It operates as a refuge for a civilizing element in short supply in contemporary America: honest criticism
“Partisan Review”: down the memory hole
was right!Support The
In America, whose second name, I sometimes think, should be “amnesia,” the historical sense in this century chronically suffers one lesion after another as literary periods crowd each other out with extreme celerity, each presenting itself as the culmination of the imaginative process of all times. In consequence our literary world is afflicted with an acute loss of memory ….
All that was needed was an unending series of victories over your own memory. “Reality control,” they called it; in Newspeak, “doublethink.”
No reader of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four is likely to forget the phenomenon of the “memory hole.” By means of this insidious device, all inconvenient reminders of the past—anything, indeed, that threatens to contradict the currently accepted gloss on past events—is swiftly consigned to oblivion. Nor is the essential purpose of the “memory hole” easily forgotten, either. “Day by day and almost minute by minute the past was brought up to date .... All history was a palimpsest, scraped clean and reinscribed exactly as often as was necessary.”
When Nineteen Eighty-Four was first published in 1949, it was hailed by a critic in Partisan Review as “the best antidote to the totalitarian disease that any writer has so far produced.” This was high praise indeed from a quarter that—in those days—rather specialized in the literature of totalitarianism. The critic who wrote those words was Philip Rahv, one of the founding editors of Partisan Review and for many years the magazine’s guiding spirit. His article on Nineteen Eighty-Four—“The Unfuture of Utopia” in the July 1949 number—had in fact something of the character of an official editorial pronouncement. Orwell was then one of the magazine’s most admired contributors. He had written, among other things, its regular London Letter during the war. The same year that Nineteen Eighty-Four was published he was selected by the editors as the first recipient of what was then planned to be an annual Partisan Review Award.
As for Rahv, it would simply not have occurred to any regular reader of Partisan Review, either then or for years afterward, that he was anything but central to the magazine’s purposes. Among its contributors, certainly, it was understood that it was Rahv who was mainly responsible for the magazine’s special intellectual dynamism. My own experience was probably typical: When I started to contribute to PR in the early Fifties, three or four of my pieces appeared in its pages before anyone thought it necessary for me to be introduced to Rahv’s co-editor.
But those were other times. Philip Rahv has been dead ten years, and he had lost control of the magazine some ten years earlier than that—a loss that marked an acceleration in PR’s precipitous decline. Now by a curious twist of fate he has been made the posthumous victim of something akin to the “memory hole” that currently governs the affairs of Partisan Review. So, for that matter, have George Orwell and a good many other writers, living and dead. Rahv’s long-time co-editor and collaborator, William Phillips, now the surviving editor of a Partisan Review much altered in quality and purpose, has brought out an anthology called Writers and Politics: A Partisan Review Reader. This is a volume that purports to “reflect the politics and literary tendencies of Partisan Review since its beginnings.” But what it actually reflects is one of those victories over memory that Orwell characterized as “reality control.” For toward the politics of the magazine “since its beginnings,” this anthology (together with its various notes and prefaces) adopts a perspective best described as selective amnesia; and of the “literary tendencies” of Partisan Review, especially as they were manifested in the heyday of its influence in the Forties and Fifties, there is scarcely a trace. Writers and Politics turns out to be a very odd compilation, and only the first of the many bizarre things that one notices about this book is that it effectively eliminates Rahv from the history of the magazine that he dominated for so many years.
This breathtaking feat of “reality control” is accomplished with a display of intellectual arrogance that would be merely comical if ours were not indeed, as Rahv correctly observed, a “literary world . . . afflicted with an acute loss of memory.” As it is, the special way Rahv has been eliminated from the history of PR is a matter of interest, if only as an index of the standards of intellectual probity that are nowadays accepted in certain highbrow circles. For Rahv’s name is, to be sure, allowed to make a fleeting appearance on a list of “social critics” cited in the introduction to Writers and Politics—“critics like Lionel Trilling, Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin, Philip Rahv, and Stephen Spender”— quite as if Philip Rahv had been little more than an occasional contributor to Partisan Review. (And a not very important one, we may suppose, since, like certain other names on this list, he has been excluded from the new Partisan Review Reader.) Try to imagine George Jean Nathan contriving to eliminate the name of H. L. Mencken from the history of The American Mercury by relegating it to a benign list of “social critics” and you will have a rough parallel to what is being attempted here.
