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From A Margin of Hope by Irving Howe

Sometimes by speaking truth. sometimes by shows of brilliance, sometimes by sheer nerve, Partisan Review had clawed its way to cultural strength. The magazine could now hoist reputations, push a young writer into prominence, and deal out punishment to philistines, middlebrows, and fellow travelers. Because it stood for something, Partisan Review gained influence. It evoked fear among opponents, rage among academics. William Dean Howells had once joked that anyone can make an enemy. the problem is to keep him. This skill Partisan Review had mastered.

At the thought of "those characters out there" – that is, beyond the Hudson – cursing and fearing him, Philip Rahv, the dominant editor of the magazine, used to chortle with pleasure. (My image of chortling is of his large body weaving up and down, in appreciation of the discomforts of others.) Rahv ran the magazine like a party leader or parliamentary whip, spinning threads of maneuver so complex they sometimes sped past their intended victims. Whenever I met him, he would propose that I write something to "smash them." Always there was a "them," from Stalinists to New Critics. Rahv cultivated a Marxist style without its political context, and among our "opponents" only Allen Tate responded satisfactorily, for in his splendid Southern manner he was always ready to charge into battle. No wonder Rahv and Tate became good friends: nothing but ideas stood between them.

Most of the New York writers were still young. "Veterans" like Hook and Rahv, Phillips and Schapiro, Rosenberg and Clement Greenberg were in their forties. Younger people, very talented, kept appearing: Randall Jarrell, Elizabeth Hardwick, John Berryman, Saul Bellow, Robert Warshow. Not all of these sympathized with Partisan politics, but most felt at home with its homelessness. The magazine had a heady cosmopolitan air in those days, with contributions from T. S. Eliot and George Orwell, Andre Gide and Jean-Paul Sartre. Anti-Stalinist leftism created a fragile bond across borders: one felt a kinship with writers like Orwell, Silone, and Camus without having ever met them. There was a visible pride in the capacities of mind. There was an impatience with that American tradition which regards writing as the outpouring of untainted intuition. There was a spirit of arrogance that kept out lesser souls, smaller talents.

Now that Hitlerism was destroyed, intellectuals felt they had to each out for new ideas, new modes of sensibility fitting the postwar world. Dissatisfied or bored with Marxism, many Partisan writers started to shake off the very idea of system. In spring 1946 the magazine put out a remarkable issue, "New French Writing," that included Sartre's powerful essay on anti-Semitism, Camus's reflections on the myth of Sisyphus, and the work of other French wn.ters~some, like Mairaux, already famous and others still unknown, but all testifying to the upheavar caused by war, captivity, and resistance.

What now began to absorb the New York writers was a search for some principle by which to order the world after Hitler, culture after the Holocaust. The idea of centrality replaced the ideology of Marxism, though the idea can be seen as a stepchild of the ideology. To be central meant to engage with questions that gave our time its peculiarly terrible character. T. S. Eliot in his poetry had been central; Trotsky had for a time been central; and in the postwar years Kafka seemed central, if only in the purity of his desolation. The idea of the central was slippery – that was what made it attractive.

In the late forties Lionel Abel wrote a piece challenging the older assumption of the centrality of modernist culture and radical politics; that was no longer true, he said, though what had replaced them he could not say. No, said Harold Rosenberg. He believed the historical crisis that had spawned modernism was so persistent, so unrelenting, "there is no place for art to go but forward." Why so? Hadn't we been saying the same thing about politics, and didn't political life somehow not go "forward"'? Still, if (as I now believe) Abel was right, the question remained: what might come after modernist culture and radical politics? No one quite foresaw the benefits of several decades of relative affluence and reconsolidated democracy in Western society. No one foresaw it until the Marxist lenses, or blinkers, were lowered. So a race broke out, some of the Partisan sprinters heading straight for the castle of centrality while others were distracted by sidesbows of novelty.

A year or two after the war one began to hear about existentialism, associating it mainly with the names of Sanre and Camus and thinking of it not as a formal philosophy but as a testimony springing from the ordeal of Europe. It seemed more attractive in voice than doctrine. It swept aside the rigidities of deterministic systems, the Left's traditional reliance on "historical forces." It sought to implant a new strength in the sentiment of freedom, not by claiming for it transcendent validation or even historical grounding, but by placing it at the heart of our need, perhaps our desperation. "We had arrived," wrote Nicola Chiaromonte, "at humanity's zero hour and history was senseless; the only thing that made sense was that part of man which remained outside of history, alien and impervious to the whirlwind of events. If, indeed, such a part existed." That "if" was transformed by desire into an "as if," becoming the burden of Camus1s rebel….

