Partisan Review: A Commentary

I have been a London-based New Yorker for the last 25 years, where I was an academic within the University of London. I read and wrote about 18th century and Romantic Age literature. I have now turned my eye toward my native city and am starting a sustained reading of the entire run of PARTISAN REVIEW — a journal that was begun in the 1930s in New York City and that offered a radical and socialist anti-Stalinist version of modern thought and literature and theory and politics.

Though later many contributors to PR moved much further to the right and became not only anti-Stalinist but anti-left well, in the 1930s and during WWII, Partisan Review shaped a critique of politics, art, and literature and inspired a generation of young women and men to understand and engage in debates that remain important in our own cultural and political time. I will be reading and writing about each issue in chronological order

I welcome everyone who is interested in this material to join the discussion and offer comments and corrections as necessary.

Partisan Review is available to read on-line through the
Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center

Annie J


In December, 1937 Partisan Review ceased to be the cultural and
political serial publication of the John Reed Club, an organisation
run by the Communist Party, USA. Under its new editors, it became an
edgy retort both to the Stalinism of the CPUSA and to forms of Liberalism associated with the Popular Front during the Depression. It allied itself, as a “Literary Monthly” with Modernism, and against the Socialist Realism and Prolitcult programme of the USSR. At the same time as they were critics of capitalism, some PR writers, such as
Clement Greenberg and Dwight Macdonald, took aim at the rise of ‘middle brow’and ‘mass’cultural forms.

The first issue, Vol.4, No.1 1937 was edited by Philip Rahv, William
Philips, Mary McCarthy, Dwight Macdonald,George L.K. Morris, and
F.W. Dupee. Macdonald’s first wife, Nancy, was the business manager.

The Editorial Statement Begins:
“ANY magazine, we believe, that aspires to to a place in the vanguard of literature today, will be revolutionary in tendency; but we are also convinced that any such magazine will be unequivocally independent. PARTISAN REVIEW IS aware of its responsibility to the revolutionary movement in general, but we disdain obligation to any of its organized political expressions.”

Rahv and Philips were the chief editors, working not only on the day to day demands of creating a journal, but on the main themes of Partisan Review‘s political and literary positions.  Other names connected with the journal in its early years  have been burnished over the decades, including Mary McCarthy (novelist, political journalist, and ),  Dwight Macdonald (who left to start his own journal, Politics), and Delmore Schwartz (who has steadily become reified as the poet maudit of New York in the 20th century).

These clever, articulate, and intellectually aggressive thinkers were happy to
adjust the already familiar habits of revolutionary rhetoric to shape
their publication.  Fred DuPee had been a member of the CPUSA, but was drawn to the arguments and interests of his friends at PR.

 Rahv, McCarthy, and MacDonald were all happy to argue with wit, on high volume, and at times with
cruelty. What they were able to do together was put together a table of
contents for their first issue that included a stunning array of
brilliant thinkers, poets, and fiction writers. The ‘Editorial Statement’ endorsed Marxism without Stalinism:

“Marxism in culture, we think, is first of all an instrument of analysis and evaluation; and if, on the last instance, it prevails over other disciplines, it does so through the medium of democratic controversy. Such is the medium that Partisan Review will want to provide in its pages.”

The latest post is right below this information page.

Looking forward to looking back: Meyer Schapiro on Lewis Mumford: 1938

NOTE:  For reasons I haven’t discovered yet, the BU online Partisan Review is not working .  I think the Schapiro article is very interesting, and will be of interest to those interested in Mumford, in Schapiro, and in issues of reform and revolution. Since I can’t make a link to the text, I give you here the info for finding it in the NYPL or the BL, or university libraries:

Meyer Schapiro, “Looking forward to looking backward” Partisan Review,  vol.5, No.2 July, 1938, pp 12-25.

Meyer Shapiro (by Alice Neel)

In 1938, Meyer Schapiro, the art historian we have met before (see post in this blog: 28 January, 2017) was 34 years old and teaching at Columbia. His contribution to the June, 1938 issue of  Partisan Review was a detailed exegesis of Lewis Mumford’s important book, The Culture of Cities (1938).  Mumford, who later went to to win the National Book Award in 1962, was tat this time, 43, not quite ten years older than Schapiro, and had already won a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1932. His book was given a front page review in the NY Times Book Review, where it was enthusiastically reviewed by R.L. Duffus, who had a strong reputation at The New York Times from 1937 through 1962.

Unknown-9 Lewis Mumford  $_57 April 17, 1938

The two culture and art critics — Mumford and Schapiro–   were well matched for intellectual engagement. Schapiro’s essay, wryly titled “Looking Forward to Looking Back” reminds  us that exposition is 70% of intepretation;  Schapiro’s sharp criticism of Mumford’s ‘reformism’ arises from his very clear exposition of Mumford’s argument. This provides the evidence with which to judge  Mumford’s study in relation to Schapiro’s intellectual world, which at this time was the Trotskyism and community (well lets call it the gang) around Partisan Review. 

(I have lifted the next paragraph from my earlier blog post on Schapiro: )Meyer Schapiro grew up in  Brooklyn.  Born in Lithuania in 1904, he came with his mother to New York in 1907, to join his father, who taught Hebrew in the city.  Schapiro was interested in art and in politics from an early age, and his work as an art historian was marked by his concern for  the social and cultural influences on art, and as experienced by the artist. He wrote for the Nation, Partisan Review, and the New Masses.  Although he worked on ancient art and sculpture, he was fascinated by and wrote much about contemporary art as well. My sense is that his academic credentials were so strong that many on the Left left him out of the set of those who were pilloried for not being activists.  But it is also the case that most of the Partisan Review considered him to be the creator of a new kind of art history — that was as engaged with the issues of class struggle as with those of technique.  If you want to read some great articles he wrote, I recommend you go to rosswolfe’s The Charnel House blog on WordPress, where you will find a number of Schapiro’s most interesting papers, including his 1950 critique of Heidegger’s “The Origin of the Work of Art.” Its a very satisfying read.

If you don’t already know the vocabulary of left politics in  1938, Trotskyists, who had been expelled from the Soviet Communist Party, held on quite adamantly to the distinction between  reform and revolution. Reformism wasn’t simply a call for the reformation of the state, but a prospect of  a slowish but posited inevitable replacement of capitalism by socialism. That is, proponents  drew on Marxist principles while eschewing the practice of revolutionary violence, and did not feel they had compromised the goal of socialism or communism.  Everyone else felt the opposite; namely, that reformism was counter-revolutionary and a betrayal of Communism.  Now that we are well into the issues of 1938, the Stalinist Show trials, the German invasion of Austria, and the creation of a Trotskyist movement in exile, you can see how pusillanimous  the reformists seemed to Revolutionary activists.1907-or-1908-maybe-rosa-luxemburg-rls

The distinction between the two was articulated by Rosa Luxemburg  in a pamphlet she wrote in 1899.  She argued that the political groups of trade unions, and social democrats, while important to the proletariat’s development of class consciousness  cannot create a socialist society.

Schapiro’s criticism of Mumford is born from Luxemburg’s and Trotsky’s politics, but has the added authority of Schapiro’s reputation as an art historian. The dove-tailing  of his academic authority  with his political orientation grounds his argument  that Mumford is inaccurate in questions of art history, over-generalised in his models of historical change, and Reformist in his model of socialist change.

