist-orientated intellectuals of the 1940s had, not so much a political life, as a “settled disgust with politics”. This, however, does not resolve the problem for his novel. And I see a sort of lesson here. The reason why we and our friends get angry and violent in political argument is, often, not so much the fierceness of our convictions, as rage at feeling ourselves returned to childhood. Fundamental political debates are serious all right, but serious in a way a child can understand.

W. Paul Elledge (essay date summer 1983)

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SOURCE: Elledge, W. Paul. “The Profaning of Romanticism in Trilling's ‘Of This Time, Of That Place’.” Modern Fiction Studies 29, no. 2 (summer 1983): 213-26.

[In the following essay, Elledge explores the tension between romantic and classical values in “Of This Time, Of That Place.”]

For all its architectonic elegance, its shrewdly crafted network of thematically reinforcing symbols, its wry wit and multi-layered ironies, its stylistic grace and haunting poignance, Lionel Trilling's oft-anthologized “Of This Time, Of That Place” (1943) has inspired neither the amount nor the intensity of critical examination one might reasonably have expected of a story so inherently appealing, by virtue of its setting, characters, and the situation it dramatizes, to the academic community. Why this should be the case, I am not sure. Perhaps Trilling's own commentary1 had the (unconsciously desired?) effect of curbing further investigation; perhaps the story has grown stale through overexposure, or old-fashioned by juxtaposition with new wave fiction (with which, however, it continues to cohabit in collection after collection); perhaps we have been more, and justifiably, concerned with Trilling's greater achievements elsewhere; conceivably, what strikes me as the story's rich complexity may seem to others self-evident simplicity. But I rather suspect that another and far different reason accounts for the relative lack of attention, outside the anthologies, accorded Trilling's little masterwork. It is a difficult story to be objective about, for it touches us nearly, occasionally like ice against a molar nerve. More important, we may feel keenly our violation of the spirit of the story in the very process of being analytical about it. Insidiously, expertly, the text militates against our scientific investigation of it by representing a poet, a professor of romanticism, betraying himself and his ideals through a process akin to the one we are invited to employ in thinking and writing about his doing so. To the degree that we indict him, we may indict ourselves and our methodology; to the degree that we exonerate him, we feel (if we are honest) the chill of self-justification, the smart of dissembling defensiveness. And so, although entertained by the narrative, we nevertheless squirm because trapped by the marvelous paradox Trilling has wrought: the process by which we recognize his ironies turns them back against us; the examination that reveals his protagonist's folly spotlights ours. No less than Dr. Howe feels the strangeness of confessing to Tertan, “Yes. I am a poet,” we sense, in considering this story, something of the dangers, the embarrassments, even the absurdities attendant upon our profession.

But yes, we are critics, analysts, no matter the blush accompanying that admission in the present context. Preceding me on record in the role are five commentators, apart from Trilling himself, whose work with the story I have found stimulating in most particulars. Three years before Trilling acknowledged a conscious indebtedness to “Kubla Khan” for the concluding description of Tertan,2 Burton S. Kendle observed how a broader Coleridgean influence, including allusion to The Ancient Mariner, informed “the central theme of the story: the destruction of imaginative values by forcing them into logical pigeonholes that label them only in terms of this time, of that place.”3 A year later, James M. Keech pointed to The Preclude, III, 77-82, as a probable source for Trilling's title and further suggested that “Tertan … is possibly a figure of Wordsworthian stature … to be regarded not as a pathetic grotesque, but presumably as one of those figures of promise who possess minds of unfathomable proportions which the average logical intelligence … is incapable of evaluating.”4 For William M. Chace, the story “obeys” a Rousseauistic and Freudian “paradigm” in treating the respective costs of assimilation into or alienation from one's society and reveals as Trilling's own Howe's “immensely conservative ambivalence … toward science, toward collective human judgment, toward the expensive process of human socialization, and toward rational and calculating modes of thought. …”5 But it remained for Diana L. George6 to mount the first full-scale textual reading of the story after Trilling published his own account of its origin and development, and for Robert L. Boyers,7 more boldly even than Professor George, to carry the ark into battle against the author's expression and execution of intent. Both of these studies reward close attention: the former identifies Howe as the true protagonist and explores the ironic and always “negative” relationships (or conflicts) between art and life, subjectivity and objectivity, science and morality dramatized in the piece, remarking along the way upon Trilling's use of camera and clothes symbolism and upon the meaning of the title; the latter essay, in gentlemanly but decisive fashion, shows how little the story succeeds in conveying the near-tragic sense claimed for it in the commentary—how, that is, its insistent focus upon the basically decent, responsible, but highly conflicted Joseph Howe prevents our pondering with much tragic awareness “the sad irony of a passionate devotion to the intellectual life maintained by a person [Tertan] of deranged mind.”8 That the story succeeds, and succeeds brilliantly, in other ways is manifest; it is no sign of ingratitude to suggest that none of the analyses here cited carries to its fullest logical extension a hint about the story's central thematic preoccupation implicit in each of them.

I refer primarily to the opposition on which the entire story, and Joseph Howe's development as protagonist, pivots, namely, the clash of romantic with classical values.9 One need not read far to find the two value systems, the two perspectives, set one against the other, often in sharp, sometimes subtle contrast, sometimes as external forces conflicting, often as the collision of contradictory psychological impulses. On the most superficial level, Trilling registers the classical-romantic antinomy in a series of historical and literary names, titles, and items that in greater or lesser degree are associated with one pole of the antithesis. Under the Romantic aegis fall, of course, Coleridge, Byron, Keats, Shelley, Wordsworth, or, on Blackburn's tortured tongue, “Wadsworth” (with nice irony, Trilling has his least romantic, most disagreeably classical character mention each of these lions of Romanticism), Prometheus (Blackburn's Prothemeus), Carlyle, Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, and probably Ibsen, Maria Constantinowna Bashkirtsieff, and Henri Frederic Amiel.10 Under the classic or neoclassic rubric come St. Augustine, Empedocles, Molière and Tartuffe, Swift and Sir William Temple, and this splendid catalogue following a physician's diagnosis of Tertan's as “a classic case”:

To his [the Dean's] aid and to Howe's there came the Parthenon and the form of the Greek drama, the Aristotelian logic, Racine and the Well-Tempered Clavichord, the blueness of the Aegean and its clear sky. Classic—that is to say, without a doubt, perfect in its way, a veritable model, and, as the Dean had been told, sure to take a perfectly predictable and inevitable course to a foreknown conclusion.

The values and the ideas championed in this passage—formalism, regularity (perhaps rigidity) of design, clarity, definitiveness, perfection, predictability, inevitability—along with such others as traditionalism, practicality, decorum, political conservatism, reasonableness, maintenance of conventional if artificial rules, concern with social man, satisfaction with limited achievement are all associated in the story chiefly with institutional officialdom and its representatives, but they are also, obviously enough, among the governing doctrines of the world view repudiated by the great Romantics of the nineteenth century. Challenging and from one point of view defeating them in the story are creative originality and individuality, spontaneous feeling and action, innovation, flexibility, irregularity and informality, growth, change and development, tentativeness (even uncertainty), relativism, self-concern, imperfection, potentiality. These antithetical concepts, although not systematically allegorized, do pulse just beneath the story's literal surface and provide both a framework for the consideration of Howe's and Tertan's interaction and alternative choices, alternative ways of thinking and acting, for each character to test, to validate, or to discard as he seeks to fashion a satisfactory identity.

It must be emphasized, however, that neither Howe nor Tertan can be strictly categorized as romantic or classic, at least not for a very long time. Both are in process; both are becoming; and both are a remarkable if subtle mixture of classic and romantic elements. But before we examine that blend, it would be useful to note how the beginning of the story prepares us to accept process (and blending), indecisiveness, unclassifiability by presenting a number of images of instability, flexibility, vacillation, transition. Carrying forward one emphasis of the title, the opening paragraph stresses time and hence change: it is “a fine September day,” but the day defies seasonal classification, for “By noon it would be summer again, but now it was true autumn with a touch of chill in the air.” Threshold and harbinger of “the long indoor days that were coming,” that chill passes while Howe's students write their first composition but revives with sunset, when “there was a bright chill in the September twilight.” The day, then, like the season in Keats's great ode, looks backward and forward, partakes of summer and winter, but is neither one; or rather, by capturing and containing both in fine equipoise, it is both at once but neither singly: that is its special fluid character and identity. Such simultaneous participation in extremes, such resistance to delimiting identification and definition, is possible for humans as for seasons and days, as we shall shortly see; the crucial difference is that few humans can endure as a permanent condition an unrooted identity or suspension between opposing alternatives. Negative capability is difficult to achieve.

