Edward Mendelson is the Lionel Trilling Professor in the Humanities at Columbia. His latest book is Moral Agents: Eight Twentieth-Century American Writers. (February 2016)

A Different T.S. Eliot

T. S. Eliot, 1956; photograph by Cecil Beaton from Mark Holborn’s book Beaton: Photographs, just published by Abrams with an introduction by Annie Leibovitz
Robert Crawford’s Young Eliot, the first volume of a two-part biography, and The Poems of T.S. Eliot, edited and massively annotated by Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue, make it possible to see more deeply than before into Eliot’s inner life, to perceive its order and complexity in new ways, and to recognize that his detractors and his defenders were responding to attitudes that Eliot condemned in himself and to beliefs that his poems simultaneously expressed and rebuked.

Obama as Literary Critic

Barack Obama at Occidental College, 1981

In a letter to his college girlfriend, Barack Obama writes with strikingly suggestive insight into Eliot’s literary and religious tradition and his special relation to it. Instead of isolating Eliot in some social, ethnic, or sexual category, instead of hearing in him the voice of political or ideological error, Obama finds a deep ambivalence that might be felt by anyone.

Lives & Loves of the Exile

Nicolas Nabokov, New York City, 1965; photograph by Gjon Mili
Nicolas Nabokov was a Russian composer, exiled at sixteen, a year and a half after the October Revolution, and best known for his career as secretary-general of the Congress for Cultural Freedom, an international organization created in 1950 for the purpose of sponsoring festivals, conferences, and magazines that would exemplify …

Malamud’s Secrets

Bernard Malamud, Bennington, Vermont, 1971
Bernard Malamud gave many answers to the question asked by an Italian thief of a Jewish grocer in The Assistant (1957): “What I like to know is what is a Jew anyway?” In lectures titled “Imaginative Writing and the Jewish Experience” or “Hunting for Jewishness,” or in his acceptance speech …

‘My Grasping, Greedy American Soul’

Irving Howe built three careers in one heroically productive life. From his high school years in the 1930s until his death at seventy-two in 1993, he was a political activist and polemicist, angry defender of the democratic-socialist faith against old-guard Communists and New Left firebrands, and founding editor of the …

Escape from Microsoft Word

When I work in Word, for all its dazzling prowess, I can’t escape a faint sense of having entered a closed, rule-bound society. When I write in WordPerfect, with all its scruffy, low-tech simplicity, the world seems more open, a place where endings can’t be predicted, where freedom might be real.

Who Was Ernest Hemingway?

Ernest Hemingway and his son Jack, Schruns, Austria, 1925
Hemingway’s letters are copious with gossip and boasting that he often enlivens by invention. He assures a friend at one point, “Quite a lot of the above paragraph is true.” Except in a few authentic-sounding outbursts against his parents, almost everything he says about his emotional life seems false.

The Secret Auden

W. H. Auden, Fire Island, 1946
W.H. Auden had a secret life that his closest friends knew little or nothing about. Everything about it was generous and honorable. He kept it secret because he would have been ashamed to have been praised for it. I learned about it mostly by chance, so it may have been far more extensive than I or anyone ever knew.

The Myths of Christopher Isherwood

Christopher Isherwood and W.H. Auden in London on their departure for China, 1938
Most of Christopher Isherwood’s novels are autobiographical. Many are narrated by someone named either Christopher Isherwood or William Bradshaw. Despite this, Christopher William Bradshaw-Isherwood—the name he was given at birth in 1904—was in some ways the least egocentric of novelists. The narrator who shares his name seems almost invisible, merely …

The Strange Powers of Norman Mailer

Norman Mailer, New York City, 1982
He hoped to write a novel great enough to cause “a revolution in the consciousness of our time.” But his best work was his political and cultural reportage: The Armies of the Night, Miami and the Siege of Chicago, Of a Fire on the Moon, and The Executioner’s Song. He spent much of his life reporting facts as if he were writing fiction, and performing—for an audience of gossip columnists and shockable reviewers—a fictional version of his life as though it were fact.

Pynchon’s Mrs. Dalloway

Reading the first pages of Thomas Pynchon’s new novel, Bleeding Edge, with its story of a shrewd but otherwise unexceptional woman trying to untangle a vast unsolvable mystery, I remembered the excitement I felt when I first read his earlier novel on the same theme, The Crying of Lot 49. As I thought about The Crying of Lot 49, I belatedly realized that it tells a story very much like the one told by Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. In tone, setting, character, and incident, Mrs. Dalloway is a world away from The Crying of Lot 49, but both books have the same overall shape and both describe a lonely and reluctant quest for meanings that can never be obvious. There are greater books, but none that move me in the same way.