There are reasons, of course, why the name of Philip Rahv is likely to cause embarrassment to the present editors of Partisan Review—reasons, that is, which go beyond the personal enmity that erupted into open warfare in the Sixties and brought the collaboration of Rahv and Phillips to a bitter and acrimonious halt. We shall consider some of these reasons in due course, for they have much to contribute to an understanding of the contradictions and contortions of left-wing critical opinion in this country at the present time. Before doing so, however, it is important to recall the nature and extent of that collaboration and its role in shaping the ideological outlook not only of Partisan Review but of the community of intellectuals for which it once spoke.
Rahv’s contributions as an editor and writer for Partisan Review played a key role in the formulation of the various “positions” the magazine adopted, most particularly on the subject of “writers and politics”—the ostensible theme of the anthology from which he has now been excluded—and, as it happens, some of his own essays on this subject were actually written in collaboration with none other than William Phillips. And it was Rahv and Phillips, of course, who together edited two earlier anthologies drawn from the pages of Partisan Review as well as several other collections of contemporary writing. Yet all evidence of that history has been suppressed in this new Partisan Review Reader. The palimpsest, as Orwell called it, has been reinscribed with a new past—and a somewhat paltry and twisted one it is.
For consider the writers—besides Rahv and Orwell, that is—who have been omitted from an anthology claiming to “reflect the politics and literary tendencies of Partisan Review since its beginnings”: Mary McCarthy, Sidney Hook, Lionel Trilling, Harold Rosenberg, Lionel Abel, Clement Greenberg, F.W. Dupee, H.J. Kaplan, James T. Farrell, Leslie A. Fiedler, Dclmore Schwartz, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., James Baldwin, James Burnham, Robert Warshow, Meyer Schapiro, Joseph Frank, Richard Chase, John Berryman, Randall Jarrell, Robert Gorham Davis, Jean-Paul Sartre, Edmund Wilson, William Troy, Alfred Kazin, Saul Bellow, Isaac Rosenfeld, Elizabeth Hardwick—but why go on? Lists are tedious, and this one is already long enough to suggest the kind of freedom that Mr. Phillips and his new collaborator, Edith Kurzweil, have allowed themselves in the preparation of this book. It is possible, I suppose, to excuse Professor Kurzweil, a sociologist who has only lately been installed as the magazine’s executive editor, on grounds of inexperience. Her knowledge of the magazine’s past appears, in any case, to be limited. A note informs us that she read some of the material in this anthology—presumably the articles published before her present tenure on the magazine—for the first time in assembling the book. Mr. Phillips, on the other hand, was one of the founding editors of Partisan Review. He has been there from the beginning. Indeed, since this anthology appears to regard 1937 as the date of the magazine’s founding, it would be more accurate to say that he has been there from before the beginning. A younger and more forthright William Phillips, writing in collaboration with Philip Rahv in the Forties, gave us a much clearer account of the magazine’s origins. In an essay called “In Retrospect: Ten Years of Partisan Review,” which served as the epilogue to the first Partisan Reader in 1946, Phillips and Rahv wrote as follows:
Conceived in the fall of 1933 and born in February 1934, the magazine emerged from the womb of the depression crying for a proletarian literature and a socialist America. The early Thirties, it will be recalled, were years of radical fervor, and many intellectuals, inspired by the promise of the classless Utopia, were converted to Marxism in theory and to the Communist Party in practice. A number of younger writers—not a few of whom mistook their revolutionary zeal for literary talent—felt it was their duty to lead the way, and throughout the country they banded together in John Reed Clubs with the aim of applying organizational methods to the enlistment of the arts in the service of the revolution. Naturally, the next step was to start new Left magazines, and the editors of this volume, together with a few other members of the local chapter, decided that the John Reed Club of New York must set the pace with a publication of its own.
