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 this discussion and offer comments and corrections as necessary.

Partisan Review is available to read on-line through the
Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center
hgar-srv3.bu.edu/collections/partisan-review

Annie J

Introduction:

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.

Fred Dupee on André Malraux

andre-malraux-4

André Malraux — Novelist and Activist

The next piece in Vol,4, issue March 1938, is F.W. Dupee’s discussion of André Malraux. Dupee traces Malraux’s novels in relation to his politics, and by doing that, makes the piece a brief history of central problems in the communist movement as understood by Partisan Review:  from the time of Stalin’s rise in the Soviet Union, through the Chinese war between 1927-37, which posed the Chinese CP against Chiang-Kai-Shek’s Nationalists, and in the Spanish Civil war, ongoing still in 1938.  This is a function, of course, of Malraux’s own internationalism which led him to fight in revolutionary struggles, and to write a number of novels about revolutionary situations. In the process of his literary assessment, Dupee lays open Malraux’s own contradictions as novelist and activist.  But Dupee invites his reader to let judgements on both vocations to be seasoned with doubt and uncertainty, as the Malraux novels investigate literary themes of psychological confusion and complication. “André Malraux” belongs to the same category, I would say, as Edmund Wilson’s piece on Flaubert (see this blog, “Flaubert’s Politics, October 7, 2016)  — both good examples of the PR idea of good literary criticism. And as a good member of the PR group of editors, Dupee manages to tease out traces of Trotskyism in Malraux’s novels.  read Dupee’s full text here:

MalrauxjauntyAndré Malraux

Dupee shapes his argument through Malraux’s sequence of novels — The Royal Way, The Conquerors, and Man’s Fate. Malraux’s first novel, Dupee says, is about an abstraction: the ‘twins obsessions of death and action.’ It was something of an abstract blueprint for his later works. In his second work, The Conquerers, Malraux sketches persons who embody  psychological conflicts within activism, so that while the characters lack literary depth, they make up for that with the contradictions of their political roles.  SO it is that the central figure, Garine is both a member of the Communist Party, but is also engaged in a personal quest for heroic action: ‘Garine is an adventurer in politics.’  Garine is a figure of nihilism and his counterpart, Borodine, is a ‘professional revolutionary.’  Dupee associates this opposition between ‘traditional nihilism,’ and ’emotionally unassimilated Marxism,’ with Malraux’s  heritage as a revolutionary child of the petty bourgeois’. So, in The Conquerers, these two figures Merely confront each other across an abyss of mutual incomprehension; and the novel, striving to bridge the disjunction, breaks in two”.   In Man’s Fate, which won the Prix Goncourt in 1933, Dupee finds that Malraux has created ahero who now combines in himself, as a conflict of imperatives, the death-ridden solitude of the individualist, and the fraternal drive of the collectivity.” The man acts on his own but for the group, and this opens space for Malraux to present characters who have a psychological unity, and the novel has a dramatic unity to correspond.’  Dupee allows Malraux to be a ‘semi-Trotskyist’ ; though with the advent of the ‘people’s front’, Malraux retreated from his anti-Stalinism. It remains unclear if he was an actual member of the CP, though he supported it until after WWII, when he became a Gaullist minister of culture.

The last part of Dupee’s argument is that in L’Espoir, Malraux’s novel of the Spanish Civil War, he is unable to write truthfully himself.  He allows some political arguments and debates to be present, but by handing those scenes to the Anarchists, Malraux “finds in the Anarchists a politically harmless equivalent for the element of dramatic conflict.” Dupee’s Malraux is as flawed as a Stalinist can be, but he is also stimulated by and drawn to the psychology of personal heroism and collective activism as they produce crises of intellect and of strategy within revolutionary struggles.  And so Dupee is able to to show how  the structural and literary flaws of Malraux’s novels are regulated  by their political investments.

Both Dupee and Malraux have been somewhat lost to later readers, mostly because of failures attached to their reputations during their lifetimes.  Dupee, a bit like William Phillips, had the label of ‘writer’s block” chalked on him, which suggested intellectual impotence.  Though Malraux won the Prix Goncourt, he had a more vexed reputation: he appears to have exaggerated and lied about aspects of his heroism in warfare; and then there was the issue of his Gaullism.  Of the European writers that Partisan Review contributors wrote about, it is a lot easier to admire Gide than Malraux. Mary McCarthy said that Dupee was an admirer of Gide, and Edmund Wilson; significantly, “Our interest in Gide was spurred mainly by [Dupee]. At least it was at his urging that we published Gide’s second thoughts on his trip to the Soviet Union, which I translated.”  (see this blog, “But we shall not turn our face from you, O glorious and grieving Russia,” December 26, 2016)

But it is arguable that Dupee’s essay on Malraux has had a more recent effect on the fame of Malraux, if only because it was Dupee who first diagnosed Malraux as suffering from personal ‘mythomania,’ a category used again by Malraux’s biographer, Oliver Todd.  In Judith Thurman’s review of Todd’s book when it was published in 2005, she has a go at both Todd and Malraux that is amusing though harsh: Todd’s biography is understood as a forensic examination of lies, exaggerations, omissions and other sins of Malraux as a public intellectual.

But, despite his cool Anglophilic rigor and his regard for fair play—an expression that has no French translation—Todd’s portrait suffers from a tone of snide and at times vulgar contempt (“Hitler and Mussolini are not Malraux’s style”) that has the paradoxical effect of heightening Malraux’s stature, and the reader’s partiality to him, despite his flamboyant self-aggrandizing. Milton’s Satan is the same sort of character.(c Judith Thurman, The New Yorker,  May 2, 2005)

fred-dupee_1983-10-27
F.W. Dupee

For Dupee,  hope for a possible rekindling of interest in his work is implicit in Mary McCarthy’s 1983 eulogy cum review of his place in the Partisan Review Pantheon when his second book was published posthumously. The complaint about Dupee’s writer’s block became, twisted round like a mobius strip, a complaint about him writing only ‘miscellaneous’ pieces. McCarthy begins with this, and shows us the modern, even post-modern figure of DuPee:

“I have liked being miscellaneous,” Dupee roundly declares in the foreword to The King of the Cats (1965), sounding a note of defiance, of boyish stubbornness, where to the ear of a different author an apology might have been called for. “Fred” was taking his stand as a literary journalist, a flâneur, a stroller, an idle saunterer, in an age of academic criticism, of “field” specialists on the one hand and fanatic “close readers” on the other.”  McCarthy also remembers that Dupee “remained the magazine’s authority on Malraux and the aesthetics of action; I remember a very long article, in several parts, I think, that he was writing on Malraux and could not seem to finish. Composition was hard for him then. There was no question with him of a “writing block,” like the one Dwight Macdonald got when the wind of radicalism went out of his sails, but the act of writing was painful, and Malraux was his most agonizing subject”.

