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Ragged Individualist

The Last Romantic: A Life of Max Eastman

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

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 of Freudian comment, as if to show that he knows which century we’re living in. “Father, who stands between Max and mother, must be destroyed. But at the same time the aftermath of total victory, union with mother, is unthinkable, so father must be born again.” This seems so ready-made and threadbare an analysis, it either means little or applies to no fewer than 100 million other Americans. And in the book nothing, literally nothing, follows from this “analysis,” as if Mr. O’Neill really wished he lived in another century.

Mr. O’Neill writes as a liberal, not a bad thing to be these days, yet there is a slackness of feeling associated with—inseparable from?—his liberalism which keeps him from giving full credence to his subject. He can’t help suppressing a smile at Eastman’s political antics, and whatever the intellectual validity of this, it cripples any effort to make Eastman seem a significant figure. Most of Eastman’s political life may indeed have been a piece of foolishness, but if so, where’s the story, where’s the drama?

Mr. O’Neill is fond of the early Masses, that lively, clever, but not very reflective socialist magazine Eastman started editing in 1912; he even shares a bit of the nostalgia American socialists display toward The Masses and the Debsian era (we have to find a golden age somewhere). But finally he isn’t interested in American radicalism at all, not in such questions as why it failed or whether it had to fail. The result is a tone of cousinly amiability—solid young Bill patting his elderly and erratic friend Max on the back for a good try.

A reactionary writer might have done better, since to a reactionary the spectacle of sin is real. A European might have done better, since he would conclude, as George Lichtheim did in these pages some years ago, that Americans are hopelessly optimistic and American radicals especially feckless in so far as they are characteristically American. * But Mr. O’Neill is too nice to make Eastman into a Bad Example, just as he seems intellectually too low-keyed or unequipped to engage with the issues that obsessed Eastman.

Twice in his career Eastman got into severe disputes with Sidney Hook. During the early Thirties the two of them kept slugging away at each other on issues of Marxist philosophy, with Eastman scorning Hegelian metaphysics as a fatal contamination within the Marxist system and proposing to replace it by “science,” a term as haloed and imprecise in his vocabulary as “dialectics” in the orthodox Marxist one. Hook, in turn, offered a qualified defense of Marxism as a “method” of historical investigation. The truly orthodox Marxists disliked this at least as much as Eastman’s scientism, since they clung to the notion of dialectics as a universal set of “laws” applicable to all departments of existence.

As he changed his own views regarding Marxism in the late 1930s and 1940s, Hook backed away from the position he had taken against Eastman, though without withdrawing (I believe) his criticisms of Eastman. To some extent, then, despite the crudeness of his assault on Marxist philosophy and his characteristic impatience with the distinctions that Hook was proposing, Eastman could be regarded as vindicated. All of this, though not likely to interest many people these days, must somehow be made clear in a biography of Eastman, for to him it mattered enormously. Mr. O’Neill hardly tries, and the interested reader has to go to John Diggins’s Up from Communism or back to the files of V.F. Calverton’s magazine, The Modern Monthly, in which major portions of the dispute appeared.

A second round took place later, in the 1940s, after Eastman had discovered that the survival of political freedom depended on a defense of capitalist economy. Again Hook was effective in pointing out the simplistic excesses of Eastman’s argument, noting, as we now have occasion to note again, that capitalism in various countries has managed very well without democracy, even conniving in its destruction, that in welfare and semi-socialist societies democracy has not only not suffered damage but has flourished, and that any effort to establish a one-to-one correlation between political “superstructure” and socio-economic “base” is ill-conceived in its very assumptions, indeed, like much of Eastman’s later conservatism, a curious parody of the very Marxism he repudiated. This debate, reprinted in Hook’s Political Power and Personal Freedom, can still be read with profit; but again Mr. O’Neill makes very little of it.

Is the liberal perspective, by its very nature, unsatisfactory for dealing with a career like Eastman’s? There is no way of being sure. I suspect that a certain liberal skepticism, if only it sustained some intellectual nervousness, could do a lot with a man like Eastman. Reading the story of his life one finds oneself exclaiming, “Oh no, not again—Ralph Waldo Emerson, is there no escaping him?” Eastman’s parents were charged with that moral idealism which had lingered on in America like a foggy residue of Emersonian rain. At some point in the last third of the nineteenth century Emersonianism crumbled into several fragments, with some of its heirs moving rightward toward the wisdoms of rugged individualism and some leftward toward progressivist benevolence. What Eastman, like a good many other young idealists of Protestant lineage, did as a young man at the turn of the century was to transpose the morally earnest, progressivist version of Emersonianism into an equally American but decidedly more shocking cult of the Beautiful Life: a cult espousing non-conformist self-expression through sexual freedom, political radicalism, sympathy for the poor, poetic afflatus, all together.

