Ragged Individualist

The Last Romantic: A Life of Max Eastman

by William L. O'Neill
Oxford University Press, 339 pp., $14.95

Max Eastman
Max Eastman; drawing by David Levine

The main thing wrong with The Last Romantic is that Mr. O’Neill can’t tell a story. Here is his opening sentence: “Max Eastman was not Jewish, despite his name, Jewish first wife, radical enthusiasms, and graduate training at Columbia University.” An array of tonal, historical, and moral gaucheries marches forth, clause by clause: no, it’s not the equal of “Call me Ishmael.”

Eastman’s life ought to make a good story. He was born in upstate New York in 1883. His childhood in an earnest Congregationalist home (both parents ministers!) was followed by up-beat socialism in the Debsian era; later came a notable progress, if that’s the word, from a solitary defense of Trotsky to contributing editor of the Reader’s Digest. And throughout, happy self-advertisements as a hygienic, free-souled lover. How gifted a lover he actually was the appropriate witnesses do not record, but that he made many conquests is beyond dispute. The two or three times I saw Eastman, in the late Thirties, he was a dazzlingly handsome man, though by then into his mid-fifties.

But Mr. O’Neill doesn’t make this story interesting. As a good liberal he finds himself embarrassed by Eastman’s repeated lurchings into ideological excess, both left and right; or if not embarrassed, then bored, as if having to put up with the tantrums of an unruly though likable child. Mr. O’Neill seems also embarrassed by Eastman’s boastful promiscuity and does his best to skip past it. Steering a course between extremes, he gets straight to the center of nothing.

The inability to tell a story, no small deficiency in a biographer, is hardly confined to Mr. O’Neill. I have the impression that the tacit skills by means of which a life is shaped into a coherent, even suspenseful narrative have been fading from our culture for a long time. Why that should be philosophers may yet reveal; but let me suggest that telling a story is an act freighted with far more implications than good storytellers are likely to know. (If they knew, they’d probably not be good storytellers.) It is an act premised on the accessibility and, still more, the transparency of meaning. Whether we have really lost the premises on which the skills of storytelling rest I’m not sure, but we ought not to be in a hurry, as some younger writers are, to assume so. In any case, there can be no question that few contemporary writers tell a story as well as Dickens or Leskov or Balzac did, perhaps because it becomes increasingly hard to yield oneself to the naïveté of telling. As for biographers, too many of them professors who mistake a PhD for a certificate of craft, they are highly uncertain about what they are supposed to do. If as good-spirited as Mr. O’Neill, they try to do a little of everything.

On an opening page he offers a few sentences…

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