It might be that some of Dupee’s respect for and caution about Malraux came from Dupee’s own activist aspirations. Frederick Dupee was a mid-westerner, and when he went to University at Yale, he became friends with Dwight McDonald,and joined him, after graduation in starting a journal, called…The Miscellany…. which lasted for a year, from March 1930.  Dupee joined in with the Longshoreman’s Union, leafletted with them, and  joined the CPUSA.   But working for the Communist Party  in the period of the Moscow Trials while intellectually engaged with Rahv and Macdonald at PR  was bound to cause conflict, and as Alan Wald tells it, “One day at the [CP] office, he turned to his young assistant, Samuel Sillen, and said “You know, I really can’t take any more of this,”and he walked out.   Having read Trotsky’s  History of the Russian Revolution, Dupee refused to carry out the order given him from the Stalinists to try and persuade prominent members of the “American Committee for the Defence of Leon Trotsky” to stand down; it is said that he went first to Mary McCarthy, who burst our laughing. And  his name is first on the list of editors of the 1937 relaunched Partisan Review.

F.-W.-Dupee-1952_250x250
F.W.Dupee

In her review from 1983, McCarthy regrets the loss of Dupee’s ‘idealism,’ –his activism and the energy and excitement he was possessed by in the 1930s.  But she tells an anecdote about him that is disarming: “I cannot find the idealism, as such, in his later writing. But it may be its long-term effects I notice in the growth indicators exuberantly branching and swelling in his later work. In 1968, anyway, at Columbia during the student strike, he risked some brand new dentistry to join a line of faculty drawn up to protect another group of “boyish idealists” from the forces of order and got a black eye for doing so.”

An Issue with an Editor, William Phillips

One Sunday in 1963, when I was 11 years old, I was sitting in the front seat of my father’s car, crossing the George Washington Bridge on our way to visit my grandparents in Paterson, New Jersey. On the way my father told me that there was going to be a new book review coming out, The New York Review of Books. He sounded pretty excited about it, and when I asked if it was going to be different from the New York Times Book Review, which was a much anticipated arrival every Sunday. Well, he said, it was because the people who worked at the NYTimes were out on strike, and so some writers got together and decided put out their own book review.

NYT onstrike
NYTimes on Strike 1962-3

I remember really well feeling mixed up by this. My grandmother, Rose, had been a member of the Jewish Bund in the Old Country — Algemeyner Yidisher Arbeter Bund in Lite, Poyln un Rusland. and we had a photograph of her from the Jewish Daily Forward, celebrated as one of the revolutionary women of the Revolution of 1905, on its 25th Anniversary in 1930. Although my father was always dismissive of my Grandmother’s political activity – “She was just a teen-ager, for chrissakes” he would snort when my sister and I asked for stories about her, particularly as the 1960s turned into 1968….. but even at eleven, I knew it was a bad thing to scab on a strike, and this sounded like some version of scabbing to me.

grandmarose
Grandma Rose, seated on right.

I am starting this post about William Phillip’s article in Vol 4, Issue 4 of Partisan Review, “The Esthetic of the Founding Fathers,” with the founding of the New York Review of Books, because Robert Silvers died last month, on March 20, 2017; he had been one of the two founding editors of NYRB,  and a wonderful section of reminiscences of Silvers as editor has been published in the journal, evoking the delicacy, kindness, and encouragement that Silvers gave to his writers. Anyone thinking about Partisan Review will connect it to the NYRB. Even though PR was still publishing through 2003, The NYRB is its most obvious inheritor. That being said, the NYRB’s politics have been part of the shift of many PR traditions from the socialist left to centre-left and more vaguely ‘liberal’ positions, though ever since the right began to press heavily against liberal positions, it has become once again more progressive.  But without doubt,  the opening years of the NYRB relied on many writers from the original PR scene, including Paul Goodman, Dwight MacDonald, Mary McCarthy  Philip Rahv,  Susan Sontag, and Edmund Wilson.

nyrb1.jpg.CROP.article250-medium
NYRB First Issue, 1 February 1963

Harold Ross and  William Shawn are remembered as the great editors of The New Yorker, Robert Silvers and Barbara Epstein (who died in 2002) of the NYRB.   At the Partisan Review, the array of Rahv, MacDonald, Fred DuPee, George Morris (who did the ‘Art Chronicles’ in the earlier issues we have looked at) was organised, to a large extent, by William Phillips, who wrote today’s article,’The Aesthetic of the Founding Fathers”, which I think is a rather anodyne history and position paper on Marxist aesthetics.

William Phillips
William Phillips, 1907-2002

In his study of the New York Intellectuals: the rise and decline of the Anti-Stalinist Left from the 1930s to the 1980s,  Alan Wald takes a hard line on Phillips, saying that he was in a kind of political amnesia when he wrote his memoir,  A Partisan View: Five Decades of a Literary Life, forgetting his support for the Communist Party before the journal split from the John Reed Club, as well as his support for Trotsky’s Left Opposition.

