|Partisan Review: A Personal Memoir Norman Birnbaum
Partisan Review, in the thirties, forties, fifties and sixties, our most exciting and influential journal of culture and ideas will publish no more.. Its final issue, this spring, paid tribute to its co-founder, William Phillips, who died last year aged ninety-four. His scintillating contemporaries (Hannah Arendt,Newton Arvin, James Burnham, Frederick Dupee, James Farrell, Clement Greenberg,Alfred Kazin, Dwight Macdonald, Mary McCarthy, the other founder Phillip Rahv, Meyer Schapiro, Lionel Trilling, Edmund Wilson) had already gone.The journal that began in 1934 by calling for revolution in society and the creative destruction of tradition in the arts ended as a one more voice of neo-conservatism in politics, a conventional defender of “standards” in culture. Partisan Review died well before its actual demise. That is all the more reason for those who, like myself, regarded it as central to their lives and work to mourn..
I first read it at age fourteen, in 1940. My father was a high school teacher, and The Nation and The New Republic came to the house, but not Partisan Review. Its readers moved in a distinctly different cultural sphere---Manhattan, not the Bronx. I was introduced to it by an older friend from a sophisticated milieu. The journal bewildered and fascinated me. It referred to writers like Thomas Mann and Andre Malraux, whom I had already read, in terms which suggested that I had hardly understood them. It discussed others I had never encountered, Eliot and Kafka—and convinced me that I needed its keys to unlock the treasures of culture.
Its political argument was, literally, shocking. Clement Greenberg (later the herald of Jackson Pollock and abstract expressionsm in art) and Dwight Macdonald (for the next generation our national iconoclast) declared that they could not support a war led by Churchill and Roosevelt—but only one led by democratic socialist revolutionaries. Under a pseudonym, Schapiro agreed. The others argued, not implausibly, that Churchill and Roosevelt were the only leaders we had.--and that they were preferable to Hitler. The demand for revolution was an expression of Partisan Review ‘s attachment to an ideal socialism. In fact, the argument on the war was the last gasp of its revolutionary enthusiasm. It collided with the anti-fascist and New Deal pieties I had absorbed.
Partisan held that there was more to literature than met the eye accustomed to reading narrative in linear terms. It interpreted history as something else than Roosevelt’s triumph over big money. For my generation, Partisan Review was our introduction to ambiguity and complexity---even if its editors and authors wrote with utter, sometimes millennial, conviction.
I met them when I was nineteen. I had a date with a young woman who was a student of Mary McCarthy’s at Bard (the site of her malicious novel, The Groves of Academe). At the last moment, her teacher invited her to an evening with her Partisan Review colleagues at the townhouse of the art patron, Peggy Guggenheim. When I appeared at her parents’ Manhattan apartment, she was ready to sacrifice me on the altar of high culture by politely sending me away. I explained that I regularly read Partisan and had even submitted a piece to it. (True, but I did not say that it was an unpublished letter.) Still doubtful, she took me along. I could match the names to those expressive faces, and even louder voices. I recall Ms. McCarthy being cordial, Phillip Rahv sardonic, and Clement Greenberg (to my flattered surprise) taking a genuine interest in me. William Phillips, with whom I was to be friends much later, was so intensely involved in argument that I did not meet him.
My friendship with Greenberg was an education in itself.A conversation with him was rather like the abstract expressionist paintings he liked. The interlocutor was the canvas: he spread the paint around. His interests were far broader than art. When I met him, he was emancipating himself from radical politics by pathetic affirmation of the value of American democracy. Unspoken at the time (by him and everyone else at Partisan except Hannah Arendt) was the trauma of the Holocaust Partisan wasn’t entirely Jewish, and its editors and writers plunged into New York’s vortex to emerge with a new cosmopolitanism. .
What was the radicalism they abandoned in 1945? The journal was founded in 1934 when Phillips and Rahv put their hopes for the future in the Soviet Union. They sought an American proletarian culture and their pages were ideologically schematic, full of references to Marx. The actual proletarians, organizing under the New Deal, were not much taken into account. Yet the editors were drawn to artistic modernism, to experiment in art, literature, theater. Modernist aesthetics challenged formalistic standards and received ideas of art and, above all, the supposed normalcy of ordinary life. That, however, was far from the social realism of the American Communist Party.
It took two years for the inevitable rupture to occur. The authoritarianism, purges, and suffering in the Soviet Union convinced Phillips and Rahv that Stalin was definitely not “the leader and teacher of all progressive mankind.” They looked for revolutionary redemption to his great adversary, Leon Trotsky, who in his Mexican exile from 1937 until his murder in 1940 influenced many Americans. As advocates of proletarian revolution, however, they had to confront a huge difficulty. Modernist art was indeed culturally revolutionary, but hardly accessible to the proletariat.Partisan Review depicted modernism as the legitimate heir of high culture. What was the connection between the
aesthetic vanguard and the political one?
