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‘Closing Time’: My Lost Literary World

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Mobile book carts in Central Park from the Strand Bookstore, New York City, 1976

As one grows older and reaches one’s sixties and seventies, the world grows smaller and the air seems to thin, reminding one that mortality hovers. Although all of us sustain losses—of loved ones, friends and acquaintances—at some point in our lives, it is around this time that they begin to accrete, and at an accelerating rate. To be sure, all losses leave holes in the fabric of life, but there are some that suggest, more than others, the passing of an entire realm of discourse, a frame of reference that no longer holds. The one uppermost in my mind today is the end of a distinct period in American letters, when literary culture held sway in the surrounding society, commanding respect and bestowing prestige. It was a world peopled by impressive and varied figures such as Lionel Trilling and Mary McCarthy, and, in its impassioned involvement with the life of the mind, made my contemporaries dream of gaining admission to it. That sense of an ending comes with a melancholic recognition that everything, including what once seemed to be a vibrant and entrenched style of intellectual engagement, is fleeting.

I have been thinking about this of late because of two close friends Barbara Probst Solomon and James Atlas, both of them editors as well as writers, who died within days of each other at the beginning of September. I had known Barbara and Jim for more than three decades and met each of them under similar circumstances—that is, at literary gatherings of some kind or other. With hindsight, this was a milieu already in decline, but those were still the days when the news brought by books, whether fiction or non-fiction, generated a kind of excitement that is impossible to imagine in an age characterized by social media and political punditry. The conversation was intense, cigarette smoke filled the room, eggheads hobnobbed with aesthetes, and opinions about art and literature—what one thought about the paintings of Clyfford Still, or a recently published essay by Joan Didion, or a new novel by John Updike—were tossed out like so many hand grenades.

I recall in precise detail when and where I met Barbara. She had written me a lovely note on the publication of my novel Enchantment in the fall of 1986 and we met shortly thereafter at a Partisan Review party, which took place at the home of Dan and Joanna Rose. The food was lavish—I still remember the dessert buffet which included a large silver bowl of chocolate mousse and a smaller silver bowl of whipped cream—and the Park Avenue setting added a prosperous gleam to an enterprise that operated on a shoe-string budget. Dan was a real-estate titan and he and Joanna lent their philanthropic support to Partisan Review. I had become a member of that once-storied journal’s editorial board in my late twenties some time after meeting its irascible but nonetheless charming editor William Phillips at the writer Diana Trilling’s house on Martha’s Vineyard.

Diana was an expert, somewhat terrifying hostess who held her guests, which that night included the theater critic Robert Brustein and my friend the writer Leon Wieseltier, to account. Opinions were solicited on everything from politics to poetry and it was expected that they would be offered in an amusing and articulate manner. Although Partisan Review was already semi-comatose by the time I started attending its meetings in William’s apartment, I was still excited to be present at conversations and arguments—and what arguments!—about forthcoming books and which reviewer they should be assigned to. One critic was dismissed for being too faddish; another for being too conservative; and yet a third was thought to write clotted prose. The group included the literary critic Morris Dickstein and the sociologist Dennis Wrong; I remember the political scientist Mark Lilla putting in occasional appearances. One of its more esteemed members was Steven Marcus, whose course on the Romantics I had taken at Columbia University. He mostly maintained a slightly bored-looking silence—until such moments when he chose to make some lucid, penetrating comment on the issue or person under discussion.

I was struck early on by the importance of prestige in a field where few people could live on their wits; this realization helped explain why most of the writers I knew had large ambitions but fragile egos. By the late 1980s and 1990s The New York Intellectuals, as the group of writers, artists and critics around Partisan Review (which was started in 1934) were called, were an all-but sinking ship, displaced by a less bookish and more modish as well as youth-fixated cultural conversation. The high-toned thinking that informed magazines, on whichever end of the political spectrum, such as Dissent, The Nation, Commentary, The New Criterion, The New Republic, The New York Review of Books, seemed to be addressing an ever diminishing audience and to have less and less of an influence on the culture around it. The notion that an essay like Susan Sontag’s “Notes on Camp,” published in Partisan Review in 1964, could make a young writer’s name and become the talk of the town appeared so unlikely by the time I joined the magazine’s masthead that it might as well have occurred in a different galaxy.

