Diana Trilling, “Lionel Trilling, A Jew at Columbia”

Lionel Trilling,   A Jew at  Columbia

TrillingYoung
Lionel Trilling (1905-1975)
CC 1924; PhD 1937;
Columbia professor (1939-1975)

Diana Trilling

 

IF  Lionel Trilling  had   lived   to   write the   autobiographical  memoir  he   had for  a  long   time   wanted  to  write-it was  scarcely begun  at  his  death in  1975-an  important section of  it  would   no  doubt  have   been   devoted  to  his early  career at Columbia and  to the difficulties  of establishing himself  in the English-teaching  profession.  In   part   this  would   inevitably  have   been   a story  of  the  Depression of  the  30’s,  since  the  dec­ ade  in  which  he was chiefly  trying  to get  his  start in  the  university was also  the  decade  in  which  his family,  always  firm in  the  middle class so far  as its social expectations were concerned but  never  finan­cially  secure,  finally  lost its economic foothold and dropped the  burden of its  support, together with the   responsibility  for  decision  in   family   affairs, upon  his  young  shoulders. But  it  would  also  have been  the story  of what  it meant to be a Jew  in  the American academy  before  we actually let ourselves recognize   what   was  happening in  Germany and what  the  casual  anti-Semitism of our  own  country could  portend.

Lionel’s situation as a Jew  who  wished  to  teach in  a  college   was  at  once   typical   and   untypical. Typical  was  the   uncertainty  whether  the  choice was a  possible  one-quite apart, that  is, from  aca­demic  qualification. This was not  the  uncertainty of graduate students today  as they face academic recession   and  a  steadily diminishing  job  market. In  Lionel’s time  there  was no  problem of the  continuing strength of  the  universities. The question was, could  a Jew  realistically plan  on  a university career?   The consensus   was  that   especially in  certain  fields he could  not. Several  of Lionel’s friends had   already given   up.  Elliot   Cohen   had   been   a brilliant student of English at  Yale  but  with  uni­ versity  teaching closed  to  him,  or  so he  was  convinced-correctly, I  think-he had   become  editor of  the   Menorah    journal,   a  magazine  of  Jewish thought for  which  Lionel  and  other of his Columbia contemporaries had  begun  to write  as under­ graduates. Another Jewish  friend from  Columbia days, unable to foresee a job in a college history department,  had   deserted graduate  study   to
become  a  taxi  driver, until one  day  his  father  dis­covered  how his son was occupying himself  and persuaded him  to become  a lawyer

Of course, there were the usual hindrances to generalization: one  knew  of exceptions to  the  rul­ing   proscription  of  Jews   from   college   teaching. Sidney   Hook   was  at   New   York   University;  the physicist  I. I. Rabi   and   several   philosophers,  including Irwin Edman, whose  mother was a friend of  Lionel’s mother, were  at  Columbia; Morris R. Cohen  was at  City  College. Even  art  history,   then the most socially  fastidious of disciplines, had  been forced   to  make   place  for  a  Columbia scholar   of Meyer Schapiro’s spectacular abilities. But  English gave  no  such  promise of breakthrough:  university English departments  were  still  under the  vigilant protection of something called  the Anglo-Saxon tradition.

Untypical were  Lionel’s tenacity and  courage­ he was among the  most  unostentatiously  enduring of  people-and the  curious assumptions of his  up­ bringing. The  belief   that   was  commonly inculcated  in  the  sons  of  East  European  Jewish immi­grants, particularly those whose fathers had  been deflected   from   the  scholarly  lives   toward   which their  own  early   training had  been  bent,  was  that Jews came into a hostile  world  armed with  notably superior  intellectual  powers.  To   achieve   success, which   also  meant  advancing in  Americanization or   (much   the  same  thing) moving  upward on  the class ladder, they had only to deploy  their  native capacities to advantage.

The message of Lionel’s upbringing was of a different order. It seemed  not  to  have  occurred to his parents that  money  was necessary  to social  mo­ bility; as naturally as  they  breathed they  thought of themselves, and  always  had,  as middle-class peo­ple-were they  not  honest, respectable, committed to the solidity and  progress  of their adopted country?  They were  not   people   who  went   much   into the  world.  They seldom  ate  in  restaurants or  at­ tended  the   theater,  although  they   occasionally went  to an  opera  or  concert. They belonged to no clubs  and  limited their  social  life  to  relatives and a   modest   group  of   neighbor-friends.  But   they never   felt  excluded  from   life  on   the  ground  of having little money  or  being  Jews.  English was always  the  language of  the  home,  well  spoken, and Lionel’s mother in  particular moved  among Gentiles  without  self-consciousness-when  Lionel  was not  accepted as  a  freshman in  good  standing  because he had done  badly  in math,  his mother  had no hesitation in approaching the Columbia officer who  had  these matters  in  charge  so that  the  decision was altered.

