Commentary Magazine


William Troy: Selected Essays, edited by Stanley Edgar Hyman

A Major Critic

William Troy: Selected Essays.
by Stanley Edgar Hyman.
Rutgers. 314 pp. $9.00.

In this book the major critical essays of the late William Troy are available at last. Troy himself was never willing to collect them, in spite of the urging of many admirers, and we owe their publication now to a few devoted friends, especially Léonie Adams, his widow, who carefully preserved all he wrote. Allen Tate, his friend for nearly forty years, contributes an illuminating personal memoir, and Stanley Edgar Hyman has performed the difficult task of selection and arrangement. Mr. Hyman, with his unique knowledge of contemporary criticism, has beautifully introduced Troy’s work to a generation that knows too little about it—and incidentally reaffirmed Troy’s true stature for those who needed reminding. We have never had, and are never likely to have, a critic of more perceptiveness, philosophic and historical enlightenment, and high integrity: the appearance of this book is an important event in American letters.

Mr. Hyman has arranged the essays under four headings: “Perspectives in Criticism,” three short theoretical pieces; “British and American Literature,” on Henry James, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, D. H. Lawrence, Gertrude Stein, and F. Scott Fitzergald; “Continental Literature,” on Stendhal, Balzac, Proust, Malraux, Valéry, and Mann; and “Tragedy,” an unfinished sketch of a general theory, and an essay entitled “Antony and Cleopatra: The Poetic Vision.” This last makes one wish that Troy had written more on poetry and drama; but as the list clearly shows, his central interest was in prose fiction. His pioneering essays on novelists who loomed large between the wars have done much to create our taste, as Mr. Hyman points out. Troy seems to have acquired his wide background, his exigent sense of form, and his passionate concern for humanistic values at the beginning of his career, and most of his essays were written in the 30’s and early 40’s. Perhaps his very early maturity partly accounts for the slenderness of his output during the last decade: he had already mapped the literary scene, and was far too strict to allow himself to repeat.

Troy had a deep affinity for Joyce, because of his Irish Catholic upbringing and certain common traits of temperament and intellect. To hear him read Joyce aloud was to understand the Joycean music, pathos, and humor with startling intimacy. Like Joyce, he left the Church in youth, never to return; but (again like Joyce) he never lost the humanistic wisdom which the Catholic tradition may have at its best. That saved him from shallow infatuations with any of the intellectual gadgetries of the moment, and helped to keep alive his sympathy for the classics of Greece and the Middle Ages. He was, for instance, fascinated with the medieval system of literary interpretation, and toyed several times with the possibility that it might be “adapted” for the purposes of modern criticism. I greatly regret that he did not write more about Joyce and his lore, which has never been very comfortably digested into Anglo-American letters. Troy, with his restless, skeptical intellect, was admirably fitted to do that job, as the two pieces on Joyce in this book show. But they are only samples of the wide Joycean knowledge his friends and former pupils remember from his formal or informal talks.

French fiction was very important to him for many years, as it was for so many Americans of his generation; but few, if any, could see it in so wide a perspective. Take for instance this brief comparison between Balzac’s Comédie humaine and Dante’s Commedia:

The celebrated description of the Pension Vaquer, for example, is as itemized as a bailiff’s inventory. At the same time there is scarcely an article of furniture that is not symbolical of the theme and subject as a whole. Quasi-scientific documentation is simply an expansion of what is the “literal” level of communication in a poet like Dante. The great difference between Dante and Balzac, of course, is that where the first had his meanings already embodied and ordered in a set of traditional symbols the second had laboriously to reassemble into wholes meanings that had been fractured through the analytical exploits of the previous two centuries.

Or take this passage from his essay on the last volume of Proust’s huge work, Time Regained, on the occasion of its appearance in English:

The purpose of dwelling on these defects and contradictions in Proust’s exposition has not been to disparage in the least degree the absolute merits of his work as a work of art. It is disappointing, of course, to find that his ideas of life and art taken as a whole do not coalesce into a unified and positive system of thought. But it is now pretty generally recognized that it is too much to expect of an artist in our time that he shall construct an adequate system, that he shall operate on any more universal set of ideas than is necessary for the expression of his personal vision.

That was written in 1931; I doubt that there is a more just evaluation of Proust than the essay from which this is taken, in spite of the recent revival of interest in him.

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The three pieces on Thomas Mann, written between 1935 and 1956, show a quite different side of Troy’s literary awareness: his interest in myth. The myth-cult in literary criticism has come in for some justified mockery in recent years because it so easily lends itself to pretentious obscurity. But there is nothing obscure in Troy’s careful exposition of the uses that Joyce, Eliot, and Valéry, as well as Mann, made of myth for their so different purposes. His knowledge of myth in our time was both empirical and exact.

As for what Troy says about Mann himself: I, think his deep need to find in modern literature a positive and comprehensive vision to replace the vanished orders of philosophy and religion may have led him to see, at first, in Mann, some things that were not really there. For instance, I can’t agree that Aschenbach, in Death in Venice, is a figure of the artist as “culture-hero” and his death, at the end, an initiation leading to renewed life, if not for Aschenbach himself at least for his people. His death strikes me as a Liebestod leading to the dissolution of all individual being, like the end of Wagner’s opera as Nietzsche ecstatically interprets it in The Birth of Tragedy. But in spite of a few such over-generous interpretations, the long essay on Mann’s work from its beginnings through the Joseph trilogy is the best short guide I know. And in the postscript that Troy wrote after the appearance of Dr. Faustus he considers some of the qualities that make Mann’s work so hard to evaluate: his verbose mixture of fictional and essayistic genres; his solemn but irresponsible treatment of certain great historic figures; his famous irony which (in my opinion at least) can grow unbearably coy. Troy sums up his misgivings as follows:

If Mann’s humanism is not as bombastic as that of Settembrini, it is yet not tragic—but merely sentimental. He is not, perhaps, in the last analysis, un homme sérieux. It is as if the gods, who loaded him with so many gifts, denied him the most indispensable gift of all—the gift of faith.

That brilliantly puts the anomalous Mann case—and incidentally it most touchingly implies Troy’s own “piety toward that humanity whose vices and follies he has rendered for us,” as he said of Joyce.

French literature, and behind that the Mediterranean tradition in general, seems to have been for Troy a more dependable source of insight and discipline than Mann and his tradition. His own writing owes much to the French deflated accuracy: la tête dans le coeur. Henry James, whom Troy was among the first to hail as a master, also went to school to the French, and F. Scott Fitzgerald in turn learned from James as well as from “Paris in the 20’s.” The essays on these two American writers may serve to relate our literary scene to the glamorous Europe of the time before World War II.

Troy’s primary concern was always with the present health of literature. When he studied Stendhal, who lived and died a century ago, or when he meditated on medieval techniques of interpretation, he was looking for light on the practice of literature now. That is why his essays are indispensable to anyone interested in the two decades between the wars, when so much of our present understanding of literature was being constructed. But his significance goes far beyond his time: he never wrote merely fashionably, his respect for reason and form was much too strict for that. He is not likely to be fashionable at this moment, either, when the arbiters of our taste reject form and meaning in favor of cruelty, pornography, and absurdity. Troy is for those who enjoy the passionate and witty play of a first-rate mind upon the perennial mysteries of human conduct, and upon the beautiful forms that literature may take now or in any age.

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