Essays on Literature and Politics 1932-1972
“Little magazines” are, for the most part, the mayflies of the literary world. Launched on implausibly idealistic manifestoes, briefly sustained by charity and overwork, and imperiled by an ever-worsening ratio of creditors to subscribers, they soon complete their scarcely noticed flights and sink away, to be replaced by swarms of others. Ephemerality is the little magazine’s generic fate; by promptly dying it gives proof that it remained loyal to its first program. Conversely, when such a journal survives for decades and effects a change in the whole temper of cultural debate, we may be sure that a metamorphosis has occurred. In outward respects—format, financing, even the number of paying readers—the magazine may still be technically “little,” but its editors will have shown a quite untypical gift for retreating from untenable positions, anticipating new currents of opinion, and harmonizing interests that would seem on their face to be incompatible.
This rule applies nowhere more strikingly than to Partisan Review, the longest-lived and most influential of all our magazines that began by being “little.” At its inception in 1934 it was not much more than a strident house organ of the Communist party and one of its literary brigades, the John Reed Club of New York City. The numerous members of its editorial board were to all appearances obedient Stalinists who would promote the official line of proletarianism—or, a little later, the relative latitudinarianism of the Popular Front. But by 1936 the most active of those editors, William Phillips and Philip Rahv, had learned all they would ever need to know about the nature of the Soviet dictatorship and the folly of allowing ideologues to enforce critical judgments. They ceased publication; the mayfly seemed to have fallen on schedule.
In fact, however, Rahv and Phillips were busy gathering collaborators, most of whom were recent converts to anti-Stalinism like themselves. In 1937, with the help of F.W. Dupee, Dwight Macdonald, Mary McCarthy, and George L.K. Morris, they reconstituted the magazine, now advocating at once a purer radicalism than the Party’s and devotion to the highest critical standards irrespective of ideology. Before long Partisan had attracted contributions not only by such survivors of leftist militancy as Sidney Hook, Meyer Schapiro, Lionel and Diana Trilling, Isaac Rosenfeld, Delmore Schwartz, Clement Greenberg, Irving Howe, Lionel Abel, and Harold Rosenberg, but also by figures as eminent and diverse as Malraux, Ortega, Silone, Eliot, Auden, and Dylan Thomas.
No one could deny that the new Partisan was a success, even though no one could explain how neo-Marxist political commentary was to be reconciled with “The Dry Salvages” and highbrow discussion of the modern masters. Not even Trotsky, the idol of the hour for intellectuals who wished to regard themselves as having moved to Stalin’s left and not his right, could make room for James, Proust, and Gide on the revolutionist’s bedtable. But Phillips’s and Rahv’s eclectic policy was psychologically appropriate both for themselves and for their generation …
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Partisans February 8, 1979