Barbara and I struck up a fast friendship within moments of sitting next to each other on a couch in the Roses’ living-room. Although there were almost thirty years between us, she was one of the most vivid and attuned figures I have ever met, knowledgeable about the past but also alert to every new cultural phenomenon or hyper-current that presented itself. She was on to the importance of the Internet and online publishing while I was still dragging my feet, beset by luddite fears that the world of print as I knew it was passing before my eyes. Barbara, on the other hand, was never one to let nostalgia overcome her pragmatic sense of what had to be done next, even in an age that had become less interested in the whole literary venture. Indeed, the shift from the relative importance of the old-style intelligentsia to its relative inconsequentiality—as the effort to examine and question trends and movements was gradually being sidelined in favor of journalism that emphasized on-the-ground reporting over interpretation in publications like the New Yorker—was impossible to ignore for anyone who had an interest in such things.

Barbara, who had written a much-praised first novel titled The Beat of Life (1969) as well as a memoir, Arriving Where We Started, (1972) about her involvement in the resistance to Franco, followed by a second memoir and a collection of essays, was finding it difficult to interest editors in her writing. Instead of despairing, she decided to take matters into her own hands. After setting up a publishing house she named Great Marsh Press in honor of the Connecticut country house where she’d spent summers growing up, she went on to create a book-size magazine called The Reading Room: Writing of the Moment, in which she published the writing of friends and strangers, the only criterion for inclusion being her judgment of the prose, whether an essay, poem, story, or art review. The magazine was beautiful to look at, with glossy covers designed by or reproduced from artists such as Larry Rivers, Eugeen Van Mieghem, and Gonzalo Torné; in the age of cellphones and emails, it stood as a testament to the primacy of the book as object. The Reading Room also bypassed the anxieties of the literary moment by going outside the commercial system that sustained these endeavors (or, as was more often the case, didn’t) in favor of funding the magazine from private sources. Barbara’s feisty independence of vision suggested a way out of the intricate and often incestuous network of relationships that characterized the writing world.

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William Burroughs, Lawrence Durrell, Mary McCarthy, Robert Jungk, Erich Fried, and Stephen Spender in a public discussion titled “The Novel and the Future,” August 24, 1962

I remember less specifically how I met Jim but it may have been—so narrowly circumscribed was the literary scene—at the fiftieth anniversary party for Partisan Review—which was given in 1984 at The Lotos Club. Philip Roth was there (I remember introducing myself to him and offering, with what I imagined to be fetching irreverence, that I liked “some” of his novels, to which he shot back, unamused, “Not all?”) as was Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., at whose table I was seated. After meeting there, Jim and I, as is often the way of casual relationships in New York City, occasionally got together for coffee or bumped into each other at book parties only to then lose touch for a number of years except to say hello in passing. But several years ago, we fell back into one of those close friendships that seems to have always been there in the background , waiting to be picked up again. He and I discussed everything from social slights (we were both big collectors of grievances) to Trump’s war on literacy to whom among our peers was over- (or, less frequently, under-) rated. We made fun of editors we found lacking in ability and mocked the scribblings of peers that we found too solemn or self-regarding. We shared as well our depressed and anxious moods, but most of all we discussed writing: the isolation of it; what it took to get it right; the pleasure of feeling at the top of one’s form; and the fear that something one had spent days and months on wasn’t coming together.

There was a prickly, no-nonsense aspect of Jim that alienated some people but which I enjoyed. For someone as passionate about literature as he was he had an endearing way of keeping its gratifications in perspective. About a year ago he joined a reading group that I was in and regularly sounded off about finding Henry James unreadable or some other revered novel too long. I still remember a conversation the group engaged in about an elegant, rather morose novel I loved called The Widow’s Children, by Paula Fox, in which Jim suddenly exclaimed about the characters we were so painstakingly trying to analyze: “They’re such losers! Who wants to be with such losers? I don’t.” His was the sort of unfiltered personality that allowed others to feel free to express their prejudices, however silly or catty they might sound, and his anti-bien pensant spirit countered any tendency one or the other of us might have had to become moralizing or righteous.