Nonetheless it was Phillips who kept PR running for six decades, first with Philip Rahv, his more charismatic and brilliant co-founder,and then on his own after Rahv left PR. The tributes to Phillips the year of his death, 2002, speak to his brilliance and his great commitment to the journal, and about his kindness, but it would be unjust to ignore c the on-going disputes between Phillips and Philip Rahv. William Barrett’s memoir, The Truants, paints a tragic picture of Phillips: the tragedy being that while he loved an argument, a conversation, a confabulation with his trusted friends, he was no competitor for Rahv’s complex and incisive position papers on literature and politics. Barrett recalls: “Many nights, when we were walking away from his house, Delmore would observe with affectionate sadness, ‘If only `William could get all that [that is, his ‘expansive, warm and witty conversation’] into his writing.”

Having studied philosophy at CCNY, Phillips had figured he would become an academic, but he decided, as so many do, that instead he would become a writer. Barrett: ” Then something had happened: that fearful thing –a writer’s block — had descended upon him and would not relinquish its grip.. . “I pissed my life away in talk,” he observed to Delmore and me one night.”  

It’s tough to be on the losing side of being a writer when you are co-editing a journal like PR, which flaunted its jewish smarts.  And Phillips and Rahv weren’t really political opponents so much as competitive gang leaders. Their quarrelsome dealings went on throughout the life of PR. I read Phillip’s article expecting it to be polemical exciting and literary. But it really doesn’t compare to the other literary pieces we have looked at.  It begins by describing the history of Marxism’s literary criticism and polemicises against Stalinist versions of agit-prop. What Phillips argues for is the kind of historical criticism that Edmund Wilson delivered in his article on “Flaubert’s Politics.” There isn’t anything very wrong with Phillip’s argument except for its lack of verve and intellectual excitement.  Have a read, and see what you think. Let me know.   you can access his article by clicking on the URL here  .

 

Elizabeth Bishop, “In Prison”

`bishop sweet and sensi        Bishop child

Volume 4, No.4 opens with a strange and satisfying short story by Elizabeth Bishop, better known to many as one of the great poets of the ‘middle generation’ of Modernism – along with Robert Lowell, John Berryman, and Randall Jarrell, with Delmore Schwartz as a sometime harbinger and sometime participant. Bishop was one who ‘ran with the boys’, as it were, and won recognition as a ‘poet’s poet’ as well as public popularity. She was a Pulitzer Prize winner in the 1950s, and the winner of a National Book Award in 1970, and received lots of other honours and Fellowships.

Bishop was close friends with Eleanor Clark (to read more about Eleanor, go to my post on this blog’s archive for 12 January, 2017) at Vassar and a bit later, with Marianne Moore. She wrote this gorgeous poem, “An Invitation to Marianne Moore” that gives us Bishop in her most open and generous voice:

From Brooklyn, over the Brooklyn Bridge, on this fine morning,
please come flying.
In a cloud of fiery pale chemicals,
please come flying,
to the rapid rolling of thousands of small blue drums
descending out of the mackerel sky
over the glittering grandstand of harbor-water,
please come flying.

Whistles, pennants and smoke are blowing. The ships
are signaling cordially with multitudes of flags
rising and falling like birds all over the harbour.
Enter: two rivers, gracefully bearing
countless little pellucid jellies
in cut-glass epergnes dragging with silver chains.
The flight is safe; the weather is all arranged.
The waves are running in verses this fine morning.
Please come flying.

Come with the pointed toe of each black shoe
trailing a sapphire highlight,
with a black capeful of butterfly wings and bon-mots,
with heaven knows how many angels all riding
on the broad black brim of your hat,
please come flying.

Bearing a musical inaudible abacus,
a slight censorious frown, and blue ribbons,
please come flying.
Facts and skyscrapers glint in the tide; Manhattan
is all awash with morals this fine morning,
so please come flying.

Mounting the sky with natural heroism,
above the accidents, above the malignant movies,
the taxicabs and injustices at large,
while horns are resounding in your beautiful ears
that simultaneously listen to
a soft uninvented music, fit for the musk deer,
please come flying.

For whom the grim museums will behave
like courteous male bower-birds,
for whom the agreeable lions lie in wait
on the steps of the Public Library,
eager to rise and follow through the doors
up into the reading rooms,
please come flying.
We can sit down and weep; we can go shopping,
or play at a game of constantly being wrong
with a priceless set of vocabularies,
or we can bravely deplore, but please
please come flying.

With dynasties of negative constructions
darkening and dying around you,
with grammar that suddenly turns and shines
like flocks of sandpipers flying,
please come flying.

Come like a light in the white mackerel sky,
come like a daytime comet
with a long unnebulous train of words,
from Brooklyn, over the Brooklyn Bridge, on this fine morning,
please come flying. @Estate of Elizabeth Bishop

Lota   bishop young and sweet

She remained a quite isolated person-poet, and her life-long lover and partner Maria Carlota Costellat de Macedo Soares, “Lota,” was both a trial and a joy to Bishop, but Lota was always hidden from public view. Only in a very late villanelle after Lota’s death did Bishop write out her grief and sorrow about Lota and Bishop’s life of losses, as Claudia Roth Pierpoint discusses in her recent New Yorker review of Megan Marshall’s new biography of Bishop, Elizabeth Bishop: A Miracle for Breakfast:

One Art

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster,

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

– Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster. @Estate of Elizabeth Bishop

So with that introduction for those who don’t yet know her work, let’s return to the stuff of Partisan Review, Vol, 4, No. 4. We have met with Elizabeth Bishop before: she was one of the Vassar Intellectuals, a year in back of Mary McCarthy, (see my post on this blog’s archive, December 11, 2016). When McCarthy published The Group, Elizabeth Bishop was considered by some of the Vassar Girls to have been portrayed by McCarthy as Lakey and Lota as Lakey’s lover, the Baroness. McCarthy protested that this wasn’t the case in a lettern to Bishop, but couldn’t entirely exculpate herself from the charge. This was late in the 1970s and I expect that neither of them was overly engaged in this quarrel at this point. (Unlike Lillian Hellman, who cared very much about how her quarrel with McCarthy would end, even after McCarthy had died.)

SO… The story that opens Partisan Review,Volume 4, Issue 4, 1937 “In Prison,” was probably written by Bishop in her early 20s, and it makes a strong opening within the journal’s interest in many kinds of Modernism. Bishop was living in Key West, where she went in the 1930s and stayed through the mid 1940s. The 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.’