Unlike  others of his intellectual generation, that is, Lionel  had  no  need  to  make  for  himself  the strategic  leap into  the American  middle  class, with what  this  so often  involves  in defensiveness.  Also, unlike  many  first-generation Jewish  intellectuals, he  had  not  been   taught   to  think   of  himself  as “smart.” It was not his sense that  life was a contest of  minds  or  that  intellect was a  weapon;   it  was more an instrument of conscience. But  his parents had  made   him  feel  unusually   valuable,   or  cer­ tainly  much  valued  by them. While  he had no belief that  he possessed outstanding skills-on the contrary,   throughout, his life  he  thought   that  vir­tually  everyone with whom he associated  had read more  than  he had,  had  a better  memory,  and  was better  trained  in the use of the basic tools of the intellectual trade-he  had  grown  up  with  an  undefined   feeling   of  personal   worth,   some  secret quality  of being  to which  he could  give no  name but  on which  he could  ultimately rely. As a child, or  perhaps   even  at  birth,   he  had   been  proved, as  if   born   with   a  caul.   Just   as  Jewish   intellectual   arrogance   has  its  mythic  dimension,  this curious  intuition of whatever  it was that  Lionel’s parents  cherished  in  him also had  a magical  character. For  example, without truly  distancing  him­ self from  the  incident, not  finally, Lionel  told  me of  the  day  in  his childhood  when  he was the  ob­ ject of  an  ugly street  assault  by a group  of  boys who   pelted   him   with   snowballs,   possibly  with rocks in them. He had not run.  He  had  continued on   his  way,  though   frightened,  telling   himself that,  like, Baldur,   he  could  not  be  hurt-and  he was not hit.

 

 

 

Casual    acquaintances  of   Lionel’s   fa­ther-these would  of course be con­ temporaries-referred to him  as “a  perfect  gentle­ man.”   With   more  daring,  he  might   once  have been  a fop. Failed  as he perhaps  knew  himself  to be and  all  too manifestly  inferior to his wife in at­tractiveness   and   energy,   he  still  didn’t  entirely conform to the now-established image of the failed father   of  Jewish-American  fiction.  His  wife  said that  as  a  young  man  he  had  been  a  prodigious dancer.  And even  Lionel  described  him  as having been  an  excellent  swimmer.  I found  all  this  hard to  imagine-!·would  have  thought him  afraid  of cold water-but then  it was also easy for me to by­ pass  the  fact  that  early  in  his  marriage   he  had cared for his mother,  sisters, and  brothers  much  as he now assumed Lionel would care for him.

A gentleman  he  was  in  his  manner  of  speech and in his public  stance but  his family  temper  was violent. He was also an overbearing hypochondriac. And he had a most faulty sense of money, quite regularly   confusing   it  with  something   distinctly less tangible,  such as personal  due or honor. In  the worst years of the Depression,  when  we had  all of us, Lionel’s  parents,  Lionel,  I, to apportion our infinitesimal funds among many creditors, he would solicit  Lionel  for money  with  which  to meet,  not the  rent  or food  bills-these were not  his concern -but his  debt  (as he  interpreted  it)  to  a  porter whom  he accused himself of once having  unfairly laid  off; his tone in these approaches was that  of a man  the  plain  plausibility of whose mission  must be self-evident.  Innocent of guilt  or, so far as one could see, pain for shifting  his responsibilities to a son who was not  yet started  in his own career,  he lived  in great  fear  of punishment for  the  neglect of fancied obligations outside  the family.

The   weak  hold  that  his  father   had  on  reality was  maddening  to  Lionel,  especially  because  of the  blandness  with  which  his  father  met  opposi­tion to his conduct  or contradiction of his views. While   still  living  with   his  family  as  a  student, Lionel  had  returned home one  day to find his fa­ ther  rifting  his desk and  reading  his mail. To  Lionel’s  angry   protest   his  father   replied,   ”I’m   not reading  your mail, son. I’m  just interested in your life.” He spoke in hurt  because his son so misunderstood  his motives.

At Lionel’s  birth  his father  had been a decently successful custom-tailor   but  he  had  given  this  up to  become  a wholesale  furrier-years later,  strug­ gling  to maintain two families,  Lionel  would  tell his  friends   in  weary  irony   the  reason   that   had been given him for the change: his father wanted Lionel  to be able to say that he was the son of a manufacturer, not a tailor!  I doubt  he was meant for any business, but wholesale-fur  dealing  offered him irresistible temptations to calamity.  Probably the most  notable,  the  last, was his decision  in  the late 20’s to make the most beautifully-matched raccoon coats  that  had  ever  been  put  on  the  market -they  were  for  chauffeurs.   Closed  cars  had   by now come in  but  he was convinced  they were not here  to  stay;  the  passengers  in  open  cars  could cover  themselves with  rugs  but  chauffeurs  had  no such warmth.  When  Lionel  inquired why, instead of  trying   to  outfit  chauffeurs   in  such  expensive coats, he didn’t look to the colleges for his customers,  his father  smiled  in  pity  and  explained that obviously  it  was only  rudimentary good  sense  to know  that students couldn’t afford such costly gar­ments.