Uncertainty and vacillation also mark the action in Trilling's second paragraph. Hilda photographing the peach tree prepares, of course, for the concluding scene in which, without hint of hesitation or indecision, she photographs “Professor” Howe with instruments much more elaborate than the simple box camera she uses here. What has not been noticed is that the child is every bit as intense, mechanical, and precise about her picture-taking at the beginning as at the end. Despite her later expressed disdain for a casual, free-wheeling “‘snap-snap-snapping,’” we have no reason to suppose that she ever approached her hobby so indifferently. Quite the contrary, she is deliberate, calculative, exacting; her fussiness, of which the “instruments of precision” in the final scene are merely external symbols, manifests itself insistently in images of vacillation: “She wanted … she did not want. …” “She raised … she lowered. …” “She twisted her body to the left, then to the right.” “In the end she had to step out of the direct line of the sun.” Five physical actions, four of them offsetting, precede the snapping of the shutter and bespeak the discontent and mental agitation of the baffled perfectionist. These back-and-forth movements, the dissatisfaction and irresolution, like the instability in the day, replicate in small the uncertainties and vacillations that distinguish Howe's character (for Hilda as much as Tertan, though in a different way, mirrors the Professor) and foreshadow the indecisiveness, the waffling that will characterize his year. And the literal shadow, threatening at the outset to obscure the late-blooming peach tree, becomes by the end a desirable prop, necessary for Hilda's “character study in light and shade” of Howe: it is that blend of opposites, that mixture of the light and the dark, which renders him complex and interesting subject for Hilda as for us.

Paragraphs three, four, and five continue the emphasis upon uncertainty, alteration, ambivalence but also introduce the important theme of relationship. Hilda's response to Howe's greeting is a start and an “almost sullen” lowering of her glance, a marked change from her previous familiarity with him; but this reaction is suddenly followed by a lifted head and “humorous smile,” confirming “his pleasure in the day.” Minor though it may seem, the awkward exchange involves Howe in a moment of relational uncertainty and uneasiness, reminds us of how even brief passage of time affects relationships, and perhaps looks ahead to his more significant difficulties with others. No such difficulty or discomfort attends his relationship with the “friendly” houses on the street or, particularly, with the Bradbys, to whose lawn, after having passed it, he backtracks to “invade” and to pluck an aster for his lapel. The point here is that Howe spontaneously, impulsively reverses direction on a whim and in the knowledge that his neighbors will take pleasure, should they observe him, in his theft. But his ease, naturalness, relaxation, exaggeration shortly give way to anxiety, hesitation, something close to fear as the recent law-violator prepares to become the law-giver in yet a third relationship, this with his students: “The prospect of facing his class had suddenly presented itself to him and his hands were cold; the lawful seizure of power he was about to make seemed momentous.” From bright breeziness, Howe moves to nervous clutch, from pleasurable serenity to an almost ominous gravity, from blithe high-spiritedness to strangely depressing apprehension; and the ease and speed with which the transition occurs, complemented as they are by other instances of instability and vacillation, reinforce our sense of a man supremely sensitive to external stimuli but not yet equipped to shape them knowledgeably or certainly into a coherent idea of self. That idea need not be fixed; in a romantic cosmos, it cannot be; but it should be anchored in firmer convictions and a stronger will than Howe exhibits. Early on, his is the portrait of a man extremely likely to have his identity defined for him in precisely the way that he, despite himself and partnered with the Dean, seeks to define Tertan's.

But that Howe no less than Tertan begins as potentially a full-fledged, full-throated romantic is clear enough. His early behavior is more spontaneous than deliberative; he is casual, relaxed, loose, “in no hurry,” comfortable with a Wordsworthian “idleness”; he responds sensitively, often with sensibility, to his natural and populated surroundings, finding a “touching stillness” in the classroom, a surprising “tenderness” in his words to Tertan, a “warmth of … feeling” (regrettably) extended toward Blackburn. Through him we appreciate the “free and comfortable air of the college classroom” where one takes a “comfortable sense of pleasure in being human.” Not unduly restrained by rules of decorum, he twice, once with “vulgarity” and once with “perversity,” violates his own “good taste” in the interests of humor. Approaching thirty, a crucial time of reassessment and redefinition, he reflects upon his nonconformist, vaguely bohemian pre-Harvard life but is more (though not sufficiently) concerned with his identity in the college community: “We,” he informs the tardy Tertan, “are writing an extemporaneous theme” on the topic, “Who I am and why I came to Dwight College,” and the question is as apposite for him as for his students. Tertan's desideratum, “Existence without alloy”—that is, pure, free of contaminants—establishes itself in his mind, because the possibility of corruption by academia has already occurred to him, although he believes, mistakenly, that he has tested and overcome every temptation the community has to offer: his confident willingness “to rest easy” alerts us to his vulnerability. Regarded by Tertan as “a free soul and creative spirit,” Howe is for Frederick Woolley, the conservative critic turned humanitarian politician, a navel-contemplating poet drunk on his own psychic juices: to Woolley, “precious subjectivism” disfigures Howe's verse and renders him if not dangerous then certainly irresponsible and irrelevant, for his is music of the Phrygian, not the Dorian, mode. It is for Tertan a badge of his teacher's success that the critic, “who admits prima facie that he does not understand,” cannot penetrate Howe's “obscurity.”

Later, faced with the “raw” and undigested “knowledge” of the student's derangement, Howe nevertheless hesitates, delays, his “feeling for Tertan” postponing action on what he regards as a “clear fact,” “some sure instinct” cautioning him against surrender of the boy to authority. His commitment here, however weak, is to romantic questing, to process: “He alone could keep alive—not forever but for a somehow important time—the question, ‘What is Tertan?’ He alone could keep it still a question.” Unwillingly, unwittingly, he opts for the answer, of course, after which he must endure the humiliation of reading Tertan's eloquent defense of those very romantic ideals and principles he has just betrayed. As viewed by the boy, Howe is paraclete, comforter, intercessor, given to “what is intuitive and irrational,” of “the heart not the head”; he is also the pariah, the outcast, “driven and persecuted by the lack of understanding in the world at large”; and he is finally something mythic, “consecrated,” nearly divine, embodying “the full history of man's tribulations and, overflowing upon others, notably the present writer, is the ultimate end.” In its overripe, overcharged hyperbole, the statement recalls early Shelley, but Howe painfully recognizes it as a sincere and sober declaration of love; and while it affirms the depth of his student's emotional life, it throws into the bitterest ironic relief the failure of Howe's own sympathetic imagination, his violation of an emotional trust. But the irony is richer yet, for only in the wake of his betrayal of feeling can Howe feel so acutely, so “romantically”: only because he has distanced himself from, in effect rid himself of Tertan, placed the Dean between himself and his student can he experience with so much romantic intensity a “physical sensation of gratitude” for the boy's “stern, affectionate regard.” So strong is the sensation that it virtually precludes reasonable acknowledgement of Tertan's “madness.” By the prior exercise of and action predicated upon a Coleridgean Understanding rather than Imagination, Howe has sacrificed his capacity for compassionate assistance and so experiences this emotion in a vacuum, impotently.

By the beginning of Part III, then, the romantic rebel, poet, individualist has yielded prominence in the role to his strange student whose very appearance—“awkward body,” “slack … loose, soft, moist mouth,” “head oddly loose on his neck,” “shambling” gait, face of “florid curves, nose of arched bone and voluted nostril,” “formal shabbiness of dress”—signals his “separate existence,” his atypicality, even, at Howe's first glance, his ridiculousness. “A queer fish,” he thinks, but Howe reads with great interest the “torrential rhetoric” captured in an “impatient … unformed headlong scrawl,” which, like Howe's poetry to the Woolleys of the world, “seems always on the edge of sense but doesn't quite make it.” His “incandescent mind” spills forth a “splendid confusion” and resists such reductive ordering as Howe's blue pencil would impose. “Various and warm” himself, he inspires warmth but not familiarity in his teacher, for Tertan is committed to a Byronic “egregious living, above the herd,” where he can engage in the rather absurd, as he puts it, but still firmly romantic activity of “contemplation of the utter whole.” Antimaterialist, antiscience, soberly optimistic, he is both idiosyncratic and at least potentially iconoclastic: in Howe's fantasy, from “some abstract height” Tertan disrupts the Quill and Scroll meeting and fiercely denounces its membership. If he is given to “florid leaps beyond fact and meaning,” they are nevertheless provocative leaps, displaying an “energy and richness of intellect” and a passionate commitment “to letters … and to all things of the mind.” That he may be, as the Dean ironically observes of Blackburn, “a bit beyond himself” is simply testimony to his unquenchable curiosity and to his disregard of restrictions on aspirations: no place can contain, no label explain him; and that is his romantic triumph.

