Gotham Diary:
Relapse
12 January 2012

It’s the same old story. I felt okay yesterday, so I ran a bunch of Wednesday- type errands. On the final stretch home, though, I noticed that I was both sweaty and chilled. I got into dry clothes as soon as I reached the flat, but the damage was done. I’m coughing a bit, and I’m only mildly congested, but I’m still cold, no matter how many sweaters I pull on. A reading day is indicated.

Happily, I’ve got books that I want to read. The life had rather gone out of my stack, possibly because we had spent too much time together in the past two weeks, my current books and I; more likely, I needed something exciting to read. That’s why I went to Crawford Doyle yesterday: maybe they had something that I hadn’t heard of. It wasn’t very likely (abominable conceit), but I was desperate. They did not in fact have anything (in fiction) that I hadn’t heard of. What they had was Lauren, a staff member who has advised me in the path. She recommended four titles, one of which was Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station. I remember hearing about this novel when it came out, largely because of “Atocha,” which not only was the site of horrific terrorist bombing in 2004 but also serves as the setting of the grandest scene in Verdi’s Don Carlo. (Peter Conrad’s new Verdi and/or Wagner was something that I hadn’t heard of until I saw it at Crawford Doyle yesterday; I bought it on the spot.) I think that I was put off by the review’s mention that Lerner is a poet. I allowed Lauren to quell my misgivings. And a good thing, too. Leaving the Atocha Station is funny and interesting; I want to find out if Adam, the narrator, will turn out to be a schmuck in the end. The novel very much belongs alongside Chris Bachelder’s Abbott Awaits, which I read during the holidays.

The other book that I’m enjoying is — well, there ought to be a word for it: a book that you ought to have read decades ago, in college at the latest. It’s a book that you have meant to read ever since you heard about it, but that you haven’t read because it does seem awfully serious, possibly a little fustian. It is a book that you bought several years ago. You finger it from time to time. Then, finally, it bites. Or you bite. You start to read. You feel tremendously foolish. You ought to have read this decades ago, in college at the latest, &c &c. And who the hell is V L Parrington?

The book is Lionel Trilling’s collection of essays, The Liberal Imagination, which appeared in 1950. Trilling clearly presumes that you know who Parrington is. “His ideas are now the accepted ones wherever the college course in American literature is given by a teacher who conceives himself to be opposed to the genteel and the academic and in alliance with the vigorous and the actual.” That’s from the first page of the first essay, “Reality in America.” Trilling proceeds to bury Parrington beneath a heap of small compliments and dry ridicule, and he does the job so smoothly I was pretty sure at essay’s end why I’d never heard of V L Parrington. And now I had a clearer idea of why my antennae had always steered me away from Theodore Dreiser, whom Parrington admired.

At this point in my life, it’s a real memento mori to come across an unfamiliar name, borne by someone whose now-forgotten influence once spread widely over a field that I spend a lot of time in. But then, do I? Parrington was one of the founders of “American Studies,” a parcel of literary and historical work that I have endeavored to stay out of. But I have a nodding familiarity with the names of Perry Miller and F O Matthiessen, who also helped found American studies; and I certainly know the name of Sherwood Anderson, the subject of Trilling’s second (and even more crushing) essay, and the author of a book, Winesburg, Ohio, that I remember not picking up a lot.  

What I couldn’t have understood about American Studies was its grounding in a sentimental Jefforsonian agrarianism that proved to be absolutely ineffectual at steering  the country away from the lures of Gilded-Age capitalism. I haven’t quite figured out what Trilling’s agenda is; I’m conscious only of dealing with a very cagey writer. But I applaud his demonstration that, if you want to call the Robber Barons and their government agents to account, Parrington’s is not the way to do it.