• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

The Partisan

Essays on Literature and Politics 1932-1972

by Philip Rahv, edited by Arabel J. Porter, by Andrew J. Dvosin, with a memoir by Mary McCarthy
Houghton Mifflin, 354 pp., $15.00

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 of former Communists. After years of monotonous proletarianizing, bright leftists were aching to do critical justice to complex and resistant texts—but they were not ready to admit that there is nothing especially radical about such activity. They gravitated to Partisan as the one journal in which they could bid good riddance to the Thirties without seeming to do so.

Partisan also became the vehicle for another and closely related adaptation. In the Forties and Fifties, the period of its greatest sway, the magazine was among other things a forum for debate about making one’s peace with America. Nearly all of its older mainstays had believed at one time that fascism was a logical development of capitalism and that any war joined by the United States would shift the country definitively into its totalitarian phase. But no prior dogmas could prevent well-informed Jewish intellectuals from grasping the special character of Hitlerism. In the pages of Partisan and in hairsplitting private encounters, they inched their way from pacifism toward lukewarm support of the war—a process that was capped by the pacifist Dwight Macdonald’s resignation in protest from the editorial staff in 1943. Less than a decade later, in a famous symposium canvassing the most prominent members of the Partisan circle, all but a few of twenty-four respondents concurred with Phillips’s and Rahv’s proposal that America had indeed become “Our Country and Our Culture.”1

Such a rapprochement with the patriots amounted to a conspicuous and at times mortifying compromise of the Partisan writers’ vanguard identity. It should be noted, however, that they had never constituted an avant-garde in the usual sense of the term. Politically, they had been drifting ambiguously toward the liberalism they professed to despise. Culturally, they welcomed association with such established and unradical personages as Eliot, Stevens, Tate, and Ransom. The poetry and fiction they wrote themselves were hardly experimental. And as judges of contemporary literature they shunned extremes, saving their approval for manifestly dignified ironists like the early Lowell and the early Bellow. For a supposed little magazine, Partisan was concerned to an unusual degree with previously established literary values such as complexity, moral seriousness, and a sense of the past.

In retrospect it seems evident that after about 1940, the radicalism of the Partisan writers was largely a matter of style. Their progress, at least until they became polarized by McCarthyism, was a fairly steady movement toward the American center; but they camouflaged that movement by drawing around themselves every available form of disciplined pessimism, from psychoanalysis and existentialism to the arid, elusive visions of Kafka and Eliot. As Alfred Kazin has said of them, “They would never feel that they had compromised, for they believed in alienation, and would forever try to outdo conventional opinion even when they agreed with it.”2 In this manner assimilation retained much of the urgency and energy of revolt.

In a society still rife with anti-Semitism and suspicion of radicals, however, the early Partisan critics were by no means assured of a friendly audience. As Lionel Trilling could attest from bitter experience, university departments of English not only had a narrow gentlemanly idea of “the tradition,” but also a gentleman’s agreement about blood qualifications for discussing that tradition. The championing of modernism in Partisan can be understood in part as a turning of the tables on the professors. Of course the Partisan writers were sincere in their taste for the thorny moderns. Yet we cannot fail to notice that by placing extremity and alienation at the very heart of modern experience, they were in effect supplanting one tradition with another—one that they were already better prepared to gloss than were the salaried connoisseurs of Keats and Browning.

In view of their standing as outsiders on probation, however, it is not surprising that the Partisan critics preferred their pessimism well diluted with cultural decorum. Writers like Céline and Henry Miller, irreverent beyond all civility, were not celebrated in Partisan; the ideal figures would be those who already had a foothold on respectability and who emanated more, not less, portentous allusiveness than the favorites of the academy. When a Partisan critic set out to analyze such a model modern, the journal’s usual tone of iconoclasm was apt to give way to a strangely incautious awe.