“… but who am I?” he writes in response to Howe's question; “Tertan I am, but what is Tertan? Of this time, of that place, of some parentage, what does it matter?”11 Of course it does not matter. After all, he is “mad.” Location and temporality scarcely signify to the madman. As a matter of fact, they do not greatly signify to the devout romantic either. My point here is that the largely romantic, autonomous, individualistic Tertan has in his own view transcended time and place and even parentage:12 neither the school year nor the school room finally matter to him. He may consent for a time to belong to them, may exist in them, but is set apart from, is not of, cannot be permanently “alloyed” by them. Except, of course, that he is very much of them inasmuch as he becomes the sacrificial victim of the institution, of establishmentarian mentality, and specifically of Joseph Howe: as Howe's blood was necessary for Woolley's “sudden new life,” so Tertan's flows in his teacher's “rites of rejuvenation.” But the compelling paradox here is that the institution really gives a kind of official validation and authenticity to Tertan's romanticism by denominating him “mad” and by expelling him from its bosom; the one romantic, wondering humorously—but not altogether humorously—“whether something in himself attracted or developed aberration” and half-fearful that he himself is about to be “discovered”—sets in motion a process that terminates in certification of the boy as not merely different but diseased, ready for another kind of institution where normalizing agencies may be more effective than at Dwight College. Presumably, Tertan remains unaware of having been chewed up and spit out by that process: his “madness,” his romantic apartness have insulated as well as isolated him among hostile forces. He has undergone “the transformation from person to fact,” but he is a “fact which does not know its factuality.” At Commencement, Howe notes again the distinctive “baroque curves” of the face, the unorthodox dress, and, in Trilling's splendid oxymorons, the “perverse majesty” and “majestic jauntiness” with which Tertan, “gravely and arrogantly” above them all, surveys the scene. Although there is something of the divine fool about his appearance here, he is also sovereign, regal: by his aloof bearing and wise commentary, he asserts his independence of those temporal and environmental restrictions that, although defining the identity of his teacher and “mattering” monumentally to him, have merely managed to name the sublimely alien Tertan. What he is, we may partly know, and it does not matter; who he is remains, properly, an open question.

Assorted classical threats, forceful and beguiling, steadily and from the outset mount against Howe's professed romanticism, the most dangerous of them from within his own psyche. We learn, for example, that he enrolled at Harvard “with a certain sense that he was betraying his own freedom.” His status-consciousness appears in his disclaimer following Tertan's classification of him by rank: “Of course,” he demurs in some embarrassment, “I am not a professor.” We hear of his “pleasure” in the “official day of cards and sheets, arrangements and small decisions,” his “clear satisfaction” in the “ritual of prayer and prosy speech” during Convocation, his enjoyment in wearing gown, hood, mortar-board, and heavy gold tassel, those “weighty and absurd symbols of his new profession.” Anxiety replaces pleasure when Woolley, champion of a social, democratic, and utilitarian poetry, trumpets against his inhumanely subjective verse from the pages of Life and Letters: that Howe unduly respects the “high authority” of Woolley “in the way of the world” he and we recognize “by the trembling of his hand”; and against Woolley he feels a “certain practical resentment.” We further know from this reaction that Howe is already at least halfway down the staircase of that tour d'ivorie in which he might have supposed himself happy to be living; the public life, whether represented by the institution of school or journal, has plainly begun to “alloy” his existence. Once the word “mad” occurs to him, he clutches at it, for it “explains and arranges,” “comprehends everything that puzzles” him. Thereafter, he must deal with the “formidable and depressing” “hard blank of fact” that is the new Tertan; or if not deal, avoid, as he does by conversing with other class members, to Tertan's vast scorn, about so mundane and socially oriented an event as the school carnival. We hear through him of the “official and reasonable solicitude” of the Dean's office—at the door of which Howe is keenly conscious of his “subaltern relation to the Dean”—of his “clean official desk” in “clear official light,” of his “objects of efficiency,” of his parlor with a “homely elegance on the masculine side of the eighteenth century manner”—where Howe feels supremely comfortable—and of the “efficient, official matters” that transpire there. We learn of the “official way” Howe adopts in dispatching his student “down the official chute.” And ultimately we see Howe “standing frozen,” he, like Hilda, “poised and precise as a setter” before the “compact efficiency” of her camera, like her growing “in ease with each new instrument, with each new adjustment.”

But Howe's existence is further devalued by his reluctant acceptance of the forced amiability, the urgent if false congeniality of Theodore Blackburn, who is himself a debased version of a classic ideal represented with more dignity by the Dean. Blackburn is repeatedly associated with images of hardness, rigidity, heaviness, great size; he wishes to be, in his own tired (and unintentionally punning) phrase, “a well-rounded man”; he relishes proximity to authority, has mastered the classical art of adopting an “attitude,” is socially at ease and politically savvy, fastidiously polite, public-spirited and empty-headed, self-important and self-aggrandizing in proportion to his bulk, and wildly unscrupulous.13 Despite his claims to the contrary, Blackburn the individual disappears in Blackburn the type: his rotundity suggests to Howe “monk, politician, innkeeper,” regimental English major; time will bring him to “assurance and mature beefiness;” and he will “make use of his ability to be administered by his job” in “banks, in consular offices, in brokerage firms, on the bench”: so far from alarming, Howe, who dislikes nearly as much as he fears Blackburn, finds the prospect “almost reassuring.” Eventually, Blackburn the type will mercifully vanish in the institution which houses him, but at the moment he exercises his “too great skill” upon his vulnerable instructor. Part I of the story concludes with the frightening tableau of Blackburn, “hand firmly on Howe's biceps … inducting the teacher into his own room.” Howe has done nothing to deserve this indignity—except lower his guard. The point here seems to be that without constant vigilance, even defensive awareness, one may be trapped, physically caught and psychologically injured, by that mechanistic system of values for which Blackburn stands and from which he will become indistinguishable. Just how serious the risk is we know from the echo of this scene in the story's last, when Howe, in a long overdue and for that reason finally futile gesture, “almost rudely” wrenches loose from the Dean's grasp, which links him to the “wholly prelatical … benignly patient” and insufferably fatuous Blackburn.

Whatever the warnings at the classroom door,14 however, Howe seems no better equipped to deflect Blackburn's influence or to welcome Tertan's. In the fine second part of the story, Trilling pictures Howe, supported only by his own wavering judgment, set upon by those hostile classic forces which seek to “induct” him into their ranks. Successively, he is battered by Casebeer the hereditarian; by Hibbard the logician; by DeWitt the thoughtful and articulate scientist, whose efforts to prove the superiority of science to literature have won class sympathy; by Tertan, whose formality when reciting is a source of continuing exasperation; by Blackburn, whose shameless impudence, audacity, fawning apology, and vicious attempts at manipulation earn him Howe's irritation but no reprimand; by the Dean's politic and enigmatic evasiveness;15 by the “disturbing” truth about himself which Tertan's rapturous letter forces him to acknowledge; and by the Brobdignagian Stettenhover. As the Dean is a metaphor for the efficiency and in some sense inhumanity entailed by institutional thinking, Stettenhover images a kind of physical threat posed to those of Howe's romantic cast by the classical ideal. Of course Howe overcomes his opponent in this encounter, and he does so simply by placing himself in the great creature's line of vision, forcing him to admit his presence (though not value); but he does not vanquish Stettenhover without cost, without experiencing something akin to “physical fear” of the contemptuous “Greek-athlete face under the Greek-athlete curls” and of the hulking, swinging, sulking football shoulders. Moreover, it is while still smarting from the Stettenhover confrontation that Howe snaps angrily at Tertan, hears the boy “brilliantly” summarize “the point” of Ghosts, and denominates him “mad.” I do not believe that Stettenhover's influence upon Howe's “diagnosis” can be easily exaggerated. The apparently inconsequential and grimly comic opposition between unsteady romantic and sturdy classicist (who, however, is merely an imposing shell without character or substance) issues in defeat for the latter but also for the victor in the alienation of a romantic ally much more certain of his priorities than is the one after whom he would pattern his life and who here casts him adrift. The ironies proliferate, for Howe in effect takes his cue from Tertan's “summation” of the play: “‘Everything seemed to turn upon duty,’” Tertan quotes from Mrs. Alving's remarks to Oswald. Summation of play is summation of story: for Howe, duty—itself a solidly classical concept—seems to necessitate sacrifice of individual as well as of individuality.

Lest we judge Howe too harshly, however, let us remember that the reinforcement he receives from Tertan is by no means untainted; the boy is not, throughout, categorically romantic, as we have already observed by noting his classroom formality and his classification of “Professor” Howe. In addition, he wishes to be “perfectly sure,” “perfectly fair”; he wants to make a difficult explanation “with perfect candor” and a “distinction with great care.”16 Despite the curves and volutions of his face, it is “the very type of asceticism.” Given sometimes to absolutist thinking, he opposes the Nietzschean deification of man. He carries himself with a “heraldic formality,” bows with a wooden, solemn stiffness, brings into Howe's relaxed classroom the “stuffy sordid strictness” of a metropolitan high school. He speaks with authority of—and, presumably, belief in—what is “determined” and “preordained.” He condescends to seek companionship among the “crass minds” of Quill and Scroll and requests Howe's sponsorship in that enterprise. Taken alone, these traits amount to very little; together, they describe a rare and singular youth but one with the certain potential for replacing romantic with classical values, for becoming in due course what his teacher is. To be sure, we cannot on any account blame Tertan for Howe's failure, but it is well to understand that Howe's nearest spiritual associate and foremost defender does not himself appear the paradigm of romanticism—is not, in fact, without alloy—until after his official disposition by the College: in seething irony, the institution purges him as it purges itself of him.

