On ‘The Unpossessed’

The Unpossessed by Tess Slesinger is a daring, unique fiction, a wild, crowded comedy set in New York City in the 1930s. The inchoate, irrational, addictive metropolis, ever clamoring, brawling between its two somehow sluggish rivers, is a challenge to its citizens and to the novelist’s art. In the end, people gather with their own kind, as they do in the towns with the right side to live on and the wrong side, with Baptists and Catholics, girls brought up for the Junior League and others to become plump, nice ladies taking covered dishes to the Oddfellows picnic. Manhattan, ever a proper symbol of an immigrant nation, lives in the daytime by “immigrants” from the boroughs who come in to build the skyscrapers, paint the walls, caulk the leaking pipes, drive the cabs; it is also the dream site of travelers from Alabama, Illinois, or Michigan with the longing of their specialized ambition to go on the stage, master the Steinway grand, paint pictures, or write stories for The New Yorker.

The city is, as it must be, a nest of enclaves in the surrounding smother. The Unpossessed looks with a subversive eye on a disorderly, self-appointed group: intellectuals, critical of society’s arrangements and very critical of each other. It is the 1930s and the reign, you might call it, of the left; of well-to-do Greenwich Village supporters of the workers striking in Detroit and of the woebegone, cotton-picking sharecroppers in the South. Above all, the echoes from the “classless” society in Russia, the proles sending the feckless aristocrats to Paris, aroused in intellectual circles here a sort of conversational communism.

The Unpossessed is a kindly act of intellectual friendship written by a sensibility formed by the period and yet almost helplessly alert to the follies of a programmatic “free love” and the knots and tangles of parlor radicalism. Tess Slesinger, the author, was born in New York, the daughter of a nonpracticing Jewish family. Her father, Hungarian by birth, attended City College but after marriage went into the garment business owned by his wife’s family, the Singers. The garment business seems to be almost fore-ordained in the history of Jews in the city and not more on the dot than the fact of the author’s mother, early education interrupted to work in the family business, ending up, after night classes and a spell with Erich Fromm and Karen Horney, as a lay analyst and along the way taking part in the beginning of the New School for Social Research.

Tess Slesinger attended the progressive school Ethical Culture, Swarthmore College, and the Columbia School of Journalism. She married Herbert Solow, a man about town in intellectual circles, who was on the staff of the Menorah Journal and, much later, like the progression of so many radicals, on the staff of Fortune magazine. By way of the Menorah Journal, it was the world of Elliot Cohen, Clifton Fadiman, and Lionel Trilling that this young woman, at the …

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