Preserving the Hunger: An Isaac Rosenfeld Reader
Some writers are remembered more for their unfulfilled promise than for anything they wrote. Like Delmore Schwartz, Isaac Rosenfeld burned out young. Passage From Home, his first novel, was published to much critical acclaim in 1946, when he was only twenty-eight; it was also his last. Two other books followed after his death: Alpha & Omega, a collection of stories, and An Age of Enormity, a selection of essays and reviews. In 1956, thirty-eight years old, Rosenfeld died of a heart attack. His early death has contributed to the legend he’s become. Saul Bellow, who grew up with Rosenfeld in Chicago, wrote: “He swayed his friends with an unknown power. We called it ‘charm,’ ‘wisdom,’ ‘genius.’ In the end, with a variety of intonations, we could find nothing to call it but ‘Isaac.”’
Whatever else he was, Rosenfeld was a memorable figure. “He gave himself to conversation with the mad energy of a clown and the many bright sayings of a thinker still faithful to Wisdom,” Alfred Kazin, another contemporary, wrote in New York Jew. “What another man with Isaac’s rebellious imagination might have put entirely into his work, as Norman Mailer was to do after the war. Isaac frantically sought to make life.” He played the flute, had ruinous love affairs, was drawn to the ideas of Gandhi and Wilhelm Reich. He was a superb mimic. His improvised Yiddish version of T.S. Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” was famous in Village circles.
But he was more than a picturesque Village type. “He was our golden boy, more so than Bellow,” Irving Howe recalled in A Margin of Hope, “for there was an air of Yeshiva purity about Isaac that made one hope wildly for his future.” Rosenfeld arrived in New York in 1941, newly married and short of money, with a B.A. from the University of Chicago, and enrolled as a graduate student in philosophy at New York University. A year later, he dropped out, determined to make his way as a man of letters. After working briefly as the book review editor of The New Leader, he joined the editorial staff of The New Republic. He began to publish essays and reviews in Commentary and short stories in Partisan Review, and soon had many admirers in the New York literary world.
What was it about Rosenfeld that made his work, even a casual book review, distinctive? Mainly, I think, his voice. “I expect criticism to have the same personal development, the same intuitive accent, as the finest fiction,” he noted in the journal he kept for many years. His own criticism had that quality. Coming upon one of his pieces in a magazine, you knew at once he had written it, without having to look at the byline. The first sentence was often brief and provocative: ” ‘New writing’ makes for conservative criticism,” “The imagination is the man.” Theoretically minded and aphoristic, Rosenfeld seized upon the nominal subject at hand as an …