Rat & the Devil: Journal Letters of F.O. Matthiessen and Russell Cheney
When F.O. Matthiessen jumped to his death from a twelfth-story window of a Boston hotel on April 1, 1950, the shock reverberated far beyond his established orbit as a literary critic and Harvard professor. At the time there were other dramatic refusals to enter the second half of the twentieth century: notably that of Klaus, the eldest son of Thomas Mann, who gave up striving to find his own identity as a writer, and that of the gifted Cesare Pavese, who had begun by translating Moby-Dick into Italian and was scheduled to translate Matthiessen’s most important book, American Renaissance. Officious voices were immediately raised to interpret the latter’s suicide as an episode in the cold war. His latest book, From the Heart of Europe, had been an honest if ineffectual testimony for communicating across the Iron Curtain even as it was coming down. Active more and more as a Christian Socialist, starting from undergraduate activities at Yale, he had seconded the nomination of Henry Wallace for president in 1948. He had been in friendly touch with Bronson Cutting, Jerry Voorhis, Harry Bridges, and the Trotskyist labor leader Ray Dunne. He had reported on the miners’ strike at Gallup, New Mexico, presided over the Harvard Teachers’ Union, participated in fellow-traveling committees, and had freely signed many a left-wing petition.
During his forty-eight years he had thus become a public figure, as well as a remarkably productive and imaginative scholar-teacher. Insofar as literature was concerned, American Renaissance became the monument of the movement toward American studies that had developed in the United States before the Second World War and spread to Europe shortly afterward. Thoroughly committed to his teaching and taken up for a while in academic administration, with increasingly frequent leaves of absence, he was able to produce a richly substantial body of writing, and his contributions to the revival of Henry James were second only to those of Leon Edel. He had absorbed and broadened the inspirations and instigations of Van Wyck Brooks and Lewis Mumford, V.L. Parrington and D.H. Lawrence, and—more generally—of T.S. Eliot, I.A. Richards, and Edmund Wilson. His approach was “adhesive,” to use a Whitmanesque word; while concentrating on the texts of major writers, it set them into context by synthesizing aesthetic and social considerations. Influence was creative; he drew upon it and passed it on; and he generously acknowledged the interactions that affected all his books. Chapter by chapter, some of them were read aloud to his friends; and, since he was more interested in other styles than in his own, he utilized assistance when revising his manuscripts.
Spokesmen for the Communist Party, to which he had never belonged, loudly signalized his suicide as a political gesture. It could be remarked that the manner of it paralleled the recent defenestration of Jan Masaryk, whose acquaintance in Prague he had cherished as a last point of contact with the hope for a free postwar Europe. But Matthiessen himself was careful to write in a note, which…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.