And was it also rudimentary good sense to know that  a young  man  with  a salary of $2,400 a year­ but  this would  be considerably  later, when  Lionel got  his first  job at Columbia-and with  two families to support couldn’t afford  custom  clothes?  In 1932 Lionel  had  just been made an instructor and to meet  the occasion he had  bought  himself a suit at  Macy’s-the price,  as  I  recall,  was $29.99. Lio­nel’s mother  liked  to have us to dinner on Friday nights-although her husband, eating outside  the house  in  better  days, ate  ham  and  even  shellfish, she kept a kosher home and lit Sabbath candles. Waiting vainly,  irritably, for  his father   to  notice his new suit,  Lionel  at last asked his opinion. His father  sighed:  “Get  up,  son.”  Lionel   tried  to  restrain   his   annoyance   while    his   father    slowly twirled   him  about,  yanking up  the  collar  of  the jacket  and  hauling at  its skirt.  Finally  he gave  his judgment: “Don’t you  think  a young  man  in  your position owes it  to  himself   to  have  a  tailor-made suit?”    What   position,   what    position,   Lionel wanted  to  shout-but could   he  attack a  pride   as perilously rooted  as his father’s? Around the house there  was of course  no  talk  of the determining ex­ perience of his father’s childhood, but  long  before 1932 Lionel had learned the story: slated  for an intellectual life,  probably the  rabbinate, in  his native city of Bialystok,  his father’s course  had  all  in a  single  day  been   abruptly  terminated. He  had broken down  during his  Bar  Mitzvah: I  suppose he  forgot   his  lines.   In   consequence,  a  thirteen­ year-old  had  been  shipped off to America, put  out of sight.  For  the  rest of his life a cloud  of disgrace and   of  the   potential  for   still-uncharted  disaster hovered  about him.

 

 

 

LIONEL’s   mother was  determined  that her  husband’s tendency  to panic,  ov­erlaid as  it  was with  disquieting  fantasies of  conquest,   should  not   be  communicated  to  Lionel­ Lionel   remembered  his  initial  appearance  in   a school  play,  and   his  confused   awareness   that   his mother didn’t want  his  father in  the  room  when she  heard   him  go  through his  part. It  must  have given  her singular pleasure  (but  she kept  it  to her­ self)  that  she  lived   to  see  Lionel   such  a  relaxed lecturer. But  this  is not  to say that  hers  was only a  negative capability. Lionel’s mother  was  a  vigorous   presence   for  anyone  who   knew   her.   Few people  I  have  met  have  been  so educable so long: her character and  outlook on  life changed radical­ ly  in  her  middle and  old  age,  the  small-spirited values she could once share with her wealthy, self­ imposing brothers and  sisters  steadily  giving  place to impulses that  weren’t validated by  the  conventions of their  segment  of the world.

Her  parents, too,  had  been  East  European but she  had  been  born  and  schooled  in  London’s East End-without ever  saying  it,  she  could   somehow suggest  that  Israel  Zangwill  had  been  a neighborhood  intimate. But  then,  in  celebration of female sturdiness, she could  also speak  of her  “little  English  mother” in  a way to suggest  the  natural  family  resemblance  to  Queen    Victoria!  Literary  to her   fingertips  and   wistfully   envious  of  younger sisters  who had  been  sent  to Hunter College  when the   family   had   moved   to   New   York,   she   was among the  best-read   people   I  have  known,   with critical perceptions that  were  the  more  impressive for  always  being   voiced,   and   only   to  Lionel   or me,   with   unaffected  tentativeness:   “Li   dear,    I never   went   to  college  and   maybe   I’m   all  wrong· but  did  Stendhal … did  Thackeray … did  Tol­ stoy  …?”  or  “Di   dear,   you  know   these   things better than  I do.  Did  Henry James  … did  Mann … did  Lawrence .. .?” Lionel’s father had  been a reader too, but  not  like  this. She read  incessantly until  her eyes gave out  in  her  late  eighties.

Lionel’s mother  had  early  decided  that   Lionel was  to  have  an  Oxford PhD;   he  said  he  couldn’t have been more than  four or five when she first announced this  to him. That it didn’t work out  as she  had  planned and  that  his closest  approach  to the  fulfillment of that  particular dream  was to be­ come Eastman Professor  at Oxford in 1964, a few months before  her  death, was-1 think-troubling to him.

It was to his mother’s confident expectations for him   that   Lionel,  following  Freud,  ascribed  his own  ambitions and  such  faith as he had  in  his in­ tellectual  capacities.  But   in   his   later    years   he began  to feel  that  this  might   not  be a  just assessment  of the  situation and  that  perhaps, if only  genetically,  he  drew   more  from   his  father than   he might  once  have  liked  to admit-this was when  he heard  of Trillings  scattered in  many  parts  of  the world, an unusual number of whom were of high professional repute;  they  all  of  them  traced   their lineage  to a common  ancestor in Bialystok,  a rabbi renowned  for  his  learning.  (How  could  one  not think    of  a  small   boy   in   Bialystok,   fluffing  his Bar  Mitzvah  speech!)  To  be sure,  the Cohens,  too, and  not  Lionel’s mother alone   but  others   in  her family,  had  their  own  demonstrable claim  to gift, but  among the Cohens  as Lionel  had  known  them in his formative years-even his own mother not altogether apart-the line  between intellectual  seriousness  and  intellectual chic  had  not  been   un­ blurred. Among  the  Trillings there  seemed  to  be no  such  push  for  status  on  the  basis  of “culture.”

