Commentary Magazine


On the Horizon:
America and "The Quiet American"

Mrs. Trilling writes:

May I comment on Philip Rahv’s review of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American (May 1956)? Mr. Rahv is a friend of mine as well as an editor and critic whom I much respect and admire. But I find his review an insufficient and even misleading appraisal of the political content of Mr. Greene’s novel, the more disturbing because it represents a point of view rather widely held among American intellectuals today.

The politics of The Quiet American is not at all difficult to comprehend. It can be as readily characterized as the literary quality of the book, which Mr. Rahv so simply and forthrightly dismisses as a thriller. The Quiet American is an entirely orthodox statement of the neutralist position. Its hero is a British journalist whose whole intellectual and moral weight (such as it is) rests on his refusal to take political sides. Its villain is an American government agent, a newcomer to Indo-China, where the story is set, who infuriates the protagonist by his arrogant innocence and by his readiness to intervene in areas where he is incompetent to assess the social and political realities. According to Mr. Greene’s fantasy of American activity abroad, it turns out that the American is making bombs in Indo-China in order to promote some undefined popular movement which Mr. Greene calls the “Third Force.” One of the bombs goes off and accomplishes no better than might have been expected of a product of the American effort: it kills a lot of helpless women and children. At this, the hero, who never takes sides, rushes over to the local Communists, whose virtues are as unspecified by Mr. Greene as the nature of his Third Force. Together, he and the Communists contrive the murder of the American before he shall do any more damage with his good-will program.

It would surely be difficult to find a balder exposition than this of what neutralism means, or clearer evidence of its essential non-neutrality and of the pro-Communism which it so regularly masks. And yet Mr. Rahv writes in summary of Mr. Greene’s book: “What it comes to is a clever attack on the United States, its policies and methods, values and ideals. But the attack is pettish and fretful. . . . Indignation is scarcely in order.” He dismisses Mr. Greene’s option in favor of Communism with merely the doubt “that Greene is sufficiently political-minded to do justice to such considerations,” and he pleads for a kind of wry tolerance of The Quiet American on the ground that American writers, too, no less than Mr. Greene, have been guilty of saying unpleasant things about other nations; he cites Mark Twain and Henry James.

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It would of course take more space than is available here to go into the complexities of the anti-Europeanism of Mark Twain and Henry James. And anyway it is a subject on which I know Mr. Rahv to be far better informed than I am—which is the more reason I am surprised to find myself in the position of cautioning him against over-simplification. Obviously, writers have always looked with a critical eye on the cultures, not only of their own countries, but of foreign countries; it is part of their business as investigators of the human experience. We judge the value of their criticism by the same standards we apply to all literary production—by its intention, and achievement, of truth. To suggest that the author of The Quiet American has the same kind of intellectual intention as Mark Twain or Henry James is tantamount to accusing the author of Innocents Abroad or the author of The Americans of being political propagandists, a palpable absurdity. To compare Mr. Greene’s current performance with that of Mark Twain or James is also to propose the idea that the political context in which a person writes has no bearing on what he chooses to say—quite as if it were all the same whether one were writing about Napoleon in Stendhal’s time or writing about him today, or if one were writing about the Russian peasant in Tolstoy’s day or writing about him after the Russian Revolution. Since it is unlikely that Mr. Rahv needs to be reminded either of the difference between Mr. Greene’s intellectual integrity and that of Mark Twain or Henry James, or of the fact that Mark Twain and James were writing at a time when politics and culture were susceptible of a separation which is no longer possible, I must conclude that Mr. Rahv introduces the comparison only in order to mitigate Mr. Greene’s affront to America.

But then the question arises, why should Mr. Rahv want to mitigate Mr. Greene’s offense? Why should he trouble to argue that it is inappropriate for Americans to be indignant at Mr. Greene’s unjust attack? And in the answer to these questions I believe we are led to an anomaly at the heart of the dominant liberalism of present-day America.