Partisan Review was thus born as an organ of the Communist Party. Yet “its Stalinist period,” as Phillips and Rahv were frank to call it, proved to be short-lived. “Gradually,” they wrote in this “Retrospect,”
… we came to the realization that the intellectual vulgarities we had decried had their source in the corruption and totalitarian essence of Stalinism itself. The last barriers of our faith were overthrown by the revelations of the Moscow trials, in the validity of which we could not believe for one moment; and soon we were convinced that this movement, afflicted with an incurable disease, was perverting intellectual life as it had perverted the libertarian ideals of the socialist tradition. It became clear to us . .. that Stalinism was not the agent but the enemy of democratic socialism.
Admirable as this rejection of Stalinism was —and no one should underestimate the courage it required to make a public avowal of this rejection in the years preceding the Hitler-Stalin pact—it did not by any means mark an end to the political illusions that guided either Partisan Review or its editors. On the contrary, it would be a good deal more accurate to say that the rejection of Stalinism in favor of a purer, more “independent” form of Marxism inaugurated the period in which the political illusions of Partisan Review exerted their greatest influence on American intellectual life—an influence that is now such an integral part of the American intellectual climate that it is scarcely any longer recognized as an “influence” at all. Which is, of course, the reason why the tortuous ideological history of the magazine—-and the various stratagems adopted to disguise and distort that history—remain an important subject for study today, even though Partisan Review itself has degenerated into something of an intellectual cipher.
In their 1946 “Retrospect,” Phillips and Rahv described the new outlook of Partisan Review as it was reconstituted in 1937 after its fateful break with the Communist Party. “We conceived of ourselves as truly radical in the Marxist sense,” they wrote, and then went on to describe their program:
All of which sounds wonderfully intelligent and enlightened, and certainly represented a break with the more egregious crudities of intellectual Stalinism. That this program might also entail a profound contradiction did not go unnoticed, however.
At this point [Phillips and Rahv wrote] we might add that not infrequently we have been asked to explain the ostensible lack of continuity between the social views stated in Partisan Review and some of its purely literary pieces. To this we have replied that there is no necessary contradiction in the attempt to maintain within one context an interest both in imaginative expression and in political ideas.
To raise the question of a contradiction was made to seem, if not actually a Stalinist idea, then somehow philistine and academic. “Actually,” wrote Phillips and Rahv, “it is the extreme one-sidedness of modern intellectuality which makes it seem odd that an essay on Henry James or W. B. Yeats should appear side by side with an analysis, say, of the socio-economic theories of Rosa Luxemburg or of Stalin as an historical personality.” By the time this “Retrospect” came to be written, the editors knew that they had hit upon a winning formula in combining the appeals of Marxism and modernism. “It is precisely from this union of sensibility with a radical temper,” they declared, “that Partisan Review has derived its tone and quality,” and they were certainly right on that score.
In practice this “union of sensibility with a radical temper” proved to be a remarkably flexible and resilient program for the magazine. The Marxist component in this “union” could be made as explicit or as implicit, as critical or as complaisant, as the times required. (Perhaps this is what is meant, after all, by an “independent” Marxism.) The exact degree to which the “radical temper” of the magazine was insisted upon varied a good deal from one period to another, and was very much determined by the pressure of events. “In the realm of action priorities may be inescapable,” wrote Phillips and Rahv in their “Retrospect,” “but in the realm of thought it is not always necessary to submit to them.” Not “always,” perhaps, but in the Forties and Fifties the success of Partisan Review owed much to the way the “realm of thought” reflected in the magazine was guided—not to say buffeted— by the “realm of action” occurring outside it. For this reason its post-Stalinist period of radical militancy proved to be almost as short-lived as its period of Stalinist conformity. What ended PR’s period of radical militancy was that cataclysmic “realm of action” known as World War II, which left the magazine greatly altered in its outlook. For all practical purposes it was no longer “truly radical in the Marxist sense,” however many rhetorical feints it might still make in the name of radical piety. It is interesting, in this regard, that in the 1946 “Retrospect” I have been quoting from, there is not a single reference to capitalism, for example, just as there are none to either Lenin or Leninism. The hard issues confronting the radical temper were somehow allowed to evaporate—or put on ice, at least, for another day. Colleagues who insisted on their urgency were sent packing—Dwight Macdonald’s celebrated departure took place in 1943—as PR trimmed its radical sails and headed for the mainstream.
