Fred Dupee
Fred Dupee; drawing by David Levine

“I have liked being miscellaneous,” Dupee roundly declares in the foreword to The King of the Cats (1965), sounding a note of defiance, of boyish stubbornness, where to the ear of a different author an apology might have been called for. “Fred” was taking his stand as a literary journalist, a flâneur, a stroller, an idle saunterer, in an age of academic criticism, of “field” specialists on the one hand and fanatic “close readers” on the other. The shorter pieces of The King of the Cats, originally written for magazines, seem at first to bear out the confession: He turns from the letters of Dickens to a life of Sir Richard Burton, to Behrman’s reminiscences of Max Beerbohm, to “the secret life of Edward Windsor,” to the letters of Yeats, to Kafka’s letters to a Czech woman he was going to bed with, to Chaplin’s autobiography. Quite a variety.

Yet Dupee was no butterfly, no moth singeing his wings at the flame of letters, no boulevardier. Or, rather, all that random sensuous delectation was both real and a masquerade. The King of the Cats was less miscellaneous than it appeared. It was not a series of peeps into literary shop windows where the mannequins were being undressed—stately Henry James, naughty Nabokov, Charlie the Tramp. In all its diversity that collection had a remarkable unity, which may or may not have been intentional—a unity of matter as well as of manner and style. Even the most fugitive of those essays (and there is always something fugitive, some touch of “light housekeeping” in Dupee’s approach) is pinned down by slender ties to its fellows like Gulliver stoutly bound by the Lilliputians. The point in common, the trait d’union, is that Dupee’s “remarks,” as he called them, tended to be about letters of authors, biographies of authors (La Rochefoucauld, Sir Richard Burton), autobiographies of non-authors (Chaplin, the Duke of Windsor), late works of authors (Thomas Mann, James Agee), rather than about the primary work of authors. The big exceptions were Gertrude Stein, Proust, Nabokov, and Robert Lowell’s Life Studies, which fitted, however, into the overall Dupee pattern by being, itself, a prose-verse hybrid of autobiography and self-portraiture.

No doubt the unity I speak of was partly imposed by editors, who “typed” Dupee as they do any regular contributor. He was the right man to send a volume of Casanova to, a posthumous work of Jim Agee’s (he knew him; they were at Yale at the same time), anything marginally to do with James, Proust, or Kafka, and, above all, any curio coming to light in the collector’s corners of literature, e.g., a new, unexpurgated translation of Petronius’ Satyricon. The only misfit (from that point of view) I find in The King of the Cats is a review of J.F. Powers’s Morte d’Urban. Had I been an editor at Partisan Review then, I would not have thought of Powers as Dupee material. The Middle West, a golf-playing, Chevrolet-driving, go-getter of a Catholic priest?—I would have sent it to James T. Farrell or myself. But maybe Dupee asked for the book, seeing Powers as a writer rather than as a chronicler of Catholic rectories. Nevertheless the piece, even more so than its companion, a review of Bernard Malamud’s Idiots First, seems a bit out of place in a collection so unconcerned with grading current fiction. Malamud, too, would hardly have been a “natural” for Dupee were it not for a curious resemblance noticed by him (and by no one else, surely) between The Assistant and The Golden Bowl. But there was something else: in the Chagall-like, Orthodox Malamud, Dupee had found an intriguing quality that he had already sensed in the Roman Catholic Powers—that of being by choice an outsider, a marginal figure, a minority, in the contemporary republic of letters, whose insiders at the moment of writing were Heller, Burroughs, Pynchon.

The essential art of Dupee is defined by himself in the foreword to The King of the Cats as literary portraiture. His models for that, he tells us, were Sainte-Beuve and Macaulay. More generally as influences he cites Gide, Mencken, the early T.S. Eliot, and Edmund Wilson. That is clear; it shines through his work with a wonderful perspicuity, and the visible line of descent going back to a vanishing point is a beauty of his criticism: every debt is gladly acknowledged, and if he with his favorites occupies a slightly larger space than his masters lined up behind, that is only the law of perspective, which requires the present to come forward.

Modesty is one of his critical traits, and he is mannerly, too: in the new collection of his work* there is only one unfavorable review (“Leavis and Lawrence”); it advances the mild, sidelong suggestion that Leavis is a philistine. “What arrogant nonsense, one is tempted to say, while at the same time remarking on the amazing persistence and tortuous transformations of the philistine spirit in English letters.”