Although Jim was one of the more rivalrous people I knew—and this in a profession riddled with envy—he, like Barbara, was also enormously generous to other writers. Both of them created an arena for fellow writers to appear in, which was no small feat in a period of diminished opportunities for publication. Among his many other hats, Jim wore that of an impresario of sorts, creating and editing a succession of biography series. He was passionate in his advocacy of, and commitment to, the form and we often discussed what combination of qualities made for a good biography. In his last book, The Shadow in the Garden: A Biographer’s Tale, Jim combined, in characteristic fashion, rigorous research and anecdotal material. I was especially struck by his game disclosure of the occasion, in his twenties, when Dwight Macdonald made mincemeat of chapters-in progress of his Delmore Schwartz biography, expostulating (“Oh God! You have a great vocabulary of vague and dull terms”) and exploding (“You’re like a museum guide who talks too much”) in between criticizing his prose as “pretentious” and “verbose.”

Throughout The Shadow in the Garden, Jim provides candid descriptions of his own successes and failures; he writes a novel called The Great Pretender which, he succinctly notes, “had annoyed the critics,” and considers but ultimately decides against writing Edmund Wilson’s biography. At the age of forty Jim embarked on the momentous project of writing Saul Bellow’s biography. “I read Herzog,” he confides, “the way a Victorian family in its Cornwall cottage might have read the worn Psalter that had been handed down from generation to generation: for comfort, spiritual insight, moral instruction, and the most important thing—not available from anyone else—a sense of what it felt like to be alive.” Jim’s touchy—sometimes hilariously such—relationship with Saul Bellow, in which Bellow alternately welcomes and rejects Jim’s inquisitive presence in his life, eventually yielded an ambivalent, warts-and-all portrait that Bellow loyalists did not approve of.

In the last days of his life, when he was having trouble breathing, Jim wrote a trenchant review of Ben Moser’s biography of Susan Sontag—“in an hour,” he crowed to me in an email. It appeared in Graydon Carter’s new online newsletter, Air Mail, and Jim brought to the piece his usual concern with character as well as talent, refusing to overlook deficits in the former for an abundance of the latter. A day later, from his hospital bed, he emailed me, his sense of humor still intact, a misogynistic quote from Bellow in response to my telling him about Barbara’s death and offered to read an essay I had written; he clocked in with his response the next morning, ever the reliable reader and critic.

The “life of significant contention,” as Diana Trilling once called the life of the mind, may always have been more aspirational than actual. Trilling herself once told me, apropos of her writing, that there was no “echo” anymore (a sentiment she shared with Virginia Woolf, who wrote in her journal shortly before she committed suicide in 1941, “It struck me that one curious feeling is, that the writing ‘I’ has vanished. No audience. No echo…”). Nostalgia, as we know, tends to wear rose-colored glasses and the world of the New York intellectuals was always as full of pettiness as profundity, with the troika of Mary McCarthy, Elizabeth Hardwick and Sontag taking jabs at other members of the group like high-school mean girls. (Not to overlook a brawler like Mailer, who stabbed his wife at a party celebrating his mayoral candidacy.) But it was also a world marked by a commitment to ideas, an appreciation of great writing, a passionate interest in the visual arts, and, perhaps most of all, a belief that these things mattered. Both Barbara and Jim believed in its necessity and value, and helped keep that world aloft even as it was indisputably going into eclipse.

In a valedictory issue of Horizon, the magazine that Cyril Connolly, the British literary critic and memoirist founded, Connolly wrote: “It is closing time in the gardens of the West and from now on an artist will be judged only by the resonance of his solitude or the quality of his despair.” That was in 1949 and the pronouncement was a bit hyperbolic, but not by much. The idea that one is living on borrowed time is not an easy one to recognize, much less accept, but these days the garden that once bustled with stimulating literary presences seems inhabited mostly by formidable ghosts. And the shadows that they cast seem ever longer.


An earlier version of this essay misspelled Dwight Macdonald’s last name; the article has been updated.