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.

Gertrude Stein: The Autobiography of Rose, PR, Vol 6, No. 2

This week we have Gertrude Stein’s short piece, “The Autobiography of Rose”, and whoever it was who chose to put it right after Trilling’s  consideration of Hemingway, made a smart decision, for as Adam Gopnik succinctly wrote in a New Yorker article from  (24 June, 2013),

It isn’t the least of Stein’s virtues, or importance, that Hemingway was in many ways the popularizer of a style that she had invented. One could even say, to borrow Picasso’s famous disparaging remark about his imitators, that Stein did it first and Hemingway did it pretty. But, prettified or not, Hemingway’s style was the most influential in American prose for more than fifty years, and this makes Stein’s style less an outcropping than a bedrock of modern American writing.”  

But as for me, alas, I don’t like Gertrude Stein, and I didn’t like her even more when I read the book about her relationship of accommodation with the Vichy government, as retold by Janet Malcolm in Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice…it is a good read, if you want to read about them instead of reading Stein herself.

SO here is the text from Partisan Review: `You should be able to vary the size of the page on your computer..




SO…you can see how many of the marks of Modernism and post-modernism were invented here.  Gopnik notices:  “All marked styles—and any style that isn’t marked isn’t a style; what we call a “mannered” style is simply a marked style on a bad morning—hold their authors hostage just a bit. Stein’s style makes subtle thoughts sound flat and straightforward, and it also lets straightforward, flat thoughts sound subtle. Above all, its lack of the ordinary half-tints and protective shadings of adjectives and semicolons—the Jamesian fog of implication—lends itself to generalizations, sometimes profound, often idiosyncratic, always startling. It is the most deliberately naïve style in which any good writer has ever worked, and it is also the most “faux-naïf,” the most willed instance of simplicity rising from someone in no way simple.  

What differentiates this kind of writing from someone like Hemingway, I would say, is that, whatever you think of Trilling’s critique of him, Stein’s repetitions and possible permutations through the power of absent punctuation sounds like the disease of  intentional echolalia: to drain sentences of meaning altogether. In this way, its intention is the opposite of the estrangement/ Verfremdungseffekt. Instead of asking the audience to refuse to identify with the action of a play in order to make viewers process it intellectually, Stein’s style of writing evacuates its sentences of their referentiality in a world of concepts and idea and reduces it to the almost meaningless echolalia of children.

Unknown-5  Gertrude Stein by Pablo Picasso

Next week: William Gruen begins to answer the question, “What is logical empiricism”?

Lionel Trilling on Hemingway the Man and Hemingway the Artist.


Lionel Trilling

Lionel Trilling (1905-1975) was one of the contributors to Partisan Review who maintained his reputation as a brilliant critic and teacher throughout his life.  But he was also often suspected of being too stylish, elegant, and at ease in the world to be a true radical. And he wasn’t a radical in the sense of a poet maudit and writer like Delmore Schwartz or a maverick polemicist like Dwight McDonald.  He was cautious and somewhat aloof from the more tendentious positions and persons of the PR group. William Barrett, in his memoir of the Partisan Review clan, praises Lionel Trilling for his elegance of manners, of writing, and of demeanour.  But he also suggests that Trilling may have been the first of the PR writers to move towards a developing conservative strand in American intellectual life.

And he was a life-time Columbia academic.  Many of his colleagues and friends were Columbia graduates, and some had shorter term academic jobs at a number of prestigious universities, but Trilling was the model of a Modernist New York Intellectual Professor.  He was always an anti-Stalinist, and continued as Liberal Leftist during the Cold War, and afterwards, when his very influential book, The Liberal Imagination was taken as a medicine to help the dilemma of middle-class liberal indecision about the Cold War itself.

Hemingway the Artist

Hemingway the artistIn his essay on Hemingway, Trilling makes a political argument into an aesthetic one by differentiating between Hemingway ‘the artist’ and Hemingway ‘the man’, suggesting that the early Hemingway’s work was of high literary value, while his later works, contradictory in their focus on the “man” as the bearer of socialist politics, now have gravitated towards a ‘liberalism’ of ‘good behaviour.’

Hemingway the  Man.

Hemingway the man.

Trilling begins with two recent works by Hemingway: The Fifth Column and  The First Forty-Nine Stories:  “Hemingway the ‘artist’ is conscious; Hemingway the ‘man’ is self-conscious; the ‘artist’ has a kind of innocence; the ‘man’ a kind of naivety; the ‘artist’ is disinterested; the ‘man’ has a dull personal axe to grind; the ‘artist’ has a perfect medium, and tells the truth even if it is only his truth. But the ‘man’ fumbles at communication and falsifies.” He goes on, “Insofar as we can ever blame a critical tradition for a writer’s failures, we must, I believe, blame American criticism for the illegitimate emergence of Hemingway the  ‘man’ and the resulting inferiority of his two recent major works.”

Hemingway was greeted with two competing interpretations: on one side, he was thought of as a brilliant new style maker in fiction, on the other, that he was a writer of   “cruelty, religion, anti-intellectualism,” and these reactions in turn had a strong impact on Hemingway’s ideas about what kind of writer he wanted to be:“For upon Hemingway were turned all the fine social feelings of the now passing decade, all the noble sentiments, all the desperate optimism, all the extreme rationalism, all the contempt of irony and indirection– all the attitudes which, in the full tide of the liberal-radical movement, became dominant in our thought about literature.” 

