The Myth and the Powerhouse
Most of the essays in Philip Rahv’s new collection, The Myth and the Powerhouse, come from those uncherished years, the Fifties. In the small world of the advanced literary intellectual, as indeed in the larger worlds that suffer or contrive what we call history, it was not a happy decade: not tragic, to be sure, but dispirited, and dispiriting to think about. It was not a time of discovery but of defense, at home and abroad. Defense and consolidation are not congenial tasks for the type of mind that is happiest with the new, with discovery and analysis of ideas and feelings which by their very novelty or inaccessibility seem to require these activities. The new is food and drink to the advanced intellectual, but he can provide the new himself only in one way. He can register, make conscious, the mind of his time. He does not create that which he struggles to bring to consciousness.
Internationally, in the Fifties, intellectuals in Europe and America countered a dull, blatant Communist cultural offensive in a long weary effort. They had what might be called success, a kind of Korean success. Whether it was the boring quality of the enemy, the boring quantity of the support received at home—or the boring quality of home itself, which, in those years, was after all being defended—this conflict can scarcely be said to have produced much in the way of intellectual monuments. Those who engaged in this battle of the books and journals had learned what there was to know about the matter years before. There were no new positions, only long heavings at the mired axles of cultural lag. It was a stalemate, painful to some, boring to others, to some few, death; very like the Korean War. Hungary, in 1956, proved there was no real point to it, but it went on.
In the little domestic world of the literary intellectual, things were much the same. McCarthyism provided no arena for ideas, for new modes of consciousness. The great writers of the creative and tragic decades of our century fell out, exhausted or dead. The journals of the intellectuals were betrayed by their own victories. The Kenyon Review, having defeated the professors, was infiltrated by a new generation of professors in Kenyon disguises. Rahv’s magazine, Partisan Review, had succeeded in its task of bringing the new European literature and thought to America. These exiles were now comfortably at home. And the canon of American writers had been successfully stolen from the professors, turned upside down, and then given back to them. It was an Age of Criticism, fierce, skillful, knowing criticism, some of it, and it seems now that much of this was expended on explaining things already known or on grinding to bits small new literary productions that failed to justify the bloodshed. The journals tirelessly and on the whole accurately sought to print the new poets, the new fiction writers. But only a few of those …