Ideology crumbled, personality bloomed. Perhaps there was a relation between the two? The New York writers, unmoored and glad to be, began to take pleasure in constructing elaborate public selves. The Partlsan group had done its best work during the late thirties and early forties; now its scattered members, tasting the sweets of individuality, were beginning to do their best individual work. In the search for centrality, they yearned to embrace (even crush) the spirit of the age.

Do I delude myself in thinking there was something peculiarly Jewish in this need to wrestle with the hovering Zeitgeist? "For two thousand years the main energies of Jewish communities . . have gone into the mass production of intellectuals" – so Harold Rosenberg had once written, Here now, with appropriate flair and chaos, were a number of them, cut off from traditional attachments either Jewish or American, casting themselves as agents of the problematic, straining for high thought and career…

I used to think of the rise of the New York intellectuals as a historical sport, a singular event caused by an overflow of energies from the children of Jewish immigrants. So of course it was. But now I also see this "singular event" as embedded in the deeper rhythms of American culture, rhythms of shock, break, and intrusion by alien roughnecks. Suppose we agree provisionally to look upon the history of American culture as a grudging retreat from visions of cultural autarchy. The appearance of the New York writers should then be seen not just as a rude, alien intrusion – though it was that, too – but also as a step in the "Europeanizing" of American culture. Among Partisan writers there was a conscious intent, not without touches of grandiosity, to capture the idea of Europe for America. That meant above all the idea of another culture, an older culture, one richer in moral possibilities, steeped in bloodier experiences, and closer to the tragic than ours could ever be. Other American writers had reached out toward Europe, from Henry James and William Dean Howells to T. S. Eliot and Van Wyck Brooks. The New York writers were coming at the end of a line, but even at the end, the idea of Europe gave them a renewed energy. Themes of cultural return figure strongly in their work: in the dissemination of Russian modes and sensibilities, in the championing of the great modernists, in the popularizing of Marxist ideas, in the insistence that, to be serious, literature must now be international.

Their international perspective came from a provincial experience. Most of the New York writers stemmed from the world of immigrant Jews, having come to articulatexiess at a moment when there was a strong drive to both break out of the ghetto and leave the bonds of Jewishness entirety. The New York intellectuals formed the first group of Jewish writers coming out of this immigrant milieu who did not define themselves through either a nostalgic or a hostile memory of Jewishness. By the late thirties Jewishness as sentiment and cultural source played only a modest part in their conscious experience. What excited them was the idea of breaking away, of wilting a new life. They meant to declare themselves citizens of the world and, if that succeeded, might then become writers of this country.

The Jewish immigrant milieu had branded on its children marks of separatism while inciting fantasies of universalism. It taught them to conquer the gentile world in order finally to yield to it. By the twenties the values dominating Jewish immigrant life were largely secular and universalist, with strong overlays of European culture. Strategic maneuvers of the vanguard had first been mapped out on gray immigrant streets.

With that immigrant culture our relations were far more tormented than we could possibly know. Denial and suppression, embarrassment and shame: these words would not be too harsh. Take so simple a matter as the pen name chosen by Partisan's chief editor: I knew of course what rahv meant, yet years passed before it dawned on me that Philip wanted to present himself as chief rabbi of our disbelieving world, choosing, in a paradox typically Jewish, to blur his Jewish identity by adopting an aggressively Jewish name. For that matter, it would be a fascinating exercise to go through the first twenty years of Partisan Review in order to see how frequently Jewish references, motifs, and inside jokes break past the surface of cosmopolitanism.

We wanted to shake off the fears and constraints of the world in which we had been born, but when up against the impenetrable walls of gentile politeness we would aggressively proclaim our "difference," as if to raise Jewishness to a higher cosmopolitan power. This was probably the first time in American cultural history that a self-confident group of intellectuals did not acknowledge the authority of Christian tradition. A whole range of non-Christian references was now reaching at least some American literary people, terms like Hasidism, place names like Chelm, proper names like Sholom Aleichem. Partisan Review printed some, if not enough, criticism of Yiddish writers – Isaac Rosenfeld on Peretz and me on Sholom Aleichem; the magazine was just starting to confront its anomalous position as the voice of emancipated Jews who nevertheless refused to deny their Jewishness. Surprising assertions broke through. I recall my shock-rather a pleasant shock in the late forties when reading Clement Greenberg's attack on Arthur Koestler for accepting the "majority gentile view" of the East European Jews. "It is possible," wrote Greenberg, "to adopt standards of evaluation other than those of Western Europe. It is possible that by 'world-historical' standards the European Jews represent a higher type of human being than any yet achieved in history. I do not say that this is so, but I say it is possible and that there is much to argue for its possibility." Some Partisan writers may have felt a twinge of embarrassment before these words, but I suspect that Greenberg was also expressing part of their deeper feelings.