So half the audience adored and imitated him, and the other half reviled him as a border-Nazi. But a third other idea was that he attacked ‘good human values.’ He tried to put in the ‘correct social feelings.’ in the ‘required social way.’   So he brought in Hemingway ‘the Man.’ Trilling cites Edmund Wilson’s argument  that Hemingway’s “ideas about life or rather, his sense of what happens and the way it happens, is in his stories sunk deep below the surface and is not conveyed by arguments or preaching but by directly transmitted emotion it is turned into something hard as crystal and as disturbing as a great lyric. When he expounds his sense of life, however, in his character of Ernest Hemingway, the Old Master of Key West, he has a way of sounding silly.”

At this point, Trilling slides into his political point about Hemingway’s deterioration: “If , however, Hemingway ‘in his own character,’ were apparent to the practitioners of this  critical tradition, they did not want Hemingway’s virtues – the something ‘hard’ and ‘disturbing.’ Indeed they were in a critical tradition that did not want artists at all–it wanted ‘men,’ recruits, and its apologists were delighted to enlist Hemingway in his own character, with all his confusions and naivety, simply because Hemingway had now declared himself on the right side.”

In that way critics on the left could forgive the ‘silliness’ or immaturity of the Hemingway ‘man’ writings, because that was the mark of their political commitment: of showing that Hemingway was “on the right side.”

“For what should have always been obvious is that Hemingway is a writer who, when he writes as an ‘artist,’ is passionately and aggressively concerned with truth and even with social truth.”

Trilling moves to the politics of America in and after  WWI: Trilling approves of Hemingway’s claim that the strength of  American prose originated in Huckleberry Finn’s trip down the Mississippi; Trilling adds to the horror of death and destruction:

“TO the sensitive men who went to war, it was not, perhaps death and destruction that made the disorganising shock. It was perhaps rather that death and destruction went on at the instance and to the accompaniment of the fine grave words, of which Woodrow Wilson’s were the finest and gravest: Here was the issue of liberal theory; here in the bloated or piecemeal corpse was the outcome of the words of humanitarianism and of ideals… Words were trundled smoothly o’er the tongue — Coleridge had said it long ago:

“Like mere abstractions, empty sounds to which/ We join no feeling and attach no form/ As if the soldier died without a wound. . ./Passed off to heaven, translated and not killed”.
SO it is, Trillling argues, against that language of complacent Liberalism that Hemingway’s search for the truth must be placed.

Trilling then adds a third category to ‘artist,’and ‘man’; contemporary politics. While arguing that the ‘artist’ seeks truth, he implies that Stalinist Popular Frontism and American Liberalism obfuscate the actuality of revolutionary possibility woven into the best works of the ‘artist.’  So, while elevating the ‘artist,’ Trilling also elevates the work of the artist by finding in it the contemporary questions and in places, possible answers to political as well as artistic problems.

Trilling never did become one of the Partisan Review writers who slid into conservatism over the years. He remained an anti-Stalinist Socialist throughout his life.

To read the whole of the essay, cut and paste the link below.

NEXT WEEK; Gertrude Stein






Allen Tate and his modern eclogue, Vol. 6,No.2. Winter

Tate Portrait-5

The next piece in this Winter, 1939 volume of Partisan Review is a poem in the form of an eclogue by the American poet, Allen Tate.  You might begin with the idea of an eclogue:it is a kind of pastoral poem, set in the countryside, and in the form of a dialogue between two shepherds –understood to be pastoral poets– as well as being rural farmers. Virgil invented the form, and it is associated with philosophical reflection in a place out of the way of the worldly concerns of politics and money and war.  Tate was a member of a group of writers who called themselves the “Southern Agrarians,” who were a group of twelve American writers, poets, essayists, and novelists, all with roots in the Southern United States and who united to write a pro–Southern pastoral manifesto, published as the essay collection I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition (1930).I’ll Take My Stand was attacked at the time, and since, as a reactionary and romanticized defense of the Old South and the lost cause of the Confederacy.  So, I am asking myself, why is Tate being published in Partisan Review?!?! 

The answer, I suppose is that Modernism and Socialism crossed paths and shared ideas along the way to WWII.  The religiosity, the conservatism, and the racism of the Agrarians ran alongside Modernism and its advocates.  Certainly T.S. Eliot’s and Pound’s Modernisms can be considered congenial companions to Tate’s poetic voice. But the reasons may be more haphazard, having to do with connections made in the period when Tate was living in New York in the 1920s,  or through Tate’s work at The Nation.  

Frankly, I don’t understand the poem…. and I wholeheartedly invite readers to tell me what you think is going on in it, how it might have found a place in Partisan Review, and what its intention is beyond the sardonic critique of the Modern by one of its practitioners….

Thank goodness we have Hemingway and Trilling next week. See you then!


Eclogue Of The Liberal And The  Liberal Poet – 

In that place, shepherd, all the men are dead.

Yes, look at the water grim and black
Where immense Europa rears her head,
Her face pinched and her breasts slack.

I said, shepherd, all the men are dead.

Shall I turn to the road that goes America?
Is that a place for men to be dead
Or living? If you don’t mind being asked.

Try it and see. It’s a pretty good way
To skim three thousand miles in a day
And none of them America.

But what about her face and the tasked
Wonders of her air and soil, her big belly
That Putnam writes about under the sun?

I don’t know Put, I don’t know his Nelly-
To name her that if she’d name it fun
But you know she hasn’t any name,
Nowhere you touch her she’s the same,

What, shepherd, are we talking about?

You started it, shepherd.

Shepherd, I didn’t.

You did; you saw the poetical face of Europe.

You said it was no place for men to be.

I meant seawater; you thought I meant hope.

Hell, I reckon you think I am a dope.