Old Saul and Young Saul

Greg Bellow with his father, Saul Bellow, Ludingtonville, New York, 1946
In outline form, Greg Bellow’s memoir of his father Saul tells a familiar twentieth-century story: a young Jewish left-wing idealist becomes an overbearing middle-aged reactionary, driven in part by sexual anxieties obvious to everyone but himself. In detail, the story is nuanced, moving, and idiosyncratic, with an unpredictable ending. As …

Faith and Works at Apple

Apple CEO Steve Jobs during a speech, San Francisco, California, June 28, 2004

As everyone knows, the world-religion of the educated and prosperous in the twenty-first century is Apple, with its Vatican in Cupertino and its cathedrals in the light-filled Apple Stores that draw pilgrims gripping iPhones and iPads like rosaries. Apple’s flock is secured against heresy by censors who rule the online App Store; only applications with Apple’s imprimatur are allowed on an iPhone. Programmers risk excommunication—with all their works condemned to being listed in an Index of Prohibited Software—if they violate canon law by bypassing Apple’s banking system or ignoring its infallible doctrine. Rebellious heretics can “jailbreak” an iPhone and induce it to accept software anathematized by Apple, but a heretic’s phone is refused communion when presented for repair at the Apple Store.

‘Seeing Is Not Believing’

Albert Pinkham Ryder: The Tempest, 1892
Anthony Hecht, more than any other American poet of the past half-century, wrote as a champion of traditional forms and elevated syntax. Formal verse, in his eyes, embodied the dignity and grandeur of law itself. He titled one of his books of criticism The Hidden Law (1993), another On the …

Triumph of a Moral Critic

Daniel Mendelsohn, New York City, 2005
Daniel Mendelsohn’s Waiting for the Barbarians collects twenty-four of his essays on subjects that range from Homer and Sappho through Stendhal and Rimbaud to Spider-Man and Mad Men. Even more than his earlier books about literature and culture, it displays his characteristic strengths of style and judgment and his distinctive …

The Demonic Trilling

Lionel Trilling, New York City, 1970s
It is hard to recall now the enormous prestige of Lionel Trilling as a literary and social critic during the postwar years. The Liberal Imagination (1950), his first collection of essays, is said to have sold more than 70,000 hardback copies. For the first and last time, a literature professor …

Dwight, the Passionate Moralist

Dwight Macdonald, East Hampton, New York, 1979
In his long career as a journalist and critic, Dwight Macdonald exasperated his left-wing friends by changing his political views unpredictably and abruptly, sometimes between soup and dessert. He signed a petition favoring one side in a labor dispute, only to join the other side a few days later. He …

The Human Face of Type

A poster for Helvetica

I was always interested in typefaces, but I became obsessed with them only when my wife got pregnant. The psychological mechanism seems to have been something like this: For five centuries, printers’ type was made of lead; the form into which the molten metal was poured and which gave the letter its shape was called a matrix—the Latin word for womb. At a time when something that mattered a great deal to me was taking shape in a real womb, I could not stop thinking about letters and symbols that had taken shape in metaphoric ones. For me, as for many other people who care about type, a typeface should be personal and expressive, like a human face. For others, type should be an impersonal machine for transmitting data. Each group favors different styles of type. When the documentary film Helvetica appeared a few years ago, I didn’t rush to see it, because, as someone says in the film, Helvetica is “the most neutral typeface,” the one with the least appeal to those whose feelings about type are tangled up with their feelings about people.

The Hidden Life of Alfred Kazin

Alfred Kazin, 1946
Alfred Kazin’s Journals is a profound and exciting book, more so even than the best of the dozen works of criticism and autobiography that he published during his lifetime. Almost every morning from the age of eighteen, in 1933, until his death in 1998, he wrote his private thoughts about …

The Obedient Bellow

The lawyer and critic Owen Barfield, the 'greatest English disciple' of Rudolf Steiner, with whom Saul Bellow corresponded
In almost everything he wrote, Saul Bellow asserted his authority as artist, thinker, moralist, and lover. His admirers rejoiced in his authority and celebrated a new kind of dominant voice in American fiction: expansively ambitious, philosophical, and demotic, the voice of a moralizing comic hero unlike anything in the genteel …

The Perils of His Magic Circle

William Maxwell, New York City, 1987; photograph by Dominique Nabokov
William Maxwell was a plain-speaking, seemingly realistic novelist who wrote autobiographical stories about middle-class life in small towns and urban neighborhoods. At first he tried to imitate Virginia Woolf’s lyricism, but he soon cleansed his style of ornament and exaggeration. He wrote in taut, laconic rhythms that evoked the spare …

‘What We Love, Not Are’

Frank O’Hara was the most sociable of poets, always happy to read aloud at parties, always praising friends or lovers or anyone else who got his attention, almost always portraying his inner life as if it existed only so that it could savor his outer one. O’Hara loved writers, artists, …

New York Everyman

In both his life and his writings Alfred Kazin was divided between two ideas of what it meant to be a Jew in America. He was committed to one idea and tempted by the other. Kazin was committed to the idea that a Jew was an outsider, with no special …

Auden and God

T.S. Eliot thought of religion as “the still point in the turning world,” “the heart of light,” “the crowned knot of fire,” “the door we never opened”—something that remained inaccessible, perfect, and eternal, whether or not he or anyone else cared about it, something absolutely unlike the sordid transience of …