What Schapiro calls Mumford’s “thesis” is a reformist programme of what would constitute “the possibilities of a good city in the future.” Having noted that Mumford’s work is “a work of public education, and full of informative matter, often curious and delightful, touching on many more aspects of history than are ordinarily treated in books on architecture and planning,”  He goes on to eat away, like a friendly but insistent mouse at Mumford’s assumptions, attitudes, and positions. The shape of history that Mumford presents is one in which the securities of medieval life were wrecked by the “the rise of machine technology, despotism, militarism, and capitalism , that the city began to assume its present and hypertrophied.” 

For example, Schapiro argues that Mumford has substituted style for a more complex social and political and cultural network of influences. In Mumford’s writing, style dissolves its specific  meaning into something much less accurate and less useful: “Thus Mumford gives a paramount importance to the concept of ‘baroque,’ by which he designates practically the whole of post-medieval society from the 15th century to the 19th.”  Mumford has, Schapiro writes, seen a turn around from this deterioration in the work of urban planning since the later decades of the 19th century. Now he embraces the “newer ideals of regionalism, conservation, and the garden city, all related to the “biotechnic economy” patterned on the organism.”   You can guess that this is going to end in something unlike revolutionary socialism.   It does.   The Garden City Movement, begun by Ebeneezer Howard after the publication in 1889 of  Edward Bellemy’s, “Looking Backward”, a utopian novel of socialism triumphant, was a version of what Mumford encouraged, and helps explains Schapiro’s essay’s title “Looking forward to lookin back.”


Schapiro moves from Mumford’s inaccuracy about style to his reduction of elements of pictorial art to the determinations of history, through a technique of analogical thinking: for Mumford, “The forms seem to arise from a field. beyond the canvas (politics)….But no historian of art will take the comparison seriously …. ” and goes on to list a number of technical aspects of art form that Mumford misunderstands in his discussion of the organic.

Shapiro wins in the disciplined logic of his critique of Mumford, and makes something of a fool of him. But then, Schapiro has an organised field of Marxist analysis to guide him.

When I read Schapiro’s post-war work of the 60s and 70s  I find something of Mumford’s spirit of adventure in his own arguments, even though Mumford had the ‘wrong line’ –Reformism!

In Memoriam. John Ashbery


Its been a tough week here what with John Ashbery’s death on Sunday. I was a New York City kid who grew up reading John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara.  Though I loved O’Hara from the start, it took until I was in my mid-20s before I could find my way through an Ashbery poem without grabbing for the shore.   Then, as if by a miracle, the poems began to invite me in — maybe I just relaxed.

The one here, from A WAVE, is what I thought of as soon as I learned that he had died. Death imbued and funny, Keatsian and autumnal, it a pure product elegy.


Somewhere someone is traveling furiously toward you,
At incredible speed, traveling day and night,
Through blizzards and desert heat, across torrents, through narrow passes.
But will he know where to find you,
Recognize you when he sees you,
Give you the thing he has for you?

Hardly anything grows here,
Yet the granaries are bursting with meal,
The sacks of meal piled to the rafters.
The streams run with sweetness, fattening fish;
Birds darken the sky. Is it enough
That the dish of milk is set out at night,
That we think of him sometimes,
Sometimes and always, with mixed feelings.


Next Week: Meyer Shapiro on Lewis Mumford…

Summer Reading, 1938. The PR short story contest

The June issue of Partisan Review, Vol.5, No. 2 begins with the names of the winners of a short story contest held by the journal: Delmore Schwartz and Mary King would split the prize of $100, and the runners-up were Elizabeth Bishop and James Agee.  Three of these writers had been associated with Partisan Review from its start, while Mary King’s submission to the contest, “My Father Brought Winter,” was unsolicited.Read the story: (copy and paste into browser)

I can’t find the original announcement of the contest, but about King herself the journal included this:“Mary King writes from New Orleans: ‘The story which you have accepted is the first thing I have had published. I was born in Angleton, Texas. I tried newspaper work for a while and various other jobs one gets in depressions by ringing doorbells, answering advertisements and visiting employment agencies– stenographic and even secretarial. But I didn’t like them. Three years ago I came to New Orleans, where I am now living in the French quarter. I settled down to writing seriously, though I had tried it spasmodically before, only last October.’

Atlas_Delmore-Schwartz Delmore Schwartz

Schwartz’s “The Statues,” (see post on this blog, 8 July, 2017 for more about Schwartz’s story) is a proto-magical realist evocation of how the imagination can turn whatever it perceives into harbingers of an altered world of light.  I suppose Delmore was too much of an insider at PR to be given the whole prize, but his story is contemporary, absurd, ironic, and modernist. Read the story: (copy and paste into browser)

ElizabethBishop     Elizabeth Bishop

Elizabeth Bishop’s “In Prison” (see post on this blog, 7 April, 2017 for more on this story), is more like one of Kafka’s than it is like Atlantic Modernism, and while it is chilling and distressing, it also creates an atmosphere of uncanny cosiness. No crime is mentioned, but the oppressive inevitability of imprisonment is always with the narrator and with the reader. It becomes clear that the narrator is always in prospect of prison, now while living in a ‘hotel-existence,’ but later ‘in’ the prison; that is the primary condition.’ Read the Story:(copy and paste into browser):

James Agee James Agee

James Agee’s “Knoxville: Summer of 1915”  is a phenomenology of the experience of evening in a small provincial town in the south, and moves generically from narrative to poem to prayer. It became the preface to Agee’s novel, A Death in the Family, an oratorio by the composer,Samuel Barber, and a part of the curriculum of high-school English classes in the well into the 1960s.  (I have included Agee’s text at the end of this post).


Summer is the time for fiction and what these stories all share is a vision of the American heartland as a geography of both small-mindedness and quiet continuity; for those who have fled Texas and Knoxville for writing lives, and those, like Bishop and Schwartz, who have been drawn into surreal surroundings of mystery-and-beauty and mystery-and-fear.

These stories all also are touched by the debates going on in the later 1930s about what kind of genres were revolutionary.  Partisan Review  neither entirely endorsed nor rejected the popularity of ‘proletarian’ literature. That is, not in the way in which its advocacy of Modernism in literature and art was an unwavering commitment within  the journal’s cultural-political point of view.

“My Father Brought Winter” is a distorted companion to Agee’s piece. Social  and material life is rotting — teeth breaking, men drinking, and crops just as unhealthy. The narrator, now older and long fled, was a girl in a dying family of American crisis — the depression, capitalism, the works. She is invaded by the disappointments of her father, her uncle(?) and the land itself, and becomes like them, flat, colourless, stagnant. Even the hatreds within the family are fading into a vaguer complaisance.

Agee’s memoir/poem/reverie transmutes the everydayness into a kind of holiness. The plain southern American life, with its routines and its small pleasures is, indeed, the grounding of Agee’s stream of remembrance, and like Schwartz’s “Statues” it lifts the quotidian into the miraculous.

Tyler-by-Deren-from-Boultenhouse-upright Parker Tyler

The contest elicited a letter from Parker Tyler in the next issue of Partisan Review (Vol. V,No.60 (see post about Tyler on this blog, ‘There is nothing we have to say that/We do not lean over saying as/From a Balcony’ February 11, 2017), in which he praised the serious critical work of PR, but sugared no pill about the works of fiction, in particular the story that opened the June issue, “My father Brought Winter,” by Mary King:

Your new number reads and it strikes me with even greater force that the critical function of the Review is far more creative than is the creative function.  I am glad to see LONG reviews and articles. Length in these things is important. But as for Mary King’s story, to which you award half the prize, if your judgment is correct and it is really tops over 300 stories, Partisan Review is not serving the public by such a contest and is, aesthetically, wasting its money……I do suggest, emphatically,that you would improve the value of the magazine by confining it to criticism, and excluding both poetry and fiction. For on the basis of what you have published of the two latter categories, the Review has no reason for a monthly existence.”

