Mark Shechner, editor Preserving the Hunger: An Isaac Rosenfeld Reader.
Wayne State University Press, 463 pages, $45
Isaac Rosenfeld Passage from Home.
Marcus Wiener, 280 pages, $9.95
The writer Isaac Rosenfeld (1918-1956) seemed to his friend Saul Bellow like a Russian-Jewish intellectual; to Alfred Kazin, he appeared “as Old World as our fathers.” But in fact he was an American, Chicago-born, who studied philosophy at the University of Chicago in the Thirties, came to New York in 1941, joined the famous circle of Partisan Review, Commentary, and New Republic writers, and died in Chicago at the age of thirty-eight. He is one of the more obscure members of the group known as the New York intellectuals, but he was undoubtedly one of the most brilliant.
Mark Shechner, an English professor at SUNY Buffalo, has edited a collection of Rosenfeld’s work chosen from a book of essays (An Age of Enormity: Life and Writing in the Forties and Fifties, 1962), a volume of stories (Alpha and Omega, 1966), and selections from Rosenfeld’s journals. Mr. Shechner’s curious title, Preserving the Hunger, comes from one of Rosenfeld’s most astute reviews, of Abraham Cahan’s The Rise of David Levinsky, in which he argues that both the Jewish and the American soul are afflicted with an unappeasable metaphysical hunger, a permanent yearning.
Hunger—the baser, stomach-rumbling kind—is also the subject of Rosenfeld’s famous essay entitled “Adam and Eve on Delancey Street” (1949), a gleefully naughty but penetrating discussion of Jewish food and sex taboos that nearly lost Commentary editor Elliot Cohen his job. The essay displays all sides of Rosenfeld’s personality: the playful show-off, the serious Jewish thinker, the midlife worrier. Rosenfeld argues that to a Jew, the satisfaction of hunger is a substitute for other, never-to-be-satisfied hungers: to belong in a hostile world, to relax a necessary and constant caution. This, he says, explains the modern-day Jew’s obsession with food, with which he tries “once more to satisfy this hunger which is not hunger, to drown this anxiety in the bottom of a paper cup.”
Rosenfeld’s own metaphysical hunger took an intellectual turn: he seemed always starved for knowledge, could not consume enough information. Rosenfeld writes in his novel Passage from Home of how the teenaged Bernard Miller, after reading Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, “had gone about for days in a great wild excitement, feeling there was light in me, strength and courage, an infinite capacity and hunger to understand life.” We can be sure Rosenfeld is writing here from his own experience.
Saul Bellow has noted that “Rosenfeld had one of those ready, lively, clear minds that see the relevant thing immediately.” His critical essays show a wide range of literary and political interests: Kafka, Gide, Stendhal, Isherwood, Orwell, Simone Weil, James T. Farrell, Anaïs Nin, Gandhi. Often Rosenfeld’s acuteness can be cruel, though seldom without a point. Of Orwell’s Animal Farm, he writes: “its political relevance is more apparent than real. It will offer a kind of enlightenment to those who still need it, say, the members of the Book of the Month Club, but beyond this it has no politics at all.” Most Kafka criticism, he maintains in a review of a book called The Kafka Problem, “does not seem to know what Kafka is about .... It is for such reasons that ‘the Kafka problem’ lies mostly with its critics.”
The sweet side of Rosenfeld emerges most completely in his essays on Jewish literature, a subject about which he is unabashedly sentimental, but no less acute. He writes lovingly of the Yiddish writers I. L. Peretz and Sholom Aleichem, whose humor is the kind that “loves the world from which it seeks to be delivered.” Of the New York Jewish intellectuals, he was the only one to attempt to write in Yiddish; Mr. Shechner includes in his reader three of Rosenfeld’s charming Yiddish fables in translation. Rosenfeld also achieved a small notoriety by writing a Yiddish parody/translation of Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”
Rosenfeld’s only completed novel, Passage from Home, is about a young boy’s investigations into the interlocking worlds of his family, the nearby Jewish community, and the mysterious, alluring city surrounding his Chicago neighborhood. Bernard, fourteen, runs away from his demanding father and passive stepmother to live with his Aunt Minna, his dead mother’s sister, a bohemian who has quarreled with the rest of the family. Bernard’s embarrassed desire for Minna, clearly Oedipal, leads him to introduce her to his cousin by marriage, a down-and-out character named Willy. At first Bernard takes a voyeuristic satisfaction in the unfolding romance of Minna and Willy, but he soon becomes disenchanted with Minna’s slovenly behavior, so unlike his fantasies, and returns home, where he and his father develop an uneasy understanding.
Passage from Home is not a very good novel, but it is an honest and often perceptive attempt to get at the heart of the relationship between this father and son. It is a sensitive and sincere book, if its prose is often ponderous and its action wooden; somehow Rosenfeld, who was clearly a much better critic than novelist, manages in his sincerity to make his failure seem a mildly heroic gesture.
In his introduction to the novel, Mr. Shechner makes much of Rosenfeld’s feelings of alienation—he calls Passage from Home “a Dostoevskian novel in American garb,” and claims that for both Saul Bellow and Isaac Rosenfeld Dostoevsky “came to be a symbol of their own post-revolutionary malaise.” “Alienation” is an honored cliche among critics of the postwar Jewish intellectuals, but it is not a term that can be successfully applied to Rosenfeld’s writing. While it is true that his political views included pained disappointment with the Soviet revolutionary example, in his writing on politics and literature, and especially in his novel, his mood is always one of engagement with, not alienation from, the world. Enthusiasm and disappointment seem bound up together in his spirit, pushing him toward new knowledge, toward the possibility of a distant satisfaction. Rather than reflecting an urge to escape, his writing leaves the impression that there was nothing that did not engage his interest.
If the writing itself showed no signs of alienation, however, in the last years of his life Rosenfeld’s disappointment grew as his enthusiasm disappeared, and the fight went out of him. He drifted away from his family, grew less and less able to complete writing projects, and moved back to Chicago, where he lived alone in a dark, messy apartment. At thirty-eight he was dead of a heart attack. Many writers have deplored the fact that he did not live to complete a major work. But while it is indeed regrettable that a man so clearly talented did not, as the jargon goes, “realize his potential,” one feels in reading Rosenfeld that in his prime his personality itself was his “major work,” that it was the art of thinking and discovering to which he devoted himself, while his writing was merely spillover from his boiling intellect. His retreat at the end seemed an acknowledgment that his ideas would never be embodied in solid achievement; that they were fine, ephemeral things, destined to disappear when he disappeared, too early.
Mere careerism was not Rosenfeld’s concern; the prospect of an unwritten “major work” did not nag him. As Saul Bellow wrote in his foreword to An Age of Enormity, “singlemindedly, Isaac was out for the essential qualities. He believed that heart and truth were to be had. He tried to fix them within himself.” In his skittish search for “the essential qualities,” in his apparent indifference toward his own literary reputation, Rosenfeld was a kind of minor tragic hero in the history of American intellectual life.