The question was all the more agonizing because most of their fellow American citizens
were not concerned with it. In 1936, Roosevelt won sixty-three percent of the vote.
and promised not redemption but reform (“I see one-third of a nation ill-clothed, ill-housed, ill-nourished.”) The Partisan Review group, amidst the ferment of the New Deal, began a search for American tradition, for their version of a useable past. They simultaneously understood themselves as advocates of European culture. It wasn’t the Europe of Oxford’s “dreaming spires” but of Malraux and Orwell in the Spanish civil war, of the German writers fleeing Nazism, of Gide’s criticism of the Soviet Union.
It was also the Europe of Joyce and Pound, searching for the new in the debris of the old.
That was the Partisan Review from which I and my generation learned so much. It did more than broaden our perspectives: it taught us that perspectives were always subject to
question. Many of my teachers at Williams were Partisan readers, but when I began to study sociology at the Harvard Graduate School in 1947, I found far fewer. Imperial and technocratic Harvard wasn’t interested in ideas. Arendt’s significant Origins of Totalitarioanism was much discussed in Partisan and ignored at Harvard. The notions central to American social thought in the fifties, of bureaucratization and the pathologies of mass democracy, were familiar from the Partisan of the forties. Other ideas, of state capitalism and of the pervasiveness of terror, did not match the academic celebration of the “American century.” Partisan and the academy agreed on the necessity of prosecuting the Cold War.
In 1952 I left for what was to become fourteen years in Europe. Reading Partisan was a better preparation for my initial encounters with Germany, the UK, France than my graduate studies. Partisan’s issues were cultural messages from home in a Transatlantic bottle. as I taught at the London School of Econom ics and Oxford. I particularly recall the 1953 symposium “Our Country and Our Culture,” in which a near total reconciliation with the nation was propounded. One adversary remained: cultural illiteracy and philistinism, manufactured by mass culture. Irving Howe, Dwight Macdonald, Norman Mailer, Wright Mills vociferously dissented: the conformity and inanity of mass culture was for them an inevitable by-product of capitalism. .
Some years later,greatly influenced by these American radicals, a European new left
attacked the immobility and rigidity of Cold War politics. On my visits to the US and on his visits to the UK, I came to know Phillips. I introduced him to the British New Leftists, and he published their works---above all, Iris Murdoch’s argument that there could be no authentic politics without a political philosophy. By this time I was at Oxford, actually teaching with her. In the US, the Kennedy interlude promised—falsely—a regeneration of American liberalism. In publishing a 1962 symposium on the Cold War, Phillips and Rahv showed courage. The journal was at the time subsidized by an American Committee for Cultural Freedom, whose funding came from the CIA. Several contributors challenged Cold War ideas.In my 1962 article “The Coming End of Anti-Communism,” I criticized the academic and intellectual apparatus of the Cold War and Phillips declared, to my immense pleasure, that no article had ever provoked such protest.
As Partisan Review confronted the turbulence of the sixties, Rahv left, complaining of its lack of radical clarity. Then Phillips sought rapprochement with the New Left (and his younger self.) By 1971, I joined a reconstituted Editorial Board—along with the ironic and passionate Christopher Lasch.. The trouble was, Partisan had nothing to say that wasn’t being said elsewhere. In one attempt at distinctiveness, the 1972 symposium “Art, Culture, Conservatism” all the demons haunting it in the thirties returned. Some of us derided the inauthentic populism of the New Left as philistinism with pseudo revolutionary slogans. We had no answers, however, to the questions of how to democratize culture and keep it complex and high. Partisan, meanwhile, despite the efforts of contributors like Susan Sontag, had become the journal not of a critical intelligentsia but of a somewhat complacent academy.. The intelligentisa, indeed, had become appreciably less critical..
The achievements of Partisan’s original authors and editors were very large. They were honest about the failure of socialism, and almost as honest about the the failings of mass democracy. They argued for the continuities between American and European culture. They educated two generations in the tradition of the avant-garde. They joined academic to metropolitan culture. It was a pity that Phillips did not realize that his task was accomplished by the middle of the seventies. The journal for the past two decades was the adversary it had warned against in its early years: culture in the service of power. The brilliance of those first decades remains with us, a treasure from the past and a model for the future.
Published 9 May 2003, Chronicle of Hiugher Education.
Norman Birnbaum was on the Editorial Board of Partisan Review, 1971-83. He was one of the founding editors of New Left Review and is on the Editorial Board of the Nation. University Professor Emeritus at Georgetown Law Center, he has recently published,
After Progress: American Social Reform And European Socialism In The Twentieth Century (Oxford University Press.)