Tyler’s suggestion was ignored, and PR continued to publish poetry and fiction.


“Knoxville: Summer of 1915:

Knoxville: Summer of 1915  by James Agee (This is in its entirety with the same paragraph breaks as originally provided by the author. The Barber version set to music uses approximately a third of this text)

We are talking now of summer evenings in Knoxville, Tennessee, in the time I lived there so successfully disguised to myself as a child. It was a little bit sort of block, fairly solidly lower middle class, with one or two juts apiece on either side of that. The houses corresponded: middle­sized gracefully fretted wood houses built in the late nineties and early nineteen hundreds, with small front and side and more spacious back yards, and trees in the yards, and porches. These were softwooded trees, poplars, tulip trees, cottonwoods. There were fences around one or two of the houses, but mainly the yards ran into each other with only now and then a low hedge that wasn’t doing very well. There were few good friends among the grown people, and they were not enough for the other sort of intimate acquaintance, but everyone nodded and spoke, and even might talk short times, trivially, and at the two extremes of general or the particular, and ordinarily next door neighbors talked quiet when they happened to run into each other, and never paid calls. The men mostly small businessmen, one or two very modestly executives, one or two worked with their hands, most of them clerical, and most of them between and forty-­five.

But it is of these evenings, I speak. Supper was at six and was over by half past. There was still daylight, shining softly and with a tarnish, like the lining of a shell; and the carbon lamps lifted the corners were on in the light, and the locusts were started, and the fire flies were out, and a few frogs were flopping in the dewy grass, by the time the fathers and the children came out. The children ran out first hell bent and yelling those names by which they were known; then the fathers sank out leisurely crossed suspenders, their collars removed and their necks looking tall and shy. The mothers stayed back in the kitchen washing and drying, putting things away, recrossing their traceless footsteps like the lifetime journeys of bees, measuring out the dry cocoa for breakfast. When they came out they had taken off their aprons and their skirts were dampened and they sat in rockers on porches quietly. It is not of the games children play in the evening that I want to speak now, it is of a contemporaneous atmosphere that has little to do with them: that of fathers of families, each in his space of lawn, his shirt fishlike pale in the unnatural light and his face nearly anonymous, hosing their lawns. The hoses were attached at spigots that stood out of the brick foundations of the houses. The nozzles were variously set but usually so there was a long sweet stream spray, the nozzle wet in the hand, the water trickling the right forearm and peeled-­back cuff, and the water whishing out a long loose and low­curved and so gentle a sound. First an insane noise of violence in the nozzle, then the irregular sound of adjustment, then the smoothing into steadiness and a pitch accurately tuned to the size and style of stream as any violin. So many qualities of sound out of one hose: so many choral differences out of those several hoses that were in earshot. Out of any one hose, the almost dead silence of the release, and the short still arch of the separate big drops, silent as a held breath, and only the noise of the flattering noise on leaves and the slapped grass at the fall of abig drop. That, and the intense hiss with the intense stream; that, and that intensity not growing less but growing more quiet and delicate with the turn the nozzle, up to the extreme tender whisper when the water was just a wide of film. Chiefly, though, the hoses were set much alike, in a compromise between distance and tenderness of spray (and quite surely a sense of art behind this compromise, and a quiet deep joy, too real to recognize itself), and the sounds therefore were pitched much alike; pointed by the snorting start of a new hose; decorated by some man playful with the nozzle; left empty, like God by the sparrow’s fall, when any single one of them desists: and all, though near alike,of various pitch; and in this unison.

These sweet pale streamings in the light out their pallors and their voices all together, mothers hushing their children, the hushing unnaturally prolonged, the men gentle and silent and each snail-like withdrawn into the quietude of what he singly is doing, the urination of huge children stood loosely military against an invisible wall, and gentle happy and peaceful, tasting the mean goodness of their living like the last of their suppers in their mouths; while the locusts carry on this noise of hoses on their much higher and sharper key. The noise of the locust is dry, and it seems not to be rasped or vibrated but urged from him as if through a small orifice by a breath that can never give out. Also there is never one locust but an illusion of at least a thousand. The noise of each locust is pitched in some classic locust range out of which none of them varies more than two full tones: and yet you seem to hear each locust discrete from all the rest, and there is a long, slow, pulse in their noise, like the scarcely defined arch of a long and high set bridge. They are all around in every tree, so that the noise seems to come from nowhere and everywhere at once, from the whole shell heaven, shivering in your flesh and teasing your eardrums, the boldest of all the sounds of night. And yet it is habitual to summer nights, and is of the great order of noises, like the noises of the sea and of the blood her precocious grandchild, which you realize you are hearing only when you catch yourself listening. Meantime from low in the dark, just outside the swaying horizons of the hoses, conveying always grass in the damp of dew and its strong green-black smear of smell, the regular yet spaced noises of the crickets, each a sweet cold silver noise three-noted, like the slipping each time of three matched links of a small chain. But the men by now, one by one, have silenced their hoses and drained and coiled them. Now only two, and now only one, is left, and you see only ghostlike shirt with the sleeve garters, and sober mystery of his mild face like the lifted face of large cattle enquiring of your presence in a pitch dark pool of meadow; and now he too is gone; and it has become that time of evening when people sit on their porches, rocking gently and talking gently and watching the street and the standing up into their sphere of possession of the trees, of birds hung havens, hangars. People go by; things go by. A horse, drawing a buggy, breaking his hollow iron music on the asphalt; a loud auto; a quiet auto; people in pairs, not in a hurry, scuffling, switching their weight of aestival body, talking casually, the taste hovering over them of vanilla, strawberry, pasteboard and starched milk, the image upon them of lovers and horsemen, squared with clowns in hueless amber. A street car raising its iron moan; stopping, belling and starting; stertorous; rousing and raising again its iron increasing moan and swimming its gold windows and straw seats on past and past and past, the bleak spark crackling and cursing above it like a small malignant spirit set to dog its tracks; the iron whine rises on rising speed; still risen, faints ; halts, the faint stinging bell; rises again, still fainter, fainting, lifting, lifts, faints forgone: forgotten. Now is the night one blue dew. Now is the night one blue dew, my father has drained, he has coiled the hose.Low on the length of lawns, a frailing of fire who breathes. Content, silver, like peeps of light, each cricket makes his comment over and over in the drowned grassA cold toad thumpily flounders.Within the edges of damp shadows of side yards are hovering children nearly sick with joy of fear, who watch the unguarding of a telephone pole. Around white carbon corner lamps bugs of all sizes are lifted elliptic, solar systems. Big hardshells bruise themselves, assailant: he is fallen on his back, legs squiggling. Parents on porches: rock and rock: From damp strings morning glories : hang their ancient faces. The dry and exalted noise of the locusts from all the air at once enchants my eardrums. On the rough wet grass of the back yard my father and mother have spread quilts.