Since the narrator quotes Hawthorne, and then damns the ‘prison literature’ of ee cummings, The Count of Monte Cristo, and Wilde’s Ballad of Reading Gaol, preferring to read Dostoyevsky, we are led to read the narratorial tone less like madness than intellectual specialism. In her notebook from the 1930s, Bishop quotes a style of the baroque, which was ‘to portray, not a thought, but a mind thinking.’ Much like Wordsworth’s admonition to poets that poetry must ‘follow the fluxes and refluxes of the mind when agitated when agitated by the great and simple affections of the our nature,’ Bishop takes on, as Poe (one of her revered influences) had done, a persona who might be mad — in our present terms of art in psychology — autistic and compulsive. In a letter to Marianne Moore, in 1938, she writes that “In Prison” is ‘another of these horrible ‘fable’ ideas, that seem to obsess me.’  The question of oddity immediately arises when the voice of the piece says that they would like to be given a dull book on arrival in prison —  “Then I shall be able to experience with a free conscience the pleasure, perverse, I suppose, of interpreting it not at all according to its intent.”   The result will be that by “posting fragments of it against the surroundings and conversations of my prison, I shall be able to form my own examples of surrealist art.” She goes on to add other ways of using language in her writing, for example using the partially erased inscriptions on the prison walls…and she will write as well, leaving scraps of writing for later prisoners to make sense of.  But as we understand that the ‘mad’ person isn’t really that at all, but the unconventional and avant-garde writer, we begin to see how her presentation of her ‘fluxes and refluxes’ changes the entire mood of the piece from unease to celebration of Modernism as a way of not only formal changes to writing, but to the kinds of worlds that it may create.

And in its place as the first item of Partisan Review,  Vol. 4, No. 4, it confirms as well the Editors’ desire to extend the term of revolutionary to writings not explicitly political, and to extend modernist collage to subversive ends.  And a reader of PR would be a bit shaky after that start to the issue. Very Clever.

Read “In Prison.”

If you want to read a critical essay about this story, there is a piece by Zhou Xiaojing ,TSLL — Texas Studies in Literature and Language,  Vol. 39, No.1, Spring, 1977 — which gives a good critical history of the academic responses to the piec, and includes some quotations from Bishop’s letters that I have quoted in this blog post.

 

 

Strikers in “Little Steel”

union badge strikers in Cleveland

You may recall that in this issue (Volume 4, issue 3, February 1938) Dwight Macdonald produced an idiosyncratic and powerful mournful satire on the Government institutions in  Washington, D.C.  I mentioned in my post on that piece that he was a friend of Rose M. Stein, who was a journalist writing for a number of left-wing papers, including The Nation. McDonald was becoming more political at this time, and was at first a CP supporter, before he moved to a Trotskyist position.   He and Nancy had left Cambridge in late 1936, and went to Pittsburgh to witness the world of the steel industry, which was resisting establishing a contract with the CIO-Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and its branch,  the Steel Workers Organizing Committee ( SWOC). There the Macdonalds met Rose Stein, who, according to Dwight, “writes for leftist papers and is a swell person, a small jewess with great qualities of vitality and a refreshing belief in the workers — refreshing because she sees them all the time.” (from Michael Wreszin, A Rebel in Defense of Tradition: the life and politics of Dwight MacDonald, 1994,p.58).

The hint of shame in Dwight’s tacit acknowledgement that he didn’t see workers “all the time,” let alone from time to time, may be part of his urging his fellows at PR to offer some space to Stein for an article about the Little Steel strike of May-July of 1937.  Two months earlier, US Steel (Big Steel) had agreed a contract with the CIO-SWOC including a standard pay-scale, an 8-hour day, and time and a half for overtime. But then there was “Little Steel,” a group of smaller steel mills which altogether employed another 80, 000 workers. The “Little Steel” that strike was unsuccessful, even though scabs and companies used violence against a number of workers : 300 strikers were injured, and eighteen killed.

Rose Stein took Dwight and Nancy to steel mills in West Virginia and to the town of Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, which Stein writes about in her piece. But Stein wasn’t entirely impressed by Macdonald’s polemical writing because, she said, it was a waste of time without workers as readers. She wanted Dwight to focus his work on the masses. Worse, she said that the Trotskyists  “don’t amount to a tinker’s damn, nowhere are they sufficiently influential to affect the destiny of a fly– let alone the human race.” Macdonald didn’t like her comments at all, and in turn he described her as having the ‘usual American Philistine attitude…the great weakness of American liberalism and the labour movement’.

It wasn’t until 1942 that the Supreme Court made the little steel companies negotiate with the CIO, and when the US entered the War, the National War Labour Board insisted that the smaller steel mills recognise SWOC at all their branches.You might expect that Stein’s piece on the strike would sound more like a prolitcult discussion or overly-dramatised. In fact, and this is what makes it a good addition to Partisan Review, Stein isn’t anywhere near as anti-intellectual as MacDonald had come to consider her. Her account is straightforward, and  objective, and it also carries in it ribbons of the speech of the strikers,giving a picture of daily life in a strike town. The only part of it that annoyed me was her calling the lavender dress made by a striking steel-worker’s wife “a two-piece affair with shiny black buttons.”  Catty, I’d say. The piece is a better addition to the attempt by Macdonald to let in more light on politics as lived through the labour movement’s politics, than are some of the fictionalised ‘workers’ stories that pepper PR as it figured out what kind of literary-political career it desired.maxresdefault

Here is a link to the article: http://hgar-srv3.bu.edu/collections/partisan-review/search/detail?id=283908

p.s. Alas, I couldn’t find a photo of Rose M. Stein.

“To be a poet at that time  was to be peculiar”: Schwartz on Stevens

Man with Blue Guitar

A prefatory family anecdote….’cos this post makes me think of my father.