The politics that were of primary concern to Partisan Review in the postwar period were the politics of the death camps and the cold war. Much attention was given to the theory and practice of totalitarianism, and— what was clearly understood to be another aspect of the same phenomenon—to the threat represented by Stalin’s expansionist policies abroad and terrorist policies at home. At the same time, the magazine emerged for the first time as the leading literary and critical journal of the day. There was so little trace of the old radical militancy that when, in 1952, the magazine published a lengthy symposium on “Our Country and Our Culture,” which ran through four consecutive issues, the only really virulent anti-American, anti-capitalist contributions came from two younger writers, Norman Mailer and Irving Howe, sounding in this company like refugees from a time-warp who, against all the odds, had somehow managed to keep their Trotskyite pieties completely quarantined from the experience of history.
Yet despite this general retreat from radical militancy, it is no idle paradox to suggest that much of the appeal of Partisan Review, even at the height of the cold war when it was so firmly anti-Communist in its political views, lay in the impression it nonetheless managed to convey that it still belonged to the Left—and indeed, to the only Left worth belonging to—and that its special mission in bringing about “a rapprochement between the radical tradition on the one hand and the tradition of modern literature on the other” continued to guarantee its place in the cultural vanguard. Never mind that the tradition of modern literature was now firmly entrenched in the college syllabus, and that most of PR’s editors and contributors had themselves become college teachers. This made their position all the more respectable. Never mind, either, that the radical tradition was in a state of complete intellectual disarray. This made their reverence for that tradition all the more poignant. However muted and discreet the magazine’s radical pieties may have become in the period after World War II, what Partisan Review carried into the mainstream of American intellectual life in the postwar era was the idea, which by this time had assumed the status of a benign and prestigious myth, that modernism and Marxism were somehow the natural and inevitable component parts of any really “advanced” view of the cultural situation. The curious thing about the Marxist element in this outlook is that it demanded nothing very much in the way of concrete belief. It seemed hardly to matter that the Marxism in question was a tattered and disenchanted Marxism—a Marxism virtually devoid of discernible content. It was nonetheless there, a precious and pervasive residue of shared assumptions and ardently remembered debates, a mode of feeling even more than a mode of thought, the result of a failed love affair with history and ideology that had left even its brokenhearted casualties permanently enthralled and thus more or less incapable of forming an enduring and authentic attachment to ideas of another order.
To the casual reader of Partisan Review in the Fifties, this sentimental Marxism (as it may correctly be called) was scarcely noticeable, however. Only on rare occasions did it declare itself—usually, as it happened, when Irving Howe was periodically unleashed to attack all and sundry for an apostasy which, in the true spirit of the old “radical tradition,” was invariably ascribed to a venal and self-serving retreat from radical virtue. But even these hell-fire sermons seemed almost more like intellectual divertissements than serious auguries. They might signify a split of some sort—and to the knowledgeable, of course, they did—but how could they be regarded as paramount when Phillips and Rahv were otherwise so evidently determined to keep PR from lapsing into the kind of radical sectarianism they seemed to fear even more than the “conformism” they were sometimes accused of fostering? Radical sectarianism was something the editors of Partisan Review were clearly content to leave to Dissent, the socialist journal launched by Howe in the Fifties. Dissent was just militant enough to keep the radical position at a simmer and just boring enough so as not to pose a direct threat to PR itself. For the moment Partisan Review seemed, on the political side, securely anchored to the liberal anti-Communism of the period. In conversation, to be sure, its editors might mock one or another figure connected with Commentary or The New Leader or the American Committee for Cultural Freedom or, for that matter, even some of the people who served on PR’s own editorial board, for services rendered to the anti-Communist cause, just as they were given to mocking the New Critics and other members of the literary academy in which they were themselves now becoming a force. But all this seemed incidental to the magazine’s public role and true purposes. Rahv, for example, might criticize the politics of Commentary and The New Leader—I often heard him do so—but he continued to write for them, all the same. He might denounce certain figures connected with the American Committee for Cultural Freedom, but he did not balk when the Committee took over as PR’s publisher and sponsor. And however opposed he might be to the ideas of the New Critics, he nonetheless published them in his magazine and welcomed the opportunity to join forces with John Crowe Ransom in organizing the summer program of the School of Letters first at Kenyon College and then at Indiana University. The truth is, he was as eager to become a figure in the academic literary establishment as it was emerging in the Fifties as he was to maintain cordial relations with the liberal anti-Communist establishment represented by the American Committee for Cultural Freedom, for both embodied in his eyes the kind of power and influence and prestige he coveted. I doubt if even he entirely understood where his true loyalties in this period lay. If there was an element of intellectual deception in the policies that governed Partisan Review in the Fifties, there was probably an even greater element of self-deception.