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The whole of Mr. Greene’s case against America is stated in the person of his title character; the only other Americans in his book are two utterly minor figures, an obstreperous drunk and an amiable idiot. But although Mr. Rahv protests that Mr. Greene’s quiet American is incorrectly presented as “the” representative American, he would seem to be more concerned with confirming the small admissible shred of truthfulness in Mr. Greene’s portrait than he is with calling Mr. Greene to account for his large and intended lie. Obviously neither the methods nor the persons employed by the United States in its foreign program are immune to criticism. Europeans, no less than Americans, have the entire right, even the duty, honestly and openly to challenge our country on the many manifest errors in its activities abroad. But receptivity to honest criticism of America is very different from acquiescence in an assault upon America as palpably hostile in purpose as that of Mr. Greene’s latest novel. And it is this reluctance, not only sharply to distinguish between fair and unfair attack upon America, but also to confront and combat whatever bad political intention may inform the attack, which characterizes Mr. Rahv’s review and which is so typical of American liberalism today.

In part the reluctance stems, I think, not only from the endemic guiltiness of liberalism’s relation to a country as rich and powerful as our own, but also from liberalism’s long established fear of nationalistic pride. While the liberal intellectual is certainly aware of the new relation between ideas and power in the modern world, he cannot give up the identification he was for so long taught to make between national loyalty and adherence to a blind power principle.

But in even larger part this careful tolerance of anti-Americanism derives, I think, from the fear of conformity, that bogeyman of contemporary intellectual life in this country. Every liberal, surely every liberal intellectual, has within him, like Cyril Connolly’s thin man imprisoned within the body of every fat man, a social rebel. Because this original rebellious impulse is strongly emotional in origin, reason maintains over it an only precarious ascendancy; the earlier image has but to be invoked for the liberal to be thrown into a serious conflict in which obviously reasonable responsibilities assume the character of dangerous emotional concessions. Thus, we have today the spectacle of a magazine like Dissent, whose polemic is based not upon intellectual cogency but upon the emotional intimidation of its readers, creating more anxiety in the liberal community than our continuing efforts at liberal reason can allay. And it is noteworthy of Dissent that there is no reasonable opinion it assails more violently than the opinion that American democracy, for all its faults, warrants our defense—unless it be the equally reasonable opinion that the single greatest threat to freedom is Soviet Communism.

And here we have the second weakness at the core of present-day American liberalism. No less than liberalism hesitates to take a proper firm stand against anti-Americanism, it hesitates to announce an unequivocal stand against Communists and Communism for fear of allying itself with those reactionary forces which have wished to pre-empt the anti-Communist struggle. To allow one’s conduct to be determined by such negative considerations is surely to operate on the assumption of guilt by association, yet in the last few years this is the situation into which American liberals have more and more let themselves be manipulated, until it comes close to the point where the two chief criteria by which they validate their liberalism are their refusal to become excited about unjust attacks against America and their unwillingness to become excited about Communism. This negative acceptance of Communism must not be confused, however, with any sentiment in favor of Communism. Unlike the European or Asian neutralist, the American liberal (at least so far) has no preference for the Soviet Union as against the United States, and no philosophical preference for Communism as against democracy. Indeed, more often than not we find that his anti-anti-Communism lives side by side with a highly informed distaste for Soviet Russia and all her works. Where American liberalism will be led by the logic of its present position is, however, another matter—and especially in this new era of Soviet “liberalization” when we can expect, on the part of world Communism, a campaign for liberal and popular cooperation even more intensive than that of the 30’s.

I regret that this communication puts upon a single piece—Mr. Rahv’s review of Mr. Greene’s novel—the heavy pressure of my criticism of the whole tendency of present-day liberalism; this is an undue burden for any one book review to bear. I think Mr. Rahv will understand that I do not mean to make his review any more the voice of our contemporary liberal culture than he would himself recognize it to be.

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Mr. Rahv replies:

I fail to recognize either Graham Greene’s novel or my review of it in Mrs. Trilling’s charged and over-reactive account of both, and I am sorry to observe her doing less than justice to her fine intelligence by assuming the part of the militant guardian of the Republic while casting me in the role of someone so lacking in vigilance (or should I rather say so far gone in “liberalism”?) as to be incapable of identifying the forces that threaten it. Having fought Communism and its sympathizers, overt and covert, liberal and illiberal, for many years, when the going was really rough and national opinion did not in the least back one up, I think I know a Communist when I see one. I am glad to report that I don’t see one in Graham Greene. Nor do Americans generally see a Communist in him. Mrs. Trilling contends that his book is “an affront to America.” Whatever America may feel, Americans in rather large numbers seem to be more amused than affronted by it. The book has been on the best-seller list for some months now.