I didn’t say that; I said there was no place.

If not in a place, where are the People weeping?

They creep weeping in the lace, not place.

Is it something with which we may cope-
The weeping, the creeping, the peepee-ing, the

Hanging is something which I will do with this

Alas, for us who peep, weeping.
Alas, for us you see but little hope.

Alas, I didn’t say that; you rhymed hope with rope.
I meant I was going to hang us both for creeping.

Afterwards they could process us into soap;
Afterwards they would rhyme soap with hope.

What a cheerful rhyme! Clean not mean!
Been not seenNot tired expired!
We must now decide about place.
We decide that place is the big weeping face
And the other abstract lace of the race.

Shepherd, what are we talking about?

Oh, why, shepherd, are we stalking about?



Andre Gide: “Pages from a Journal,” Volume 6, No. 2, 1939.


Unknown-4And far from Florida, the next piece in Partisan Review, Vol.6, No. 2, Winter 1939 are a few pages from André Gide’s Journal, which are reflective, analytical, in places lyrical, yet overall, somewhat anodyne. An earlier post on this blog, “But we shall not turn our face from you, O glorious and grieving Russia”, posted on December 17, 2016 gives an overview of Gide’s life, work,and politics, and might serve as an introduction to the present article if you don’t know much about him.

We know that the American critic, Fred Jameson, asked the question, “Why doesn’t anyone read Gide anymore?”, and that in 1965, twenty years before Jameson, so did Paul de Man, in a review of new books on Gide in the New York Review of Books:

It has almost become a commonplace of today’s criticism to state that André Gide’s work had begun to fade away even before the author’s death in 1951. Compared to Proust, to Valéry, to Claudel, and, outside France, to Henry James, Joyce, and Thomas Mann, he seems hardly to be part of the contemporary literary consciousness. An easy contrast can be drawn between the relative indifference that now surrounds his work and the passionate intensity with which the generation of Europeans born before 1920 used to follow his every word, considering his private opinions a matter of general concern. During the Thirties, he was without doubt the most public literary figure in France, much more so than Malraux, Camus, and Sartre, for all their overt political activity, ever were.”  

The same things might be said again in 2018; that Gide, though a prolific writer, a Nobel Prize winner, a man who wrote openly about his sexual life, and a writer who took politics seriously, if not quite coherently, has slipped away from the canon of modernism. One obvious reason for this is that as a life long intellectual he was always in dialogue with the ideas around him, and always reflecting on their interconnections, and therefore chameleon-like in his preferences. The “Pages from a Journal,” published in PR after a summer and autumn of advancing Nazism, anti-Semitism, and, in the Soviet Union, political trials and executions, are a compendium of things Gide was thinking about at that time.

He opens with the reflection that “Early in life I put myself on guard against beliefs I owed to habits encouraged by my parents, to my protestant upbringing,  and even to my country”. He says that it took him a long time to understand that his concerns were born from his position in class society. He sees that his sympathy for the poor and the labouring classes arose only because he was bourgeois: that is, of his ‘critical survey’ of the world around him, “I knew well enough that had I been less privileged I could not have taken it”.  And for that reason, he could see that the revolutionary ideas come from the privileged classes, and are then taken up by the working class and its allies.

Having been compared to Rousseau,  Gide now writes that Rousseau’s idea that “men are naturally good’ is absolutely wrong.  “This utopian view of the past dangerously falsifies every project, every prediction of the future.”  So he counterpoises to it the Marxist concept of  humanity as always being in the process of becoming… there isn’t an a priori, idealist ‘goodness’ in us; rather, everything is made, toiled towards, going on. Natural law may exist and that law may be immutable; but “there is nothing that man creates, there is nothing human which cannot be changed — beginning (or rather, ending) with itself.”

From this Marxist concept, Gide goes on to look at Lenin’s statement, in his unfinished The State and Revolution that “Until now, there has not been a single revolution which, everything considered has not resulted in the strengthening of administrative machinery of the State. And what is the USSR today? The dreaded bureaucracy, the administrative machinery has never been stronger.

Just as Gide pitted himself against the bourgeois mores and concepts of his parents, now he  frees himself from the degenerated Stalinist State, returning to a place not that different from Thomas Mann’s.  Free from his Marxist discipline over three years, Gide learns that his freedom is the richer for those years.

The rest of the pages are romantic, somber, suffused with his sense of aging. He was 70 when this was published and he speaks frankly of his physical frailties. These pages are moving to read, and they offer a reason  why no one reads Gide anymore.  He writes his funerary speech himself. He faces his desire to mix heaven and hell and find a reconciliation, but insists it can’t be done.

images-3To read the full text, copy and paste the address below into your search engine.

Volume 6, No.2 Winter 1939. Elizabeth Bishop, “Florida”

It is something of a shock to move from Harold Rosenberg’s polemical voice in his discussion of Thomas Mann to the poem by Elizabeth Bishop, who we have looked at before in her life as a Vassar Girl and a short fiction writer, and as a poet. I have been immersed in the atmospherics of 1938-39,  when it seems as if everything written the adumbrates the “ancestral voices prophesying WAR.”  And the terrain of Bishop’s “Florida” resonates with that year as well.  I came across a blog that seems to have run aground late in 2015, but the post I read there about “Florida” is a fine example of how the anxieties of the past can pale in the company of our own terrible landscape of the Trumpocracy and the Refusal of the reality of the Anthropecene’s damages to the worlds we live in,  The author, Joyelle McSweeney, names the genre into which Bishop’s poem fits as the ‘necro-pastoral.”
 She writes:

“I first wrote about  the Necropastoral in January of 2011. The Necropastoral is a political-aesthetic zone in which the fact of mankind’s depredations cannot be separated from an experience of “nature” which is poisoned, mutated, aberrant, spectacular, full of ill effects and affects. The Necropastoral is a non-rational zone, anachronistic, it often looks backwards and does not subscribe to Cartesian coordinates or Enlightenment notions of rationality and linearity, cause and effect.  It does not subscribe to humanism but is interested in non-human modalities, like those of bugs, viruses, weeds and mold. Marosa di Giorgio: “Esa loca azucena nos va a asesinar.” The definitive processes of the Necropastoral are decay, vagueness, interembodiment, fluidity, seepage,  inflammation, supersaturation.  The Necropastoral is literally subterannean, Hadean, Arcadian in the sense that Death lives there. The Necropastoral  is not an “alternative” version of reality but it is a place where the farcical and outrageous horrors of Anthopocenic are made visible as Death.”

Of “Florida” she writes: “Florida is also, according to  Elizabeth Bishop, the state with the prettiest name. While prettiness is associated with weakness, it is also a weapon: this is the ambivalence of the necropastoral. For Bishop, the prettiness of Florida is completely toxic, undead, ex-terminus, grown through with mangrove roots like corpse fingernails, flown over by condors and other flesh eaters. Debt, death and extermination flourish in this flowery state, exposing its necropastoral force”

“Florida” – Poem by Elizabeth Bishop

The state with the prettiest name,
the state that floats in brackish water,
held together by mangrave roots
that bear while living oysters in clusters,
and when dead strew white swamps with skeletons,
dotted as if bombarded, with green hummocks
like ancient cannon-balls sprouting grass.
The state full of long S-shaped birds, blue and white,
and unseen hysterical birds who rush up the scale
every time in a tantrum.
Tanagers embarrassed by their flashiness,
and pelicans whose delight it is to clown;
who coast for fun on the strong tidal currents
in and out among the mangrove islands
and stand on the sand-bars drying their damp gold wings
on sun-lit evenings.
Enormous turtles, helpless and mild,
die and leave their barnacled shells on the beaches,
and their large white skulls with round eye-sockets
twice the size of a man’s.
The palm trees clatter in the stiff breeze
like the bills of the pelicans. The tropical rain comes down
to freshen the tide-looped strings of fading shells:
Job’s Tear, the Chinese Alphabet, the scarce Junonia,
parti-colored pectins and Ladies’ Ears,
arranged as on a gray rag of rotted calico,
the buried Indian Princess’s skirt;
with these the monotonous, endless, sagging coast-line
is delicately ornamented.

Thirty or more buzzards are drifting down, down, down,
over something they have spotted in the swamp,
in circles like stirred-up flakes of sediment
sinking through water.
Smoke from woods-fires filters fine blue solvents.
On stumps and dead trees the charring is like black velvet.
The mosquitoes
go hunting to the tune of their ferocious obbligatos.
After dark, the fireflies map the heavens in the marsh
until the moon rises.
Cold white, not bright, the moonlight is coarse-meshed,
and the careless, corrupt state is all black specks
too far apart, and ugly whites; the poorest
post-card of itself.
After dark, the pools seem to have slipped away.
The alligator, who has five distinct calls:
friendliness, love, mating, war, and a warning–
whimpers and speaks in the throat of the Indian Princess.rats

Rosenberg on Thomas Mann, pt 2.

Having established William Troy’s mistake in his discussion of myth in Thomas Mann’s works,   Rosenberg goes on to explain one solution to the split between the living and the inert; a method of making them cooperate through the rationality of analogy:

“A method that would, from the point of view of human experience, the likeness of things far removed from one another seems more important than the colourless and quality-less laws of which science boasts.”  Their reconciliation in a form ‘mythic’ raises the concrete example to the level of a ‘higher unity,’ Rosenberg still retaining the abstraction  of the Hegelian dialectic.

He goes on to imagine how someone like Mann or Spengler would address the conundrum, “Why do Science and Life remain firmly opposed”  and he replies, as if from the men themselves, because in “the actual world, things tend to define themselves as either mechanical or living. The philosophic artist of the analogical method wins at something more than either emotional expression or formal construction, mere data or mere Idea. In theory, his rhetoric combines the transient beauty of organic life with the static perfection of reason  and the formal tradition. In this way, it gives rise to a new beauty and a new truth inexplicable in the old terms.

Music,rhythm, repetition becomes a major element, a metaphysical element, since rhetorical beat must serve as the binder of the antitheses, as the equivalent mysterious pace of change and recurrence in the real world.”

This sounds as if it comes from T.S. Eliot’s idea that poetic experience can be transmitted through the canonised language of the tradition of lyric poetry, to educated readers, while the tentacular roots of beat and repetition are available to everyone as inarticulate emotions.

Rosenberg goes on to describe the work of art as the “aufhebung” — the synthesis — of creative actions, and Thomas Mann elevates the Artist to the highest form of humanity: “Always I have seen in art the pattern of the human; in the life of the Artist, human life raised to its highest power; humanity, as it were, in itself, and in its very essence.”

And so it happens that the novels of Gide, Mann, Joyce, Proust, promote and endorse this version of the human, this portrait of the artist.

The result of this explanation of the process of uniting the rational and irrational is now turned upside down by Rosenberg, with this critique:

rosenberg2Such, in most general outline, is the origin, part literary and part metaphysical, of the specific “world of Art” from which Mann draws his idea of higher measure and value. As a perspective, it shares the shakiness and intermittence of all forms of poetical metaphorical insight, which at times lights up relations and at other times obscures them. Insofar as it sets itself up, however, as a metaphysic of absolutes to replace science, art can function only as a source of mystification, by insisting on a portion of unreason in every idea.”