Little wonder that portions of the native intellectual elite, or ragtail poseurs trying to shimmy their way to elite status, found the modest fame of the New York writers insufferable. Soon they were mumbling that American purities of speech and spirit were being contaminated in the streets of New York. (When I first met John Crowe Ransom and heard that lovely man speak of "Toid" Ave-flue, I was stunned: had his speech also been contaminated in the streets of New York? It turned out that some Tennessee speech sounded, at least to my dull ear, like that of Brooklyn. But Ransom said "toid" without worrying about goyim.)

Anti-Semitism had become publicly disreputable in the years after the Holocaust, a thin coating of shame having settled on civilized consciousness; but this hardly meant that native writers priding themselves on their toughness would lack a vocabulary for private use about those New York usurpers, those Bronx and Brooklyn wise guys who proposed to reshape American literary life. When Truman Capote later attacked the Jewish writers on television, he had the dissolute courage to say what more careful gentlemen said quietly among themselves.

A sprig of genteel anti-Semitism was also entwined with the ivy of our more notable departments of English. When I tell my students that only forty years ago so distinguished a literary man as Lionel Trilling had trouble finding a job in the Academy because he was Jewish and therefore judged by his "peers" to be deaf to the "Anglo-Saxon spirit" of English literature, those students stare at me in disbelief. Their disbelief was made possible by an earlier generation's discomforts.

The New York writers introduced a new voice in American literary life: a roughening of tone, a burst of demotic speech. Here perhaps they did have some kinship with earlier writers like Whitman and Melville, who had also brought a plebeian strain into American writing, though because of their discomfort with native traditions the New York writers were slow to discover this (Alfred Kazin was a notable exception). The gentility against which writers like Theodore Dreiser had rebelled was quite beyond the reach of the New York writers clawing their way out of immigrant quarters. Gentility seemed comic. It was a device for making us squirm, reminding us of our uncouthness. And we repaid with contempt, as well as a rather ungenerous suspicion toward those of our own, like Trilling, who had mastered the art of manners (not, after all, so forbidding or impossible).

These New York writers constituted the first intelligentsia in American history – which is a shade different from a group of intellectuals. The figures near Emerson formed a community of intellectuals but not an intelligentsia – not, at least, as defined by Renato Poggioli: "an intellectual order from the lower ranks ... an intellectual order whose function was not so much cultural as political. Poggioli had in mind the Russian writers of the late nineteenth century, but one can find points of similarity with the New York writers. We too came mostly from "the lower ranks" (later composing rhapsodies about the immigrant parents from whom we insistently fled). We too wrote with polemical ferocity. We too stressed "critical thinking" and opposition to established power. We too flaunted claims to alienation.

A footnote about this "Russianness" of the New York milieu came from Lionel Abel in the forties. Invoking, or improvising, "the tradition of the Partisan," Abel wrote: "For good or ill, modern politics is a school of rudeness… The exquisite aristocratic tact which subtly specified the circumstances under which things could be called by their right names is today something we know about largely from books, not from anybody's public behavior."

Insurgent groups hoping to rouse anger against established authority will always be tempted to violate rules of decorum. Rudeness becomes a spear with which to break the skin of complacency. In its early years Parttsan Review was often rude, sometimes for no reason whatever, as if to demonstrate its sheer prickliness. But there were serious reasons, too. Rudeness was not only the weapon of cultural underdogs, but also a sign that intellectual Jews had become sufficiently self-assured to stop playing by gentile rules. At the least, this rudeness was to be preferred to the frigid "civility" with which English intellectuals cloak their murderous impulses, or the politeness that in American academic life can mask a cold indifference.

Even the ways in which New York writers earned their livings helps place them as an intelligentsia. A few scholarly figures like Schapiro and Trilling were professors. Harold Rosenberg had an enviable part-time job at the Advertising Council, where he created Smokey the Bear. (The sheer deliciousness of it: this cuddly artifact of commercial folklore as the creature of our unyielding modernist!) The others, as the Yiddish saying has it, lived mostly "off the air." The Partisan editors may have granted themselves modest salaries and been helped by generous wives, but their survival in the thirties and forties is still a mystery. People like Paul Goodman and Lionel Abel hung on at the margin. Clement Greenberg and Robert Warshow worked at Commentary. Delmore Schwartz in the late forties had about half a dozen jobs with foundations, magazines, and universities, none of which seemed to take up much time. Until the Second World War, Paul Goodman said, it had been possible for a writer to get by in "decent poverty"; later it became almost impossible to manage as a free-lancer. In the early fifties, as jobs opened up in the universities, all this changed and the Partisan group ceased being an intelligentsia – indeed, ceased being a group.

 

A Margin of Hope by Irving Howe was originally published in 1982 by Harcourt, Brace and Jovanovich.


 
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