Only once in this period was I myself given a momentary glimpse of that tenacious attachment to the old radical faith which remained for Rahv an enduring object of belief, however he might conceal it in his writings of the time, and which flared into the open once again in the last years of his life when he re-emerged as what Frederick Crews aptly described as a “born-again Leninist.” The occasion was a party given by William Phillips, and the date was some time in 1956. The principal topic of discussion that evening was Khrushchev’s “secret” speech to the Communist Party Congress in Moscow denouncing Stalin’s crimes, for news of this epochal event had quickly gotten out and led to an immense amount of speculation about not only the future of the Soviet Union but the nature of totalitarianism itself. To my astonishment, however—I was inexperienced in these matters—the really burning issue for those assembled that evening was something else, namely, the question of whether Khrushchev’s speech would lead to the rehabilitation of Trotsky! I confess to feeling somewhat numbed by this turn in the discussion. Compared to the enormity of what had long been occurring in the Soviet Union and the implications of Khrushchev’s speech, the question of Trotsky’s rehabilitation seemed almost comically beside the point. Yet the issue was not at all comical, of course—though it took me years to understand why. For if Trotsky could still be rehabilitated, then the “revolution” itself—the true revolution, the revolution of Lenin and Trotsky—might still be saved. The thought of saving the revolution from Stalin’s so-called “perversion” of it—this, clearly, had never entirely been given up on as an article of faith and hope.even among these staunch anti-Communists. It was all very perplexing and very troubling. About the question under discussion, though, Rahv had no illusions. He firmly predicted that there would be no rehabilitation of Trotsky, and about that at least he was right. But the aching disappointment with which he made that dour prediction, the evident emotion that it cost him to acknowledge this lost hope—all of this left me wondering about the political illusions that at some level of consciousness had persisted throughout all the vicissitudes of his own and of PR’s intellectual history.
Some years later, as we know, when the social and political upheavals of the Sixties ushered in a new period of revolutionism, Rahv recovered from the disappointments and accommodations of the Fifties and made, so to speak, an honest man of himself by reverting to the radicalism of his youth with a vehemence that was shocking even to his friends. He went so far as to attack Irving Howe on grounds of the latter’s anti-Stalinism, and actually defended the Soviet Union against the United States as a political model. Both William Barrett (in The Truants) and Norman Podhoretz (in Breaking Ranks) have already given us vivid accounts of this terrible episode, and there is no need to rehearse all of its squalid details here. What is worth recalling, however, is the critique of Partisan Review that Rahv embarked upon when he broke with the magazine in the Sixties. When he launched a new journal called Modern Occasions in the fall of 1970, it soon became apparent that one of the first orders of business would be to carry out a kind of “deconstruction” of the old PR. Thus, the first number carried an attack on the art criticism of Clement Greenberg, the second carried an attack on Lionel Trilling, and so on. I saw a good deal of Rahv in those days, and actually contributed an article (on the contemporary art scene) to the first number of Modern Occasions. I hadn’t yet understood that his allies in this new venture would include figures like Noam Chomsky. I suppose that I couldn’t quite believe that he was as far gone politically or as consumed by rage personally as he was. I urged him not to publish the attack on Greenberg, with whose ideas I often disagreed but whom I nonetheless regarded— and still regard—as the finest art critic of his day. But Rahv was adamant—he had some score to settle—even though he knew the article was poorly written. I wrote him a scathing letter about the attack on Trilling, which he replied to by complaining that the article actually hadn’t gone far enough. The hatred that he now felt for his former friends and colleagues knew no bounds.