That said, the question of judgment remains, in answer to which two main arguments for leniency might be adduced. First and very practically, one should ask: what choice, after all, has Howe but to report a student suspected of mental derangement? None, of course. He must do so. But, as Boyers writes, “it is one thing to recommend that a young man seek psychiatric help, quite another to walk away from him as though one's human obligation had been fully discharged in making the recommendation.”17 The whiff of expediency, of relief if not irresponsibility, of hand-washing in Howe's consignment of Tertan to authority does set our teeth on edge, however much pain, regret, and guilt he suffers in the sequel. What he does in the name of duty might also have been done in the spirit of compassion; the securing of additional aid need not suspend one's own.

An even less persuasive reason for qualifying condemnation of Howe is Trilling's elaborate defense of what might be called the reluctant spontaneity, almost the accidentality, of the teacher's betrayal. In some measure, Trilling appears to fence-sit on the issue; he seems to wish to redeem his protagonist while damning him. True enough, Howe decides against taking the action a split-second before he takes it. But his later reflections, on their surface so movingly honest, are also a ringing self-indictment:

His request [to see the Dean] came thus unbidden, even forbidden, and it was one of the surprising and startling events of his life. Later when he reviewed the events … it was over this moment … that he paused the longest. It was frequently to be with fear and never without a certainty of its meaning in his own knowledge of himself that he would recall this simple, routine request and the feeling of shame and freedom it gave him as he sent everything down the official chute … it would always be a landmark of his life that, at the very moment when he was rejecting the official way, he had been, without will or intention, so gladly drawn to it.

The general ideological thrust here is identical to that in the classroom doorway: relaxed vigilance invites trouble. But beyond that, more disturbing than that, Howe's convictions are shown to have been exceptionally shallow, his will feeble, his prior self-understanding shockingly superficial and entirely inadequate. From some deep and untapped well in him emerges the desire to embrace institutional life, and he is powerless to reject it. Made conscious of that desire for the first time, he is naturally surprised, for it stands in the starkest contradistinction to those values that in his poetry and his teaching he professes to cherish. Small wonder, surely, that his everyday existence has manifest contradictory impulses when so imperious an unconscious demand sapped away conscious intention. It is an awful, terrible moment, for Howe is faced with nothing less than the lie of his life: that is the certain meaning of his action. But face it he does, and in the light of his searing confessional candor, it is difficult not to forgive him.

The process he has set in motion, however, runs its inevitable course, and Tertan becomes in institutional eyes a “case,” a “fact,” an answered question—something that can be “dealt with, settled and closed.” To authority, his romantic variety shrinks to singleness, his flexibility freezes in fixity, his development stalls, and he becomes, classically, finite, limited, known. The procedure follows logically enough from the Dean's invitational question, when Howe first mentions his “strange” student, “Do you mean that he's so strange that it's something you could give a name to?” Subsequently, in another context, Howe wonders “at the strange affirming power of a name.” It is more awesome in its power than strange: whether a grade or a diagnosis, the name reduces to order and neatness what is untidy, unwieldy, messy; it restricts, deromanticizes, domesticates; it distances the discomfiting, explains the unintelligible, renders manageable the “horror” and the “bestial thing” that is Tertan's disease.

That, at any rate, is what official naming and categorizing seek to do, and in one sense, of course, they succeed. But in another, shall we say Tertanesque, way, they wonderfully fail. Across the “perfect” Commencement Day pattern, Tertan slashes like the garish anomaly he is, triumphantly flinging his more than ever insistent individuality in the teeth of those who sought to contain it. In its urgent uniqueness, this “different” Tertan both validates and discredits the designating mentality: “mad” he may be, but the naming of him so has neither deprived him of power nor sheltered the namers; if anything, his affective power with Howe is more potent than ever and may even touch the Dean. Immune, ultimately, to the confinements of categorization, the restrictions of time and place (it may not be accidental that this short section of the story contains by my count twenty-one references to each), the romantically apotheosized Tertan moves about in magnificent solitude, isolated by a “thrice-woven circle” that has both occultist and perfectionist significance, and delivers his simple judgment against his judges with the stinging oracular force of an inspired seer. Wise in his madness, or perhaps in his wisdom mad, Tertan at least enjoys an independence of mind and freedom of imagination that his teacher again forfeits as he rushes to join, lockstep, the procession of his peers. And the boy?—he vanishes in a “flux.”


  1. For the text of the story and the author's “Commentary” I use The Experience of Literature: A Reader With Commentaries, ed. Lionel Trilling (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1967), pp. 755-784.

  2. “Commentary,” p. 784.

  3. The Explicator, 22 (April 1964), Item 61.

  4. The Explicator, 23 (April 1965), Item 66.

  5. Lionel Trilling: Criticism and Politics (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1980), p. 26.

  6. “Thematic Structure in Lionel Trilling's ‘Of This Time, Of That Place,’” Studies in Short Fiction, 12 (Winter 1976), 1-8. I am happy to record my debt to Professor George's fine reading, but perhaps this is the place to correct three factual errors that slip into her essay. For one, although we perceive the story's action through Joseph Howe's mind, he cannot properly be called “narrator” (p. 1); an “implied author” narrates and, of course, interprets. For another, Professor George locates the opening “camera scene” “on campus” (p. 2), when clearly it is set on the lawn of the Aiken home. Third, after the opening scene, Professor George maintains, “There is no mention of the camera again until the end” (p. 2). Well, there is no further mention of that particular camera, Hilda's box camera, at all. But almost exactly halfway through the story we read of the school photographer's camera with its “bad lens” which, paired with Tertan's sly trickery, distorts the picture of him. The scene, while supplying a midpoint structural link with beginning and end, also gives Howe a chance to distinguish between sincerity and self-righteous hypocrisy and Tertan the chance once more to defy authority, specifically, to foil an “instrument of precision” that tries to capture him.

  7. Lionel Trilling: Negative Capability and the Wisdom of Avoidance (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1977), pp. 7-22.

  8. This, according to Trilling, is what his story was designed to “present” (“Commentary,” p. 782).

  9. These terms resemble, of course, Professor George's “subjectivity and objectivity” but are meant to be more inclusive and comprehensive.

  10. Trilling identifies these last two figures in a note, p. 758.

  11. About the name, Trilling writes: “I do not remember how I got this name for him, nor do I know if it is actually an Hungarian name or one that I made up, thinking it would pass for Hungarian. I have always pronounced it with the accent on the last syllable: Tertan” (“Commentary,” p. 782). In the light of so straightforward a statement, it seems highly unlikely that any other significance attaches to the name. But, given the context in which we are examining Tertan, the approximation of his name to an anagrammatic version of “Nature” is tantalizing enough to mention … once.

  12. It is the ever-more-classic Howe who searches out the sad history of this parentage in the Dean's file. Rather like his student, Arthur J. Casebeer, who defines himself in terms of his father, grandfather, mother, parents' education, and place of residence, Howe puts greater stock in heritage than is usual for the romantic, who tends, as does Tertan, to view himself independently of it.

  13. Whereas Howe and even Tertan can at times straddle the classic and romantic worlds, Blackburn's distance from the romantic is made clear in his colossally benighted remarks on The Ancient Mariner: “Coleridge lives in and transports us to a honey-sweet world where all is rich and strange, a world of charm to which we can escape from the humdrum existence of our daily lives, the world of romance. Here, in this warm and honey-sweet land of charming dreams we can relax and enjoy ourselves.” Challenged, he defends himself with spectacular inappropriateness: “But that is what I feel, sir.”

  14. Admittedly at the risk of factitiousness, I would point to eleven instances in the story of action set in or around doorways, most of them less significant than the one examined here but cumulatively reinforcing the transitional motif—that is, the movement from one place, attitude, relationship, allegiance to another—and perhaps also serving to amplify the resonance of that rich and piercing line which opens Part II: “The question was, At whose door must the tragedy be laid?”

  15. In fairness one should say that the Dean, not entirely unlike Howe, may be one of those unfortunates whose high potentiality is thwarted rather than released by his job. A former Rhodes scholar with “sad ambitious eyes” now in his early forties, he “had notions of education which he was not yet ready to try to put into practice.” Does Dwight restrain him? Does a caution indigenous to the Deanship check his progressiveness? The suspicion that it might gathers some support from the final scene in which the Dean sadly observes, when viewing the graduating class, that he and his faculty “don't stay the same” year after year, the clear implication being that they deteriorate rather than develop. And his “sorrow and fear,” like Howe's, may spring from consciousness of his sacrifice of humane for institutional values.

  16. One of Tertan's “distinctions” provides a good example of how classic and romantic ideas overlap, interpenetrate, while also standing in opposition to each other. He discriminates between types of professors and classifies Howe, with Kant, Hegel, and Nietzche, under the rubric of “free souls and creative spirits.” A kind of double irony is at work here: the process of classification bespeaks a classic intellect and in some degree opposes the “freedom” the boy celebrates. But further, although the philosophers he cites are all at least loosely “romantic,” they are philosophers all the same, committed to spinning systems, reducing the world to intelligible order but still restricting possibility, potential. In a way, they, too, are caught by their professions: the discipline they perpetuate restricts their freedom.

