Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Andrew J. Kappel Prize in Literary Criticism, 2008

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Andrew J. Kappel Prize in Literary Criticism, 2008

Article excerpt

The winner of this year's prize is Jeff Solomon's "Capote and the Trillings: Homophobia and Literary Culture at Midcentury." The judge is Bruce Robbins, Old Dominion Foundation Professor of the Humanities in the department of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. Among his books are Upward Mobility and the Common Good, Feeling Global: Internationalism in Distress, and Secular Vocations: Intellectuals, Professionalism, Culture.

Professor Robbins writes:

  Like other judges of the Andrew J. Kappel Prize before me, I too
  found all of the finalists for this year's prize extraordinarily
  deserving, if in quite different ways. Serving as judge did not just
  mean choosing between apples and oranges, but picking through a
  basket full of all sorts of rich and diverse fruit. Inevitably, I had
  fears of being a bit arbitrary in deciding where the prize should go.
  And at the same time, I came away from the experience with enormous
  respect for the intellectual culture of Twentieth-Century Literature
  and of journals like it, which strenuously nurture such pungent and
  unpredictable thinking.

  It's good that Twentieth-Century Literature is doing this nurturing
  work; I sometimes think our graduate programs are not. We do not
  always teach our graduate students the first responsibility of the
  critic, which is to look with a fresh eye at the object under
  consideration and not to get up from the desk until a genuinely fresh
  view of that object has coalesced and found its proper expression. As
  a critic, you have not done your job unless what you say is
  interesting. "Capote and the Trillings: Homophobia and Literary
  Culture at Midcentury" satisfies this obligation with real flair. It
  takes up a subject--the place of homophobia in the American literary
  culture of the middle of the twentieth century--that might well have
  generated a simple, pious "politics of representation" essay. But
  instead of doing the predictable, mechanical, judgmental thing, it
  performs a truly creative act, making the explication of a minor
  anecdote into the model of a winningly stylish and broadly valuable
  mode of literary history.

  The anecdote is straightforward: the 21-year-old Capote meets the
  older, already well-known Trillings on a train and briefly discusses
  with them E. M. Forster's homosexuality and why it didn't appear in
  Lionel's book on Forster. The essay then goes on to analyze how this
  episode is remembered by Capote (in various letters) and by Diana
  Trilling (characteristically, Lionel doesn't register it at all),
  using it to pry open the question of how homophobia did and did not
  matter in the literary culture of the 1940s and 50s. The episode
  itself (Capote's voice and style, speaking unguardedly on a crowded
  train) raises the question of how public it was possible to be about
  homosexuality in that period, but so does his career, which seems to
  back up Capote's strange denial that homophobia put him, or anyone
  else, at a disadvantage. A figure who did not sufficiently recognize
  homophobia as a problem himself becomes a problem for all those who
  quite properly insist more than half a century later that homophobia
  remains a significant problem. Famous in his own time and since,
  Capote could obviously not be counted as a forgotten figure who
  offered the merit or credit due to a critical discovery or salvage.
  Too much a figure of the Establishment to serve the purposes of gay
  liberation and the counterculture, Capote is a "difficult subject,"
  as we say. The standard view in gay-lesbian studies and queer theory,
  as the essay points out, is that Capote was a "careerist, apolitical
  aesthete, and celebrity qua celebrity. … 
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