 

 

I HAD     met    Lionel    in    1927   and    we married  in   June  1929.  In   October came  the  stock-market crash.  I was not  a  particularly  welcome  addition to his family  until  slowly, very  slowly,  over  the  next  strenuous years,  as she was forced  to confront not only the financial cal­lousness  but  also  the  emotional  isolateness of  her Park Avenue  brothers and sisters, four of them unmarried and   living   together  in  an  apartment sealed  to life, consecrated only  to a remarkable art collection,  Lionel’s  mother  transferred  much   of her  loyalty  from  them  to me. My father was wiped out  in  the  crash;  anguished by “robbing his children,” as he  put  it,  he  lived  by  borrowing on  his life insurance. Lionel’s father soon  lost his fur business;   we couldn’t carry  his  insurance, it  had been  taken  out  too late  in life. I became  gravely  ill with  hyperthyroidism; far  from  being  able  to con­ tribute to the  family  income  I was an  expense-in the  next  ten  years, until I regained my strength,  I asked  much  of Lionel, more  than  is easily  told,  in emotional support. The bills mounted. My mother was  no  longer   alive:   my  sister   did   my  father’s laundry  and   housework;  the   money   this   saved they gave us to help  Lionel’s family.  We borrowed from   everyone   we  knew,   $50  here,   $100  there­ the  people   to  whom  we were  sufficiently  close  to be  able   to  borrow   seldom   had  more   than   small sums  to lend.  When   my father died  at  the  end  of 1932  and   I  inherited  my  third  of  an   insurance trust,   all   that   remained  of  a  once-substantial es­ tate,  we owed  the  capital distributions before  they could  be made.

    Because  he  looked  as he did,  so quietly self-pos­sessed;  spoke  as  he  did;   was as  he  was,  unscarred by  grievance, Lionel  has  been   pictured since  his death  as  socially   privileged  above   most  intellec­ tuals,   someone  to  whom   everything  had   always been  given,   nothing exacted: a  child   of  gracious fortune. Surely   his  students couldn’t have  known the difficulties of his early  career,  although a sharp observer might perhaps have  read  a  reminiscence of  them   in  his  eyes  and   in  his  never-completed smile.  “Tell your  husband to  move  over  and  give us a  chance,” raged  a  Columbia revolutionary of 1968 who  had  been  busted and  was now  phoning to vent  his fury  at  the “authority,” not  any authority  but  the  one  who  must  have  been  nearest to his own  ideal.  Lionel was not  at home  to take  the call; the  message was to be passed on by me.

 

S

SEVEN  years  had  elapsed  between  Lio­nel’s   graduation  from   Columbia  in 1925,  shortly  before   his  twentieth birthday, and his    appointment  as   an    English    instructor   in 1932-there was of course  no  tenure in an  instruc­ torship,  but   the   appointment  was  an   accolade; both   families  felt   very  proud.  But   no  one   was under the  illusion, unless  perhaps Lionel’s father, that  Lionel’s professional problems were  now  permanently  solved.   My  own   father  was  ill,   termi­nally,  and   I  remember  a  conversation  with   him that   fall  in  which   I tried   to  divert  him  with   an account  of  a  debate  Lionel  and   I had   recently attended between Earl Browder for  the Communist party  and  McAlister Coleman for  the  Socialists  at the   Morningside  branch  of   the   Socialist   party, near   the  University. My  father was  upset;  “Don’t you  know   that   President Butler  has  his  spies  at meetings like  that?” I pointed out  that  Lionel  was in  no  danger, I had  even  seen  Corliss  Lamont at the  meeting. “A  Communist like  Corliss  Lamont Lionel should be.”  To  the  son  of a  Morgan part­ ner-my  father was  saying-life offered  safer  harbors   than    to  an   anonymous  Jew.   But   he   was reflecting as well the  then-prevalent idea of the university, contradictory though it  was of his own deep-rooted respect  for all  institutions of learning, as  a  bulwark  of  entrenched  political  and   social values,  and   in  itself  a  power  entity. To all  Jews and   maybe   to  most   non-Jews,   too,  certainly  in New York,  the  university had  an authority not  unlike  that   of  the  state: remote, virtually. absolute. And   this  view  was  fortified at  Columbia  by  the public image  of  Nicholas Murray Butler who  was known   to  associate   with   the  great   financiers and political leaders of the  day  and  to want  the  Presi­dency   of  the  United States.   We  forget   that   our picture of  the   college   as  a  liberal  citadel  is  of recent vintage, post-Roosevelt.

It had  not  been  a calm  road  Lionel had  traveled in  the seven  years since his graduation in  1925. He had   remained  at   Columbia  in   1925-26  to   take his  MA,  after  which  he  had  spent  a year  as  what would   now  be called  a  teaching assistant   in  Alex­ ander  Meiklejohn’s  experimental  college   at   the University of Wisconsin. My knowledge of 1927-29 is not  precise:  while  I  know  he  taught at  Hunter under  Blanche  Colton  Williams,  I   am   unsure whether it was in the day or evening session;  he regarded the  experience as  only  a  degrading one and  afterward didn’t  wish  to  speak  of  it.  In  this area,   too,  we  have  to  keep  in  mind   the  changes that   have  taken   place  since  that   period:  the  city system was then  well-locked  into  the system of Tammany patronage; merit  was scarcely  the sole ground on  which  one  got  a  Hunter appointment.