The virtual absence of adverse comment is no sign of laxity. Luckily, too, his reviews are not free of mischief, even of delicate malice, as when he observes of Robert Lowell that Boston became “his Lake Country” and that the prose of Life Studies is “malign and dazzling.” I am not sure whether it was mischief or malice that led him to say that there was something of the eternal bachelor in Yeats (and how true that was of Lady Gregory’s star boarder!). Certainly a gleeful mischief dictated the following: “There are old photographs of Burton—dark, beetle-browed, his left cheek deeply scarred where a Somali warrior had put a spear through it, his gaze intensified by what is surely the Evil Eye, his mustaches six inches long and good for twirling. Such photographs suggest those sometimes reproduced on the jackets of books by our scarier contemporaries, Fiedler or Mailer.” Blunter and less characteristic is: “New Poets of England and America [an anthology] assists us in penetrating the apparent anonymity, not to say nonentity, of the youthful band of men and women who make verse under these circumstances.”

“He’s French, you see,” Edmund Wilson used to emphasize in his roaring voice, meaning, I suppose, that continental sophistication ran in the Dupee blood, making him suaver than his fellow PR editors—Rahv and Phillips and Dwight Macdonald. I don’t know how much French blood Fred really had—perhaps a quarter or an eighth, certainly not as much as Wilson liked to imagine. In the distant past, Fred thought, the name had been “Dupuis.” A true Middlewesterner, from Joliet, Illinois, he had no more command of spoken French than Wilson and probably less of the written language. I doubt that it was his major field at Yale. Yet he was almost fatally attracted to French literature, starting with Stendhal. (I never heard him speak of the old authors, not even the likely ones—Montaigne, Louise Labé, Maurice Scève…. The exception was Rousseau, maybe not surprisingly in view of the Confessions. And there was also, I suddenly remember, Chateaubriand: Mémoires d’outre-tombe.) For PR in the early days, his undisputed “field” was French culture and politics.

Our interest in Gide was spurred mainly by him. At least it was at his urging that we published Gide’s second thoughts on his trip to the Soviet Union, which I translated. And he was very much aware of Sartre—the Sartre of Le Mur and La Nausée in preference to the philosopher. When existentialism came in, after the war, our French specialist turned into William Barrett, who knew philosophy, the modern kind, and was able to read L’Eactre et le néant. But Dupee remained the magazine’s authority on Malraux and the aesthetics of action; I remember a very long article, in several parts, I think, that he was writing on Malraux and could not seem to finish. Composition was hard for him then. There was no question with him of a “writing block,” like the one Dwight Macdonald got when the wind of radicalism went out of his sails, but the act of writing was painful, and Malraux was his most agonizing subject. He did finally finish that study, shortly after we had despaired. But he did not choose to reprint it in The King of the Cats or schedule it for inclusion in the present collection.

The truth was, he wrote extremely well. I do not think that we on PR were fully conscious of that. Knowing the pain he suffered over those pieces, we were conscious of the process rather than of the result. Only now, reading the essays over, I see how brilliant they are in what appears to be an effortless way. He is amusing, observant, nonchalant. The tone is that of conversation. The continuing flashes of insight appear almost casually, like heat lightning. There are many offhand lines, let drop as it were negligently, in an undertone. Kafka’s letters are reminders of “the lost art of being unhappy.” James Baldwin’s sentences “suggest the ideal prose of an ideal literary community, some aristocratic France of one’s dreams.” Writing of Pale Fire, he lightly observes that Nabokov has made a “team” of the poet and the novelist in himself. Recalling James Agee, he mentions the Luce connection and lets fall the dreadful phrase “captive genius,” without stress, without follow-up. In his essay on “difficulty” (a theme that recently took George Steiner a whole book to deal with), he calmly wonders whether “a high degree of difficulty is not an aspect of the modern poetic style just as a peculiarly brilliant and aggressive clarity was a stylistic aspect of the school of Pope.” And, of Flaubert, very simply: “He lived amid a clutter of dormant manuscripts.”


He has a wonderful gift for quotation; bearing witness to a memory stuffed with luscious plums, which he pulls out one by one for our benefit. He gets his title for the 1965 collection from words Yeats is supposed to have spoken on hearing from his sister that Swinburne was dead: “I know, and now I am king of the cats.” The quotations he pulls out often have juicy traces of anecdote clinging to them, e.g., the following, drawn from Burton’s “Terminal Essay” to his translation of The Arabian Nights: “How is it possible for a sodomite Moslem prince to force a Christian missionary against his will and the strong resistance instinctively put up by his sphincter muscle? Burton could tell us: by the judicious use of a tent peg.”