Now the discussion moves outwards to the general state of fear and emptiness in the world around them all: “Among the most powerfully recurring insights in the past hundred years is that which finds modern society to be in essential respects a vast lifeless mechanism, a fetishistic and inhuman engine of ‘men behaving like things.’ Caught in a vault of iron relations, which contract about him or relax according to laws of their own, the modern individual has been recognised as lost and alienated,  a stranger to the world and to himself. The objective and psychological antithesis between individual and society is a fundamental fact of modern culture.” 

The sense of ‘science’ as life-oppressing and mechanical “is a major platitude of our time. And the analogical technique in elaborating its symbol-language discovers in medicine and physiology a rich warehouse of death masks and infernal stageprops. Cocteau, for example, creates in his Orphee, meticulous vaudeville with arrangements of surgical implements, messengers from the grave, sex, The Artist, and other items of the new-myth paraphernalia. 

Now Rosenberg turns to Marxism, and its dialectical distance from Mann:”The spiritual predicament of modern man is conceived by historical materialist thought as belonging to a definite stage of man’s struggle with nature; from this view science is an indispensable instrument of the human, the weapon of its knowledge and consciousness of the world.”

Thomas Mann, on the contrary, presents the ‘spiritual dilemma’ of present day man as an eternal situation:  “Having fixed the identity of society, discipline, science, and death, Mann’s method creates a perspective of poor absolutes in which all the data of modern man’s existence reproduce themselves in the tableau of an eternal destiny….”

There is more to the Rosenberg argument, which condemns both Troy and Mann. If you are up for reading his detailed discussions of Mann’s works, go to  And then pick up the  thread on page 25/6 

Back to the Trouble with Thomas Mann- Harold Rosenberg on Myth and History.

Part I. vol.6, No. 2 Winter, 1939.


Harold Rosenberg is credited with inventing the term “action painting” in 1952 to describe a central strand of abstract expressionist painting from the late 1940s through the 1960s. He was an advocate of the work of Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and others, and this painting above was made by the artist, Elaine de Kooning, Willem’s wife and an active member of the “New York School” of art. Among art critics and practitioners he is also known for a protracted debate with Clement Greenberg about the meaning of modern art within progressive theories of art.

Rosenberg was born in 1906 and went to the City College of New York. He did a law degree but moved to writing soon after. He wasn’t in the CPUSA and though he wrote for the New Masses  and the earlier Partisan Review — when it ran under the auspices of the CPUSA through the John Reed Clubs — Rosenberg moved to the left with the anti-Stalinist Marxists.  After WWII, he lost much of his interest in revolutionary politics, and it is his writing in the 1940s and 1950s that secured his place as a central interpreter and writer of Abstract Expressionism. He later became the much admired art critic for the New Yorker

For those of you who have been following this blog, you will know that Thomas Mann served as a touchstone for thinking and writing about the differences between liberalism and revolutionary socialism. There are a number of essays about Mann in the 1938-1939 issues of Partisan Review. {See blog posts: July 13, 2017; October 14, 2017, November 4, 2017, February 17, 2018 }. The topics engaged by William Phillips, William Troy, James Burnham, were, in addition to the liberalism/revolutionary socialism debate, myth versus reality and science versus art (and its dark sibling, irrationalism).

There is no doubt that Rosenberg was a talented thinker and a keen theorist of cultural practices. In 1940, when Dwight MacDonald, was thinking of leaving Partisan Review and starting a new journal (in fact he stayed on as editor of PR until 1943), he described one potential new partner in the enterprise this way:

“Also, there is Rosenberg, whom even Rhav admits would be an excellent addition as an editor, –he’s extremely brilliant, with original and often profound ideas of his own. Again he is given to positive ideas and wants to try things,do something. And like Clem [Clement Greenberg] , he can write and work hard.” 

In his essay on Mann, Rosenberg has shaped and organised the partial claims and arguments of the earlier essayists in the clump of Mann discussions.  It is clear and logical, and though in places I found it wavering in front of what Coleridge called “my swimming eyes,” that is, soporific, I think it more or less gives an impressive mastery of the issues floating, and sometimes, drowning, in the earlier essays.

Harold Rosenberg, sketch by Saul Steinberg, Amagansett, 1962



Rosenberg begins this, the first polemical article of the volume, by counterpoising Thomas Mann’s ‘sentiment of artistic culture to political utilitarianism.’: “Asserting that culture is menaced by its own action and affirmation.”   Rosenberg sees Mann’s arguments against revolution as being based in communism’s rejection of the individual, while his comfort within liberalism is a result of the importance of the individual to a cultural renaissance. Mann, Rosenberg goes on, sees in art and culture a way of conserving and changing in society.  But this was ‘perverted’ by the Nazis: “The outworn and decadent have been preserved through terror. Politics subjected everything to itself and trampled underfoot and the free human spirit, opposing itself, too, to Christianity upon which, Mann insists, all Western values are based.” Mann’s ideas about this link between socialism and religion, opens a space in which much criticism of Mann by the revolutionary left will increase.

Rosenberg then describes the three principles of Mann’s position:

  1. “That the mass dissemination of revolutionary ideas, regardless of their truth of falsehood, constitutes a ‘lying propaganda’ which must lead to the destruction of industry and individual development.”
  2. “That defeat of the Nazis will be the result of a cultural act of conservation, restoring social equilibrium through the revival of Christianity and individual metaphysics….”
  3. “That the socialist order will be attained through culture itself without the aid of, and even in conflict with, Marxism and the materialist analysis of history”.

