Lionel and Henry: In Fact and Fiction

Henry M. Rosenthal and Lionel Trilling

There is just one case I know of where two brilliant young writers published dueling short stories about each other, in which each is the protagonist and his best friend the antagonist.  Who were the writers who would do such a thing?  One was the young Lionel Trilling, who was to become a professor of English, a leading critic, public intellectual and opinion-shaper in the culture of twentieth-century America and beyond.  The other was my father, Henry M. Rosenthal, in his youth a rabbi, later a philosophy professor, of whom Trilling said, “He was the only man I ever knew whom I would call a genius.”  Trilling described my father as “my closest friend at college.”  Yet they did not remain friends.

The breakup of their friendship occurred a few years after their graduation from Columbia University’s stellar class of 1925.  It was at my father’s initiative, though not precipitated by a quarrel.  Trilling biographer Barbara Fisher has shared with me her view that Trilling never got over the loss of that early friendship.  By contrast, neither from my father’s journal entries, read posthumously, nor from any attitudes toward Lionel that he expressed in my presence, did he appear to me to regret the breakup.

After his 1928 story, “Inventions,” my father never published anything more about Lionel, nor spoke in public about him.  Years later, when Henry learned of the death of his former friend, he said, in a tone mild and musing, “I have nothing against Lionel.”  (I doubt he’d read Lionel’s major novel.)  To my mother, he added, “Probably he died because his work was done.”

Lionel, by contrast, had not been not so reticent.  In 1972, he wrote about my father to John Vaughn, an English inquirer: “He [Henry Rosenthal] 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.”

In the opinion of Henry’s daughter, that ain’t too nice. 

In Lionel’s 1925 story, “Impediments,” written when they were still close,  the fictional Henry character is depicted as almost cartoonishly awkward, intense, and decidedly the narrator’s inferior, sartorially and in his manner: thus, his “untidy blue serge gives him the look of a shop assistant.”

In a letter dated July, 1925, Henry wrote back, “What a really fine story you have written. … In short, your story is a thing of merit.  I resent only the excusions on shiny blue suits.  I own one myself, which I must occasionally wear.”  Seminary students are not normally fashion plates.

After the breakup, characters who seem to occupy the mental space previously held by my parents — resembling them in one trait or another — appear in Lionel’s fiction, always standing lower — socially and intellectually – than the first-person narrator.  Unlike the Lionel character in “Impediments,” in the later stories the narrator will never again be a Jew and never again condemn himself for masking his real views.  On the contrary, the later Lionel character is presented as entirely Anglo and honestly holding views — at the just mean — between extremes of the political left or the right as well as extremes of intensity.  In the later Lionel’s first-person narrator, we will meet the hero of moderation.

Since I’m slated to present a paper on Henry and Lionel’s dueling short stories at the Montreal meetings of the Eric Voegelin Society in September, I’ve set myself to read more of the mature Trilling: especially The Middle of the Journey, his major work of fiction.  I’d thumbed through it previously, but idly, only out of curiosity.  Now I’ve read the whole thing from front to back with purpose and attention.

The Middle of the Journey is a novel of ideas.  That’s a particular genre: its fictional characters don’t have to be fully fleshed-out human beings.  Rather, they embody and act out the logic of their beliefs.  Since that’s true of most of us to some extent (we are what we believe — even more than we are what we eat), I find such novels very interesting.  Of course, the ideas have to be portrayed credibly and the people can’t be puppets.  They too must be believable.

In my view, The Middle of the Journey is a brilliant novel of ideas.  At the time of its first publication in 1948, New York Times reviewer Orville Prescott complained that Trilling was a critic trying in vain to become a novelist.  I disagree.  Prescott didn’t grasp the genre.

Gifford Maxim is the novel’s most compelling character. His real-life counterpart was a man named Whittaker Chambers, who was a Columbia classmate of Henry and Lionel.  As a young man, Chambers had been an enormously magnetic communist party activist who drew people into his orbit.  Later he become an equally magnetic anti-communist activist and committed Christian, who testified against former comrades — especially in the “trial of the century,” where former State Department official Alger Hiss was convicted of perjury. (Confirming Chambers’ testimony, KGB files ultimately revealed Hiss to have been a Soviet agent.) 

Trilling’s portrayal of Maxim (Chambers) in mid-skating from one power center on the left to another on the right, displays the imaginative force and adroitness of a Dostoevsky.  It’s dramatic, recognizable and riveting.  In the course of the narrative, the Trilling character discovers how to hold his own ground at the just mean — between the political extremes.

What riveted me, however, was a subplot within the main story line.  The narrator, standing in for Lionel, has a brief but soul-healing affair with a woman who is an obvious stand-in for my mother!


Rachelle had been a continental beauty.  I inherited a volume of Proust in French, which Lionel gave her with his inscription, in French.  In Diana Trilling’s memoir, published after Lionel’s death, his widow writes about my mother in terms so venomous that I will not quote them.  Good grief!  Was it possible?  After all, children don’t know everything about their parents.

It was time to stop whatever else I was doing and review in my mind everything I could recall about my parents — in their relation to each other and to the Trillings.  There isn’t space here to go through the whole list, item by item.  I’ll allow just one to stand in for the rest.  In Lionel’s novel, his stand-in is shown wooden bowls decoratively painted by the character who stands in for my mother.  The woman who paints bowls is portrayed pretentiously attaching outsized significance to her decorations — as if they represented a whole worldview meant for the Lionel character to admire.

Years back, when I thumbed through the novel, I asked my mother about the wooden bowls, some of which were still in my parents’ apartment.  Had they any such significance for my mother as Lionel claimed? 

“No,” Rachelle shook her head with a bored gesture.  “What significance?  I painted them to sell while I was pregnant and we were poor.”

Jerry, who understands the male mind better than I do, told me that a fictional portrayal of Lionel having an affair with Henry’s wife would be one more way for a guy to stick it to another guy. 

Oh.  Who knew?

The Jew that Lionel succeeded in erasing in himself appears in his fiction in the form of non-Jewish characters having some trait reminiscent of my father or my mother.  From my father, Lionel borrows a kind of intensity or sincerity that becomes crazy.  From my mother, painted bowls, and cultural aspirations that — impertinently! — he pictures as hopeless.  The characters in whom some distortion of my parents might be traced are mere pitiable splinters of the real and fascinating people that they were.

If that was Lionel’s psychological strategy for dealing with the memory of Henry and Rachelle — a couple for whom there was always a compelling truth in being openly Jewish — was there any motive besides male revenge for having the fictional Lionel sleep with the imaginary Rachelle?  In that part of the novel, her supposed cultural insufficiencies get bracketed and what comes through accurately enough is her recognizable womanly dignity and emotional wholeness.  Nothing in that scene is pornographic or indeed graphic at all.  The fictional Lionel enjoys a moment of harmony with a beautiful woman.

Why does the fictional Lionel sleep with the imaginary Rachelle?  Well, why give up all the joys of authenticity for careerism’s harsh daily demands?

Why not have your cake and eat it too —

at least in imagination?

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 and as an audiobook. 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 and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” ( 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. Some of her articles can be accessed at . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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