We  married in  1929 and  during the  next   year Lionel   worked  as an  assistant editor of  the  Menorah journal for Elliot  Cohen, apparently giving satisfaction neither to  Cohen   nor  himself-it was another experience he preferred not  to discuss. Between  1930 and  1932 he taught in  the  evening ses­sion  of  Hunter; in  the  second  of  those  two  years he  also  had  an  $1,800  fellowship from  Columbia – he had  to  appeal for  special  permission  to  aug­ ment    this   by   his   part-time   teaching.  Evening teaching at  Hunter was piece  work:  one  was paid a  bit  more  than  $3 an  hour for  an  undergraduate class,  something  over   $5  an   hour  for   graduate teaching. Lionel had  one  undergraduate and  one graduate class. When there  was insufficient graduate  registration, several  of  my  friends signed   up, the  investment of  the  $15  registration fees  being justified  by our  need  for the income. But  a bout  of flu  could   spell   financial catastrophe:  on  an  evening  when  Lionel was too  ill  to leave  his bed,  we could  think of no salvation but  for  me to  take  his classes for  him.  As a direct  result  of that  undertak­ ing- I tried to  teach  his graduate students a book I  had  never  read-I have  not  again  ventured into a classroom.

 

Accesses    of    inexplicable power    can suddenly   come  to   one-as   Lionel would  learn  a few years  later-and sudden  benefi­cences  too:  the  offer  to Lionel of an  instructorship at  Columbia is not  readily accounted for.  By and large,  except  for  Raymond Weaver, who  was out­ spokenly hostile  until a long  time  afterward  when his enmity changed into affection  as precipitously as it  had  appeared, his  teachers liked  Lionel  well enough, but   he  was  far  from  esteemed above  all others-it is  even  possible   that   a  piece  by  Mark Van  Doren  in  the  Menorah   journal  in   1927,  in which  he describes some  of his  former Jewish  stu­dents,  reflects more  than  just his own estimate that Lionel’s was  one  of  the  less  commanding talents of his college  generation.  (What strikes  one,  read­ ing  the  piece  today,  is surely  not  any  prescience it can boast  but  its subject. In  1927 only  an  editor of Elliot   Cohen’s ironic  imaginativeness could   have thought  to  invite  a  college   teacher   of  English, even  in  New  York,  to write  about the Jews  he had taught!) The person  directing Lionel’s dissertation was  Emery   Neff,  a  scholar   of  Carlyle   and   Mill. Neff was personally not  unfriendly but  Lionel  had given   him  little to  go  on  in   judgment of  his  capacities  other than  vague  gropings toward a book about  Matthew  Arnold. When  the  appointment as instructor came,  it  was  from  an  entirely  unexpected  source.  There was no reason  to suspect  that Ashley  Thorndike, then   head  of  the  department, took  notice   of  Lionel, yet  it  was  Thorndike  who offered  him  the  job. Did  Thorndike, in  proposing Lionel for  the  English department, have a programmatic  purpose?    Had    he   caught  something about  Lionel  that   others  missed?   Lionel  never learned.  Obviously, if  it  was  Thorndike’s  intention   to  test  a  Jew,   Lionel  made   a  good   gamble both  in  appearance and  name. Had  his name  been that  of  his  maternal grandfather, Israel  Cohen, it is  highly   questionable  whether  the   offer  would have  been  made.   (This was the grandfather  whose uncanny  resemblance  to   Freud  would    in   later years capture Lionel’s imagination.)

      It was a period  in  which  one  earned one’s  keep: for  $2,400  an  instructor  taught  four   full   courses while  commonly working for  his PhD. If, like  Lionel,  he had  ambitions to write  elsewhere than  only in  scholarly  periodicals,  he  also  wrote   book   reviews when  he could  get  them.  If he was desperate as Lionel was for  money,  he added to this schedule such   literary  odd   jobs  as  came  his  way-for $10 fees Lionel talked   to  womens’  clubs  in  Staten Island  or  Westchester; he  pasted  up  anthologies to be given  away as bonuses  with  newspaper subscriptions;  at one stage,  he tutored a rich  young  man  in novel-writing and,  at  another, he  taught a class at a Junior League. I don’t know  if the quality of his teaching suffered  under the  pressure  but  undoubtedly  his  thesis  did.  It  would   nevertheless be  inaccurate to blame  the difficulties he was having with his   book   wholly   on   the   strains  of  such   urgent money-earning,  severe   as   these   were.   He   was depressed,  he  had   a  considerable  writing   block though  fortunately  not   a   total    one,   he   didn’t know   what   kind   of  book  he  had   undertaken  to write: how did  you write  an intellectual biography of Matthew Arnold without writing the  history  of the  19th  century? From   the  start   his  department had  no  great  enthusiasm for  his  dissertation  subject;   it   was  too   big,   too   amorphous,  and   who cared   about  Arnold anyway?   Yet  with   no   clear notion of  what   he  was  about, which   might   have persuaded  them   to  take  a  more  cheerful view  of his project, Lionel  never  yielded  his determination to stay  with  his  topic.  No one  could  have  worked harder, nor  less  fruitfully-he went  out   no  more than  one  evening a week,  he read,  he  brooded,  he drafted chapter after  chapter. My own  recollection of  his early  efforts  on  the  Arnold was of a  dissertation that,  week in and  week out,  found yet another  way of saying  that  England had  had  an  Industrial   Revolution  and   that   the   roads   were   bad! Although  Lionel   knew   better  than  to  show   all these  versions  to  Neff,  an  occasional presentation was unavoidable, and  each  time  Neff read  a chapter  he sent  Lionel back  for a fresh  try. Later, when life   improved,  Lionel    confessed   to   me   that    he didn’t always  go  to  the  library when   he  told  me that  that  was his destination: things were  too bad. In fact, even earlier in our  marriage, assailed  by depression,  he  would   go   to   the   movies,   sitting through  interminable  double  features like  some­ one  homeless.