Still, because Rahv was desperate for allies and contributors—he constantly complained about the “kids” and the “professors” he was now reduced to working with—he seemed willing to put up with almost any amount of disagreement if he thought he might be able to enlist your services in one of his crusades against Partisan Review. His last request to me came in the summer of 1972. PR had just published a symposium called “Art, Culture and Conservatism,” which consisted of an essay by Richard Gilman called “The Idea of the Avant-Garde” and commentaries by some nineteen other writers, all in one way or another concerned to defend avant-garde art and political radicalism against “conservative” opposition. Had many of these commentaries appeared in some other journal, Rahv would probably have found much in them to agree with. As it was, he was eager to have me write an attack on this symposium for Modern Occasions. I refused. I found much to disagree with in this symposium—more, probably, than Rahv himself—but I had just completed a long essay called “The Age of the Avant-Garde” on this same subject. At the last minute I inserted a brief footnote commenting on the PR symposium, and sent off the essay to Norman Podhoretz at Commentary. I had already committed the essay to Commentary, and I knew in any case that Rahv would loathe many of the views expressed in it, especially those that concerned the relationship (as I saw it) between the avant-garde and the liberal middle class. I duly wrote him a note explaining the situation, and knew I would never hear from him again. (For Commentary, of course, was another publication he hated.) I never did. Had Rahv lived and his magazine continued publication, I have no doubt that my book, The Age of the Avant-Garde, which was published around the time that he died, would have been accorded the same treatment that he had arranged for Greenberg, Trilling, and others. As it happened, however, it was his old collaborator—William Phillips— who only last year got around to denouncing me as, of all things, an “anti-modernist,” conveniently forgetting that it was in the pages of Partisan Review that I had made my debut as an art critic some thirty years earlier, and overlooking the fart that, owing to the accident of my employment as the art critic for The New York Times for many years, I had probably written more words explaining and defending modernist art than any other living writer.
But then, there is so much that William Phillips has forgotten or overlooked. The “memory hole” over which he presides is capacious indeed. For he, too, once he had wrested control of Partisan Review from Rahv and joined forces—temporarily, as it turned out—with a new collaborator, Richard Poirier, had mounted his own sort of “deconstruction” of the old PR. Politically, once the radical movement of the Sixties moved into high gear, there were actually few, if any, significant differences separating Phillips and Rahv—though Phillips, as far as I know, has never gone as far as to defend the Soviet Union. Being by temperament more cautious and circumspect, he has usually left it to others to write the more blatant political pieces in PR All the same, and whatever the qualms Phillips might have felt about some of the political views that now peppered the pages of the magazine, PR rejoined the radical movement in the Sixties. What seemed really to engage Phillips’s editorial attention, however, was the new cultural scene that the Sixties gave us—the so-called “new sensibility,” with its interest in Camp, pornography, popular culture, and other phenomena which, both in spirit and in substance, represented the exact opposite of everything PR had stood for in the past. It was on this score that there was some real disagreement with Rahv, who felt a positive horror for anything connected with the “new sensibility” of the Sixties.
Whether in fact the “new sensibility” was really congenial to Phillips’s tastes, or whether he was pressured by Poirier and others into giving it priority in the magazine—the deadly academic prose that now found its way into PR in large quantities suggested that Poirier played a considerable role in its editorial affairs—or whether the bandwagon of fashion was too much for Phillips to resist, who can say? Such developments are usually not traceable to single causes. All we can say for certain is that PR now reversed its course on most of the cultural questions it had long been concerned with. The defense of high culture was abandoned to accommodate the prestige that the “new sensibility” now conferred upon popular culture. The interest in modernism was scuttled in favor of the new modes of postmodernist expression. Political criteria were now more crudely applied to cultural issues than ever before, and the magazine even took the unusual step of publishing attacks on its own past (though to spare Phillips embarrassment, I suppose, PR was not usually mentioned by name in them). Two of these attacks—Irving Howe’s “Radical Questions and the American Intellectual” (1966) and Morris Dickstein’s “Cold War Blues: Notes on the Culture of the Fifties” (1974) —are among the longer pieces that Phillips and Kurzweil have now included in their new anthology.
