Reading the USA Trilogy

There was a year when I wrote three hundred posts on this blog. This year I’ve written thirty. I know. Depressing. I looked and saw I’d written just three entries this month. But life is still good. I mean the usual indignities, but they’re not a big deal. The most important thing is I’m writing, I’m reading, and my baby is still adorable.

Lately I’ve read a really odd book, Lionel Trilling’s Sincerity and Authenticity. Difficult to describe this one, not even sure why I picked it up, except that I adored Trilling’s book of essays, The Liberal Imagination. This book is about how over the course of about four hundred years, literature stopped emphasizing the importance of sincerity–the quality of being open about one’s beliefs and opinions and goals–and started to emphasize the similar-but-different quality of authenticity, which consists of knowing one’s beliefs, opinions, and goals, even if you don’t share them with others.

It’s hard to summarize his analysis–I don’t think I fully understand it myself. Hegel comes into play, and whenever someone trots out Hegel, you know that it’s soon going to become impossible to make sense of the article. I think what he’s saying, however, is that as society became more mechanized and less governed by personal relations, the quality of forthrightness (speaking truth to power and not being a sleazy suck-up or courtier) started to seem less desirable. People recognized that we were governed by these vast machines that demanded a certain insincerity for the purposes of survival. Similarly, our relationship to society is less restricted. Even the family has broken down as a source of authority. So we are left wondering who we are.

One thing I love about Trilling is that he and I have similar touchstones. Normally when you read a book of literary criticism, the author trots out a bunch of books you haven’t read, and you’ve got to take their word for it. Here when he writes about The Sorrows of Young Werther or about the work of Denis Diderot, I’ve read the sources, so his commentary has more meaning to me.

I’m generally suspicious of the idea that human character has changed over time, but Trilling is careful to emphasize that he’s talking about the values placed in literature. And I think it’s true that many of the heroes of modern literature would not’ve been heroes in prior times. More interestingly, there is a period of several hundred years in literature when you can see the tension between value systems. He writes movingly about Madame Bovary for instance, and about how Nathalie Sarraute (another author I love) wrote that Emma Bovary had no authenticity: that her flaw was that nothing inside her was truly her own, it was all a concoction created out of gimcrack romance novels. But if you really give a sympathetic reading to the novel, you realize that’s not true. There is a tension there. She has unrealistic dreams, it is true, but she’s also passionate and determined. There is iron inside her. Similarly, this same tension animates much of Jane Austen. Her characters are supposed to conform to their social roles and are most praised when they do, but they also have a certain authenticity: they are wild and willful, and the novels often toy with punishing them for their wilfulness.

Umm, alright, other books I’ve been reading…I’ve gotten into the first book of the USA Trilogy, by John Dos Passos. You’ve heard of this book: it’s the modernist classic told from twelve viewpoints, intercut with stream of consciousness sections, biographies of real people, and set of newspaper clippings. When people write about this work, they always write more about the technique than the content, but I was reading another collection of Lionel Trilling essays, and he wrote about how Dos Passos was one of the few early 20th century leftist writers who expressed skepticism about the organized left, and about how the USA trilogy was really about how industrialized society offers scope for moral choice. I was sold! The story is great. I’m not far into it yet (a third of the way into the first book), and so far the story sections follow Fenian McCreary, a printer and labor activist, and his personal struggle between living the life of an organizer and finding financial stability for his family. Early in the story, he gets a girl pregnant and ignores her importunate letters from San Francisco while he works on a labor periodical in a Nevada mining town. But his loneliness drives him back to her. He’s tired of the rough and tumble life. They marry, and he tries to go straight, moving to LA and working as a printer for the LA Times, ignoring the on-going labor disputes around him.

His political consciousness is formed early in his life, by his Uncle, a printer who is driven out of business because of his socialist sympathies. It’s a rough, untutored socialism: Fenian just has the sense that somehow, some way, life ought to be better.

And I’m still making my way through Names on the Land. Or I would be, if I could remember where I put the book. That’s the trouble with paper books: you’ve got to constantly remember where you put them down.

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