I T WENT this  way for  four  years.  In  1936 the    Columbia  department    dropped him.  The way it  was done  was not  harsh. The departmental spokesman said  he would  not  be reappointed for  a next  year  because  “as  a Freudian, a  Marxist, and   a  Jew”   he  was  not   happy   there. Lionel said  he was happy  in  the department. They said  he  would   be  “more  comfortable” elsewhere.

Obviously in  the  midst  of  the  devastation  pro­duced   by  his  dismissal-what would   he do  now?­ Lionel   couldn’t grasp   the  complex truth  of  what was  involved  in  this  termination of  his  appointment.  But though not yet formulated with  the conviction  that  would  later  come  to  him,  at  least one  thing  was immediately clear:  his dismissal  was not   any   simple  act   of  anti-Semitism,  any   more than   it  was  a  simple   act  of  anti-Freudianism  or anti-Marxism-while he had been known  to be a Communist  fellow-traveler at  the  time  he  got  his job in  1932, in  the  years since  then  he had  moved steadily   away   from   his  earlier   Marxist  commit­ment,   although never   ceding   his  interest  in  and respect for Marx’s  thought; as for his Freudian preference, it could  be known  only through conversation because  in  1936 it  had  not  yet appeared in  his writing. Although over  the  years the story of Lionel’s dismissal  came  to be talked  about among people   we  knew  as  a  gross  instance of  collegiate anti-Semitism, this  was a bargain-basement version of  the  actual scenario. What was in  fact  going  on doesn’t make the ready matter of religious polemics, it  makes  the  more  textured matter of fiction.  Lionel was a harried, frightened young  man.  He proclaimed   no   confidence   in   himself-this   was true  outside the  University as  well  as  within it­ and  he  therefore inspired little  confidence in  others.  In  1936 his  dissertation was not  yet visible  to the  naked   eye.  His  moral   and   intellectual  force, like  his  tenaciousness and  wit,  was  visible  chiefly to me and  a few other intimates. When his depart­ment  said  he  wasn’t   happy  with  them  and  would be  more  comfortable elsewhere, what   they  meant was that   they  weren’t happy  with  him  and  would be  more  comfortable if  he  went   somewhere  else. The documentation they  produced in  evidence of his-their-unease was  the  aspect  of  the  situation that  had  significant social implications, for  what  it revealed was that  Jews  were  people  who  made  the Columbia faculty  uncomfortable, Freudians were people  who  made  the Columbia faculty  uncomfort­able,  Marxists were people  who made  the Columbia faculty   uncomfortable. It is in  this  sense,  circum­scribed   but   charged   enough,  that   in   dismissing Lionel, Columbia can  be accused  of anti-Semitism together with  other biases and  cautions.

 

     It  was  a  few  days  before   Lionel responded at Columbia to his dismissal: the  action  he  took  was the  single  most  decisive  move  of his life,  undoubtedly   its  source   his  mother’s  insistence  that   her hope  for  her  son,  her  certainty of his  firm  future, must   triumph  over   his  father’s  long   tragic   concourse  with  defeat. One  after  the other Lionel confronted  those  members of  his  department  whom he knew  best:  Van  Doren, Weaver, Neff. He didn’t reason  with  them,  he  didn’t argue  with  them.  He told  them   that   they  were  getting rid  of  a  person who   would   one   day   bring  great   distinction  to their   department; they  would   not  easily  find  an­ other as good. It was his habit to speak  quietly but now   he  spoke   so  loud   that   Neff  was  distressed, closed   the   transom. It  wasn’t a   ploy,  it   wasn’t planned-for the rest of his life Lionel would  recur to  this  deeply   uncharacteristic  moment. With  me or with  friends, he would  speculate on what  had generated conduct this  alien   to  his  usual   temper and  also  what  lessons  about our  human workings were  to be learned from  its outcome. All at once  he had  presented himself  to these  people  as the  oppo­ site of what he had previously been, someone  who tempted their  aggression, and,  as he analyzed it,  it was  this  that   had  accomplished its  miracle: with such  high  opinion of  himself,   was  it  not  possible that  he  deserved   their  high  opinion? At  any  rate, so it worked  out: it was agreed  that  he was to stay on  for  another year;  the  year  multiplied  because he was now  a changed person.  He  began  his  book anew,   his  confusions about  the  direction  it  must take seemed  overnight to vanish. By 1939 it was published to  his  department’s satisfaction and President Butler’s pride. In  those  days  a dissertation  had  to be published and  a hundred copies  de­posited   in  the  library  in  order  to  earn   one’s   degree;  it  was a last  unhappy note  to  the  history  of Lionel’s Matthew Arnold  that   W.  W.  Norton  required a subsidy  to publish it. Somehow-more borrowing!-we found the money.