From the first principle, we find Mann’s position that revolutionary culture is usually reducible to mass propaganda, as the force within communism that denigrates both individual creation and labour.  The defeat of the Nazis, mobius-twisted, will become the reconstitution of the principle of ‘conservation,’ those traditions through which Christianity and philosophical reflection prosper. And finally that it will put Marxism in the shade.

So, turning for a moment to William Troy’s essay about Mann’s use of Myth. [see this blog, October 14, 2017 “What are we to do about Thomas Mann?”], Rosenberg argues that Troy has missed the point about the materials of Mann’s myth-making, and “It is not in his eternal truths that Mann is a master mythologist, not in his access to a level above time and change,  but in his artistic building with the materials of contemporary belief.”

This engages with the on-going debate within the pages of Partisan Review about the meaning of science in relation to Marxist analysis.  Rosenberg makes the point that when frightened or intellectually suspicious by claims of science, writers have taken a kind of refuge in writing things that “surpass” the limits of science by “the counter-concept of mystery and creation…. its aim is philosophical, not ritualistic.”  Rosenberg substitutes ‘system’ for ‘myth’ and leads him to explicate the sort of work that myth, in his analysis, does.

 “Modern thought poses in a thousand different forms the opposition between science and the irrational – between the known and the living.” Rosenberg defines the distinction between them in art as the antinomies of  “statues, machines, geometrical abstractions, and sex, dreams, biomorphic shapes.” Strangely enough, the distinction between the known and the living operates on analogy with the late 20th century ones of digital/on-off and analogue/more -less.

Next week — April  Ms. Partisan will be in Cromarty, in the North of Scotland, and probably without access to internet. So the week after will be the second part of the Rosenberg essay.  Apologies for the delay.    Annie J.

Adventures of a Young Man. Dos Passos, Again. “Red,White, and Blue Thanksgiving.” vol.6, No.2

First Edition: 1939.

We turn from the immediate crisis in Europe in “This Quarter” to the crisis of the First World War, in a story that is a harbinger of  the present just ahead. Dos Passos’s Adventures of a Young Man was first published in 1939, and the Partisan Review publication,”Red, White, and Blue Thanksgiving,” is a story-length section of that novel.

You may remember from 2 years ago, another story by DosPassos, “The Migratory Worker,” in the January, 1938 issue of PR.{Blog post, Dec17, 2016} It is a naturalist portrait of the fall of a man in Depression America, and it reminds the reader that PR isn’t all theory and cosmopolitan high culture.  Set in Arizona, the narrative is of a young man without many skills, but some experience of the clap, freight train riding, and what he thinks of as ‘easy women.’.  He has been doing unskilled ‘pick and shovel’ work, but a second dose of the clap sends him to buy a ticket to Phoenix where a ‘part-Indian’ doctor is rumoured to provide a cure.  Ike Hall is  strong and confident, eager to learn, and he finds a job which can train him in electrics. He is a member of the IWW, founded in 1905 — The International Workers of the World — an American union, “One Big Union”–, known as the”Wobblies,” and he feels the pride and the power of being in employment. The Wobblies were linked to the politics of socialism and anarcho-syndicalism. Committed to an inclusive membership, it welcomed people of all races, both sexes, and promoted the slogan; “An injury to one is an injury to all.”

While learning the electrical trade, Ike meets Jinny Connor, who is young and pretty and ‘thinks the world of him.’ Her family objects to a marriage between them, which forces the young couple to leave Phoenix, and go to Kansas City.  But Ike’s luck turns, and “The electrical workers local wasn’t taking in any new members on account of the slump and before Ike could say Jack Robinson there he was smashing baggage at the Railway Express and Jinny was counter girl in a one-armed lunch”. 

That story and the one at hand here  belongs  to the genre of ‘proletarian literature,’ which sometimes means literature written by the working class, and sometimes means literature about the working class, written with a pro-socialist or communist politics. It was the stuff of socialist and  CPUSA periodicals from the founding of the CPUSA in 1919, and became an official ‘line’ in Third Period Communism, and through the Popular Front.  The New Masses, one of the most popular of the CPUSA-related periodicals, published many ‘proletarian’ stories and poems. The earlier story’s ‘naturalism’ is not unlike the novels of Theodore Dreiser,in his An American Tragedy, and Sister Carrie, where forces that work within society at large press the hero or heroine into ruin.

The shades of the prison house start closing in around the young couple, they sleep in the cold at night, and “There wasn’t a living soul they could call on for help.”    Ike, in despair, has to sign on for a job that will take them to Oklahoma so he can work in the oilfields.  It means that he has to turn in his “red card,”his IWW membership card, and he becomes what they called a ‘scissorbill,’ a union busting scab.

In the novel, Adventures of a Young Man, a disillusioned young American radical, Glenn Spotswood, fights on the side of the  Second Spanish Republic during the Spanish Civil War and is killed. The novel is contemporary with Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, with its similar theme. Both books are the outcome of the 1937 visit of Dos Passos and Hemingway to Spain during which their friendship broke up in a sharp quarrel on political as well as personal grounds.  In “Red, White, and Blue Thanksgiving,” which comes from an early part of the novel, Dos Passos uses the end of the First World War as a sign of the kinds of conflict and division it delivered to the Americans who fought in it. Thanksgiving, the only holiday in the USA where you don’t give presents, which makes it, if only slightly, a less money/bling/useless gift day, is the setting here. The food looks glorious and various members of the Spotswood family gather for the Thanksgiving feast. The colours of the flag are motifs of the overabundant decorations of the dining room, and there is a thin string of tension in the pace of the opening portrait of the family rushing to get everything ready for the meal.The War has ended, and news has arrived that the older Spotswood son, Tyler, has been promoted and sent into the post-war Army of Occupation. The father Herbert’s voice arises from the din of cooking and setting the table and putting out the candies:

Dad was in his shirtsleeves, mashing the potatoes, and saying ‘ Ada, he couldn’t help feel bad about the thought of our boy in a uniform strutting about lording it over those poor miserable defeated Germans. “I’m afraid he will never be good for anything again.” Mother was whispering that she could only be  thankful that he was safe.

