cover image Moral Agents: Eight 20th-Century American Writers

Moral Agents: Eight 20th-Century American Writers

Edward Mendelson. New York Review Books, $21.95 (224p) ISBN 978-1-59017-776-1

Mendelson takes a fascinating look at the public personas and private selves of eight well-known male writers in 20th-century America, profiling them in relation to literature and the larger culture. The book begins with cultural critic Lionel Trilling, a "quietly dominating figure," and his belief that he had failed to be his true self in his writings and public life. Mendelson goes on to discuss the ways that Trilling's work was affected by his troubled marriage to Diana Trilling. The other profiles feature critics Dwight Macdonald and Alfred Kazin; authors Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, and William Maxwell; and poets W.H. Auden and Frank O'Hara. Each profile comes with a heading—"Sage" for Trilling, "Mythmaker" for Mailer, "Outsider" for Kazin—that describes in some way the writer's public image, though Mendelson often suggests that a one-word label can't provide the whole picture. He draws on letters, essays, short stories, passages from novels, and poems to explore his subjects' personal beliefs, such as how Auden related his Christian faith to his homosexuality. The essays on Maxwell, Trilling, and Auden are more engaging than the others, but all offer welcome insight into the lives and impact of the authors. (Feb.)