We all lie there, my mother, my father, my uncle, my aunt, and I too am lying there. First we were sitting up, then one of us lay down, and then we all lay down, on our stomachs, or on our sides, or on our backs, and they have kept on talking. They are not talking much, and the talk is quiet, of nothing in particular, of nothing at all in particular, of nothing at all. The stars are wide and alive, they seem each like a smile of great sweetness, and they seem very near. All my people are larger bodies than mine, quiet, with voices gentle and meaningless like the voices of sleeping birds. One is an artist, he is living at home. One is a musician, she is living at home. One is my mother who is good to me. One is my father who is good to me. By some chance, here they are, all on this earth; and who shall ever tell the sorrow of being on this earth, lying, on quilts, on the grass, in a summer evening, among the sounds of night. May god bless my people, my uncle, my aunt, my mother, my good father, oh, remember them kindly in their time of trouble; and in the hour of their taking away.After a little I am taken in and put to bed. Sleep, soft smiling, draws me unto her: and those receive me, who quietly treat me, as one familiar and well-beloved in that home: but will not, oh, will not, not now, not ever; but will not ever tell me who I am. (c) 1938




Summer Poems, 1939

Here is Saturday’s post on Friday — going away for weekend.

NOTE: The two-part article by William Troy, “Thomas Mann: Myth and Reason” which follows Luxemberg’s “Letters from Prison,” will be the subject of a blog post here later in the autumn, and will include responses to Troy at the time from other PR contributors.

But seeing how it is still August here, and the slim volume of Partisan Review Vol 5, No.1 is drenched in anxiety about the state of things in the summer of 1938,  it seems right to move on to the next PR document from that June:  poems by ‘Two English Poets,’ Julian Symons and D.S. Savage.


Julian Symons

Julian Symons, was the editor of the English, Twentieth Century Verse, which he founded in 1937; he was known to the Partisan Review also  as a supporter of  Trotsky.  D.S. Savage  (who figured in an earlier post on this blog, May 17, 2017–see archive) was published by Symons, and in Partisan Review.

Neither Symons nor Savage were part of the public school wing of 1930s political poetics; in fact, neither of them had been educated for their roles as poets or as conscientious objectors. And both were rejected for that status during World War II.

Symons left school at 14, and, as he said on Desert Island Discs in 1982, “I was, what I believe is now horrifically known as an ‘autodidact.'”  Symons says as well that he published young poets who were outside the circle of ‘Oxford Poets,’ one of whom was D.S. Savage.  The “Country Weekend” is filled with the atmosphere of tension that Symons lived– between the literary and the self-taught — the farmer and the guest,  and with the news of Fascism.  And not long afterwards, Symons and Roy Fuller watched and heard the first bombing raids in London. Symons returned to the period in his 1960 study, The Thirties. 



Though he had left organised religion in his youth, Derek Savage was reconfirmed at St. Paul’s and added a commitment to living sparely and simply to his already decided pacifism. Savage’s first pamphlet of poetry, The Autumn World was published by Reginald Caton’s Fortune Press in 1939, after Caton’s press, under the watchful eye of the law, stopped printing gay erotica and porn.  Caton turned to poetry, and  also  published early work by Dylan Thomas, Philip Larkin, and Julian Symons as well as Savage’s The Autumn World.  It seems likely that it was Symons who sent Savage on to Canton.

Savage married in 1938, and when the volume was published, he and his wife  moved to a village near Cambridge, where, Alison Olson wrote in a 2007 obituary of Savage, the couple lived in a condemned cottage without water, light or sanitation in Dry Drayton, Cambridgeshire.

Savage  remained a pacifist, and in 1940 he was taken to a tribunal on that account.  He was ridiculed as a coward, but he felt that war was a manner of ” legalised murder”. In 1944, he moved to Bromsash Hertforshire, where the family — they had six children — lived in a pacifist market-gardening village. Savage was committed to simple living, Anglicanism, and Pacifism.

In 1947, Savage discovered the pleasures of Cornwall and the literary-artistic community around St.Ives.  The family moved to Mevagissey, and he became friends with the poet W.S. Graham, Nessie Dunsmuir, and also knew the painter,Roger Hilton.  The Savages  lived  in the  Heligan Woods, continuing his decision to live a life of poverty. They went without  running water, and had no oven. Savage took the family dinners to be cooked in the Village Oven, part of a long-time community ritual.  He did move from the Heligan Woods into the Village after two years and lived there until his death in 2007.

Savage is known to many as a  literary critic, who wrote The Withered Branch against the Modernist Novel in the 1950s. But in 1938, he was beginning a life of asceticism, piety, pacifism, and poetry.


You hear Auden’s influence  here, but so many poets were that it doesn’t make much sense to criticise them for looking to such a model. And for Savage,  “My central idea is the necessary unity of poetry, religion and politics in integrity. Politics needs to be ethically grounded and pacifism is the ethical ground of political action.”

Julian Symons, you may know, was an acclaimed mystery writer after the war;


Savage, with his roots in the countryside, became the author of  books about farming and living a simple life.



I haven't been able to find a photo of Savage. If you have one, would you send me a copy?



Hands off Rosa Luxemburg



In the summer of 1938, Partisan Review began publishing its fifth volume: it had been a terrible spring, with Hitler’s forced “Anschluss” with Austria; and like our own summer of 2017, there was a growing map of dread reaching across Europe and the USA. Trump’s threats of nuclear war are keeping us up at night, and Hitler’s troops were knocking on doors in the night.

The experiences of 1938 are not only relevant to the present Trumpocracy, but also to the Partisan’s Review own historical horror at the years when Stalin killed off most of the heroes of the October Revolution. They were assassinated in the purges and Soviet principles, eroded over the following decades, were structurally weakened. Volume V includes pieces on the “The Soviet Cinema: 1930 – 1938”; (Dwight Macdonald, issues 2 & 3); Victor Serge’s reflections on “Marxism in our Time (issue 3”; and a piece by Trotsky on “Art and Revolution” (issue 3); and a look back to 1915 in Knoxville by James Agee (issue 3). What else is there to do when you are waiting for the crisis but to think about the way it may have come about…. There is certainly a lot of that going around this summer of 2017.

SO, Volume V, issue 1, begins with a selection of letters by Rosa Luxemburg written from prisons in Leipzig, Wronke, and Breslau between July, 1916 and October, 1918. The letters were written to Sonia Liebknecht, the wife of Luxemburg’s political partner, Karl Liebknecht, with whom she founded the Sparticist League and the German Communist Party.

Rosa_Luxemburg  Sophie_and_Karl_Liebknecht 440px-KLiebknecht  left to right: Rosa Luxemburg, Sonia Leibknecht with husband Karl and children, and Karl Leibknecht.

Partisan Review, remember, in 1938 was seen by the CPUSA as a Trotskyist journal,  and as Mary McCarthy told it,  being a Trotsky supporter during the Moscow Trials and through WWII meant being a traitor to the Party.  So it isn’t surprising that Trotsky and his intellectual and revolutionary comrades are present and accountable in this volume of PR. Victor Serge, a member of the Left Opposition with Trotsky, was expelled in 1929, and went to Paris and then to Mexico,where he died in 1947. We will look at his essay on contemporary Marxism later in this blog.

Trotsky was also a friend to Rosa Luxemburg, and in 1932 he wrote a polemical piece for the Militant, “Hands off Rosa Luxemburg” (August, 1932) in which he made the case for Luxemburg’s revolutionary politics before her death in 1919. In that essay, Trotsky takes us back to the period of discussion and debate between Lenin and Luxembourg, and rescues her from being called a ‘centrist’. As you may know, the German CP was riven within by arguments between and against Kautsky and Bernstein, and Trotsky’s article is, in 1932, to remind the revolutionary reader of Luxemburg’s 1909 statement:

Lenin and Trotsky and their friends were the first, those who went ahead as an example to the proletariat of the world; they are still the only ones up to now who can cry with Hutten, “I have dared!”  [AJ: Ulrich von Hutten was a 16th century German Humanist who campaigned against the Papacy, and whose motto was: “I have dared to do it”] After which, Trotsky ends the article “Yes, Stalin has sufficient cause to hate Rosa Luxemburg. But all the more imperious therefore becomes our duty to shield Rosa’s memory from Stalin’s calumny that has been caught by the hired functionaries of both hemispheres, and to pass on this truly beautiful, heroic, and tragic image to the young generations of the proletariat in all its grandeur and inspirational  force.”