 

 

 

The  role   of  President  Butler  in   the next  stage of Lionel’s academic career importantly modifies  the  image  of Butler that  has come down  to us. Few good  words  have  been  writ­ten about him;  in general he has been  made  to appear,  especially  in  the  recollection of students who were engaged in Communist activities on  the  campus  in  the  30’s, a fiercely  repressive administrator, indeed a tyrant. I don’t know  the  justice  or  injus­ tice  of  these  reports. His  relation to  Lionel,  however,  was exemplary in an administrative tradition that  no longer exists.

   One  day  in  early  1939-his book  had   just  been published in  England as well  as here-Lionel met his  old  friend and   teacher, Irwin   Edman, in  the neighborhood. As they chatted, Irwin  asked  Lionel whether he had  thought to send Butler a copy of the Matthew Arnold. No, Lionel had  not;  it had  not occurred to  him.  But  Butler liked  to  be sent  copies of  books  written by members of his faculty, Irwin explained; in fact,  he considered it a breach of etiquette if this courtesy  was denied him.  No one was more  knowledgeable in  such  matters than   Irwin. He  was  the  only  person  of our  acquaintance  who also had  acquaintance with  the  President; his  urg­ing of this  duty  upon  Lionel was not  to be written off.  To   Lionel, Butler  was  a  distant,  formidable figure,   known  for   his  almost   comically exalted style of life:  how  did  one  even  address him?  Irwin must  be  bothered once  more.  In  reply  to  Lionel’s embarrassed phone call, Irwin  explained the pro­cedure: addressing him  “Dear Mr.  President,” Lionel   must   write   a  letter  asking   the   privilege  of sending him  his  recent   book;  the  book,  inscribed “To  President Butler, Respectfully….,”  was to be mailed the  next  day. Insisting that  he could  not do   it,  would   not   do  it,   could   not   be  prevailed upon   to  do   it,   Lionel  followed   Irwin’s  instructions.

    That night   I  had   a  waking   dream  in   which President Butler  got  Lionel’s book,   read   it,  and rushed  into    the   next    office  to   Frank   Fackenthal,   Columbia’s  Provost. “Frank,  do   you  mean to   say   we   have   an   instructor  in   this   university  who  can  write  a  book  like  this?  He  must  be promoted!” I later  learned that  as nearly  as a fantasy can  be reenacted in reality, this  one  had  been.

If  President Butler wanted a  young   man   promoted, he had  his procedures. Every spring the As­sociation for  University Teas gave  a  reception at the  Faculty Club for  the  President and   his  wife. Several  weeks  before  the  event this  spring an  engraved  invitation arrived at our  house:  Lionel and I  were  asked  to dinner at  the  President’s the  evening  of  the  reception. No  one  we  knew  had  ever been  at  the  Butlers’ for  dinner, perhaps not  even Irwin   Edman. I  remember I  had  to  go  afield  for advice  about dress,  but   that  could   have  been  because  Irwin   had  no  wife  I  could  consult. I  felt  I was taking my life  in my hands in even  calling the Secretary of  the  University, a white-haired gentleman   who  suggested   a  plumper smoother Cordell Hull,  to inquire whether it  was white  or  black  tie that  was indicated for  our  occasion. “White  tie,  I should  think,” said  Mr.  Hayden  in  a  voice  that froze  the  heart. It was decided: Lionel would  hire tails   and   I  would   buy   a  ball   gown.   A  terrible thought came to me: need  I wear long  white gloves? Who  was there  to  tell  me? I called  the  fashion  de­ partment  of  Vogue   magazine  which   assured  me that  there  was no occasion  or  place  that  any  longer  required long   white   gloves,  unless   it  was  the Court  of  St.  James’s. This  convinced me:   long white  gloves  would  be  worn  at  President Butler’s. I  called  the  fashion• adviser  of  Bonwit  Teller and got   the   same   reply   but   this   time   I  was   more specific:   “What  about  dinner  at   the   home    of President Butler of Columbia University?” “Well, yes,” came  the reply.  “That might be a good  idea.” Public figures  and   University  people   were  obviously  not   to  be  mixed;  on  the  evening of  our dinner the  guests  were entirely from  the  faculty, I think there  were  twenty  people   present. For  dinner at eight,  Lionel and  I carefully arrived at 8:02.

 

We  were  the  last  to arrive and  were  rather urgently propelled toward the closed drawing-room doors by a footman. The doors  were flung  open,  we were announced  by  a  butler. The  receiving line   consisted  of  the  President and  his  wife.  “Let me  congratulate  you,  sir,  on   your   splendid  English   reviews,”   was   the   President’s  greeting  to   Lionel. “There’s only  been  one,” said  Lionel. “There have been  two, sir,”  the President corrected him.  In  the meantime  I   was   being  welcomed,  if  that’s  the word,   by  his  wife.  “Do   you  know  everyone here, my dear?” I  made  a lightning survey  of  the  room. “I’m  afraid  I  don’t  know   anyone.”  “That,   my dear,   is  because   you  never   come   to  any   of  the teas or  receptions.” In  the dining room  it  was possible  to study  the company. All the women  but  one wore  long  white  kid  gloves,  the  hands now  rolled back.  Lionel   was  the  obvious purpose of  the  evening.  Dean  Hawkes  of the  College  was a guest  and so was Ernest Hunter Wright, now  head  of the University English department. For  his  communi­cation   to be unmistakable, Butler would  have  had to do no more  than  invite Lionel, an  instructor, in this  company. But   he  had   yet  another arrow to fire.

