Most of the essays in Philip Rahv’s new collection, The Myth and the Powerhouse, come from those uncherished years, the Fifties. In the small world of the advanced literary intellectual, as indeed in the larger worlds that suffer or contrive what we call history, it was not a happy decade: not tragic, to be sure, but dispirited, and dispiriting to think about. It was not a time of discovery but of defense, at home and abroad. Defense and consolidation are not congenial tasks for the type of mind that is happiest with the new, with discovery and analysis of ideas and feelings which by their very novelty or inaccessibility seem to require these activities. The new is food and drink to the advanced intellectual, but he can provide the new himself only in one way. He can register, make conscious, the mind of his time. He does not create that which he struggles to bring to consciousness.
Internationally, in the Fifties, intellectuals in Europe and America countered a dull, blatant Communist cultural offensive in a long weary effort. They had what might be called success, a kind of Korean success. Whether it was the boring quality of the enemy, the boring quantity of the support received at home—or the boring quality of home itself, which, in those years, was after all being defended—this conflict can scarcely be said to have produced much in the way of intellectual monuments. Those who engaged in this battle of the books and journals had learned what there was to know about the matter years before. There were no new positions, only long heavings at the mired axles of cultural lag. It was a stalemate, painful to some, boring to others, to some few, death; very like the Korean War. Hungary, in 1956, proved there was no real point to it, but it went on.
In the little domestic world of the literary intellectual, things were much the same. McCarthyism provided no arena for ideas, for new modes of consciousness. The great writers of the creative and tragic decades of our century fell out, exhausted or dead. The journals of the intellectuals were betrayed by their own victories. The Kenyon Review, having defeated the professors, was infiltrated by a new generation of professors in Kenyon disguises. Rahv’s magazine, Partisan Review, had succeeded in its task of bringing the new European literature and thought to America. These exiles were now comfortably at home. And the canon of American writers had been successfully stolen from the professors, turned upside down, and then given back to them. It was an Age of Criticism, fierce, skillful, knowing criticism, some of it, and it seems now that much of this was expended on explaining things already known or on grinding to bits small new literary productions that failed to justify the bloodshed. The journals tirelessly and on the whole accurately sought to print the new poets, the new fiction writers. But only a few of those who came to prominence in the Fifties now seem to be of importance, and the chief of these, like Robert Lowell and Saul Bellow, really moved out into the open only when the decade was done with. These were the times that succeeded only in making everybody ten years older.
It could not be expected, therefore, that a collection of essays from this period, however capable, would be likely now to produce any great enthusiastic shocks of recognition. For a man with his eye out for new ways of thinking about new things, the objects simply were not there. The essays in Rahv’s first book, Image and Idea, were pioneering studies, many of them, in Kafka, in Henry James, in the new re-appraisal of American literature such as his famous alignment of Paleface and Redskin, and in a re-appraisal of Russian literature and Marxism. Among these novelties, Rahv was sensible, solid, and weighty. He still is, and he still has his large Johnsonian gift for reality. But the object of his criticism in this collection is, necessarily, often criticism itself.
When in the Fifties many assiduous cultivators of publication were under the spell of myth as the key to all literature, Rahv loaded himself with Maritain, Cassirer, S. M. Hooke, Whitehead, Mannheim, and Tillich, and sat down very heavily on these myth-spinners. It is not a bad thing today to see how he scattered the splinters of “magico-religious play,” of fear and reaction, from this “new-fangled concern with myth,” as he called it. So, in the same sturdy manner, he tests with his weight the “religious revival” of the time, and neither is this irrelevant today. As he says in explaining why he reprints this old inquisition, “religiosity of one or another kind, like varieties of romanticism, is ever lurking below the surface of modern literary consciousness.” With much good sense he examines the fad of formalistic studies of fiction, an extravagance of the Fifties that certainly does not lurk today but rather parades from the university presses annually like the graduating class of West Point.
Symbol-hunting he crushes, blind traditionalism, and all anti-historicism. History is the “Powerhouse” of his title, “that powerhouse of change which destroys custom and tradition in producing the future,” the powerhouse which was feared and avoided by the purists and the traditionalists and the genteel. And, he can say, is still feared and avoided. The Sixties, too, as he shows us in his recent reviews, have their disengagements. Arthur Miller’s liberalism, rather than being insufficiently profound is discovered to be too “deep,” an avoidance of history, of simple fact. Leslie Fiedler is an enfant terrible, engrossed in his own fantasies: “the actual is seldom real to him; its sole appeal is in its literary reflection.”
With Rahv’s insistence on fact, on history, even when it may appear as though the past, “all of it together with its gods and sacred books, were being ground to pieces in the powerhouse of change, senselessly used up as so much raw material in the fabrication of an unthinkable future”—with this vivid sense of history, with, it might be said, this faith in history, it may be odd that there is so little history, brute history, in this book. Rahv’s conception of literary criticism is, sensibly, that it mediates between literature and the great world, that in fact criticism should aid literature to reach out, to locate and struggle with “experience.” But except for a few eloquent passages of invocation, and one or two specific references to the past, there is little reaching out here. There is only comment on literature, on literary fads, on literary books. From his piece on Maxwell Geismar’s Henry James, we learn that this book is the kind of thing “that in the thirties we used to call ‘vulgar Marxism.”‘ And in one passage there is a comment that perhaps, somewhere, “on the further shore of historical necessity,” the dream of a genuine social community of some kind might just be possible. But between the Thirties and this sketchy apocalypse we see nothing but writers.
Back beyond the Thirties, yes. Nineteenth-century Russia is densely populated, its whole society, its thought, its past and its future are made to live as the Fifties never do. Rahv’s essay on Crime and Punishment is a triumph of his learning, good sense, and marshaling powers. His ability to describe the complex narrative so that this presentation itself reveals the subtle sources of its fascination, his sober psychological observation, his knowledge of Russian history and thought, of Dostoevsky’s life and work, all these combine to demonstrate what a critic can do. St. Petersburg, the “town of crazy people,” is present here in all its history, its physical chaos, its bronze horseman and its taverns, its literary tradition, its meaning to all Russians and to Dostoevsky. New York never is present, anywhere. Where did it go, during the years of Eisenhower?
December 9, 1965