Luxemburg’s letters published by Partisan Review, June, 1938. Assassinated along with Karl Liebknecht almost twenty years earlier by the remnants of the Imperial German Army and militias called the Freikorps — German mercenary militia in existence since the 18th century — after the Sparticist Uprising in Berlin failed, in 1919 — the heavy criticism of Luxemburg from Communists and from the right — and a sense of her’s having been a failure of heroic and tragic dimensions is counterpoised to these letters of intimacy which show us her as a reader, writer, and  enthusiast of everyday life and of human possibility. There is a gauze of nostalgia in Trotsky’s article of 1932, and in this group of letters, translated by a familiar Partisan Review writer, Eleanor Clark.

Jacqueline Rose recently, in Women in Dark Times, presented a view of  Luxemburg as a woman who was constantly pushing past the limits of conventions — even those of revolution itself — makes redundant the distinction between the woman of the letters and the leader of revolutionary theory and action — which sends a message of a distinctively feminist ‘wildness’ that might be marshalled again today in a new wave of feminism. As often happens with such speculation, its very articulation is a stimulant in those ‘dark times’ — the title Hannah Arendt borrowed from Brecht for her generation and that Rose quotes for her book’s title for these dark times.  Rose’s argument is that from the wilder shores of feminism, there is an outrageousness that cannot be controlled.  You can read and admire Rose’s call for revolutionary enthusiasm — but it is difficult to hear her own voice in these parts — a voice which is usually anxious to maintain a rigour with respect to psychoanalysis, feminism, and our own dark times.   But Rose’s essay is a good introduction to learning how to see the personal joy that Luxemburg has, as a gift of imaginative force and that pushes her ideas towards joy as well.

In one of her prison letters, Luxemburg writes to Sonia, “you ask, ‘to what end all this?’ [AJ: the current state of the revolutionary torment they are both experiencing, on a grand scale and in small, almost muted, experiences of daily events and daily routines]. “To what end?” — It is a question that has nothing to do with a conception of the totality of life and its forces. To what end are there titmice in this world? I don’t know. But I rejoice that there are…”  And while her choice of favourite writers and poets may be of some cultural interest, it is her imaginative writing, shaped by reading about the natural world,  and passages of remembering her own sensations in the world, outside of prison, that makes present to us her vitality.  She writes to Sonia from prison in Breslau:

“What I wish for you is real and palpable joys. I would like to communicate to you too my own inexhaustible inner joy, so that I can be at peace thinking of you, and that you may pass through life in a mantle embroidered with stars, that will protect you from all that is mean, trivial, and agonising in experience.”  

It is certain that it is exhilarating to read these letters, and it is fine that Rose helps make that exhilaration available in her discussion. After the letters themselves, Dwight Macdonald contributes what he calls “A NEWSREEL” — (much like DosPassos’s in USA), in which the excerpts from The New York Times aim to walk silently between the violence of Luxemburg’s murder in the news story, and their contempt for Luxemburg and Liebknecht in the ‘editorial’ on the same day:

“Regrettable as is the manner of death, the work of private violence, not the law, that came to Dr. Liebknecht and Rosa  Luxemburg, it was to be expected, and does a summary, if irregular, justice to the fomenters of  robbery, murder, and anarchy. These two leaders, the man violent but weak, the woman a termagant of the familiar revolutionary type, have perished miserably by the sword they drew.”

The collage that Macdonald assembles in his “newsreel” draws an ironic line under the words of Zinoviev, who writes to the  German Communist Party, “Comrades, your struggle is hard. But your victory is sure. After the night comes, inevitably, the morning; and the impotent and infamous regime of the traitorous ‘Social Democracy’ will inevitably give way to the dictatorship of the heroic German proletariat.” But Zinoviev would be one of the first to be tried and executed in the Moscow Trials of August 1936.  (you can read more about the Moscow Trials on this blog — check in archive —

Read  Luxemburg’s letters from prison to Sonia Liebknecht – 

However, for reasons I don’t understand, the website of the archive of PR is out of action today, so I can’t give you the link to the letters as they appear in issue 1 of Vol. V. As soon as the archive is functioning again, I will add it here.


Well, its August

Its August, and like other bloggers and tweeters and scholars and readers —

this week I’vegone fishin

I hope you will check back next Saturday when Reading Partisan Review will be back, with  Partisan Review, Volume 5, No.1. June, 1938.  The issue opens with Rosa Luxemburg’s “Letters from Prison”.   Rosa_Luxemburg

…….but till then…

Here is a photo of people coming into New York Harbour that summer of 1938. Photo-23-PassengersViewNewYorkSkyline-500

“Asleep a King” — Eleanor Clark

“Asleep a King” —


Eleanor Clark, whose elegant and satirical story, “Hurry, Hurry” was published by Partisan Review, Vol. IV, NO. 2 1938, also contributed a story to  Vol. IV, No. 6, May, 1938, “Asleep a King.”  I am reprinting here my blog post about Eleanor Clark , “Hurry Hurry” that I posted on 17 January, 2017. I am hoping you will read or re-read it, to remind you of her earlier story and of her place in the Partisan Review and the Vassar Girl scenes in the 1930s:  Then I go on to write about “Asleep A King.”

Mary McCarthy wasn’t the only Vassar girl from the graduating classes of the early 1930s who got involved with Partisan Review.    You may recall that Philip Rahv married Nathalie Swan —  Some said that Rahv married Swan on the rebound from McCarthy, when she left him for Edmund Wilson. Swan was one of the literary  crowd on the Vassar campus, and became an architect, having spent time studying at the Bauhaus. Later she (or some aspects of her) appeared in the sophisticated lesbian, Lakey, at the end of The Group, returning to New York  from her Europeanisation.  Elizabeth Bishop, another Vassar girl involved in the literary coterie that included McCarthy,  was published by Partisan Review,  and the story “Hurry, Hurry,” that follows  Morris’s “Art  Chronicle” on Arp,  was written by  a witty Vassar Left Intellectual and writer, Eleanor Clark. When McCarthy became part of the posh-girl group that lived in the South Tower on the Vassar Campus, she was also becoming involved with the Clark sisters.

Eleanor and her sister,Eunice, were active in politics at Vassar, before McCarthy had found herself a leftist Trotskyist,  and just about the time that McCarthy first knew of Trotsky, Eleanor had gone with Trotsky’s entourage into exile in Mexico in 1937  after he had been expelled from Norway  in 1936, during the first set of the Moscow show trials. She married Jan Frankel,Trotsky’s secretary, to help confirm his immigration status.

Jan Frankel, at right of photo

The Clark girls had worked together on a ‘rebel’ College magazine,  ‘Con Spirito,’ suggesting both their brio  and their clandestine atmospheric.  In Mccarthy’s The Group, Norine, who may have been modelled on the Clark sisters, says of McCarthy’s South Tower crowd: “You people were the aesthetes. We were the politicals. Your crowd was sterile. But God, I used to envy you. Poise, Social Savy. Looks. We called you the Ivory Tower Group. Aloof from the battle.”  That at least is what McCarthy figured (or hoped) the Clarks might have thought of her.