Who is Greene? He is an outstanding Catholic novelist of considerable gifts and a great flair for putting the dogma of original sin to melodramatic uses. There is nothing either in his literary or religious background and affiliations that permits us to characterize him with the political vehemence that Mrs. Trilling displays. All her evidence against him she draws from one book, his latest, The Quiet American. Even on the basis of the meager evidence it provides, Mrs. Trilling’s extreme approach seems to me unjustified. But, of course, I do not read this evidence as she does.

What Mrs. Trilling’s complaint against my review comes to, mainly, is that I was not hard enough on Greene. Now degrees of hardness are difficult to define and even more difficult to argue about. Still, Mrs. Trilling has made quite clear what is on her mind, for she has in effect written the review that she would have wanted me to write and takes me to task for not having written; and in this review she denounces Greene as a neutralist, a position she instantly and automatically equates with pro-Communism, whereupon she proceeds to deliver an all-out attack on him as someone about whose option “in favor of Communism” there is no longer any doubt. I cannot agree that the book supports this reading of it, and I think that Mrs. Trilling reads it as if it were a political pamphlet rather than the novel which it actually is. One can only marvel at the political affectability that allows her to overlook so patent a distinction.

The Quiet American is a novel written in the first person singular, the first person being that of Fowler, the protagonist of the story. It is he who, strictly speaking, is the neutralist, and not, so far as we can definitely know, his author; and from my point of view as a literary critic it is impermissible to identify the author completely with his character. Of course, in this instance there is plainly a certain continuity between author and character, a continuity of sensibility and even of political views; but only up to a point. Fowler is not literally Greene, and it is gratuitous to take for granted that Greene is committed to Fowler’s ideas for good and all, or, for that matter, that he was ever fully committed to them. Moreover, even Fowler’s “neutralism” is not quite what Mrs. Trilling makes it out to be, being at once something more and something less than a political position pure and simple. It is the product of his entire psychic history, and in this sense it can be taken as an objective equivalent of what I described in my review as “his partly cynical and partly despairing estimate of the human condition” that prompts him to make it an article of his private code not to take sides. He keeps saying to Pyle, the quiet American: “I don’t know what I’m talking politics for . . . I’m not engagé.” And again: “You can rule me out. . . . The human condition being what it is, let them fight, let them love, let them murder, I would not be involved. My fellow journalists called themselves correspondents; I preferred the title of reporter. I wrote what I saw; I took no action—even an opinion is a kind of action.”

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Fowler stands as the latest addition to the long line of nihilistic figures in modern fiction, and he is a nihilist so shrunken in his capacity to believe in public causes and ideals as to be willing to settle for his girl and opium pipe without asking anything more of life. Above all, it is necessary to keep in mind that he is a figure in a fictive world, placed in a dramatic situation, and that it simply won’t do to extract his “neutralism” from that situation as a whole and present it programmatically as a thing apart. His one political act, that of turning Pyle over to Vietminh agents, involves both personal and political motives, so much so in fact that he himself does not know where the personal motive ends and the political one begins. This ambiguity is an essential element of the story and cannot be ignored. Hence I don’t see how we can reduce (or elevate?) Fowler to the role of a spokesman for “neutralism,” as we ordinarily understand the term in our political language, without violating the quite clear specifications of the work of literature in which he is imbedded.

It is Fowler too who is the mouthpiece of the anti-American sentiments which Mrs. Trilling finds so offensive, and which I judge to be the one solid piece of evidence at her disposal. Mrs. Trilling appraises this anti-Americanism as Communist in essence. But is it? Its principal content, apart from some pointed witticisms, is the charge of “innocence,” which it is said mankind cannot afford to indulge Americans in at this hour of universal peril. Now obviously this is a charge that Communism does not consider in the least useful; it has never formed a part of its indictment of America. What the Communists do accuse Americans of is “Warmongering” and conspiring to dominate the world for imperialist gain. Imperialists and “Wall Street profiteers” are scarcely noted for their “innocence,” a quality implying good will and good intentions. We can evaluate as we please this charge of “innocence” that Fowler makes (or Greene, if you will have it so, as in this respect author and character are much more easily identifiable); I certainly made it clear in my review that a malicious use was being made of it in the novel; but the one thing we cannot do is to equate it with what Radio Moscow preaches day after day. There is also expressed in the book a kind of bitter and grudging admiration of the Vietminh—an admiration shared at the time of the war in Indo-China by not a few foreign correspondents, among them, as I recall, Joseph Alsop in some of his dispatches from Saigon. But this sympathy for the Vietminh is more than balanced by the sympathy expressed for the French colonial regime. In the political sense these contrary sympathies admittedly make for a contradiction which is left unresolved in the novel; but it is scarcely the sort of contradiction which one can lay hold of to convict its author of pro-Communism.

