Moral Agents: Eight Twentieth-Century American Writers

Edward Mendelson (Author)


A deeply considered and provocative new look at major American writers--including Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, and W.H. Auden--Edward Mendelson's Moral Agents is also a work of critical biography in the great tradition of Plutarch, Samuel Johnson, and Emerson. Any important writer, in Mendelson's view, writes in response to an idea of the good life that is inseparable from the life the writer lives.

Fusing biography and criticism and based on extensive new research, Moral Agents presents challenging new portraits of eight writers--novelists, critics, and poets--who transformed American literature in the turbulent twentieth century. Eight sharply distinctive individuals--inspired, troubled, hugely ambitious--who reimagined what it means to be a writer.

There's Saul Bellow, a novelist determined to rule as a patriarch, who, having been neglected by his father, in turn neglected his son in favor of young writers who presented themselves as his literary heirs. Norman Mailer's extraordinary ambition, suppressed insecurity, and renegade metaphysics muddled the novels through which he hoped to change the world, yet these same qualities endowed him with an uncanny sensitivity and deep sympathy to the pathologies of American life that make him an unequaled political reporter. William Maxwell wrote sad tales of small-town life and surrounded himself with a coterie of worshipful admirers. As a powerful editor at The New Yorker, he exercised an enormous and constraining influence on American fiction that is still felt today.

Preeminent among the critics is Lionel Trilling, whose Liberal Imagination made him a celebrity sage of the anxiously tranquilized 1950s, even as his calculated image of Olympian reserve masked a deeply conflicted life and contributed to his ultimately despairing worldview. Dwight Macdonald, by contrast, was a haute-WASP anarchist and aesthete driven by an exuberant moral commitment, in a time of cautious mediocrity, to doing the right thing. Alfred Kazin, from a poor Jewish émigré background, remained an outsider at the center of literary New York, driven both to escape from and do justice to the deepest meanings of his Jewish heritage.

Perhaps most intriguing are the two poets, W.H. Auden and Frank O'Hara. Early in his career, Auden was tempted to don the mantle of the poet as prophet, but after his move from England to America he lived and wrote in a spirit of modesty and charity born out of a deeply idiosyncratic understanding of Christianity. O'Hara, tireless partygoer and pioneering curator at MoMA, wrote much of his poetry for private occasions. Its lasting power has proven to be something different from its avant-garde reputation: personal warmth, individuality, rootedness in ancient traditions, and openness to the world.

Product Details

New York Review of Books
Publish Date
March 10, 2015
5.5 X 0.9 X 8.3 inches | 0.8 pounds
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About the Author

Edward Mendelson is the Lionel Trilling Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University and the literary executor of the Estate of W. H. Auden. His books include The Things That Matter--about seven novels by Mary Shelley, Charlotte and Emily Brontë, George Eliot, and Virginia Woolf--and Early Auden and Later Auden. He has edited novels by Arnold Bennett, Thomas Hardy, George Meredith, Anthony Trollope, and H. G. Wells, and has written for The New York Review of Books, The Times Literary Supplement, the London Review of Books, The New York Times Book Review, The New Republic, and many other publications.


"In Moral Agents Edward Mendelson has written an original and unsettling group portrait of the literary generation just past. These essays are rich in quotation, precise in judgment, and unified by a premise they test in detail: that literature is most invigorating when it teaches us how to live. Mendelson is rare among contemporary critics in his treatment of writing as a form of personal action." --David Bromwich, Yale University

"Edward Mendelson's observations about literature are among the best I have read: deeply knowledgeable, appreciate and attentive, and expressed with the affinity of a scholar and critic who is himself an excellent writer." --Shirley Hazzard

"Each chapter contains a biographical profile and an assessment of the writer based on his response to some of the burning issues of the day, from the rise of communism to the sexual revolution. Mendelson's focus on "the conflicts between the inward, intimate private lives of the eight authors and the lives they led in public" ties the essays together...Those interested in the role these writers played as public intellectuals--and in the larger issue of the relationship of literature to politics--will welcome this engaging read." --Library Journal

"Drawing on unique familiarities, Mendelson, like his subjects, becomes a public intellectual, offering insightful, well-crafted sketches that will entertain and edify a broad audience." --R. Mulligan, CHOICE

Praise for Edward Mendelson's The Things That Matter

"Filled with sage insights into literature and life...A joy to read." --The Wall Street Journal

"Thrilling...[Mendelson's] readings will send you hungrily to these classics." --Newsday

"Elegant...Enlightening...Mendelson is an ideal companion...[The book] reminds us that criticism of the sort that Mendelson practices is one of the things that matter." --Los Angeles Times

"Heartfelt...illuminating." --The New York Review of Books

"Great works of fiction not only tell a story but also reveal how we are to live our lives. This sympathetic, profound, and very readable work by one of the finest literary scholars of our time shows us how seven novels can help us with the stages through which we all must pass. Edward Mendelson's insights into the meaning of the novels he considers are acute. He reveals dimensions to these works that most of us will never have guessed at, showing, with grace and courtesy, both their deeper significance and the wisdom they contain about life's challenges. Reading this book places one in the company of an urbane, erudite, and sure-footed guide." --Alexander McCall Smith

"Written with clarity and grace, these essays serve as an essential guide to an era when literary powerbrokers set the cultural agenda." --Jane Ciabattari, "Ten books to read in March," BBC