But years later, Eleanor Clark told the biographer Frances Kiernan: “I didn’t like Mary. I never liked her. My sister Eunice knew her a lot better, and for her pains and I must say in some cases extraordinary generosity, she got kicked in the teeth. In The Group she got pilloried along with everyone else.

I don’t know when Eleanor Clark  wrote the story, “Hurry, Hurry.” But it is a marvellous combination of the absurd and the surreal, written with the wit and metropolitan confidence characteristic  of a Dorothy Parker story in The New Yorker.  

At the same time, it is a fable of the hollowness of bourgeois society — its cultural conformity, pomposity, self importance, and the voice is that of one of the younger generation.  It is a girl’s voice that is both satirical and embarrassed by her complicity in the world of her mother.

The narrative is a sang-froid description of A BEAUTIFUL JUNE DAY’ — the day the narrator’s mother’s house falls down. Thrust immediately into the fact of the fallen house, we learn that the household dog, a French poodle named  ‘de Maupassant,’ hadn’t noticed anything in advance. The mother adores the dog — “SHE LOVED THE ARISTOCRACY OF HIM, THE WAY HE TOSSED HIS LUXURIOUS BLACK MANE….” But the mother had spoiled the poodle:IN THE END HE WAS INCAPABLE OF SERIOUS THOUGHT AND MUST HAVE PLAYED OR SLEPT THROUGH THE ENTIRE CATASTROPHE.”  The falling down house is ignored by the narrator herself. “I WAS NOT INTERESTED. INSTEAD,  “I SPENT THE ENTIRE TIME  — TWO OR THREE HOURS IT MUST HAVE BEEN — UNDER A MAPLE TREE, AND RESCUED NOTHING BUT ONE SILVER-BACKED HAND MIRROR.   As the building falls in this slow motion ruination, neighbours gather on the lawn now strewn with the contents of the house,drink cocktails and offer comments and useless advice.


The narrator’s insouciance becomes even more extreme as her mother becomes more brittlely hysterical. What makes the story work is the way Clark turns the humour of the surrealized fall of the house inside out like a mobius strip as it becomes a scorching scene of human horror. The mother sends a maimed servant, Myrtle,  into the house to bring out a family heirloom, in the course of which impossible task, Myrtle is beaten with wood switches, breaks her back while carrying the monstrous ‘highboy’ she was sent to bring out, while all the neighborhood ladies are shouting, “HURRY UP MYRTLE, HURRY UP, HURRY UP” until she can only be seen between windows as a wall crashes into her — and “SHE FELL WITH HER TORN-OFF WRISTS LIFTED UP IN PRAYER.”  

The poodle makes its way up to the mother’s bedroom, and she cries out to him, “MOPPY! MOPPY!”, MY MOTHER CRIED,  ‘DID YOU THINK YOUR MOTHER HAD FORGOTTEN YOU? OH MOPPY YOU DID!?


I wonder what Dwight McDonald thought about the story — was it too slick for him? Or did it conform too much to his ideas of New Yorker ideology?  Anyone reading this know?

Here is the link to read the story itself on the BU onlinePartisan Review site: p.35ff. click here Hurry Hurry

Eleanor Clark later wrote well- received travel books, one of which won the National Book Award — The Oysters of Locmariaquer (1964),a study of a French community of  Oyster farmers —  and she married the poet Robert Penn Warren. She remained a beautiful and witty woman all her life:

aging-eleanor Eleanor Clark’s later beauty.

So now — ‘Asleep a King’– Clark’s second contribution to PR  is a companionable fiction to Max Brod’s discussion of Franz Kafka. The Brod piece brings European  anxieties and fears into the more stable milieu of Partisan Review; Clark’s story domesticates that disquiet: a working class family somewhere  in America – certainly not in New York – where the mother takes in laundry in order to support her two luckless sons, and a set of futures that won’t pan out. Mrs. Bradley’s frustration and her endless toil on other people’s sheets and pillow cases casts a pale white shadow over all their lives.  One son, David,  was meant to be a musician but gave it up and instead returned home to live, fecklessly, off his mother’s earnings.  The other son, Mark, has been wounded or fallen ill, and has been tended to by an angel of mercy sweet nurse, and they fall in love.

But we understand right from the first paragraph that Mark is in a shadowland himself, and he floats above the facts and duties that constitute his daily life now, a year on from his time in the hospital. He is about to marry his nurse, Joan, who will be the new Mrs. Bradley, superceding Mark’s mother, and the couple will live in a small white house. “He was going to move his life across the road.”  And his being in the pale shadows shuts him out from the colours of spring, of life: “June was too much for him. Everything heaving into flower; girls swinging along the state road hand in hand; women dragging their bright colours out of trunks and rushing somewhere, anywhere, to meet.. . Everyone but Mark, it seemed, had some secret understanding with the month of June.” 

The story feels like it is going down the path of the New Masses, or trailing Dos Passos, with the ennui of the Depression and the mystery of personal identity drowning its central character. Mark is a sleepwalker, and Joan, his nurse-bride is swathed in illusions of married life — she is as detached from what is happening as he is –by way of her focus on this thing about to happen – – this marriage.  She is surrounded by the objects bought to turn the small white house into a place to be alive. Unlike Mark, “She was not tired, had not trouble being alive, had never hidden a pistol in her bureau drawer. She had brought armfuls of packages from Millboro and in sole rapture was pulling their broken paper off, like a child. And when all her toys were hung up around her that would be her house, to live in, as if it could never be torn down.”  

They each have their secrets: his is the crisis of being; her’s is that she is not a virgin. He leaves the house, drives away, and shoots himself. She breaks out of her inarticulacy for a few moments: “Love this is my true self, my arms, my voice. Be silent, listen to my voice, believe in me. This is our own country, here. Here! Reaches his deep-shadowed arms, rising, singing of crickets in the June night, and now blood, look! streams down the sky. We have been betrayed.”

But in the morning she awoke to new sounds, rose and went out from their home, slowly, into the sun.

Its a good story and redolent with the sense of disturbance and anticipation that characterises a lot of the writings in PR in that long year of 1937-1938.

Here is the link so you can read it.:




Kafka / Brod — Vol IV, No.6, May, 1938

Delmore Schwartz: "Philip Rahv thinks that in The Trial it is death itself which is the justice — unfathomable or irrational — which has come for Joseph K." (Diary, 1951).


In the first issue of Partisan Review is a review by F.W. Dupee, of Kafka's The Trial, translated by Willa and Edwin Muir, and published  by the prestigious New York firm of  Alfred A. Knopf in 1937.  And from then on, Kafka became something of a presiding spirit over the imaginary persona of the Partisan Review. Starting with Dupee's  review, between 1937 and 1944,  PR published an essay on Kafka in 1938 by Max Brod, his biographer; between 1939 and 1942, three Kafka short stories; in 1944, "Kafka: A Re-evaluation," by Hannah Arendt; and in 1946, a section from Kafka's diaries.   And there were many more discussions about Kafka through the next four decades of Partisan Review. Arendt looks for what makes Kafka so modern:

"All his admirers …are struck  by something new in his art of story-telling, a quality of modernity which appears nowhere else with the same  intensity and unequivocalness. … " And she goes on to make a case for his simple style as a form of modernism:'Without in any way changing the German Language, he stripped it of its involved constructions until it became clear and simple like everyday speech purified of slang and negligence."