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If I am right in my interpretation of what actually takes place in the book, then all Mrs. Trilling has to go on is its anti-Americanism. This is an element indubitably there, but its being there does not in itself justify, to my mind, the stigmatizing of Greene as a pro-Communist. Anti-Americanism is not necessarily the equivalent of pro-Communism, nor is anti-Communism always the equivalent of democratic and libertarian convictions. There is no movement and no cause which is immune to exploitation and erosion from within. So far as our response to anti-Americanism goes, what is in order is not indignation but discrimination. It has been said often enough that we must get over the idea that the world owes us love or even friendship; we must rein in our national egocentricity and stop behaving like members of a small, helpless, and much persecuted nation reacting with morbid sensitiveness to each and every slight. We cannot put writers under the ban for criticizing, however sharply and even unfairly from our point of view, certain qualities of American life without doing ourselves a very great injury, morally, culturally, and even politically. The fact is that most European writers are at present inclined to be critical of one or another aspect of American civilization and they make no bones about it. Are we to move against them with the utmost political rigor and excommunicate them? And why halt at the water’s edge? What about our own writers, not a few of whom insist on depicting the national scene in colors far from flattering to the national ego? Once we take the line that such criticism (and who is to tell ultimately whether it is “honest” or not?) helps the Communists or plays into their hands (which, to be sure, it may sometimes do), then we are lost, for will not the logic of politics and its passions force the application of an American party line in literature and the establishing of a kind of intellectual “security” program? I know that Mrs. Trilling no more wants that sort of thing than I do. But if we don’t want it, then we must guard ourselves against slipping into attitudes easing us into it. The French say: Chacun Prend à l’adversaire, qu’il le veuille ou non; and it is indeed true that people tend to take on the face of their adversaries, whether they will it or not. But a proverb is not a prophecy. We can still do our best to ward off the danger, and one way of warding it off is not to go in for competitions with each other in anti-Communist orthodoxy.

Mrs. Trilling appears to resent deeply the comparison I drew in my review between Greene on the one hand and such American writers as James and Mark Twain on the other. It so happens that the comparison was not stated in terms of literary quality or “intellectual intention,” as Mrs. Trilling says, but solely on the basis of their use of the theme of American “innocence”; and I closed the comparison with the remark that whereas James is “essentially disinterested” in his use of this theme, Greene “seizes upon our reputed innocence as his prey.” That is quite sufficient, it seems to me. It is hardly necessary to proceed like that character in Dickens who vents his indignation in capitals and his sarcasm in italics. Mrs. Trilling also judges the comparison to be invalid because of the strong political pressure we are under these days, and she reminds me that “Mark Twain and James were writing at a time when politics and culture were susceptible of a separation which is no longer possible.” That is indeed true and very well put; it is a hazardous truth, however, that we cannot simply accommodate ourselves to but must learn how to cope with. In literature it is much too easily converted, as our experience of the thirties tells us, into an argument from political crisis or necessity, an argument destructive of the cultural interest. Thus, in that period, when I reviewed the writings of Stalinists and their friends unfavorably, I was attacked time and again for breaking “the anti-fascist front” and “weakening the progressive forces in the face of the Nazi menace,” and so on and so forth. The argument from political crisis did not convince me then and it fails to convince me now. We are living in an era of continuous crisis and there is no end in sight. Our job as intellectuals is to maintain a critical and independent viewpoint without yielding to the crisis-psychology that contemporary politics all too readily enforces.

As for the theory of American liberalism that Mrs. Trilling propounds, it would take an article of some length to deal with it properly. Offhand, I will only say that it seems to me excessive and so thoroughly psychological in its premises as not to be open to verification. It may have been true ten or even five years ago that many liberals were “soft” on Communism, but I do not believe that this is now the case. The power of liberalism on the national scene has been greatly reduced of late. Exposed to all sorts of attacks, its present mood is more defensive than aggressive. Nor do I agree with Mrs. Trilling that the liberal intellectuals have been so traumatized by their past dissidence as to be unable to adjust to new conditions. On the contrary, it appears to me that most of them are adjusting all too fast and in disregard of principle to what has been aptly called “the smuggery of the Great Boom.”

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