Through dinner the  President ate  nothing;  he drank a  great  deal  of Scotch.  The food  was delicious:   his  wife   was  a  Frenchwoman  of   mature years   built  with    the   kind   of  one-piece sloping bosom  that  made  a properly solid  armature for a lavender cut-velvet  Worth gown,  very expensive, elegant,  and   unbeautiful, that   was  then   in  favor among   higher-echelon  ladies   of   two   continents, and   I  knew  about her   table  from   the  grocer   we shared. One  day  when  I  had  been  offered  a  bar­gain  in  loose  carrot·s from  a  corner basket  and  I had  rejected them  as “horse carrots,” he  had  confided  to  me  that   these  were  the  ones  Mrs.  Butler bought for  the  servants’ kitchen; nothing was  too good  for  her  own  table.  There were  several   foot­ men  to serve  so  that  the  meal  went  swiftly.  At its end   the  women   repaired  to  Mrs.  Butler’s sitting­ room    upstairs  while    the   men    had   cigars   and brandy  in   the  President’s library. The  President sat  on  a bench  with  his  back  to  the  fireplace, Lionel  told  me, and  did  all  the  talking. He  was growing    old;    under   any    circumstances   it    would have   been  easier   to  talk   than   listen. In  a  circle in  front of  him   the  men  attended  what   he  had to say.

What the  prefatory monologue consisted in  was of  no   import,  it   was  where   it   inescapably  led that   mattered:  Butler  recounted  the  correspondence  he  had  had  with  the  Chancellor of  the  Uni­versity  of Berlin  when  the  two universities, Berlin and  Columbia, had decided on an exchange of philosophy professors.  Columbia proposed to send Felix   Adler   and   the   Chancellor  had   written  to protest  a Jewish  visitor.  Lionel  recreated the scene. Having got  this  far  in  his  narrative, Butler had put  down  his  brandy glass and  firmly  planted  his hands   on   his  knees,   fixing   his  eyes  on  Professor Wright as he boomed: “And I, gentlemen, I wrote back:   ‘At  Columbia, sir,  we  recognize   merit,   not race.’ ” Silence.  The party   rose  to  join  the  ladies and  move on  to the Faculty Club  reception. In  the summer, “under  his  summer  powers,”   President Butler appointed Lionel  an Assistant  Professor  of English,   the  first  Jew   of  that   department  to  be­ come a member of the faculty.

 

 

How   much,    then,    had    anti-Semitism actually  been   a   factor    in   Lionel’s dismissal  in  1936?  Who  can  say? Certainly it  was by Butler’s intervention, by fiat of the  top  authority  of  the  University, that  a Jew  was  first given  a post  teaching English at Columbia, which  in  those days implied permanence.

Everyone was easy with  him;  Lionel  felt  no hidden   tensions.   Indeed,  the  generosity  that   he  met from   this  point  forward in  his  Columbia  career has, for me, a legendary quality-his departmental colleagues could  not  have  taken  more  pleasure in his  academic or  critical successes if  they  had  been their  own.

One   day,  however,   very  soon  after   his  promotion,   Lionel  had   a   call   from   Emery   Neff:   he wished  to come  to  the  house  and  he  hoped  that  I would   be at  home  too.  Although we were  mildly on  visiting terms  with  Neff and  his wife, a call  of this kind  was unprecedented.

What  Emery   Neff  came   to  say  was  that   now that  Lionel was a  member of  the  department,  he hoped  that  he would  not  use it as a wedge  to open the  English   department  to  more  Jews.  He  made his statement  economically and  straightforwardly, ungarnished;  it   must   have   taken   some  courage. And  he seemed   to  be speaking for  himself  alone; he  cited   no  other  departmental  opinion.  Lionel and   I  just  sat  and   stared.  Neither  of  us  spoke. Emery  turned to other subjects  and  soon  left.

World War  II had  started. In •the next  years  the situation of Jews in American universities changed radically.   Not    only    at    Columbia,   but    every­ where,   even   Harvard,  Princeton,  Yale,  and   not only  in  English departments  but   in  all  fields  of study  and  in administration, Jews  made  their  com­ fortable way. I remember Lionel’s grin  the day  he came  home  to report: “We  hired a new English  instructor today.  His  name  is Hyman Kleinman.” I also  remember, in  fact  together  we  remembered, one   of  his  father’s wilder-no,  wildest-flights of fancy  back  in  the  early  30’s  when  it  seemed  to  us that  if we had  to endure yet another of his unreal­ities  we  might   ourselves   lose  our   hold.   We  had been   talking about Jews  in  college  teaching,  the failure they  almost  surely  faced.  His  father, as al­ ways unperturbed in  his  reading of  this  world  we presumably  inhabited   with   him,   had   fixed   his most  unbearably  pitying look  on   Lionel. “Why, son,  this  is America. A Jew  could  be  President of Columbia University.”

 

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