  17. Boyers, p. 13.

S. A. Cowan (essay date December 1988)

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SOURCE: Cowan, S. A. “Parrington, Woolley, and Reality: A Note on Trilling's ‘Of This Time, Of That Place’.” English Language Notes 26, no. 2 (December 1988): 56-9.

[In the following essay, Cowan speculates that the character of Frederic Woolley from “Of This Time, Of This Place” was based on the American literary historian V. L. Parrington.]

Lionel Trilling's commentary on “Of This Time, Of That Place” makes plain that two characters—Ferdinand Tertan and Theodore Blackburn—had their origins in actual students Trilling had taught at Columbia College.1 In addition, the story leaves one with the impression that the instructor, Joseph Howe, is to a considerable degree a fictionalized projection of Trilling himself. In this tale, as in the author's other early stories recounting a young intellectual's experiences in the academic world, the autobiographical tone is unmistakable.2 The reader, then, who supposes that a real person was in Trilling's thoughts when the critic Frederic Woolley came into existence is not deceived. Evidence suggests that, in the main, Trilling conceived Woolley as a wry simplification of the historian of American literature V. L. Parrington, author of the classic Main Currents in American Thought.3

Three years before “Of This Time, Of That Place” was published, Trilling was setting out his thoughts about Parrington in Partisan Review.4 In “Parrington, Mr. Smith and Reality,” Trilling wrote: “Parrington was not a great mind; he was not a precise thinker. …5 This less than flattering assessment suggests the source of Woolley's name, which conveys the impression of a “woolly mind,” a common expression for the mental imprecision Trilling ascribed to Parrington. Furthermore, as “Parrington's taste was by no means bad,”6 so is Woolley marked by “considerable taste.” Both critics value realism and usefulness in art. Woolley praises poetry that “expressed the real lives of real people,” and Parrington believes

There exists … a thing called reality … [which] the artist has but to let … pass through him. … Sometimes the artist spoils this ideal relation by “turning away from” reality. This results in certain fantastic works, unreal and ultimately useless.7

Parrington's idea that art should be useful finds expression in Woolley's concern that a poet should make “what his society needs.” As Parrington finds fault with Hawthorne's art because it “contributes nothing to democracy and even … stands in the way of the realization of democracy,”8 in Woolley's eyes the Howes of the world with their “‘esoteric’” poetry not only do no good but may even do actual harm. Woolley condemns such “‘self-intoxicated poets,’” while Parrington banishes Poe from the main current of American culture, finding “his gloom to be merely personal and eccentric, ‘only the atrabilious wretchedness of a dipsomaniac.’”9 The phrase “merely personal and eccentric” has the same scornful ring as Woolley's “‘precious subjectivism.’”

Convinced of the objective existence of “a thing called reality,” Parrington observes with satisfaction how “the spirit of realism spread quietly through the lesser works of fiction and the high-flown romantic was laid away in the grave of John Esten Cooke. The new realism was a native growth, sprung from the soil. …”10 Parrington's association of “realism” with “the soil” chimes with Woolley's admiration of the useful, earth-centered poetry of Thomas Wormser, who writes in the “‘true tradition.’” The description of Wormser's verse, which “hymned, as Woolley put it, the struggle for wheat in the Iowa fields,” neatly condenses a purple patch from the chapter “The Plight of the Farmer” in Parrington's Main Currents:

Disappointment and disillusion settled upon a land that before had smiled in the spring sunshine. The harvest was not fulfilling the expectations of the seedtime. The changed mood came in part from the harsh toil and meager living that were the necessary price the frontiersman must pay for his small winnings. It is no holiday job to subdue an untamed land and wrest abundance and comfort from a virgin soil. … In winter the blizzards swept out of the North to overmaster the land, and in summer the hot winds came up from the Southwest to sear the countrysides that were rustling with great fields of corn. Other enemies appeared, as it were, out of a void. Endless flights of grasshoppers descended like a plague of locusts, and when they passed the earth was bare and brown where the young wheat had stood.11

The desolation of the land and the concurrent poverty and hardship portrayed here by Parrington is generalized in Woolley's phrase “‘millions facing penury and want.’”

Trilling had also mentioned Parrington in an essay on Willa Cather (1937).12 The reference is slight, but the association of Parrington with the literature of the soil and the frontier calls attention to a link between that essay and “Of This Time, Of That Place.” When Trilling speaks of Cather's “elegiac mood”13 and of her characters' “struggle” in “fields of new promise,”14 one is reminded both of the passage in Parrington's “Plight of the Farmer” and, once again, of how Wormser's poetry “hymned … the struggle for wheat in the Iowa fields.” Though an elegy is not a hymn, in common usage both terms carry associations of seriousness, emotion, and spirituality, strengthening the verbal parallel. Furthermore, a reference to the “cornfields” of O Pioneers!15 considered along with a likely pun on Cather's given name (Willa/willow), points to the probable source of the title of Wormser's poem (or collection) Corn Under Willows16

It is not my wish to argue that Parrington was the only critic in Trilling's thoughts when the character of Woolley was conceived. For instance, Woolley's insistence that a “true” poet must make “what his society needs” suggests Maxwell Geismar's interest in the writer's “‘societal function.’”17 More to the point, Trilling has not given the portrait of Woolley sufficient development to allow the reader to determine the extent of congruency between the critical positions of Woolley and Parrington. Nor does that development, which is entirely suitable to the role Woolley plays in the events of Trilling's plot, invite an attempt at an indisputable identification with any actual person. On the other hand, in addition to the resemblances already shown, “Of This Time, Of That Place” contains other relevant verbal iterations from the 1940 Parrington essay. The word “genteel,” chosen to describe Woolley's literary audience, is used in that essay to depict “the condition of American literary history” before Parrington's Main Currents appeared.18 And most compelling is the appearance of the key words of the title of Trilling's story in his comment that Main Currents was a “remarkable” work “in its time and place.”19

Taking all things together, there is convincing evidence that Parrington was the primary inspiration for Woolley. Since Trilling's comments on Parrington appeared in Partisan Review only a few years before “Of This Time, Of That Place” saw light in the same periodical, Trilling could be certain that his more attentive readers would recognize the resemblance.


  1. Prefaces to The Experience of Literature (New York, 1979) 161.

  2. The other stories are “Impediments” (1925), “Notes on a Departure” (1929), and “The Lesson and the Secret” (1945). These are collected in “Of This Time, Of That Place” and Other Stories, selected by Diana Trilling (New York, 1979). In this article, all quotations from the title story are from pages 80 and 81 of this edition.

  3. 3 vols. in one. (1927-30; New York, 1930). All page citations are to Volume Three, The Beginnings of Critical Realism in America.

  4. “Parrington, Mr. Smith and Reality,” Partisan Review 7 (1940): 24-40. Expanded to include a later article from The Nation and revised, the essay appears under the title “Reality in America” in The Liberal Imagination (1950; New York, 1979).

  5. “Parrington, Mr. Smith and Reality” 26.

  6. “Parrington, Mr. Smith and Reality” 28.

  7. “Reality in America” 4-5.

  8. “Reality in America” 7.

  9. “Reality in America” 9.

  10. Main Currents in American Thought 3: 237-38.

  11. Main Currents in American Thought 3: 260.

  12. Speaking of Literature and Society (New York, 1980) 98.

  13. Speaking of Literature and Society 94.

  14. Speaking of Literature and Society 93.

  15. Speaking of Literature and Society 94.

  16. The likelihood of a pun on Cather's first name is increased by the certainty of another bit of name-play in the “Woolley section”: Wormser's name calls up the image of an earthworm, tilling its way through “the Iowa fields.” The name becomes doubly apt with the reference to Corn Under Willows, as the earthworm image fades into that of a corn borer. The implied judgement of Wormser is that he is at best a low, groveling fellow; at worst a harmful parasite.

  17. Trilling reviewed Geismar's Writers in Crisis in the Kenyon Review (Autumn, 1942). The phrase “societal function” is quoted from Speaking of Literature and Society, page 186.

  18. “Parrington, Mr. Smith and Reality” 24.

  19. “Parrington, Mr. Smith and Reality” 24.

John V. Hagopian (essay date 1988)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5423

SOURCE: Hagopian, John V. “A Reader's Moral Dissent from Lionel Trilling's ‘Of This Time, Of That Place’.” In American Literature in Belgium, edited by Gilbert Debusscher, pp. 227-38. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1988.

[In the following essay, Hagopian elucidates the relationship between Trilling and Joseph Howe, the implied narrator of “Of This Time, Of This Place.”]