The father’s words cut straight across the triumphal US celebration. He is thinking of the terrible decisions made in the Treaty of Versailles. And his voice is, most importantly, internationalist. From this point on, the story runs on two tracks: the heaps of food being eaten in the middle of this day of Thanksgiving, and the opening rift between Herbert and his brother,Matthew. The women maintain a feminine distance from the political battle that ensues.

 “Well, now the Huns would get what was coming to them,” Uncle Mat said. Two wrongs don’t make a right. Dad was speaking his carefully pronounced words from the end of the table, when Lorna kicked up a fuss,”etc.  The interruptions of the argument are from the children, self-involved and eliciting distracted or fierce replies from the men in the family. Dad got that cornered look on his face. He took off his glasses and rubbed his grey bulging eyes, and leaned forward across his plate before he spoke. He hoped that those really responsible for the war would pay for it, instead of the poor people of Germany, who were their first victims.

And so it goes — Herbert defending jailed pacifists, Mat calling them traitors. We feel the seams opening around them: the young Glenn trying to do everything right so that the party can go on — feeling protective and annoyed with his father — the various minor disturbances at the table scarring the surface of  false bonhomie.    I hope you will read it yourself, and get the sense of immediacy that permeates the story. The 1919 Treaty of Versailles becomes the starting point for the world of 1939…

first go to:  next: click on year 1939, and follow from there…







Vol. 6, No. 2, Winter 1939– Our Quarter– 2.”Anti-Fascist Jitterbug” 3. “T.S.Eliot’s Last Words” 4. “Hello Reform” 5.”Dictatorship at Cooper Union”

Partisan Review, Vol. 6, No. 2. Winter, 1939

The Summer of regret, nostalgia, fear with and without objects, has turned into a Winter of confusion, anger, and debate. The issue is out in late November, 1938.

Partisan Review Editors in 1939: F.W. Dupee, Dwight Macdonald, George L.K.Morris, William Phillips, Philip Rahv.

back: Morris, Rahv, McDonald, sitting:  Dupee, Phillip

The second part of “Our Quarter” must be by Dwight Macdonald — just his kind of word,  Titled, “Anti-Fascist Jitterbug,” it trounces Lewis  Mumford’s ignorant version of a “man of good will.” It has got that acerbic wit that Macdonald was known for, and he makes a comic hash of Mumford’s irrational idea that there is something about the ‘German Mind’ that has produced fascism….

“Once an anti-fascist is far gone into jitterbuggery, he suffers a total loss of memory. But Mr. Mumford improves upon most of the jitterbugs by raising amnesia to the level of a principle. He is simply oblivious to the fact that besides poets and philosophers of imperialist conquest, German culture also nurtured the socialist humanism of Marx and Engels.”

“Mr. Mumford and his friends cannot assail fascism for what it is but must picture it as something vast and mysteriously irrational, or as the dreadful aberation  of a particular national mentality.  This has become all the more necessary now, as the New Deal government — of which the anti-fascist jitter-bugs are enthusiastic partisans — is scuttling its domestic program of mild social reforms and moving into the war zone”. 

You might want to look back at this blog for September 17, 2017, which is about Meyer Shapiro’s essay on Lewis Mumford.

3.The third contribution to “Our Quarter” is about T.S. Eliot, ‘T.S. Eliot’s Last Words.’ I like  this one in particular,  because it is so stuck in the problem of what do you do with Modernism’s bad attitude. The pith of the squib is that Eliot is a great writer; that Eliot tried to place London on the metropolitan cultural map alongside Berlin, Paris, Madrid; that it didn’t work:  Eliot’s journal, The Criterion, lost its drive as a social crisis emerged….the magazine became eclectic…and Eliot”became more and more  the grave apostle of detachment. In other countries the literary humanists have been forced into exile. [aj: think of  that discussion of Thomas Mann by William Troy and James Burnham earlier in 1938.] In England,if Eliot’s decision is a symptom, they are preparing to retire into voluntary seclusion.”  The problem of the reactionary stance of a significant strand of  modernism, with its conservatism, racism, anti-semitism, and among some, its fascism… is simply presented by the writer as quicksand into which Eliot and others are slipping.

4. “Hello Reform”, the fourth piece in “Our Quarter” is about John Chamberlain, a jobbing reviewer, and a man who began on the left and moved to the right, including but not limited to a strong individualism, along the lines of Ayn Rand, and other libertarian thinkers and writers. His first book,  “Farewell to Reform,” published in 1931, was an analysis of the failure of reformism to challenge fundamentals in American society. He attacked the ‘trust-busting’ of Teddy Roosevelt, the populism of William Jennings Bryan, and the ‘New Freedom’ of Woodrow Wilson;he became a supporter of FDR’s ‘New Deal’ later in the 1930s, and was one of those who organised the campaign to support Trotsky after the Moscow Trials, and contributed to the report written by John Dewey: Not Guilty: the Report of the Commission of Inquiry into the Charges Made Against Leon Trotsky in the Moscow Trials (1938).  He wrote for William Buckley’s National Review later on.  Chamberlain’s impact hasn’t survived into the revivals of either liberalism or parties further to the left. So the energy with which the piece ends, doesn’t possess the driving polemical edge that both Rhav and Macdonald were able to provide when they were seriously provoked.

