Little magazines are born quickly and die easily, two respects in which they differ from most human beings. For a literary journal like Partisan Review to have survived a quarter of a century is equivalent to a man passing the age of a hundred: he looms as a triumph of the life principle, no matter how wrinkled or bent he may now be.
Anyone who has ever undertaken the travail of editing a little magazine, struggling to cope with skeptical printers, truculent writers, and putative angels, doing by oneself at odd hours the chores that in commercial or subsidized magazines keep a paid staff busy full-time, watching with annoyance how a contributor one has nursed to modest prominence is lured away by the slicks and with rage how ideas one has fought for bitterly are in time sponged up and watered down by mass-circulation parasites who condescend to assure you that you’re nice too—anyone who has gone through all this knows that William Phillips and Philip Rahv have set a record for endurance and achievement. Criticize them endlessly; but have the grace to remember that in the era of the slippery dollar they have kept alive, at some personal expense, one of the few serious literary magazines in America. A good many people who have recently made a point of sneering at PR would not even have been heard of if the magazine hadn’t first been there to print them.
Among American literary magazines of the twentieth century, only The Dial in the twenties and Kenyon Review in the forties were so important, The Dial in helping to internationalize our culture by printing the major European moderns, and Kenyon in fostering the New Criticism and its allied poets. But PR not only helped establish a new school in American literature—the writers of urban, “alienated” and (in not merely the literal sense) Jewish fiction—and a distinctive tendency in American literary criticism—what might be called the New York social critics. During its early phase the magazine also served as a center for independent radicalism among American intellectuals; it influenced the way people thought and felt; it kept vibrant the idea of a far-reaching, restless criticism as a style of perception, even a style of life.
In the years between 1936 and 1942 PR brought together two kinds of radical sensibility, one in literature and the other in politics. The literary avant garde began to form in America about the time of the First World War, as a response to the profound cultural revolution signified by such names as Joyce, Picasso, Schoenberg. To counter the hostility which the works of such artists evoked in official spokesmen of culture, to find ways of extending their innovations into American literature, art and music, and to insist upon the continuity between their work and the accepted, because dead, artists of the past—this became the task of the avant garde. Later a section of it became politically conscious, for the aroused sensibilities that had responded to the innovations of the modern masters now responded to the crisis of modern society. Meanwhile, in the middle thirties, there was forming an unstable “independent left,” composed of intellectuals who had escaped or never entered the prison-house of Stalinism, found unsatisfactory their brief relation with the Trotskyists, but wanted to maintain, as a value if not an ideology, the perspective of socialist renovation.
The literary avant garde and the independent Left were not necessarily linked, and the passage of time would reveal many points of tension between them; but for the moment there was an uneasy but fruitful union in the pages of PR, which led people to hope that in their own lives they also could bring together critical consciousness and political conscience.
That union has since been dissolved, and there is no likelihood it will soon be reestablished. American radicalism exists today only as an idea; the literary avant garde is rapidly disintegrating, without clear function or assertive spirit. And the uncertainty that has followed is a major reason for the sense of drift which PR readers have for some years felt in its pages.
Going through the massive anthology that has recently been compiled by Phillips and Rahv from twenty-five years of the magazine, one could hardly find a clear sense of its origins or early vitality. The book is admirable; the selections, though cautious, are impressive; the distinguished names one associates with PR are all here: Meyer Schapiro, William Troy, Sidney Hook, Lionel Trilling, Mary McCarthy, Delmore Schwartz, Harold Rosenberg, Hannah Arendt. But alas, the anthology is a monument, not a living recreation. The rough edges, the polemical bite, the topical excitement of the early PR come through only occasionally in this book. What seems to be missing is the intellectual context in which the articles, reviews, and even stories were written. The tumult of the years when PR was fully engaged, fighting Stalinism before that became fashionable and attacking the gentility and conservatism of both the academy and certain New Critics—this barely appears in the anthology, perhaps because it no longer figures so vividly in the minds of the editors, perhaps because no mere collection can bring to life the tensions of intellectual controversy as they were once experienced.
PR quickly established its distinctive style, a mixture of polemical combativeness and intellectual rapidity, which made it influential even among those who detested its views or attacked it as “snobbish,” “highbrow,” and “New York provincial” (at times a euphemism for something not at all attractive). The magazine printed criticism defending modernist literature, criticism that tried to combine social range with literary faithfulness. It developed a style of reviewing quite its own: brief, ironic, fierce, sometimes rude. It cultivated the art of polemic: to fight for one’s ideas meant to be alive, to care, to take risks. And it printed fiction that was sharply drawn, problematic in tone, self-consciously brilliant in style, dealing with the predicaments of urban men. The best fiction writers who first appeared in its pages—Bellow, Schwartz, Rosenfeld—transformed the local happenings of American Jewish life into a matter of “universal” bearing.
Conservative professors declared PR “unsound,” by which they meant sometimes that its critics took extreme positions, sometimes merely that they took positions. Others charged PR was narrow in its interest—a charge partly irrelevant, since the magazine had as much right to confine itself to modern literature as The Philological Quarterly to concentrate on eighteenth-century literature, but also a charge partly valid, since PR had a way of getting stuck in its novelties. Still others denounced the magazine for cliquishness—a charge somewhat true but not fatal, since every editor knows that his survival depends on gathering together a group of steady contributors.
With the general post-war drift of American intellectuals toward moderation, and in response to the world-wide crisis in socialist thought, the early radicalism of PR began to weaken. It now seemed less irreverent, deficient in zest. It continued to publish many good things, but it could not find a sustaining idea such as had inspired its opening years. Some of the radicals who had enlivened its pages were now ex-radicals, and at times PR took on that peculiar sourness characterizing the disenchanted of the left, that dispirited virtuosity with which they tried to replace intellectual assurance. And in regard to strictly literary matters, the magazine was also somewhat adrift. Its earlier task of defending and analyzing the modern writers was fulfilled: Eliot, Joyce, Kafka were now absorbed, almost too well, into our cultural and academic life.
For these difficulties the editors were not entirely to blame, since they, like many others, were caught up in the intellectual crises of the time. Where PR did fail significantly was in responding to the rise of McCarthyism during the early fifties. The magazine was of course opposed to McCarthy’s hooliganism, but it failed to take the lead on the issue of freedom which could then once more have imbued the intellectuals with some fighting spirit. PR, unlike some of its New York contemporaries, did print occasional sharp attacks on the conservative drift; it did not try to minimize the badness of the situation in the name of opposing Communism. But the magazine failed to speak out with enough force and persistence, or to break past the conservative hedgings of those intellectuals who led the American Committee for Cultural Freedom. The voice of the editors was barely heard in the land.
In recent years there have been signs of both trouble and renewal. PR remains one of our best literary magazines, even though the editors must now cope with the problem of competing with the slicks which, for reasons of their own, pay serious writers considerable sums for certain kinds of work. But PR suffers from a dilemma testifying to the strength of its influence upon American intellectual life. It has trained older readers to expect more than a good story here, a brilliant essay there. Its whole tradition leads them to look for intellectual guidance, for a kind of coherence no one would expect from the usual literary magazine. And but rarely do they find it.
February 1, 1963