Let me begin with a passage from “Of This Time, Of That Place”:

It was a busy and official day of cards and sheets, arrangements and small decisions, and it gave Howe pleasure. Even when it was time to attend the first of the weekly Convocations he felt the charm of the beginning of things when intention is still innocent and uncorrupted by effort. He sat among the young instructors on the platform and joined in their humorous complaints at having to assist at the ceremony, but actually he got a clear satisfaction from the ritual of prayer and prosy speech and even from wearing his academic gown.1

We know, of course, from the teachings of Monroe Beardsley, Wayne Booth, Wolfgang Iser, Seymour Chatman and others that it is not the real Lionel Trilling observing the character Joseph Howe, but an implied author whose relationship with the real author is problematical. Furthermore, we are admonished by Gerald Prince, Seymour Chatman and others, that the person reading the passage is “not the flesh-and-bones you or I sitting in our living rooms reading the book, but the audience presupposed by the narrative itself.”2

All this technical fussing around about who is telling me about Howe and how I should respond to the telling becomes important only when we pose the problem in terms of values and judgments: is the implied author endorsing Howe's attitude toward the academic rituals, and is the implied reader expected to accept that endorsement? If it happens that I, the real reader, like many of my academic colleagues, find it an unpleasant chore and a bore to dress in those priest-like vestments, put a flat-top hat on my head, march in a procession, and sit among the rows of others similarly attired to listen to soapy, self-serving hypocrisies of deans and provosts, then I have a problem about how to read the story. I have two choices to make: (1) I can hypothesize that the implied author is to be taken as an ironic narrator who “carries on a secret communication with his auditor … at the expense of some other person or thing, the victim or ‘butt’”3, in which case, I can continue with the assurance that I am the kind of implied reader that the implied narrator has in mind and that he and I are both repudiating Joseph Howe; or (2) I find no reason to doubt that the narrator shares the values of his central character. As Susan Suleiman puts it (in another case), “he endorses, either explicitly by means of his own discours, or implicitly by refraining from critical comment.”4 In that case, I must recognize that the implied author and I are not in agreement; hence, in order to become an appropriate implied reader I must suspend my own values, cease to feel contempt for Joseph Howe, and take him as the positive character he is intended to be. Either I cease to repudiate the character, or I repudiate the work. To be sure, the issue of academic rituals is a relatively trivial matter in this story, but it is symptomatic of much more serious issues of academic morality and existential authenticity.

E. J. Shoben, Jr., articulates the general view when he says that Lionel Trilling's “Of This Time, Of That Place” has by now, along with “The Other Margaret”, assumed, “the status of a minor masterpiece, beautifully crafted, fully persuasive in their characterizations, and complexly significant and essentially timeless in their themes”5 In demurring with that view, I am taking Trilling at his own word when he says “the questions asked by our literature are not about our culture, but about ourselves. It asks us if we are content with ourselves, if we are saved or damned. … When the teacher has said all that can be said about formal matters … he must confront the necessity of bearing personal testimony … to say whether or not a work is true; and if not, why not, and if so, why so.”6

My demurral against Shoben is not total, for I concede that “Of This Time, Of That Place” is, indeed, among the finest depictions of academic life in American fiction. But I cannot read it as Boris Tomashevsky says we must read all literature. “According to Tomashevsky, the reader's proper role is to “read naively, that is, to approach the text without ideological preconceptions and to let himself be guided by the author.”7 And, according to Susan Suleiman, a serious problem arises when a literary work embodies an ethical or ideological norm that is unacceptable to the reader, quite independently of the techniques used to communicate it. She cites Wayne Booth, who sees “every work of fiction as rhetorical, to the extent that it seeks to impose its own norms, be they formal or ethical, on the reader. What the work constantly solicits is the reader's assent to the norms that are everywhere implied in it.”8 Suleiman demonstrates the problem by analyzing a little-read roman à thèse of the 1930s: Drieu La Rochelle's Gilles, which requires the reader's acceptance as a donnée a sexist and anti-Semitic view of the female protagonist Rebecca: “If I reject the figure of Rebecca, it is chiefly because I cannot assent to the values to which I would have to assent in order to accept her.”9 Suleiman then formulates two definitions:

1. Ideological dissent from works of fiction is a reading experience involving the ‘perception’ of certain formal device as masks for the novelist in his role as manipulator of values.

2. A formal device of this type (i.e., identifiable and analyzable as a “mask for the novelist in his role as manipulator of values”) is a device of ideological manipulation.10

I have a distinct impression that the author or the implied narrator of “Of This Time, Of That Place” is subjecting me to a form of ideological manipulation, and I don't like it. The story depicts a poet-professor at the beginning of his career, confronted with two unusual students: Ferdinand Tertan, an immigrant whose head seems to be in metaphysical clouds and whom Joseph Howe finally realizes is mad—to the degree that he must be institutionalized—and so reports to the dean of the college. The other is Theodore Blackburn, a brash, ignorant huckster who whines, cajoles and browbeats his way to academic success. At the end of the story we learn that Howe gave Blackburn a passing grade without even reading his paper. On graduation day “Still clinging to their arms, still linking Howe and Blackburn, the Dean said, “Another year gone, Joe, and we've turned out another crop. … Have you heard about Teddy Blackburn? He has a job already, before graduation, the first man of his class to be placed” (p. 114). When we discover that this contemptible student is a protege of the very dean who must approve of Joseph Howe's bid for tenure, are we expected to perceive a sinister revelation of contemptible motives for Howe's behavior in passing the unworthy student? An earlier passage informs us that “at twenty-six, Joseph Howe had discovered that he was neither so well off nor so Bohemian as he had once thought. A small income, adequate when supplemented by a sizable cash inheritance, was genteel poverty when all the cash was spent” (p. 79).

What, in fact, is the narrator's position on this crucial issue? How is the implied reader expected to receive it? One might expect that the real author, Lionel Trilling, when setting himself the task of commenting on his own story, would shed some light on the matter. In his anthology, The Experience of Literature, he encourages that hope by beginning with the observation that “one possibly instructive thing … is … the relation that exists between the actual facts of a writer's experience and the process of his imagination, particularly in the creation of character”11. But in an essay of some 3,000 words, he devotes only two sentences to the central intelligence of the story: “By putting Howe in some danger, it [Blackburn's malevolence] made him that much more of a person; it made him someone with a fate and required that he should not only feel but act. … Upon Howe I bestowed insecurities I had felt as a new instructor, but I sought to give them greater point and justification by making Howe a poet, and a ‘difficult’ and ‘controversial’ poet at that.”12

Trilling's extended commentary on the two students is also not especially enlightening. He says:

The story had its origin, as may easily be supposed, in my feelings about the student who is represented under the name of Tertan. … When I gave up my special efforts to improve his writing and when at last I communicated to the Dean of the College my opinion of his deranged condition, I felt, against all reason, that I had committed a great disloyalty. … But I did not want a pathetic story for Tertan. … I came as close as I could to tragedy. … Then, quite without my bidding, the student who was the original of Blackburn popped up before me … The thought occurred to me that his conduct was [also] ‘insane.’ … There was something beautifully appropriate in the juxtaposition of the two students … to express an idea … that there are kinds of insanity that a society does not accept and kinds of insanity that a society does accept … And if I may speak further of the source of what power the story may have, I ought to mention the challenge it offers the reader to reconcile two dissimilar modes of judgment with each other. One is the judgment of morality, the other of science. Judged by Morality, Tertan's behavior is sane and good, Blackburn's bad and mad. But no psychiatrist would adjudge Blackburn insane and no psychiatrist would fail to say that Tertan must go to a mental hospital.”13

I shall not quibble about Trilling's assessment of his student characters, even though I fail to see sufficient ‘objective correlatives’ for Tertan's madness and I am sure that such eminent psychiatrists as R. D. Laing and Thomas Szasz would not agree on the necessity for his commitment. What interests me is Trilling's failure to confront the issue of the young instructor's character and morality and his almost casual claim that his ‘insecurities’ had ‘justification.’ And when he says, “Upon Howe I bestowed the insecurities I had felt as a new instructor,” he gives support to all the critics who assume that there is no significant difference here between the real author and the implied author. Smith and Mason are typical of textbook anthologists who in their study questions seem to endorse him as a heroic figure: “Central to the story is Howe. By what means does Trilling make him a sympathetic figure? How is his fineness matched by firmness? At what point do you most admire him?”14

One critic, Diana George, concurs with reservations: “The question becomes, of course, at whose door must the tragedy of Tertan (or of Howe, for that matter) be laid? Trilling offers no real answers. … And yet, even caught in an inescapable dilemma, Howe has grown and developed”15 Another critic, Robert Boyers demurs and accuses Trilling of a failure of compassion: “Though Tertan may be beyond clinical recovery, he is not beyond receiving an additional measure of human solicitude. … Trilling, or his character Howe, might have achieved tragic stature by coming up against the intractability of the materials on which he would nonetheless have worked. Then the irremediable might have emerged into consciousness as a living fact, to be suffered, not used to justify a species of lofty withdrawal”16

Boyers' implicit assumption here is that Howe is morally obligated to make a personal human commitment to his student, that he lacks sufficient compassion for Tertan. I don't share that assumption and I have no problem in accepting Howe's sense of professional obligation with respect to Tertan, even though hard evidence is lacking. What I find difficult to understand is why neither Trilling nor his critics confront Howe's reprehensible and professionally immoral behavior in his dealings with Blackburn. The question becomes one of motive. Does the fact that he is in financial straits at the beginning of his academic career and dependent upon the good will of the dean for his job security really justify his permitting that arrogant and ignorant protege of the dean to graduate? Howe's moral turpitude seems to be tacitly whitewashed by the silence of both Trilling and his critics—a case of academic Watergate!