This is a photo of Wallace Stevens’s The Man with the Blue Guitar, and other poems first published 4 October 1937. My parents’ copy  was bought in 1945, when the book had been reprinted and re-set, and it might be that my mother bought it for Henry anticipating his return home from Germany right after the War. Next to it is Delmore Schwartz’s review of the volume in our continuing look at Vol4, issue 3, February  1938 of Partisan Review. Stevens was a crucial name in the family storehouse of important writers, and if Proust and James were my mother, Adeline’s,  imaginary friends, since they both had a hyper-senstivity that  let them convey the exactness of  the atmosphere of psychological states, Stevens belonged to my father, who had become a Stevens reader early on, and every volume was covered in grocery wrapping paper, with a blue label on it, and so most of them remain that way even now.  It was Stevens’s  abstractions that Henry loved.

Henry as Editor
East SIde High Yearbook Editor in Chief

Having grown up in Paterson, and having gone to East Side High, now famous for having educated Allen Ginsberg, Henry had learned about Columbia University through an intricate set of connections amongst members of the Communist Party and locals — there had been Columbia teachers in the same CP Cell in Paramus as Henry’s cousin IJ —  Henry was a Columbia student between 1931-1934, and his seriousness about the study of philosophy came from from his divided sense of needing a profession, while yearning for a life of the mind. The dilemma of where his intellectual path would lead him was something he spoke about while my sister Mary and I were growing up, and he would repeat to us the advice given him by his Philosophy professor at Columbia, Irwin Edwin, that ‘there is need in this world for many good doctors, Henry; but only great philosophers.’ It must have been hard to take at the time, but a mellowed and aged Henry turned it into a  smiling bon mot that suggested he had become a great doctor. Given our Ma’s James interests, from time to time we would refer to our father as ‘The Other HJ.’   I will turn off the Janowitz reminiscence faucet in a minute, but I happen to have a postcard that Delmore Schwartz wrote to his friend Norman Jacob suggesting a meet-up for drinks in the City, and Norman sent it on to Henry, inviting him to come along.  I found it in a box in a drawer in  in my parents’s apartment after they died.  I have to assume that the event never took place, since I am certain Henry would have remembered and then embellished a story of what had taken place in January 1939.

SO now we arrive at Delmore Schwartz again, and by moving on, we arrive at Delmore’s book review of Stevens.

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In 1949, Delmore Schwartz had a “Dream of…a doctor in pajamas in a drugstore, and of marrying the daughter of Wallace Stevens.”   Delmore was certainly connected to Stevens, even if it wasn’t exactly a marriage of minds, and his review of The Man with the Blue Guitar was for the most part of a piece with the journal’s desire to publish and praise contemporary Modernists who weren’t necessarily of the same political tendency as the journal’s own.

Schwartz begins with a genealogy of Steven’s style, in relation to ‘dandyism’ and the tradition of what he calls “the moon-struck poems of Dowson, Laforgue, and Verlaine. and the Laforgue who sighs that existence is so quotidian”.     I think of John Ashbery when I read Stevens, and Ashbery has often described the importance to his poetic of Stevens’s influence. Certainly there is something ‘dandyish’ about Ashbery’s work, though it ironises itself with Ashbery’s exuberance and humour.  Stevens’s irony was more tense, with the squeak of mockery.

Delmore goes on to talk about the environment within which Stevens would have picked up these habits of “florid irony,”       “AS a hypothesis, one may suppose that his style crystalized in the days when The Smart Set was the leading literary magazine, when one knew French with pride, discussed sophistication, feared to be provincial, and aspired to membership among the Elite. ..  To be a poet at that time was to be peculiar; merely to be interested in the arts was to take upon oneself the burden of being superior, and an exile at home.”:

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Stevens as a Young Man

“The Man with the Blue Guitar,” for those of you who may never have read it — is a constantly changing set of 33 poems, all with a similar structure of shortish lyrics.  All are variations on the poem’s deep structure of  the contest of poetry and reality (or a host of other stand-ins: imagination and knowledge, abstraction and instantiation,  the analogue pattern of more and less in  music and the digital rigour of the articulation in words, and all the others you might think of when you read the text.) I am sorry that it isn’t available online, but I bet its in a library near you…or in a volume of Stevens’ Collected Poems.  The problem of the poem is presented right at the start — by problem, I mean the problem that the poem works with and against through the 33 parts.

“The man bent over his guitar,
A Shearsman of sorts. The day was green.
They said, “You have a blue guitar,
You do not play things as they are.
The man replied, “Things as they are
Are changed upon the blue guitar.”
And they said then, “But play, you must,
A tune beyond us, yet ourselves,
A tune upon the blue guitar
Of things exactly as they are.”

***

Schwartz wants the reader to see that though Stevens can look a bit fussy or even suggest burlesque comedy, his subject is not only serious it is about what poetic vocation can achieve in a world of ‘things exactly as they are.’

`It is because of an enforced awareness that his time is one of immense conflict and derangement that the poet has been compelled to consider the nature of poetry in its travail among things as they are. … he justifies poetry, he defines its place, its role, its priceless value. Nothing could be more characteristic of this poet, of his virtues and also of his limitations…”

Delmore
Delmore Schwartz

Schwartz is not quite satisfied with Stevens’s abstraction. “Virtue and defect, however, seem to be inseparable. The blue guitar, the statue, the duck, the greenest continent, and above all the bread and the stone presented here for the first time are figures and metaphors of a richness and meaningfulness which justify the method [aj: the dandyism, the irony, etc.] The poems taken as a whole constitute a special kind of museum, of a very familiar strangeness, located, because of the extent of the poet’s awareness, in the middle of everything that concerns us.” 

When we turn to the endpapers of this issue, there is a noisy shattering that accompanies the break away from the Stevens’s abstractions into ‘the middle of everything that concerns us.’  Schwartz’s apologia for Stevens’ anachronistic style creates a kind of sound-proof shell around him. While I can hear Delmore swearing and sweating and carrying on in his New York poetic, Stevens’ poems are read in my head, soundless except for the random and often frightening interruptions of cawing and crying and cackling of the tropical birds of Key West.

Next: Rose M. Stein “Sketches in Little Steel.”