Dupee’s criticism, in fact, is strongly anecdotal throughout. That is what gives it worldliness—both kinds, the terrestrial and the social. As he came to understand this of himself as a literary artist, we can watch his work grow. In his unsurpassed essay on L’Éducation sentimentale—one of the last pieces he published—he asserts the sovereignty of the anecdote for a kind of new and modern epic, whose nature is “mock” or comic. The enthronement of the anecdotal means that the work affirming it will be flooded with irony. Flaubert’s feat in L’Éducation was “to have made an epic novel out of an accumulation of anecdotes.” It follows that “each episode extracts from the situation a maximum of irony and then, having made its point with a precision consonant with its brevity, is caught up in the furious current of the enveloping narrative.” This accords with the mood of drift, so terribly modern, so twentieth-century, that pervades L’Éducation, which might have been subtitled “The Story of a Drifter,” just as well as “The Story of a Young Man.” No doubt it means something that our first glimpse of Frédéric Moreau is on a river boat that is bringing him home from Paris to Nogent-sur-Seine; he is susceptible to tidal currents, the ebb and flow of the age, the eddies of art and politics, and the net effect of the novel is of a general purposelessness. Dupee likens it to Joyce in its rigorous impersonality but distinguishes it from Joyce by the coldness Flaubert shows toward his characters, in comparison to which Joyce is “warm.”

In this late and splendidly written essay, we seem to see Dupee at last finding himself. Always brilliant, succinct, intelligent, informative, “French,” in Wilson’s word, here he is decidedly more—emotionally moving, electric. I had often suspected, fancifully, that Fred identified himself with Frédéric Moreau, a bit because of the name and a bit because he, too, in his younger years, had known “the melancholy of steamboats,” if not in the most literal sense. But this penetrating essay is an act of total self-recognition (if Frédéric is Flaubert, he is also, transparently, Fred); it is the apotheosis of a wry, self-observing nature, and, as always happens at such moments of confrontation, the reader feels caught in the mirror too.

There is little left here of his faithful old models, Macaulay, Mencken, and the others. In some respect, even before this, he had left Wilson, his immediate mentor, behind: in the Gertrude Stein essay (cf. the Axel’s Castle handling of her); in the several essays on Nabokov and Lolita; in the Samuel Butler foreword (“In Butler, the man and the writer were entangled as the drowning man is entangled with his rescuer”), which, after the Flaubert, is my favorite and shows a fineness of intuition of which Wilson with his wounds and bows was incapable; finally in his sympathetic short book on James (cf. Wilson on “The Turn of the Screw”). The difference, as I see it, is that Wilson took on himself the “heavy,” huffing-and-puffing role of educator to his readers while Dupee made himself into a teacher in real life, first at Bard, then at Columbia, and in his writings did not seek to instruct but instead learned from his subject with a jaunty grace. The result was the sense of a mind and personality growing that buoys us up as we reach the end of this volume, knowing regretfully there will be no more. And it is perhaps not complete chance that the visible growth of Dupee coincides with the birth of The New York Review (1963) where he had not only a more amused, appreciative, in short more sympathetic audience in Barbara Epstein and Robert Silvers and also more space. The earliest essay in the new collection that seems unmistakably his is the Burton portrait—“Sir Richard and Ruffian Dick.” Moreover, it was in The New York Review that the final, Flaubert essay appeared.

One aspect of Dupee I miss in what I have been saying is the side that—after Yale, after a short-lived little magazine called The Miscellany he and Dwight Macdonald edited with another friend, after a year of semi-slumming in Mexico—became an organizer for the Communist Party on the New York waterfront and concurrently literary editor of the New Masses. I do not see where a CP “streak” in him fits, unless he got it from the Zeitgeist, like a Thirties Frédéric Moreau. He was always against authority, but that fails to explain it—the Party was authority incarnate. It was at some good urging, I now feel, that he joined and bravely passed out leaflets. He wanted to be helpful to our poor, foolish, grotesque old society. Could that have had something to do with coming from Joliet, which after all is a prison town? Prison towns are sinister and hateful, and in Marxism he may have seen a set of burglar’s tools to smuggle past the guards to the inmates. You cannot grow up in the shadow of prison walls without a few generous daydreams of escape for those inside.

Maybe so, but I wonder where the boyish idealism went when the Party let him down. Stalinism, now advertising itself as twentieth-century Americanism, had shown its colors in the Moscow trials and the Spanish betrayal and it was not too hard for Macdonald to convince him to leave the Party and the New Masses, taking the correspondence files with him. He appeared blithe about it; indeed, nobody breaking with Stalinism ever seemed to suffer regrets. And his sojourn there with Trachtenberg’s “boys” had not been long: I first met him, just back from Mexico, at a party for the sharecroppers, given by Macdonald in 1935; by 1937, at the second congress of the League of American Writers, he was on our side. And I don’t think he lost his idealism in the course of that adventure. It must have turned into an underground stream, making his teaching (he was very popular) fertile. Was it out of pure nonconformity that he never got his Ph.D.? I cannot find the idealism, as such, in his later writing. But it may be its long-term effects I notice in the growth indicators exuberantly branching and swelling in his later work. In 1968, anyway, at Columbia during the student strike, he risked some brand new dentistry to join a line of faculty drawn up to protect another group of “boyish idealists” from the forces of order and got a black eye for doing so.

This Issue

October 27, 1983