It seems to me that “Of This Time, Of That Place” is a story in which the implied author is both the real author and a disguised first-person narrator. If a third-person narrative can be converted into first person, i.e., if we substitute “I” for each occurrence of “Joseph Howe,” without any distortion, then we have a traditional I-narrative which is subject to the same tests of reliability that we use for such narrators as Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby or John Dowell in The Good Soldier. Such a transposition is possible if and only if everything in the story can appropriately be seen as available to the consciousness of the central intelligence and if the language is consistent with that character's education and sensibility. I believe that to be the case with many stories in the canon of American literature: Hawthorne's story of Goodman Brown, Melville's of Captain Amasa Delano, Henry James's of John Marcher or of Pemberton, Faulkner's of Ike McCaslin. Let me render some of the opening sentences of Trilling's story in first-person terms: “As I stood on the porch of the house in which I lodged, ready to leave for my first class of the year, I thought with pleasure of the long indoor days that were coming. It was a moment when I could feel glad of my profession” (p. 755). If “Of This Time, Of That Place” is, indeed, as I suspect, a disguised I-narrative, it is not surprising that Joseph Howe evades a conscious confrontation with his own grave faults and weaknesses. And if Joseph Howe is a surrogate for Lionel Trilling, it is not surprising that Trilling would eschew rendering him in the third person. As Robert Boyer says,

It is not Tertan but Howe who ultimately engages our attention and he is an alter ego of the author. … Trilling's story is so arranged that everything we see is from Howe's perspective. … Insofar as we can tell, the authorial voice that speaks in the story is Trilling's and the identification with Howe which had seemed certain in our reading of the story is fully confirmed by Trilling's more recent commentary. … It is clear that Trilling wished to portray his alter ego, Dr. Howe, as a man confronted by several choices to which he was equal in his own way. … We may not especially admire Howe or approve his particular decisions [Boyers here is referring specifically to the betrayal of Tertan], but we are forced to respect the burden of consciousness and guilt he willingly takes upon himself. If he resolves important problems rather too simply, he continues to live with his decisions in a way that does credit to a man of sensitivity and intellect.17

Boyers is too kind. Joseph Howe is a moral opportunist who excuses his failures and who fails Trilling's own test of moral realism: i.e., one does not excuse one's lapses or the lapses of others with such claims as “Society made him what he is” or, as Nancy in Faulkner's “That Evening Sun” pleads, “I ain't nothin but a nigger!” This brings us to the most interesting and most slippery problem involved in the disguised I-narrative: is the disguised narrator a fictional character inside the work and therefore equivalent to an explicit I-narrator like Melville's Bartleby, Faulkner's Jason Compson, and Ford's John Dowell—or, for that matter, one of the earliest and best, Dostoievski's Underground Man? Or is he the equivalent of the author, in which case we are reading a thinly disguised autobiography? My embarrassment, especially vexing to an old-fashioned Formalist critic, is that I cannot find a clear, objective criterion by which to resolve the question. Nevertheless, I feel compelled to report an awareness of two fundamentally different kinds of disguised I-narrators: fictional and autobiographical. With the fictional, I have no problem. Faulkner's “The Bear” is Ike MacCaslin's story, and if he fails to come to terms with his own moral dilemmas, I can sense that both the implied author (Faulkner) and the implied reader (myself) are observing and implicitly condemning that failure. But I sense no such repudiation in much of contemporary literature that is really disguised autobiography: Nathan Zuckerman in Philip Roth's The Anatomy Lesson, Saul Bellow's Herzog, and others. As Joseph Epstein recently observed, “Novelists … ought to be aware that readers—and quite intelligent readers, too—will see the novelists' lives in their work, especially when the writer has taken so little trouble to disguise himself. If there is anyone in the world who believes that the hero of Saul Bellow's The Dean's December is anyone other than Saul Bellow, I should like to meet that person and sell him some mining stock. If there is anyone who believes that young Stingo in Sophie's Choice is not the young William Styron, that person brings a freshness and innocence to his reading that I believe borders on insanity.”18 It seems to me that Trilling's thinly disguised I-narrator, Joseph Howe, is not really a fictional character, but the author himself. I believe that the critics are correct in reporting that the implied narrator of “Of This Time, Of That Place” endorses the reprehensible Joseph Howe; but I cannot. Hence, I feel compelled to repudiate not only the character (as I do in the case of Ike McCaslin), but also the story (as I do not with “The Bear”). I am well aware that the struggle for survival and success in academia is no different from that struggle in the world of commerce and industry, in politics and in other social arenas. I am also aware that well-intentioned men and women often feel compelled to engage in immoral or shady behavior to get ahead. Indeed, if that were Trilling's point, if he were a moral realist of a different kind, I would assent to the unavoidable truth of that premise and rejoice in the imaginative dramatization of “the look and feel of things, how things are done and what things are worth and what they cost and what the odds are.”19

But Trilling has always been interested in more than that. He gave the name of “moral realism” to “the perception of the dangers of the moral life itself” and demanded that fiction “raise questions in our minds not only about the conditions but about ourselves, lead us to refine our motives and ask what might lie behind our good impulses” (p. 220). In a discussion of Saul Bellow, Trilling said, “Sammler says in that famous conclusion, which is deeply moving, that we know, we know, what is it we know? We know to behave, we know what must be done. We pretend that we don't. We, as intellectuals, raise all kinds of questions. We ignore the fact that under certain kinds of situations there is only one way to act and there are no problems about it”20.

That tone of certitude about the morality of intellectuals emerged when Trilling was a celebrated old sage. For most of his career he embraced what Nathan Scott labeled an “anxious humanism,” which manifested itself in another “fictional” alter ego, John Laskell, the central intelligence of The Middle of the Journey. Laskell's supreme moment of illumination finds expression in a more fence-straddling pronouncement: “An absolute freedom from responsibility—that much of a child none of us can be. An absolute responsibility—that much of a divine or metaphysical essence none of us is”21.

As Scott put it, “Against the reductionism and the rationalism and the angelism of the modern intelligence, Mr. Trilling's concern to make the centrist testimony (neither beast nor angel) has required him, again and again, to say ‘Not that … and not that …’ … The sum of his negatives with all their solicitude for the tensions and balances of the extremes, may perhaps seem only a very unheroic shoring up of things as they are. … This plangent elevation of the ‘securities of bourgeois routine’ adds up only to the New Philistinism.”22 Joseph Frank, too, points out “Mr. Trilling's preference for stability and stasis over the restless agitation of pure spirit” and laments that he did not pay sufficient attention to the moral and qualitative differences between inertia and tragic acceptance.”23

Nevertheless, Trilling himself, and indeed the story itself, demands that Joseph Howe's motives and behavior be thoroughly examined and judged. To explore why he failed to do so involves us in biography and gossip, a non-literary enterprise (unbecoming to a Formalist critic) involving such questions as, “Did Lionel Trilling himself begin his academic career in the way that Joseph Howe did?” and, “Is that why he failed to repudiate Joseph Howe?” Although no definitive biography of Trilling has yet appeared, many of his colleagues and students have related illuminating anecdotes, most of which have been gathered into Edward J. Shoben's full length study. Shoben relates what a difficult time Trilling had getting started in his academic career: “Pressed for money, worried about his wife, and involved in an undertaking that proved always more difficult and more demanding than he had anticipated, Trilling was depressed and his self-confidence was badly undermined. … The department notified him that his instructorship would not be renewed. The reason given was that ‘as a Freudian, a Marxist, and a Jew,’ he could not be happy at Columbia. … His fortunes were at a distressingly low ebb; his self-esteem was tottering, and his relationships within the department were too distant for him to be known except by his unusual ethnic identity and his unorthodox interest in Marx and Freud.”24.