 Some Versions of Mary McCarthy

MaryMcCarthyIt’s always bracing to get to Mary McCarthy’s savage and dazzling pieces in her ‘Theatre Chronicles’ for Partisan Review.  Last time, you may recall, she gave what-for to Clifford Odets, and in this issue (Vol 4, No.3, 1938), John Gielgud and Orson Welles are chastised for their acting and directing sins.  What makes it a fascinating read is its place with the developing positions of Partisan Review in its opening issues.  Here McCarthy attacks from what we might think of as  an ultra-left position — that is, she finds in Welles’ anti-fascist production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar  a politically under motivated version, and in Gielgud’s Hamlet, a dated and overly ornamented throw-back.  [This reminds me of the now apparently disappeared RevolutionaryCommunistParty of the 1980s and 1990s– whose main theoretical strategy was to take anything the general left campaigned for and interpret it as a counter-revolutionary act. But enough of the internecine struggles of a now disbanded group.]

But Mary McCarthy’s ‘Theatre Chronicles’ were her first and perhaps her most enthusiastic pieces of writing: by enthusiasm, I mean the energy of her wisecracks and the glow of pride that gleams through the lines of her writing.

Maccarthyyoungish   McCarthy gleaming

McCarthy’s distinguished biographer, Frances Kernan, assembled quotations from fellow PR writers, which suggest that MacCarthy was given the job of writing about theater because she was Philip Rahv’s girlfriend at the time.   including Lionel Abel’s inimitable words:“I think its probably true that they gave it to her because Rahv and Phillips didn’t think it was important. “About the dtheater she was almost always wrong.”

When she published her collection of writing on the theater, McCarthy straightforwardly agree: “If I made mistakes, who cared?  Being an Editor, at least in name, I had to be allowed  to do something, and the ‘Theatre Chronicle” was “made work” , like the W.P.A. jobs of the period. I could not fail to see this or to be aware that nobody had much confidence in my powers as a critic.” Maccartywriting

Returning to the ‘Chronicle’ at hand, McCarthy begins by continuing with what I take to be a general position among the anti-stalinist left (particularly with respect to what was turning into the Socialist Realism of the CP) that at the present stage of capitalism and of Stalinism, the American theater was in decline, even in it death throes. She begins:“The American Theater, unable to produce a renaissance of its own, has imported an old one. With the withering away of the American playwright the Elizabethan playwright has been called in to understudy.”

Revivals of Shakespeare’s plays now substitute for originality, she argues, and those revivals attempt to make the plays connect with contemporary audiences and issues. But McCarthy, finds that rather than using “new techniques”  these new productions “play tricks” on Shakespeare’s works.  She first makes fun of the competition among various revivals as “an annual Shakespearean World Series seems to have been written into the rules of the game. Last year it was John Gielgud verse Leslie Howard as the ball park; this year it will be Orson Welles versus Maurice  Evans with Henry IV, Part I.”  Then she moves to a more serious interpretation.  She says that Gielgud is obsessed with the acting traditions of  Hamlet, and that in the recent production, Gielgud “appears to have set up a virtual barricade of stage props between himself and the lines of the play.”  And “His own performance was so decorated, so crammed with minutiae of gesture, pause, and movement that its general outline was imperceptible to an audience.”  I think she is particularly annoyed that Gielgud would want to revive the techniques of the great actor-manager of the 19th century, Henry Irving. “He seems always more interested in his differences or agreements with, say, Sir Henry Irving, as to whether or not a sword should be worn at a certain point, than in any less conspicuous physical feature of the production.” Its all so old-fashioned, a rearguard action against the Modernism of PR.  below: Gielgud as Hamlet; Irving as Hamlet.

McCarthy’s comments on Orson Welles’s production of Julius Caesar aappear to be intended to humiliate Welles by pointing to his political naivety. In this case it may be that Welles’ association with the Communist Party was an added incentive for McCarthy’s critique.

“If Mr. Gielgud’s production was a sort of ornamental appliqué imposed on the original, Mr. Welles’ Caesar was a piece of plastic scenery.”  MacCarthy argues that Welles’ idea of producing a Julius Caesar in modern dress was in order to “say something about the modern world, to use Shakespeare’s characters to drive home the horrors and inanities of present-day fascism. I cannot believe that Mr. Welles issue ignorant of Roman history that he can equate Caesar with black reaction and Brutus with progressivism, when the exact opposite was the case.  The core of her criticism is that:

“Julius Caesar is about the tragic consequences when it attempts to enter the sphere of action. In a non-political sense it is a ‘liberal’ play, for it has three heroes, Caesar, Antony, and Brutus, of whom Brutus is the  most large-souled and sympathetic. Shakespeare’s ‘liberal formula’ , which insists on playing fair with its characters, is obviously in fearful discord with Mr. Welles’s anti-fascist formula, which must have heroes and villains at all costs.”  

I am always admiring Mccarthy’s way of telling her truths as she  records or imagines or invokes them, and i think she does a good job in her remarks on the Welles production by reminding us that we have to see what the guy who wrote the play in the first place was up to, if we have a hope of adapting its contentions to those of the present day.

But the best bit of the review to my mind,and I will leave you with this:  is where she scolds Gielgud-as-Dramaturge:Mr. Gielgud, speaking of the first scene of Hamlet, where the Ghose appears on the sentinel’s platform, is full of pity and condescension for the Elizabethans. ‘One wonders, he says, how this scene could be played effectively when it was originally written. A noisy, fidgeting, mostly standing audience, no darkness, afternoon sunshine  streaming on to a tie platform.’ The point is that the plays were written with these conditions, consciously or unconsciously in mind. There being no stage paraphernalia  to create the ‘illusion’ the lines themselves had to do the work of scenery, careful costuming, and props. …. It is therefore a tautology to add externally to Shakespeare what exists already in the very finer of his plays, and the heaviness one feels in most traditional presentations of Shakespeare’s plays is the heaviness of repetition, of underscoring. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mr. MacDonald goes to Washington

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‘Cross-Country: D.C. 1938’

Dwight Macdonald’s companion piece to Balcomb Greene’s poeticized satire of pseudo and  striving urban political intellectuals, ‘Cross Country,’is less a slice of PR culture than was Greene’s, but it is as peculiarly a-generic.

