Sep 7, 2009
When Men Were the Only Models We Had:
My Teachers Barzun, Fadiman, Trilling
(Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002)
Carolyn Gold Heilbrun may have mentioned Whittaker Chambers only a few times in passing in her 2002 memoirs When Men Were the Only Models We Had, but she sheds more light on Chambers and his contemporaries than many others.
For instance, though she clearly disdains Chambers (p. 84), she can admit confidently that, “As an agnostic, I find Maxim’s [Chambers’s] one of the best definitions of spirit I have ever heard” (p. 85). (The quote from Trilling’s novel is “Suppose we say God is the Being to whom things are rendered that are not rendered to Caesar.”)
For those interested in issues such as 1930s American intellectuals (“the New York Intellectuals“) and 1950s anti-Communism, Heilbrun’s books may be easy to miss but is nevertheless essential read. Her observations are important markers of her time — a graduate student in the late 1940s and in the 1950s, then professor (1960-1993). Heilburn was an academic leader of the generation following her “models”: her comments are revealing. For instance, she expresses mere surprise at Trilling’s 1975 description of Chambers as a “man of honor.” She said that many people found Trilling’s description “puzzling, since Chambers was a spy” (p. 84) — a mild condemnation condemned to her more politically oriented, liberal peers. Yet, why should she feel any different, given her observations that, first, Communism held little interest for her and, second, “no single issue was so central as communism to Trilling’s generation” (p. 76)?
Though Heilbrun did not set out to review The Middle of the Journey, one can only wish that, as an important, early feminist, she had. She examines only the character of John Laskell, touching little on Gifford Maxim and almost not at all on Arthur Croom and wife Nancy Croom. This is our loss.
Her reminisces are important for understanding changes in women’s self-perception in the 20th Century. Snuck among other contributions is a thoughtful essay on Lionel’s wife Diana Trilling, which contrasts quite sharply with Trilling’s public wars with Mary McCarthy and Lillian Hellman.
Heilbrun starts her book with Clifton (“Kip”) Fadiman — who used to his good fortune at Simon & Schuster to help Chambers (among many others). (In Chambers’s case, Fadiman got him translation work, starting with his most famous effort, the translation from German of Bambi.) Fadiman inspired her career, followed now by his daughter, Anne Fadiman. Her two final essays on Jacques Barzun are warm tributes to the only model who became a friend.
(Mentions appear on pages 75, 76, 84-85 — the name “Whittaker Chambers” does not appear in the index.)