There is no hint of any of this in Trilling's praise of Columbia University in “Some Notes for an Autobiographical Lecture” (1971)25 Nor is there evidence in Trilling's story that Joseph Howe is a Jew; as another Howe—Irving—observed, “The Jewish background of Lionel Trilling for a long period of time was kept down, so that not many of us knew of his early involvement with the Menorah Journal26

In a very early story, based on his year of teaching at the University of Wisconsin, which Trilling published in the Menorah Journal (1929), he describes how he had “used” his Jewishness to alienate himself from a community with which he did not wish to be a part (like Charles Etienne St. Velery Bon in Faulkner's Absalom or Sarah Woodruff in Fowles' The French Lieutenant's Woman): “He had felt that the town was going to make him do things that he must not do. It had sought to include him in a life into which he must not go. To prevent this he had made use of a hitherto useless fact. He had said, ‘I am a Jew,’ and immediately he was free.”27

However, Trilling very much wanted to be a part of Columbia University and therefore did not make an issue of his Jewishness there. He became the first Jew to attain tenure in that English Department. As Alfred Kazin observed, “Columbia, of course, changed enormously after the war and in the 1950s was no longer the kind of place” where one need to be anxious about being a Jew.28 Elsewhere, Kazin says, “In Trilling's America there were no workers, nobody suffering from a lack of cash; no capitalists, no corporations, no Indians, no blacks. And, on the whole, neither were there any Jews. His favorite characters were the unimaginative, misguided, generalized liberals or ‘educated classes.’”29 Alfred Kazin first met Lionel Trilling in the offices of The New Republic in 1942 at the time when Trilling was writing “Of This Time, Of That Place.” The man he describes very much resembles Joseph Howe:

“My first meetings with Trilling were just too awesome. With the deep-sunk colored pouches under his eyes, the cigarette always in hand like an intellectual gesture, an air that combined weariness, vanity and immense caution … he seemed intent on not diminishing his career by a single word. … Trilling astonished me by saying, very firmly, that he would not write anything that did not ‘promote my reputation’. … Although I found so much solemnity about one's reputation hilarious, I was impressed by the tight-lipped seriousness with which Trilling said ‘my reputation.’ It seemed to resemble an expensive picture on view. ‘My reputation’ was to be nursed along like money in the bank. It was capital. I had never encountered a Jewish intellectual so conscious of social position, so full of adopted finery in his conversation.”30

Almost a decade later, an ambitious young man, Norman Podhoretz, visited his former professor at his summer home in Westport, Connecticut (the setting of The Middle of the Journey), to seek advice about a career “from one of the most intelligent men in the world. … He asked me what I really wanted to do with myself, what kind of power I was after. … Power? Who ever said anything about power? What did I have to do with power, or it with me? ‘Don't be silly,’ he said, ‘everyone wants power. The only question is what kind.’ … ‘Money,’ he said, ‘was a form of power, so was fame, so was eminence in a given profession.’”31

It would appear from such testimony that there may well be as great a distinction between the real critic and the implied critic as there is between the real author and the implied author. The lofty moral tone of “Lionel Trilling” apparently does not conform to the opportunistic, self-serving, status-driven academic entrepreneur we encounter in the candid memoirs of those who knew the real Lionel Trilling. And he may well have begun his career as Joseph Howe did—by putting down the troublesome eccentrics like Ferdinand Tertan and promoting the dean's protégés like Theodore Blackburn. One of Trilling's former students, Steven Marcus, finds it natural that “a figure like Trilling … should be re-examined:

First of all there is clearly something enigmatic about Trilling, part of the enigma being where did this mind come from, how did it create itself and why did it take the turns that it did, turns which were often unpredictable. Secondly, there is an enigma about what this mind was really up to, what were its fundamental assumptions, because the writing is very subtle and complex and doesn't often say overtly what its assumptions are.32

This does not square with the image projected by his ardent admirer, E. J. Shoben, who sees Trilling as an advocate of “the rule of authenticity [which] demands self-disclosure, especially the disclosure of one's affects and feelings.”33 Joseph Howe is dishonest and lacks authenticity, which, of course, does not debar him from being an eloquent and aesthetically successful, albeit unreliable, disguised I-narrator in a magnificent story. Had trilling winked at the reader, given some cues that the implied author repudiates him, some critics would still not be happy. Wayne Booth, for example, would say of him what he says of Celine: “Though Celine has attempted the traditional excuse—remember, it is my character speaking and not I—we cannot excuse him from writing a book which, if taken seriously by the reader, must corrupt him.”34

I do not share that view. I would gladly have accepted Trilling's “It is Joseph Howe speaking, not I.” But he didn't send such a message in any of the ways that implied or real authors do. Susan Suleiman says that “no one has hitherto attempted to describe, using the tools provided by formal analysis, what happens, in terms of the reading experience, when a reader rejects an imaginative work as ideologically unacceptable … [but the inevitable consequence is] a quasi-willful act of non-cooperation with the text on the part of the reader.”35 That is precisely what happens in my reading of “Of This Time, Of That Place.”


  1. Lionel Trilling, Of This Time, Of That Place and other Stories (New York, 1979). p. 78. Hereafter all page references to the story will be cited in parentheses in the text. An interesting anecdote about Trilling's attitude to academic rituals is told by Alan Lelchuk, who describes a commencement ceremony at Brandeis in 1978, where both Saul Bellow and Trilling received honorary degrees. As official speaker, Bellow described his experiences as a Jew. Lelchuk says, “For me, a young writer about to have yet another commencement address inflicted on him, it was a wonderful surprise—an honest and detailed talk, free of the usual piety and palaver that clutter those speeches. Trilling however, thought otherwise. Speaking with him later, I asked how he liked Bellow's talk. His face tightening, Trilling retorted, “Not at all.” Why not, I wondered? “It was inappropriate. Highly inappropriate.” Inappropriate. Trilling announced it like a judge repeating the jury's verdict, “Guilty.” Clearly, for Trilling, Bellow had committed a gross act of violence, a violation of the strict code of academic behavior. You just didn't talk about your personal life, especially not a Jewish ghetto life, at a university ceremony.” “The Death of the Jewish Novel,” New York Times Book Review, November 25, 1984, p. 38.

    In a later “Letters” section, Diana Trilling took Lelchuk to task by pointing out that Trilling had already been dead for three years in 1978—the commencement ceremony took place in 1974, and she added: “As anyone who knew him can testify, my husband was a man of moderate temper. His face did not readily tighten and he did not make staccato pronouncements. As to his voicing the opinions that Mr. Lelchuk ascribes to him ‘like a judge repeating the jury's verdict “Guilty”,’ this can only represent Mr. Lelchuk's own need to think of Lionel Trilling in so fierce a role. He was in fact the least judgmental of people.” In the same issue, Lelchuk expressed regret about the error in date, but “Concerning her claims that her husband did not readily tighten his face or make staccato statements, I can only speak from my notes about the one occasion, on what he said and showed. No need, however, for her to be so fiercely protective of her husband; he made his mark on the literary world precisely by making judgments, not by avoiding them.” New York Times Book Review, December 23, 1984, p. 21. Apparently the controversy about the man reflects the same controversy about his fiction.

  2. Seymour Chatman, Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film (Ithaca, 1978), pp. 149-50.

  3. Chatman, p. 229.

  4. “Ideological Dissent from Works of Fiction,” Neophilologus, 60 (April, 1976), p. 177.

  5. Lionel Trilling (New York, 1981), p. 238. I have dealt with “The Technique and Meaning of ‘The Other Margaret’” in Etudes Anglaises, 16 (July-Sept., 1963), pp. 225-29.

  6. “On the Teaching of Modern Literature,” Beyond Culture (New York, 1968), pp. 8-9; also quoted by himself in “Sincerity: Its Origin and Rise,” Sincerity and Authenticity (Cambridge, 1972), p. 7.

  7. Suleiman, p. 163.

  8. Suleiman, p. 162.

  9. Suleiman, p. 173.

  10. Cedric Watts speculates whether “every work of literature should bear a warning equivalent to that borne by packets of cigarettes (‘H.M. Government Health Warning: This is Fiction and Can Seriously Damage Your Health’).” “Bottom's Children,” in Reconstructing Literature, ed. by Laurence Lerner (Oxford, 1983), p. 34.

  11. The Experience of Literature (New York, 1967), p. 781.

  12. The Experience of Literature, p. 783.

  13. The Experience of Literature, p. 783.

  14. Smith and Mason, Short Story Study (London, 1961), p. 174.

  15. Studies in Short Fiction, 13 (1976), pp. 7-8.

  16. Robert Boyers, Lionel Trilling: Negative Capability and the Avoidance (University of Missouri, 1977).

  17. Boyers, pp. 8-11.

  18. “What Does Philip Roth Want?” Commentary, January 1984, p. 65.

  19. “Manners, Morals and the Novel,” The Liberal Imagination (London, 1968), p. 211.

  20. “Sincerity and Authenticity”: A Symposium,” Salgamundi, 41 (Spring, 1978), p. 110.

  21. Cited by Nathan Scott, Three American Moralists (South Bend, 1973), p. 166.

  22. Scott, p. 214.

  23. The Widening Gyre (Bloomington, 1968), p. 272.

  24. Shoben, pp. 35-36.

  25. The Last Decade (New York, 1979), pp. 226-41.

  26. Philip French, Three Honest Men: A Critical Mosaic (Manchester, 1980), p. 77.

  27. “Notes on a Departure,” in Of This Time, Of That Place and Other Stories, p. 43.

  28. French, p. 79.

  29. New York Jew (New York, 1978), p. 191.

  30. Kazin, p. 43.

  31. Making It (New York, 1967), p. 96.

  32. French, p. 102.

  33. Shoben, p. 209.

  34. Rhetoric of Fiction, (Chicago, 1961), p. 383.

  35. Suleiman, p. 173.

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