It’s a kind of State of the Union survey — a dystopic view of the US Supreme Court and the Legislature, though Macdonald, perhaps from a squeamish decision to ignore the FDR’s Popular Frontism, left the Executive/President off to the side with the Stalinists. It isn’t exactly orotund, but it’s a bit above its station. More New Yorker than PR, more PR than the New International of 1938.

“This is the imperial accent, the Roman rhetoric. Columns in rows, pediments loaded with ponderous allegories in stone, massive blocks of masonry – dykes against the foaming tides of popular life. The starlings fling themselves against the stolid facades, life spurts among the pediments, the graven seals and the pompous republican insignia are perching places for masonry, cascading over the tile roofs into the sky, distant rustle of bird voices and the silent stone. These birds are considered a civic pest. The police have tried shooting them, they have tried to poison them. They have posted men to shout at them, to wave things at them, to scare them away. But the starlings persist. They specially haunt the interminable facades built by Hoover and Mellon”.

By turns astringent, bombastic, and eerie, the view of Washington, D.C. is like a shot from Hitchcock’s The Birds. Next comes bathos:

D.C. is the city of spittoons. Big brassbellied monsters squat on the carpeted floors of the Capitol. In the newer buildings, they are small, neatly enameled in dark green and brown, discreet.

We then enter the Chamber of the Supreme Court: Polonius times nine.

The Room is nightmare tall. The light is utterly dead, too dead even to be harsh, a corpse plashed from bowls high above, a light as cold and sterile as the atmosphere of an extinct planet. One sits softly on red plush pew benches. One feels one’s flesh puffing out in corpse-dropsy. The nine old men slip from behind the velvet draperies and settle into their appointed seats. 

Over next to the Senate, where the seats are filled with men-as-school-boys:

This is a school-boy’s paradise, where no one ‘pays attention’ and where special messengers are  provided to facilitate note-passing.  Going from the Senate to the House of Representatives is like stepping from the Ritz into a flophouse. For the Senate’s deep red carpet, a blueberry linoleum. For the individual mahogany desks, rows of theatre seats.  For somnolent, dignified calm,  a monkey-house chatter. One sniffs for disinfectants. 

Democratic government seems to require that those who made the laws and those who interpret them shall spend a large part of their time  listening, or rather not listening , to other people talk. The Senators don’t listen to each other. They confer on leather settees, they send page boys on errands, they inspect their fingernails, they read newspapers. The Supreme Court Justices don’t listen to the lawyers. They sot aloft, glazed with ennui, their relief expressing itself only in the droop of a hand shading a brow……

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[of the sculpture in the buildings] It is an alien language: women with ample classical bass ordering their heavy stone limbs according to Beaux-Arts rules; horns of plenty, rams’ heads, fasces, acanthus leaves, olive and myrtle, the symbols and flora of another culture; groups of stone people striking attitudes over the revolving doors of the Bureau of Foreign and Domestic Commerce. The mean in snap-brim hats, the women swaying on high heels who enter their classic portals pay no attention to the myrtle and fasces. They are not part of their lives. They are part of no life except the conservative, defensive, closed life of the buildings they ornament, These buildings are fortresses and the enemy is the life of the people.

First U.S. Shutdown In 17 Years Unavoidable With No Talks

 

Macdonald wrote the piece, I assume, in 1937, when he was editing this issue of PR, a job he took very seriously and in concert with his wife, Nancy, who served as PR’s Managing Editor.

Dwight and Nancy
Dwight and Nancy MacDonald
According to his biographer, Michael Wreszin, Macdonald was in the midst of considering how much he wanted to be an activist or a literateur. He had become a devoted and polemical supporter of Trotsky, and he was troubled that the PR Editors were not showing any interest in letting him write a report on the Annual Meeting of US Steel.

It was now that Macdonald began to move closer to the more or less ‘official’ organs and journals of the Trotskyist Left, primarily James Burnham’s The New International, the public journal of the developing 4th International, the Trotskyist group  founded first in Paris in 1937 and moved to New York in 1938.

The fact that Trotsky was irritated by Macdonald, and thought he was ignorant of any and everything about the Soviet Union made Trotsky into the most glamorous of Macdonald’s resisters: Dwight Garner, in the NYTimes gathered a few high-quality quotations about Dwight:  Gore Vidal said to him, “You have nothing to say, only to add.” Leon Trotsky reportedly declared, “Every man has a right to be stupid, but comrade Macdonald abuses the privilege.” Paul Goodman cracked, “Dwight thinks with his typewriter.”

But Macdonald’s mix of East Coast boarding-school bad boy confidence and his apparent ease in a number of identities: wit, politic0, literary pundit, man of vitality, etc. make his essays a bricolage of styles and aspirations. The Cross Country piece combines a few slogans from the political movement, some satire, a bit of bombast, a layer sentimentality, and a Partisan Review view of 1938 from the refuge of New York.

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Next:Report from Rose Stein

 

 

Working Artists: Balcomb and Gertrude Greene

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Gertrude and Balcomb Greene
Just as the John Reed Clubs were the foundation for the Communist Party’s Partisan Review in its first incarnation, and as the CP’s American Writers’s Congresses were platforms for the developing ideas of the Popular Front, so the American Artists Association also had its source in the John Reed Clubs and was modelled on the American Writers’ Congresses, but for the visual arts.

What you see below is a piece by the writer and abstract painter, Balcomb Greene (1904-1990). Its a satirical collage of voices inspired in form by T.S. Eliot, with its repetition of the lyric moment of The Waste Land. but ripe with the sounds and barks and even the drinks of the New York City artistic and writing scene…. sorry but I haven’t mastered the art of bringing scans to the blog, and I suppose you will have to lie down on your side to read this…

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As for myself, I had never heard of Balcomb Greene nor of his wife Gertrude Glass Green (1904-1957) until the I turned the page of  PR3, 1938 and found this little teaser. But what I learned was that Greene and Gertrude had been active in the politics of abstract art within the anti-Stalinist left.

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Balcomb  and Gertrude Glass Greene.