Thus Delmore Schwartz, a co-editor at the time, ingenuously entitled a 1945 essay “T.S. Eliot as the International Hero.”3 Schwartz doesn’t ask us to regard Eliot as a hero; he reminds us why we already do. The reason is that Eliot happens to be the quintessential modern cosmopolite, belonging to all and therefore none of the world’s capitals, haunted by war and decay, and attuned to the defining feature of modernity, namely impotence. “We ought to remember,” wrote Schwartz, “that the difficulty of making love…is not the beginning but the consequence of the whole character of modern life.” Modern man is like Gerontion:

He lives in a rented house, he is unable to make love, and he knows that history has many cunning, deceptive, and empty corridors. The nature of the house, of love and of history are interdependent aspects of modern life.

Such remarks, absurd in their literal content, tell us something about the anxieties and mannerisms to which Partisan writers could be susceptible. To treat “Gerontion” as an accurate picture of “our” condition was both to play one’s role as a bearer of grim tidings and to take social shelter beneath Eliot’s none too capacious umbrella. Readers were not reminded that Schwartz’s nondenominational mournfulness over “modern man” differed notably from Eliot’s exclusivism. Not a word about Hakagawa bowing among the Titians, or, more significantly, about the “Jew” squatting on Gerontion’s window still. To be fully critical about such details would have been to strike too personal and querulous a note—and before an audience not devoid of prejudices like Eliot’s. It was more prudent to write in universal terms, to ascribe prophetic souls to the gloomier modernists, and in so far as possible to overlook their often reactionary views.

The need to appropriate alienation, whether or not one still felt alienated oneself, also exacted a price in the Partisan critics’ ability to consider ideas on their merits, apart from their usefulness in conferring adversary status. This holds even for the mildest, subtlest, and most peripheral member of the circle, Lionel Trilling. He called Freud and Nietzsche to the witness stand to vouch for our imperiled condition, but he could not afford to cross-examine them about the cogency of their propositions; they were, after all, his spiritual guardians against such paddlers of the mainstream as Van Wyck Brooks and the Times Book Review‘s vox populi, J. Donald Adams. Trilling needed little coaxing in order to rehearse the terrible antinomies of modern existence and the stern tasks allegedly confronting “us.” It seemed that liberalism, meaning the bureaucratic progressivism to which he was in fact quite reconciled, had to be fertilized by imagination; imagination had to be sobered by an unspecified political concern; the ego was not master in its own house; and modern literature was at once our finest possession and a seedbed of libidinous and nihilistic anarchy. The recompense for living with such difficult knowledge, such conflicting imperatives, was of course an awareness that the philistines of the mass culture weren’t up to doing so.

In the Fifties and Sixties, when the social climate had become less invidious and the Partisan writers had gained the recognition they deserved as our first and only intelligentsia, they could afford to begin dissociating themselves from what Bellow’s Herzog called “the commonplaces of the Wasteland outlook, the cheap mental stimulants of Alienation, the cant and rant of pipsqueaks about Inauthenticity and Forlornness.”4 Yet even then their bias toward modernism remained strong, for only the great moderns stood between them and a more threatening wasteland, the culturally chaotic one inhabited by trolls like Ginsberg and Kerouac. By the Sixties some Partisan graduates were looking back to the modernist classics with an almost professorial nostalgia, as the last serious writing our demotic Western world was likely to produce.

  1. 1

    For a concise account of this history, see S.A. Longstaff, “The New York Family,” Queen’s Quarterly, 83 (Winter 1976), pp. 556-573.

  2. 2

    Starting Out in the Thirties (Little, Brown, 1965), p. 157.

  3. 3

    Partisan Review, 12 (Spring 1945), pp. 199-206; reprinted in Selected Essays of Delmore Schwartz, edited by Donald A. Dike and David H. Zucker (University of Chicago Press, 1970), pp. 120-128.

  4. 4

    Herzog (Viking, 1964; reprinted 1967), p. 75.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print