Even during the radical years in the 1920s and 1930s, when he was attacking Marxism as “unscientific,” Eastman still spoke with a minor Emersonian voice, that of hardheaded technicist practicality. In his late years, persuaded that Stalin’s dictatorship was the necessary consequence of socialism, Eastman shifted to the far right, still as good-spirited and combative as ever, still the golden boy of the Village though now with silver hair, still in possession of a lucid prose style. He made a choice, in Silone’s phrase, of comrades: he chose William Buckley and, somewhat more gingerly, Joe McCarthy. Yet in his own sad way he was employing tag-ends of Emersonianism, living out, as he saw it, the libertarian impulses of his youth.

This much said, it should be added that the disheveled individualism from which Eastman started still worked to some moral advantage. He was sometimes foolish, often vain; he was far too ambitious, seduced by fantasies of the man of letters; but he was never a trimmer. A vision of intellectual independence kept him going in hard times and foolish. Through his communist phase in the Twenties, when he went to Russia, he kept a notable distance from the orthodoxies of Leninism and the clamp of the Leninist machine. Even his notion that Lenin was really a political “engineer” had a grain of sense to it, for he was trying to say that, for all of Lenin’s quotation-mongering from Marx and his readings of Hegel, the Bolshevik leader had a remarkable flexibility, a gift for rapid innovation, in the struggle for power. When Eastman became a supporter of Trotsky, he kept his distance on ideological matters, offered cogent criticisms (which later anti-Stalinist leftists would take over) of Trotsky’s theory of Stalinism, and maintained an attitude of generosity even after Trotsky had turned on him.

In the Thirties Eastman showed real moral courage in holding out against both Stalinism and the Popular Front intellectuals. It seems almost impossible these days to convince young people that there are kinds of persecution organized by fellow intellectuals that are as bad in their way as the snooping and harassment of government agents. Often it is harder to face the contempt of former comrades than the attacks of open enemies. To be a left-wing anti-Stalinist in the Thirties meant to endure the condition of a pariah, and Eastman, like Hook, carried this off with courage and dignity.

In his right-wing phase, as a Reader’s Digest contributor, Eastman acted equally out of sincere conviction and simplistic modes of thought. His support of McCarthyism badly soiled his claim to be a defender of personal freedom, as did his rationalization of that support: since communism is the main enemy, scrupulous conservatives like Peter Viereck who repudiated McCarthy, he wrote, “go into battle like women in long dresses, more concerned with keeping [their] skirts clean than defeating the enemy.” A sad kind of argument, pretty much the sort of thing Eastman would have said about Social Democrats during his radical years. Mr. O’Neill reports that this was followed by a letter from Edmund Wilson sharply criticizing Eastman and “accusing Max’s friend William Buckley of trying to ‘play Goebbels to McCarthy’s Hitler.’ ”

Still, even at his worst, which was bad enough, Eastman kept a touch of independence, quarreling with Buckley over the latter’s politicized piety. Eastman wrote that he failed “to see why God cannot take care of Himself at Yale, or even for that matter at Harvard.” Which is a shade better than those liberal intellectuals who cozied up to Buckley and then told one that, well, he was cultivated. Before he died, at eighty-six, in 1969, Eastman opposed the Vietnam war, not on grounds likely to satisfy many readers of this paper but strongly enough to mark him as still something of an iconoclast in his new political milieu.

What remains of his work? Not much, I fear. Eastman knew it, writing about himself at the end of his life, “I am not Science, and I am not Song.” His poetry is bad and his literary criticism not much better. (Van Wyck Brooks wrote that Eastman saw art “as a gay little handmaiden that delights in trimming the beard and warming the slippers of a certain grim, strenuous giant whose name is Science….”) His work on Marxism lacks intellectual refinement: he simply did not have a philosophical mind. One of his books, Artists in Uniform, was tremendously valuable in its day as an exposé of Soviet persecution of writers: it sold all of 500 copies when it came out in 1934. Perhaps his most lasting work is the translation of Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution, a superb English rendering of a great book.

Eastman was, nevertheless, an important figure in twentieth-century American intellectual history. He failed to concentrate his talents, but he gave himself to his age. He was one of those intellectuals, in their own time influential, who end without major achievement partly because they do respond to the problems and agonies of their time. “Look on my works…and despair.”

  1. *

    The Romance of Max Eastman,” New York Review, January 14, 1965.

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