Walter Bagehot, writing in 1855, observed that “it is odd to hear that the Edinburgh Review was once thought an incendiary publication.” That was approximately half a century after the Edinburgh Review had been launched by Francis Jeffrey, Henry Brougham, and Sydney Smith on its career of critical controversy and political partisanship. Younger readers of Partisan Review, coming to that venerable journal in 1996, more than fifty years after its founding by William Phillips and Philip Rahv, might be forgiven for entertaining a similar sense of wonder about a magazine that has enjoyed the status of an established institution for as long as they can remember. Its days as an “incendiary publication” have likewise passed into history.

As a consequence, attempting to explain to younger readers in the 1990s what it meant in 1937 to launch a literary magazine in New York that was at once Marxist,...

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