A memoir of hero worship lost and a woman’s self found.
Searching for role models in her formative years, Heilbrun (English/Columbia Univ.; The Last Gift of Time, 1997, etc.) found esteemed intellectuals Clifton Fadiman, Lionel Trilling, and Jacques Barzun. Even though Fadiman never knew her, Trilling ignored her, and Barzun treated her with genteel but distant respect, these men nonetheless represented to her the world of public intellectualism, elegant writing, and cultural sophistication to which she aspired. Coming of academic age in the 1940s and ’50s, however, entailed that Heilbrun learned much of the beauty and grace of writing and scholarship from men whose derisive views of women remained unchecked and unbridled. Heilbrun ponders this paradox, delving into the complexities of truly admiring men who would never truly admire her in return, thanks simply to her sex. Coupled with these elements of memoir are Heilbrun’s standard and solid lit crit: she examines Fadiman’s influential Reading I've Liked (1941) and pokes through its underlying misogyny; she analyzes Trilling’s dislike for Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome and what his criticism reveals about himself; and she compares Barzun’s bewilderment in the face of female creativity to a scene in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. Wrapped in with such moments of analysis, Heilbrun remembers her life with these men through personal anecdotes and sincere reflection, including such moments as shocking Barzun with her pseudonymous identity as mystery author Amanda Cross and eulogizing the career of Trilling’s wife Diana, which never received its due. Her goal is not to strip these men of their greatness, for she fully recognizes their manifold contributions to the public intellectual world; rather, the pervading sense of the work is one of what-could-have-been if these models had been mentors as well. The story of a woman in a man’s world, Heilbrun’s life reflects her tenacity and grit.
A tough and lovely memoir, one that stokes deep admiration and gratitude for those who went before.