 It was also the case that the  NY Intellectuals wanted their journal to show not only America on the verge of great change, but also a connection to and  yearning for their European connections and origins.  Franz Kafka was Jewish, troubled, and a 'problem' to his father. He died in 1924 at 41 of tuberculosis, with a fairly small oeuvre and a voice that moves between the 'fabulous and the familiar,' as Dupee described it, creating a sense of uncertainty and ambiguity common to both German Expressionism and Modernism.   And what people knew in the late 1930s about Kafka's life and opinions came from his life-long friend, confidant, and executor of his estate, Max Brod.  They met at University when Kafka was 19, and stayed close for the rest of Kafka's life.

Brod introduces the reader to Kafka through the newish technique of psychoanalysis, quoting sections  of a 100 page long “Letter to my Father,” that Kafka told Brod he had sent to his mother to be given to his intimidating father.  Mrs. Kafka returned it, and the apparent guilelessness with which Kafka heaps, almost indifferently, both praise and blame on his father,  shapes the reader's understanding so that we can't help but judge Kafka as a man who is either unbelievably naïve to the point of obliviousness,  or at best intended to be so hostile, that the two would never be able to find a way to a workable father-son relationship. But Brod suggests also Kafka’s self-understanding was more nuanced than Freud’s theories could explain:  "For one thing Franz Kafka was thoroughly familiar with these theories and never regarded them as anything more than a very approximate, rough picture of things. He found that they did not do justice to details or, what is more, to the essence of the conflict."

Like a lot of us, Kafka found his father's parental strength and authority to be both a model and a rebuke. Never good enough, never strong enough, never masculine enough to meet his father's standards (as he arranged them in his head), the letter to his father presents Kafka's fears and hostility in the form of praise, submission, and guilt. Its hard to read and it invites our own rebukes and worse, pity. Brod's own analysis of this is pretty thin:"Must he not have known that between characters so diverse as himself and his father an intimate relationship was simply impossible?"

12403-franz-kafka-max-brod Max Brod and Kafka on the Beach

Brod makes a interesting link between Proust and Kafka,  linking their 'infantilism' to the  family scene. He goes on to list some of their shared qualities: "Their special precision in description, their love of detail, their meticulousness; the obsession of both with the family circle, a similarity of their racial make-up and even in their outwards lives…"  Brod's conclusion is to then match Kafka and Kleist's infantilism.. Kafka, he says, "read Kleist's  letters with special sympathy, underlined passages telling how Kleist's family regarded the poet as 'an utterly useless member of human society, unworthy of further consideration."   Kleist and Kafka,"both describe with the clearest, simplest, most definite words they can possibly find, the most secret, dark and unresolvable things."     

One of the things that attracted PR to European Intellectuals like Chiarmonte and Camus was that those men had been strong active partisans in the struggles against fascism before the United States entered the theatre of war;  but there was also this other intruiging pulse of the wars between two generations of Jewish men in Europe and the USA, between the old Hebraism and the re-styled themes of lostness, alienation, and wandering across the Atlantic, which was almost already a nostalgia for  young jewish intellectuals such as Delmore and Henry, my father, who kept his copies of first American editions of Kafka's works in brown paper  butcher's wrapping over the original covers and held onto them until he died at 93.   As for Jewish daughters and their fathers….well, that's for another day.


Max Brod

Here is the link  to the article:



Thomas Mann, William Phillips, and Man


Mark GreifSome of you may have read or read about Mark Greif’s recent book, The Age of the Crisis of Man (Princeton University Press, 2015). It belongs to what I think of as one of a later generation of New York Intellectuals’s attempts to get the big picture, then give it both a polemical  universalist thrust and a specialist, coterie vocabulary.  In order to do this, though, Greif’s argument has to pass through the theory-years of the later 1960s and 1970s — the years of post-humanism, deconstruction, and those punitive analytical determinisms of Foucauldian genealogy. Greif builds an argument that on the one hand shows that the proliferation of that mid-century question, “What is Man?” was of value only to the extent that it produced thought without conclusions.  And on the other hand, Greif invents a “theoretical” vocabulary to explain the function of  asking questions that elicit no actual answers, but that open up towards as yet uncertain and unknown projects.  I found his book to be just as havering as the books and articles he has read and has declared evasive and not really worth reading.  The study has the air of discovery and excitement about it but it doesn’t explain or aswer anything, except to invent vocabulary to describe books that aren’t really worth their arguments. As Greif writes, “Many of the explicit ‘crisis of man’ books feel empty, frankly. I want to have read them so others don’t have to!”  Scholarly martyrdom is an strange road for an intellectual to take..

Why have I brought up this book here and now?  Mostly because I find its sententious pretentiousness hard to take — a house of cards, say — and I also think it makes a good foil for the piece we are looking at in this post, William Phillips’s discussion essay, “Thomas Mann: Humanism in Exile,”  which was the lead political essay in Partisan Review, Volume IV, No.6, May, 1938. Thomas Mann, 1914 (b/w photo)

Thomas Mann was a liberal anti-fascist hero to his readers and followers, and his experience of exile in California made him an American anti-fascist hero. He had already won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1929, and had written Death in Venice, Buddenbrooks, and The Magic Mountain by the time he went to the USA in 1939, first to teach at Princeton, and then to move to the Pacific Palisades, near to Los Angeles. He and his family moved back to Europe in 1952.

William Phillips, [who featured in this blog’s post of 13 April, 2017] was, you may recall, Philip Rahv’s partner in editing of Partisan Review.  If you read the post on him, you will see that his colleagues felt that though he was lively and clever and witty in conversation, those fluid graces were never brought to the desk, and this essay is interesting less for Phillips’s argument, than for the way he manages what he calls the contemporary “intellectual crisis.”  He begins:

“Let us not be hypnotised by the drum-beats of progress… by the propaganda of hope. We have heard them before, especially on dark days; and they have come from governments and parties that wish to conceal some perfidy. If so many intellectuals have fallen prey to these deceptions, it is out of desperation; it is because they are ready to seize upon any escape from their terrible fears and doubts. These are the symptoms of intellectual crisis.”  Phillips generalises the idea of the intellectual as betrayed by their own traditions and values:[“the intellectual]’s normal condition, today, seems to be that of a liberal, anti-fascist, etc. Yet it is he who in the name of progress suppresses insurgency, in the name of peace clamours for war, in the name of truth condones lies.”  Against this malaise, Phillips announces the intellectual’s ‘vital function in society’: “to safeguard the dreams and discoveries of science and art, and to champion some political movement insofar as it fulfills the requirement of an intellectual. ideal.”   

Phillips quotes from Mann’s polemical manifesto published in 1937, that “an infamous pragmatism has been set up in the heart of Europe today. It refuses to make distinctions between truth and lies; it denies mind and spirit in favour of interest; it unscrupulously commits or condones crimes if they forward it’s interest– or what it conceives to be so; it shrinks not at all from falsification, rather it calls falsification truth, provided it is useful, in its interpretation of the word……”  (hmmmm….sounds like a fair presentation of the Trumpocracy.)

Phillips starts by praising Mann for his Humanism; and argues against the mechanical apparatus of fascist ideology. It is an early version of the contest between humanism and constructivism,  The language of revolution, of polemical politics, says Mann, “is hopelessly discredited and compromised, it is utterly worn out, having served these the years and more to persuade the herd-minded citizen to think of himself as a revolutionary.”  Phillips wants to argue as well that Mann’s Enlightenment values are saturated with the decay of culture and the end of the figure of the Artist as Saviour.  Phillips tries to write carefully about Mann’s universalist Christianity as if it were a politics and not a slogan of  the Fascist Crusade.

