Loyalty to Origins

Henry M. Rosenthal, at home in Maine. Lionel Trilling, Walter Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Loyalty to Origins*

What you and I would like to achieve in our identity politics is purity.  We don’t want to be double — or a double-crosser.  We want to be single-minded.  As Leo Bronstein, whom I’ve cited before in these columns, often said:

Purity is loyalty to origins.

These questions come up for me now in connection with the papers of my father, Henry M. Rosenthal, which I’ve now almost finished reviewing.  He was of course Jewish, as were most of the members of his circle of talented peers in Columbia University’s class of 1925.

In a non-Jewish culture, how do you handle being Jewish, with purity — without the alloy of ambivalence?  In 1925, it wasn’t easy.

Clifton Fadiman, another classmate, was at one time known to much of America through his high-toned, literary radio show, “Information Please.”  His daughter Anne writes in her memoir, tellingly titled, The Wine Lover’s Daughter, that her father adopted his plummy accents practically overnight, at one go.  In his last year however, when he was dying, he voiced a yearning for the Jewish dishes that his mother used to cook for him when he was a boy in Brooklyn.

Sidney Hook, the political philosopher, was not a Columbia grad, but had been a part of the same post-graduate circle.  I came up to introduce myself after a lecture he gave at an academic gathering in Manhattan.  We fell to talking about my father’s youthful friendship with Columbia classmate Lionel Trilling who later became a celebrated literary critic and public intellectual.

As Hook recollected,

“Henry was Lionel’s Jewish education.  Before that, Lionel was … “

“English!” I finished the sentence for him and Hook laughed.

The implication was unstated: Henry was authentic; Lionel wasn’t.

Unfortunately for the pleasure of invidious comparisons – particularly when the target is famous — things are seldom so clear-cut as that.

In December of 1972, Trilling gave an account of his upbringing to an inquirer named John Vaughan, who was writing his dissertation on L.T.  He wrote Vaughan that his mother “like her mother before her, had been born and schooled in England … and she set great store by all English things.”

If you actually drink in Englishness with your mother’s milk, then the stuff’s not canned.  You got it from your own source.  As for the – as he says – “strangely un-Jewish name” of Trilling, he can’t account for it but says it goes back over several generations to his family’s origins in Bialystok.

About his friendship with my father, Trilling wrote to Vaughn:

In regard to my relation to my Jewishness at that time, you might want to look at a story called “Inventions” by Henry M. Rosenthal which appeared in The Menorah Journal in 1925.  Rosenthal was my very closest friend at college.  While attending the college, he also attended the Jewish Theological Seminary in preparation for the rabbinate.  He had what I have always thought of as nothing less than genius although a few years later something seems to have happened in his life which kept his extraordinary literary powers from developing.  … When I knew him, he was passionately and obsessively Jewish and the story deals with his relation to me as this was conditioned by my feeling about being Jewish.

The odd thing is that Lionel also wrote a short story about Henry titled “Impediments.”  It was Lionel’s story that appeared in The Menorah Journal in 1925.  Henry’s story about Lionel came out three years later, in 1928 in The Menorah Journal.

Each story pits characters representing Lionel and Henry against each other.  At the last scene, each writer comes off worse than his opponent and, each time, it’s his opponent who unmasks the defining weakness in the writer himself.

Thus, in “Impediments,” the Lionel character suffers a late-night visit from a fellow student named Hettner.  They have a verbal sparring match, Hettner “grave and purposeful, myself listening intently to what he had to say, polite and flippant.”

The difference between the two men is epitomized in Hettner’s impossible blue suit.  “A man may be as shabby as he pleases in a rough cloth, tweed or cheviot, and still look gay and interesting, but untidy blue serge gives him the look of a shop assistant.”

Hettner fails to dislodge the Lionel stand-in from his stylish evenness of tone. Leaving, Hettner turns, one hand on the doorknob, and says, “with a fine bitter light in his eyes … ‘What a miserable dog you are.’”

At story’s end, the narrator silently agrees with his accuser.  He has won the battle of words by seeming freer of Jewish intensity than the other man.  But it’s an ignoble victory, of the false over the genuine.

Lionel sent “Impediments” to Henry who wrote back in July of 1925, “What a really fine story you have written. … In short, your story is a thing of merit.  I resent only the excursions on shiny blue suits.  I own one myself, which I must occasionally wear.”

“Inventions,” Henry’s story, is longer and involves a difference more explicitly religious.  The Henry character is trying to shake the Lionel character loose from his unflappable snobbishness and persuade him to join the serious spiritual adventure of living as a Jew.

At the end, the Lionel character challenges the Henry character — unanswerably —

“You are all right.

But find your God

before you try to sell Him to me.”

 

 


*Thanks are due to Trilling biographer Barbara Fisher, for calling my attention to the matching short stories and providing me with the Henry letters from the Rosenthal/Trilling correspondence now archived at Columbia University.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Her next book project will be Conversations with My Father, the "Genius" Among the Giants. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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