As often happens, however, with anthologies based on criteria other than quality, Writers and Politics tends to be more interesting for what it omits than for what it includes. From Partisan Review in the Thirties, for example, we are vouchsafed but a single contribution: Trotsky’s “Art and Politics” (1938). Was there nothing else, then, worth preserving from this first, crucial period of the magazine’s existence—nothing that would illuminate “the politics and literary tendencies of Partisan Review since its beginnings”? Even at the risk of encumbering this discussion with another tedious list, I cannot refrain from citing the full roster of contributors to a single issue of PR in this period (in this case, the issue of December 1937): Delmore Schwartz, Wallace Stevens, Edmund Wilson, James T. Farrell, Pablo Picasso, Lionel Abel, James Agee, Dwight Macdonald, Mary McCarthy, Sidney Hook, Philip Rahv, William Troy, F.W. Dupee, George L.K. Morris, Lionel Trilling, and Arthur Mizener. What other magazine of the time could equal this dazzling roster? And what does it mean for an editor and an intellectual to repudiate his own past—and not the worst elements of that past, but the best—in so categorical a manner?
Alas, the Forties do not fare much better. There is Arthur Koestler’s essay on “The Intelligentsia” (1944) and Phillips’s own piece on “The Intellectuals’ Tradition” (1941) and Dwight Macdonald’s “Reading from Left to Right” (1941)—and that’s all. Does this sound a little thin? Especially in view of what PR actually published in the Forties? Well, it’s worse than that. Was it really necessary to dredge up this unlovely item from the Macdonald bibliography, for example—“The war is constantly exposing the meaninglessness of the concept, ‘democracy,’ in the modern capitalist world”; “Thus it is with the greatest of all the lunacies of modern capitalism: the fact that its only perspective is mass slaughter and devastation,” etc.—when PR itself repudiated this line by breaking with Macdonald in 1943? In The New Partisan Reader, which Phillips and Rahv brought out in 1953, Macdonald isn’t even represented. Does it confer any honor on either the writer or the magazine for us to be reminded that this is what once passed for serious political analysis?
The Fifties, needless to say, are all but erased. Of the four entries from that decade, two are by writers who subsequently became Nobel laureates—Camus and Milosz. There is a short report on the Sartre-Camus quarrel by Nicola Chiaromonte (1952), and an essay by Hannah Arendt on “Tradition and the Modern Age” (1954). Otherwise the political and intellectual history of Partisan Review in the Fifties has been left to the mercies of the “memory hole.” It will come as no surprise, then, that the Sixties and the Seventies fare somewhat better in terms of numbers if not in terms of intellectual quality. Susan Sontag’s “Yugoslav Report” (1966), Barbara Rose’s “Protest in Art” (1973), Richard Gilman’s essay on the avant-garde—Phillips and Kurzweil seem to have an-unfailing gift for seizing upon precisely those pieces that have aged badly. Undoubtedly the most important essay published in Partisan Review in the Sixties was Sontag’s “Notes on ‘Camp’”—for it was that essay which marked a decisive turn in the magazine’s critical and cultural perspective. Naturally, it isn’t included in the new anthology. The truth is, the editors are no better at representing the “new” Partisan Review than they are at representing the “old.” And no more honest, either. Poirier, like Rahv, has been tossed down the “memory hole,” too.
The volume closes with a curious and ineffectual symposium on “Neoconservatism” dating from 1980. The only thing really interesting about this discussion is the role it seems to play in William Phillips’s current intellectual outlook. To judge from this and other comments on Neoconservatism in recent issues of Partisan Review, this movement seems to act upon him like some sort of magic stimulant. The sheer fact of the movement’s existence seems to provide him with an intellectual “high” he otherwise finds it difficult to achieve nowadays. Without it, I suppose, he would find it hard to feel as radical as he would like. Yet, as has so often been the case with Phillips, it is the visibility and prestige of the movement rather than its intellectual substance which engages his interest. Of that substance he clearly understands nothing.
Writers and Politics represents a sad and shabby end to what was once one of the most extraordinary enterprises in American intellectual life. And quite the shabbiest thing about it is the way it takes refuge in the “memory hole” as a way of avoiding all the difficult questions that it was once the function of Partisan Review and its writers to ask. What a way to go.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 2 September 1983, on page 1
Copyright © 2014 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.comhttp://www.newcriterion.com/articles.cfm/-Partisan-Review--down-the-memory-hole-6292
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