Having given credit, he then argues that Mann is forced to posit the decay of Artist and culture as a function of  his refusal to understand that ‘Science’ is what modernity offers us, and with science comes both knowledge and truth. Central to this is the project of Scientific Socialism, Phillips’ answer to the ‘crisis of the intellectual.’  “The Imagination of modern art bursts through the world-culture of Einstein and Freud and teems with the multitude of ideas and events that fill our days. We dream of socialism, but we do not come empty-handed to the threshold of a new world. We come with the riches of science.”  

So, his discussion becomes one in which Mann is the exemplary self-deluding voice of the intellectuals of the bourgeoisie. For Phillips, Mann’s anti-fascism becomes a way of not facing the struggle for Socialism.  There is a kind of over-heated enthusiasm in Phillips’ dream of Science that can’t really carry the drive of Phillips’s desire. William Phillips

The obituary writer for the New York Times wrote of Phillips: “As an occasional writer for the magazine, Mr. Phillips was overshadowed by his contributors. He was so able to see a question’s many sides that he found it difficult to chisel a tidy position”.

I think maybe Mark Greif could do something with this.

read the piece:






Delmore Schwartz, “The Statues,”and a few others.

Delmore Schwartz, who remains the patron poet maudit, and who has served as the 20th and 21st century (so far) accursed poet of mind and heart of the New York Jewish Intellectuals, began his career as the witty, lyrical, and astonishing new talent of Partisan Review’s Vol 4, No.1’s own new character and agenda in December, 1937.  His story, “In dreams begin responsibilities” his first publication with PR, was the first piece in the issue: its combination of avant-garde form, psychoanalytic content, movie technics, and the 1930s  Jewish-generation-gap was a brilliant beginning for the man who ended up as the mourned-for “Delmore”, who all lovers of, and writers about, call by his first name, as if he truly stands beside us. John Ashbery called him “Delmore, as everyone called him, including those who didn’t know him.”  Elizabeth Hardwick, after Delmore’s death wrote that ”Delmore, ”as it was natural to everyone, acquainted or not, to call him because of his own delight in the pretty challenge of his first name,” softened his own shame at his being called such an aspirational name, decided on by his mother, aspiring, it seemed, to the condition of a restaurant. Delmore young (see this blog’s post, Oct 16, 2016 for more on Delmore’s ‘In dreams begin responsibilities’). Saul Bellow, John Berryman, Lou Reed, made him a ‘poet’s poet’ as well, a voice who is generalised as the sound of a poetic world not known before.

In his second publication for PR Volume 4, No.2, January, 1938, Delmore offered a subtle poem, “The Ballad of the Children of the Czar”, (see this blog’s post for more on ‘the Children of the Czar” and John Berryman’s ‘The Ball Poem.’ December 31, 2016). In Volume 4, No.3, in a collective ‘Little Anthology,’ Delmore contributes ‘Someone, is harshly coughing as before,” a poem anticipating war, which has Audenesque and Yeatsian echoes in it, and he reviews Wallace Stevens’s The Man with the Blue Guitar, and Other Poems and shows himself as a serious critical reader of his contemporaries’ work. (see this blog’s post on 25 March, 2017 for more discussion of Delmore’s review of Stevens– and some other remarks.)

And here in Volume IV, No. 6,  May, 1938, PR publishes Delmore’s,  “The Statues,” a fable that combines comedy and poignancy with a dash of Lucretian physics.  He dedicated the story to Meyer Schapiro, who would become a long-standing friend. I haven’t been able to learn from any of the usual suspects – either human or written – what in particular might have inspired this dedication, but it is certain that the two had been good friends and when Schwartz died, Meyer Schapiro wrote an elegy for him, published in The New York Review of Books,  September 8, 1966. Many critics and admirers of Schwartz cite the final quatrain of the poem as capturing the doubleness of Delmore’s  poetic range. Here is Schapiro’s poem:

meyer-schapiro-1930s Meyer Schapiro


“He lived in torment with imagined threats,
Spinning a thread of hostile signs,
Brooding on friends as secret enemies
And seeking among indifferent minds a friend.

Silenced was Delmore’s joyous wit,
His bright good sense and irony
Recounting the folly of worldliness
And the blind ways of ambition and success.

He who was restless without company
Has died in naked loneliness,
Convulsed in a dark corridor outside his door
Where crumpled papers crowd the floor.

He knew himself as fated to despair
And traced from birth a black destiny.
His name, his people, his sad time
Composed the burden of his poetry.

It has the beauty of his honest thought,
Of gravest musings on the human state,
On thwarted dreams and forced deformities
And ever-resurgent hopes of light”.

It was those  ‘ever-resurgent hopes of light’ that provided Delmore’s readers with reasons to love him, and to love his ideas about poetry.  Like Trilling, Schapiro was grounded in his life as an academic and is still thought of as one of the most brilliant scholars in Art History. It makes sense to me that Meyer may have been thinking of “The Statues” when he wrote this elegy, because the poetic-story is a proto-magical realist evocation of how the imagination can turn whatever it perceives into harbingers of an altered world of light.

The story takes place on a December day in New York City, as the ‘Faber’ –maker- Gottschalk the dentist is walking to work, work he hates because of the intimacy it requires with the insides of a patient’s mouth. he inoculates himself each morning with  a whiskey and soda — he is a nebish of New York. Jewish, sad, becoming leaden in his life. A sudden and random thick snowstorm overnight has created a sublime — frightening and beautiful at once — landscape in which the flakes, like Lucretius’s concilia of atoms, fall into shapes that lend themselves to the eye as “curious and unmistakable designs.”

The narrator, “a reporter on one of the Metropolitan newspapers,” is told to go out and create comic human interest stories among the astounded pedestrians.”Very soon, however, I found there was nothing whimsical or comical about the attitudes of the populace, but that they were, on the contrary, seriously moved. And that was by going about and interviewing people in this way that I met Faber Gottschalk.

The whole city is touched and moved by this fantasy world of snow shapes, and when the Mayor says he will immediately call for the snow to be removed, this promise…”provided the first instance of the unanimity and intensity of feeling of the whole city toward the statues”.    They protest, but “Faber Gottschalk went further; he attempted to visit the Mayor at City Hall, astonished at himself, unable to understand his passionate concern about the snow’s statues, but determined to do nothing all day but walk about and regard them, cancelling all his appointments in order to do so.”

Gottshalk goes home and listens to the radio, still amazed by his feelings for these snow statues. He thinks back over his life and recalls how he really wanted to be a major league baseball player.  It had been his uncle who had “pointed out to him that as a dentist he would have a modest income and would be able to attend the various sports which absorbed his attention throughout the year. His uncle had been right.  . . . Faber Gottschalk was not able to explain to himself by this examination of his past life the reason for his emotion about the statues.”

The next week the population is oddly changed by the statues; police stop harassing picket lines; people become more focussed and precise; but everyone pauses and looks at the shapes. Not that they were all beautiful.  But in places, “The shapes had the plumpness and rotundity of great white clouds, the solidity and stillness of fine buildings, or indeed of a snow crystal.”

Read the rest of the story — there are some twists in it —  but its deep Lucretian grounding is unmistakeable, as the Mathematician suggests, as you will read.

Paste link below into your browser to get the feeling-meanings of this fable. I am surprised it hasn’t been reprinted more often.

Throughout Delmore’s work, the possibilities of light and some kind of pure cold — not the austere sublime of mountains but the welcoming one of snowflakes, keep appearing… the “heavy bear” is answered by the “Ease, warm, light, the utter showing,/When in the white bed all things are made,”  Here is another one: