Commentary Magazine

The Critics' Club

A popular television program of the 1950’s, The Gary Moore Show, used to close with a regular feature called “That Wonderful Year,” in which members of the cast—Moore, Carol Burnett, and others—would sing popular songs from 1926, or 1948, or some other year in the past. But I have long thought that, intellectually, the 1950’s themselves qualify as “Those Wonderful Years.” What made them wonderful was an air of seriousness about matters of the mind that, in retrospect, seems almost impossible to credit, let alone to imagine re-creating.

A much stricter division of culture was then in place, and this division entailed firm lines separating highbrow, middlebrow, and lowbrow. An intellectual elite, though it may have felt itself outside the mainstream of American life, went about its business with an easy confidence in the worth of its mission. That mission had been defined long before by Matthew Arnold as “the disinterested endeavor to learn and propagate the best that is known and thought in the world.” Even in the 1950’s this presented the difficulty—new certainly since Matthew Arnold’s time—of weeding out the vast quantity of cultural produce that, intellectually and artistically, made a pretense to qualifying as among the best but in fact did not come close. The recompense for this job tended to be low, like that given the poor fellow paid to wait outside the shtetl for the messiah, but one was never out of work.

These days, the mere mention of the word “elite” can put an immediate chill into the air, but in the mid-20th century the American intellectual elite was a democratic elite, open (as was said about careers in France under Napoleon) to talent. The leading intellectual figures of the 50’s tended to be not especially well-born, in either the social or the economic sense, but rather the children of immigrants or, if native-born, of the lower-middle or middle classes. Intellectual standing in those years went to men and women who, largely through their own efforts, had gone to the trouble to make themselves highly intelligent.

The 1950’s, too, was the last time that the university did not seem to dominate intellectual life as it has done almost ever since. Only a few of the writers for the leading intellectual magazines of the period—Partisan Review and COMMENTARY in the U.S.; Encounter, the New Statesman and the Spectator in England—had regular academic connections. (In England, neither George Orwell nor VS. Pritchett had even attended a university.) Most were able to maintain themselves at editorial jobs or at work outside cultural institutions, or even, at some strain, to live off their writing. If being inside a university had its benefits—the security of tenure, the advertised (though usually never realized) pleasures of collegiality—being outside allowed an individual with intellectual ambitions to range widely, with all the world as his subject. A university career could never have produced (to name some disparate figures) a Mary McCarthy, a Harold Rosenberg, a Clement Greenberg, a Dwight Macdonald, a Midge Decter, an Irving Kristol, a Hilton Kramer, or a Norman Podhoretz.



If any single piece of evidence were needed to prove what now seems the astonishingly high intellectual quality of the 1950’s, it is A Company of Readers,1 a selection of essays from the monthly pamphlets of a highbrow book club first known as the Readers’ Subscription and then, as of 1957, the Mid-Century Book Club. These essays were written by the club’s three-man editorial board: W. H. Auden, Jacques Barzun, and Lionel Trilling.

When the Readers’ Subscription began in September 1951, Auden was already well-established as one of the great poets of the age, second perhaps only to T.S. Eliot in international reputation; Barzun and Trilling, though holding academic jobs at Columbia, seemed very far from the standard notion of the college professor, and neither of them bore the academic curse of specialization. Barzun, whose range was immense—he wrote a two-volume study of Berlioz and his age, and also a history of ideas titled Marx, Darwin, Wagner—was usually referred to as a cultural historian. Trilling, who wrote chiefly about English and American literature, was a literary critic, but one with philosophical ambitions on which he often made good. About both men there was something of the metropolitan spirit, while about Auden, a transplanted Englishman who had taken American citizenship, there was the spirit of the intellectual cosmopolitan. Had Edmund Wilson been added to the editorial board, it would have constituted the literary equivalent of an intellectual all-star team.

The idea for the Readers’ Subscription, Barzun reports in his foreword to A Company of Readers—of the three, he is the only one still living—came from a student of Trilling’s named Gilman Kraft, who later made his fortune producing the theatrical programs known as Playbill. Other clubs—Book-of-the-Month, the Literary Guild—had long been in business, but Kraft’s idea was, as Barzun puts it, “to create an audience for books that the other clubs considered to be too far above the public taste.” These included books of contemporary poetry, criticism, anthropology, and difficult novels of the kind that—as was once said of the novels of Henry James, Marcel Proust, and James Joyce—one should never read for the first time.

The launching of the Readers’ Subscription was nicely timed. The Book-of-the-Month Club, which had once chosen George Santayana’s The Last Pilgrim and Richard Wright’s Native Son as main selections, had lately taken to supplying more middlebrow provender, with only occasional lapses in the direction of high culture—often in its introductory offers that lured every neophyte intellectual from the provinces, including me.

I joined the Book-of-the-Month Club twice: the first time to obtain the seven-volume edition of the plays and prefaces of George Bernard Shaw, the second for the two-volume, excruciatingly small-type version of the Oxford English Dictionary (with magnifying glass); I got out each time after fulfilling the minimum number of purchases. The late Arnaldo Momigliano, historian of the ancient world, once told me, in his heavy Piedmontese accent, that “The cheapest way to acquire a book remains to buy it.” After a bit I puzzled out what he meant: if one bought a book, as opposed to being given or lent it, at least one did not have to read the damn thing. By this measure, my two brief memberships in the Book-of-the-Month Club, which resulted in books that lay on my shelves unread for decades, were a bargain.

The unspoken promise of the Readers’ Subscription was to cut out not the middleman but the middlebrow. Auden, Barzun, and Trilling lent the enterprise what is sometimes called cachet, sometimes more crudely known as class. Although I never joined, I remember the many full-page ads that ran in the New York Times Book Review and elsewhere, especially the weightiness of the selections—they once actually offered James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake—the unsmiling earnestness of the faces of the three editors, the air of high purposiveness that surrounded the entire enterprise.

Marketing is now so much a part of culture as to seem indivisible from it, but in the 1950’s, when the Readers’ Subscription was started, artists, critics, and academics, by very definition, were careful to steer well clear of anything to do with the marketplace. Which is not to say that the three editors did not want as many subscribers as possible; their hope was to make an appeal to general readers of a kind that would elevate their taste. Auden even expressed a dislike for the word “highbrow,” and hoped the club would turn its members into “intellectual dandies.”

Still, that three such luminaries should line themselves up with so clear a commercial undertaking—even if a somewhat missionary one—carried its own risks. Barzun reports that when the Readers’ Subscription changed hands and became the Mid-Century Book Club, the new owner suggested that the editors also become part owners; but they were wary, deeming a financial interest “inappropriate to our role as judges” and concerned about wasting more time on meetings and negotiations. My guess is that their real worry, which sounds rather quaint today, was that they would be thought to have “sold out.” The very term, when today everybody is eager to buy in, speaks worlds.

Neither Barzun in his foreword nor Arthur Krystal in his admirable introduction mentions how much the members of the editorial board were paid for their services. Inquiring—not to speak of just plain vulgar—minds want to know. One assumes that it was not enough to remove them from the financial wars or set them up in villas in Tuscany. Although the enterprise to which they had lent their names lasted much longer than any of them expected—just under twelve years—it was not wildly successful. Nor was it free of the inefficiencies that have always marked modern publishing: Barzun speaks of members writing to complain that their books had not arrived or that they had been sent the wrong titles. There is something mildly comical in the image of these rather Olympian figures having to respond to complaints like, “Where the hell is my Complete Poems of Cavafy?”



When the Readers’ Subscription began, Auden, Barzun, and Trilling were only in their early forties—the first two were born in 1907, the last in 1905. Yet in their writing they commanded an authority that is immensely impressive. Among them they also nicely covered the cultural waterfront. Auden, who was something of a Francophobe, had a taste for things German; Trilling, alone among the three in having no foreign languages, was steeped in critical literature; and Barzun, who was French by birth, seemed able to write about everything, even Japan.

None of the three men operated with a critical system, although each had his predilections. Auden was serious about his own Kierkegaardian variant of Christianity; Trilling, after shucking his youthful Marxism, was a Freudian, though never in a way that seemed to obtrude in his criticism; and Barzun took to heart T.S. Eliot’s dictum that intelligence was a critic’s best tool. Apparently, they seldom had serious arguments over the selections; their biweekly meetings, Barzun reports, were light and easy, discussions “interwoven with jokes, puns, and parodies.” In these meetings, “we behaved like friends talking over what to recommend to other friends.”

Arnoldian sweetness and light did not make the editors dull boys; something playful there was about this enterprise from the outset. This is partly expressed in the subjects they chose to write about, highlighted in Krystal’s selection of 45 monthly essays—of 173 they wrote over the life of the club—fifteen from each of the editors. Barzun, for example, should by rights have written about Berlioz, and Auden about Oscar Wilde, but in fact it was the other way around. Trilling, who confessed that he no longer went to the movies and rarely to the theater, wrote about both. Auden, the Englishman, wrote about such quintessentially American topics as Edmund Wilson’s Apology to the Iroquois and William Faulkner, while Trilling wrote about Kenneth Clark’s The Nude and Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows and Barzun took on Harold Rosenberg’s The Tradition of the New and D.H. Lawrence. A nice unpredictability operates here, an unexpected mating of writer to subject that made for lively compositions.

The essays the editors wrote each month ranged between 1,000 and 5,000 words, with most falling somewhere in the middle. Puffery played no part. True, few selections were actually attacked, but none of the editors minded arguing with aspects of a book they were ostensibly trying to sell: the quality of a translation, the use of objectionable jargon, the thinness of central ideas. “One must say that it pays for its felicities,” Barzun writes about the late style of Henry James—the club’s selection that month was James’s autobiography—“by being not only difficult but also often bad.”

In his introduction, Arthur Krystal characterizes the three editors by the manner in which their own prose styles convey their differing degrees of comfort in the world: by his reckoning, Auden is delighted to be here, Barzun is most at ease, and Trilling goes back and forth. In my own sorting, Barzun is easily the most authoritative of the three, Auden the most casual, and Trilling the most given to qualifying. To put it differently, Trilling does his thinking on the page, Barzun has already put his thoughts in order and uses the page to set out his conclusions, and Auden wonders why a page is really required, it all seems so obvious.

All three were men in possession of wide culture—or, more precisely, in wide possession of high culture—and their knowledge was leavened with common sense and elevated by taste. Today the man of culture tends to pride himself on living on several planes at once, none of them excluding the others. A little good trash isn’t going to violate anyone, the film critic Pauline Kael once said, in defense of junk movies. Trilling, Auden, and Barzun seem keenly aware that when the guard of culture goes down, the mediocre soon begins to pass for the profound. Early in an essay on the theater criticism of Kenneth Tynan, Trilling writes:

[N]ine times out of ten, when I read the text of a play, I am bewildered by the process of thought through which the playwright came to conclude that he had anything to say that anyone would want to listen to. And my bewilderment turns into anxiety when I realize, as I must, that plenty of people do want to listen. The playwright, with an air of fearless dedication to the truth, gives us the intellectual, emotional, psychological, and political clichés of twenty years ago, and a quite significant part of the world responds as if he were as farouche and original and cogent as a new William Blake and a new Friedrich Nietzsche rolled into one.

Writing in 1961, Trilling unfortunately did not mention which playwrights he had in mind, but one assumes they must have included Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, and Eugene O’Neill. As for the theatrical geniuses of our own day, no better gloss could be written on the plays of Tony Kushner, Edward Albee, or David Mamet. Whatever the excesses of highbrowism—its preciosity, its cultishness, its potential snobbery—it is useful in reminding all who forget that in the realm of culture, only the two-eyed should reign.



Trilling perhaps never again wrote with less hesitation than he did for this book club. (He reprinted a number of his essays for the Readers’ Subscription in A Gathering of Fugitives, 1957.) As his fame grew, his prose grew more mandarin, ponderous, and qualified, and his intellectual windup could be so elaborate that his actual pitch, disappointingly, often did not seem to have much on it.

Barzun, by contrast, provides at his best a model of the critic in action, a highbrow who is able to use the long historical view to set modern pretensions in perspective. Writing in 1954 on Virginia Woolf—well before her reputation was madly pumped up by academic feminists looking for heroines—Barzun gets her just right, using her Diary to make the excellent point that the modern age has chosen to make literary creation seem hopelessly difficult:

Virginia Woolf and the moderns generally chose to find [the making of literary worlds] impossible. They take creation hard and make it a virtue to stop at pearls. Universes [such as those created by Balzac, Walter Scott, and Byron] are a fad of the past.

Of the three, it is Auden who permits himself the most personal tone. It is difficult to imagine Barzun or Trilling writing, as Auden does in connection with an anthology about drugs: “No, on the whole, I think we had better stick to wine: it tastes nicer and it has even been known to improve the conversation.” But lest this make Auden seem a lightweight, he is also capable of hard and even brilliant insights, as when he distinguishes among three types of fiction: the Prose Poem, in which form and content are inseparable (Joyce’s Ulysses, Woolf’s The Waves, and the late fiction of Henry James); Feigned History, in which characters are placed in real settings and viewed from the inside (Tolstoy in Anna Karenina); and the Fairy Tale, which represents the conflict of good and evil as a larger reflection of that same conflict within each of us (Faulkner in The Mansion).

Auden, Barzun, and Trilling are not always persuasive. Auden, for example, unsuccessfully compares Colette with Tolstoy; Trilling overestimates Lawrence Durrell, and could not be wronger when he says that James Baldwin’s public role as a spokesman for black anger did him “a great good as a novelist”; and when Barzun writes of George Bernard Shaw that “he remains the most astonishing mind in two centuries,” one cannot but recall that Lenin referred to Shaw, a mindless rooter for the Soviet cause, as one of “those useful idiots.” All three—Auden partly excepted—seem also to have been hooked on the bloody-minded vitalism of D.H. Lawrence in a way that is no longer quite understandable.2

These minor cavils aside, all three men attain and adhere to a very high level. While eschewing theoretical positions, and refraining from intricate analysis, they concentrate at getting to a writer’s essence, discovering what gives him his charm, fascination, power. Books, plays, movies, interesting in themselves, also make occasions for comment on the wider culture. Political correctness simply does not arise as a question, problem, or issue in any of these essays. In the republic of letters in which Auden, Barzun, and Trilling are citizens, race, class, or gender does not enter in; for them, there are only two kinds of writer, good and bad.



Reading through these essays brings back a time when so much seemed to ride on what a small number of critics felt about literature. Books, the culture of books, reigned supreme. Over the years this supremacy has been eroded. For a period, with movies looming more important than books, it seemed that Pauline Kael would replace Edmund Wilson as the center of intellectual interest among the so-called educated classes. But then fancy food came to replace movies, and so it went.

For those of us to whom books still remain the best thing going, these essays of Auden, Barzun, and Trilling also remind us that critics do not exist today who can write about culture with anywhere near the same intellectual suavity and aplomb. Nor is it clear that, even if such critics did exist, the readers would be there to provide an audience. Barzun reports that the membership of the Readers’ Subscription generally hovered around 35,000, rising at its height to a little more than 40,000. Today, Arthur Krystal thinks, a club devoted exclusively to serious books could not be done at all.

Perhaps not. Still, anyone who does intellectual work of any kind tends to hold out the hope of a yet untapped audience, hidden in odd corners of this vast nation. If one writes a serious book, one hopes that it will catch fire and find 50,000 readers (not so much to ask, surely, in a country of 270 million); if one edits a magazine, one lives with the tantalizing suspicion that another 20,000 or so potential readers exist who would subscribe if only they knew about it. Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, an extremely complex book, sold hundreds of thousands of copies. Jacques Barzun’s own recent work of cultural synthesis, From Dawn to Decadence, has been a bestseller. Are these freak happenings, or do they hold out wider possibilities?

Reading these essays somehow brought to mind another essay, “A Preface to Persius,” written by Edmund Wilson in 1927, a few months after the execution for murder of the radical anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti. Wilson, dining alone, brings into an Italian restaurant in Greenwich Village an 18th-century edition of the Roman satirist Persius (34-62 C.E.) that he has just picked up in a used bookstore. In the preface to this book, the editor, an Englishman named William Drummond, weighs the strengths and weaknesses of his by no means major author. Reading Drummond’s preface, and commenting at the same time on the honest quality of the food he is being served, Wilson dilates on what Persius, writing during the time of the wretched Nero, had to go through. Drummond, too, he notes, worked at a time, not long after the French Revolution, when the world must have seemed greatly shaken by political events.

A man of the Left, disturbed that the protests on behalf of Sacco and Vanzetti had gone down to defeat, Wilson feels a link with both the Latin poet and his editor. As he finishes his inexpensive but good red wine, he professes himself “warmed by this sense of continuity with the past . . . by this spirit of stubborn endurance,” and concludes that “there was nothing to do save to work with the dead for allies . . . that that edifice, so many times begun, so discouragingly reduced to ruins, might yet stand as the headquarters of humanity.”

“The headquarters of humanity” is a bit inflated—too much red wine, no doubt—but in paging through A Company of Readers one has a sharper sense of what Edmund Wilson felt. At a time of wild mental distraction, when the market has invaded culture in ways no one could have predicted, when professors of humanities are either actively promoting low taste or devaluing literature in favor of a politics goofy beyond reckoning, when daily coverage of the “arts” seems at best to mean reviews of rock music, television dramas, and oysters, there is sustenance to be derived from a sense of continuity with the writers of the past, in this case the fairly recent past, and with critical minds who called us to a much better game than most people today are even aware exists.



1 Edited by Arthur Krystal. Free Press, 320 pp., $26.00.

2 Then, too, infatuation with Lawrence was characteristic of that whole generation of intellectuals. “In the degree that our civilization daily comes closer to the point where perhaps only the most drastic therapy can save it,” wrote Diana Trilling in 1947, “his work has an extraordinary poetic significance. It is a metaphor against doom.” I myself much prefer Bertrand Russell’s final judgment on Lawrence: “His descriptive powers were remarkable, but his ideas cannot be too soon forgotten.”


About the Author

Joseph Epstein is a regular contributor to COMMENTARY.

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