5.“Dictatorship at Cooper Union” is the last of the short editorial essays. It begins with the state of  this Arts and Sciences college, and its faculty.
“Cooper Union is familiar to most New Yorkers as an antiquated caravanserai on lower Fourth Avenue, huge, dingy, and hideous. Actually it is a large school of Art and Science, handsomely endowed by the Coopers and the Hewitts, which offers completely free tuition to hundreds of acceptable students.” But something wasn’t right with the school. Even though the students were eager to learn and they invited Gropius down from Harvard to lecture and Leger as well, and both men enjoyed teaching the Cooper Union students, the administration and directors of the school couldn’t see the importance of these creative ventures.

After winning a law case against the city of New York, which gave a large new tranch of money to the school, and unfolding a new plan of redecoration, the new Director, Burell, was not convinced of the need to bring the avant garde into the curriculum.

” It is disheartening to come upon the losing battle by the students for the preservation of these courses in modern and abstract painting”

And so, the piece concludes, “And thus ends the history of modern painting at Cooper Union,” another example of the crisis of Western Culture.

“This Quarter”, Vol.6, No.2.. 1. “Crisis in Paris.”

Partisan Review, Vol.6, No.2 Winter, 1939
edith piaf main-m
Edith Piaf, 1939

Paris in 1939


images      Unknown-2

Partisan Review, Vol. 6, No. 2. Winter, 1939

The Summer of regret, nostalgia, fear with and without objects, has turned into a Winter of confusion, anger, and debate. The issue came out in late November, 1938.

The Fall leads into the Winter issue of Partisan Review, and opens with the journal’s  “This Quarter” editorial, the second in a series of five. These editorials were excellent additions to a developing sense of  immediacy in Partisan Review in the Winter issue of Vol.6, No. 2.  Remember that this journal was in some ways quite parochial: written by people in a  defined coterie, at this point more pointedly Trotskyist than other anti- Stalinist publications in the USA, but now, and through 1939, above all, determined to keep a revolutionary internationalist perspective on Europe from the New York telescope.  By making each “This Quarter,” a collage of inter-related but distinct set of editorials, it was able to appeal to different constituencies at home as well.

HerschelHerschel Grynspan.

The first short article. “Crisis in Paris” was probably written close to the time when Herschel Grynspan, a 17-year-old Polish Jew, assassinated a German diplomat, Ernst vom Rath, November 7th, 1938, at the German Embassy in Paris, protesting the expulsion of Jews from Germany. He was immediately arrested by the French Police. He was eventually sent back to Germany, where he was sent to Sachsenhausen concentration camp, where he is thought to have died  by 1945. It was in retaliation for Grynspan’s act that Kristallnacht/  The Night of Broken Glass riots against Jews took place across Germany the 8 &9th of November, 1938.

Scenes from Kristallnacht — burning building, smashed interior of Berlin Synagogue

kristllnacht  Unknown-1

But the “Crisis in Paris” piece takes as its focus the international meaning of Paris as a symbol of and centre for political, intellectual and cultural life and how Nazism would destroy that image and that reality.

For a century  the history of France was the history of European politics: from the great revolution of 1789 to the 1848 ‘year of revolutions,’ the proto-fascist reaction of ‘Napoleon the Little,’and finally, the Paris Commune of 1871, which sketched out a whole new theory of revolution, to be realised in 1917.” oh dear……first time as tragedy, second time as farce, tenth time as Trump…

“SO, too, in arts and letters. The current of modern art, from Cezanne to Picasso, has been channelled deep in Paris. And it was to Paris, not to Berlin or London or Rome, that our own expatriates of the twenties went to write their novels and publish their independent ‘little’ magazines. In that benign and quickening air, the expression of the best integrated culture of modern times — the avant-garde —   the very term is French — in art and literature has found it least impossible to survive.”

“Now all this is threatened, the eye of Western culture is dimming. For months now, the newspaper correspondents have been filling in, bit by bit, the now sadly familiar image of a nation that is preparing to take leave of democratic government. We know well by now what happens to intellectual life under a totalitarian regime. If France goes fascist, we shall be saying goodbye to Western culture in all seriousness and for a long time to come.

SO, the first part of the piece is a view of what has been, and what may be to come, suffused with both nostalgia and fear, retrospect and the prospect of the death of democracy. But Partisan Review returns to its contemporary world, the politics of Stalinism, and the ‘disastrous’ ‘People’s Front,’ policy which led to the Munich Pact (the agreement between Britain and Germany in 1938, under which Germany was allowed to extend its territory into parts of Czechoslovakia in which German-speaking peoples lived). and the openly reactionary Daladier government. Daladier was also in attendance at the Munich agreement, but fled to North Africa when Paris fell to Hitler in 1940.

“The French masses still have a respite left them — several months, a year, even two, perhaps — in which to set in motion the only kind of anti-fascist struggle that can succeed: a revolutionary struggle against the whole capitalist order. The nucleus of such a movement already exists, in such militant left-wing organisations as the Lutte de Classe, a semi-syndicalist trade union, the Pivert group, which split off last summer from the Socialist Party of France, and the International Workers.[affiliated with the Fourth International.]”  The piece ends by asking readers in the USA to send donations to these parties.