Balcomb was an early New York abstract painter, and he was one of the original founding members of what became the Abstract Artists Association in 1936.

Gertrude Glass Greene was one of the first American sculptors to make abstract sculptures.gg

 

In 1935, Balcomb Greene took part in an important protest against the way the Museum of Modern Art bought mostly European modern work:balcomb-greene Fifth Avenue, Balcomb Greene on left of abstract object, Byron Browne on the right. The protest did have some effect on MoMA’s acquisition process.

Greene had begun as a student of English Literature and later became a Professor Art History. When he met and married Gertrude Glass, he became increasingly interested in painting:  although he later became a figural painter, this early works were influential on the young artists of the New York School of Abstract Expressionism:

bg1933untitled    This one makes me think of Saul Steinberg. Did they know each other? Anybody know?       larger

What I enjoyed about Greene satirical squib is that it sets us up for the following two articles in the journal. One is by our stalwart Dwight Macdonald, on the political atmosphere in Washington, D.C. in 1938, and the other by Macdonald’s close journalist friend, Rose Stein.

So, next time, we look at Macdonald’s piece, Cross Country.

And just to say, in 2017, the Fine Arts Museums of San

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Six-Sided Planes

Francisco (de Young Collection) purchased and displayed a newly acquired Balcomb Greene, and gave it a full fanfare of Welcome

 

 

The Dramas of Uday Shan-Kar

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Anna Pavlova with Uday Shankar 1923

 

You will recall that Partisan Review’s chief art-critic since its rebirth in 1937 was George L.K. Morris (you might have a look at an earlier blog post from January 7, 2017, “The forms arrive pleasant, or strange, hostile, inexplicable, mute, or drowsy….”that is mostly about Arp, but in which I also try to give a flavour of Morris’s place in the geography of PR.)   In ISSUE 3,1938, Morris writes about the Hindu “founder of India’s modern dance”, Uday Shankar (1900-1977).

Shankar was born in a distinguished Bengali family: his father was a sanskrit scholar and a barrister who came often to England for his work,and his son Uday, older brother of Ravi Shankar, had studied art in Mumbai, but when his father moved to London and began to introduce Indian dance troupes to the UK, Uday moved as well, studying first at the Royal College of Art, and then dancing. Shankar met Anna Pavlova, and she encouraged his dancing and worked with him on a number of pieces; her approval was very important to his commitment to dance.

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Shankur, Pavlova, +?

Shankar’s achievement, exciting to Morris and to the developing aesthetics of Partisan Review,  was that he  was able to integrate aspects of  European and Modernist dance technique into traditional Hindu dancing. So Modernism shows its respect for the past and the past benefits from the inventions of Modernism.

Shankar’s troupe was in England in 1937, and Morris, snob that we have seen him to be (see earlier blog entry, cited above), names him as “one of the  great aristocratic personalities of our time.”  So Morris manages to soften the dancer’s actual class position while alluding to the Noble Savage, Natural Aristocrat theme of much Western Orientalism.Morris also says how “sophisticated” Shankar’s “intelligence,” ignoring both how the term sophistication might be understood here, as ‘corrupted from simplicity. But the evidence for this intelligence is that he studied painting in Paris (bien sur) .. I know that last sentence sounded sort schoolmarmish…..So, it must also be said that Morris’s careful delineation of Shankar’s choreography: “The mere turn of a finger, the bending of a wrist, will lead the line back from infinity to the centre of the radiating masses. The conscious harmonizing of every anatomical segment right out to the tips of the fingers, the facial expression, the glances, the weird neck motion that apes the striking cobra, combine with a controlled coordination that is tellingly abstract.”   Its an important point. What the ancient and the modernist dances teach is not so much narrative as it the geometry of abstraction.  It makes me think of the ways in which Balanchine did something similar with his post-human abstractions in the ballet.

Morris concludes: “And finally, in the Shiva-Parvati NrittyaDwandva, we are confronted with the awful illusion of six-armed Shiva dancing:

as_shiva  as_shiva

NEXT: MIRO….  THIS POST is PUBLISHED THURSDAY,FEB 23,2017, BECAUSE I AM GOING AWAY FOR THE WEEKEND.  NEXT WEEK WILL BE BACK ON SATURDAY SCHEDULE.

 

 

 

1938 — Philip Rahv on American Writers’ Conferences

Issue No.3, February 1938 reproduces the pattern of the first two numbers of Partisan Review: high lit crit by Edmund Wilson on High Lit– Henry James; poems by contemporaries, disclosing the Modernism of the moment; “Art” and  “Theatre” Chronicles by Morris and by McCarthy, and much to my joy, a piece by Philip Rahv, who I cherish in my intellectual romanticism as the bear-hero of the group, and Mary McCarthy’s only true love (even if she forgot that fact for all the decades before his death in 1974).

pr   Philip Rahv and Dwight McDonald (in glasses)leaning forward, next to each other. 1937

At Partisan Review, Rahv was the chief Thinker  or perhaps, chief Humanist, and his passionate intellectual presence was quite different  from the ad hoc and sparky brilliance of Dwight McDonald.

In “Two Years of Progress — from Waldo Frank to Donald Ogden Stewart– Rahv returns us to the Burke-Hook issue, the Moscow Trials, and Stalinism. (see below, Burke-Hook). Rahv discusses the Communist Party’s attempt to promote Stalinist  politics through the encouragement of “revolutionary writing.”

“In organising gatherings of writers this party cleverly transforms its barracks ideology into the angelic diction of culture-yearning and humanist largesse. Its representatives are skilled in palming off administrative notions as principles of criticism and suppressing intellectual freedom in the name of the defence of culture.”

Rahv distinguishes the Conference of 1935 from that of 1937 by its call for  the fight against fascism as part of the fight against capitalism, and recognising that “imperialist FASCIST wars [are different] from imperialist DEMOCRATIC wars.”  Rahv goes on:”[the Stalinists] These people have never learned to distinguish  between the living world and the mechanised dreams of their  party-apparatus.”  This is a small space in which Rahv allows the revolutionary dream to announce itself just as it is being mechanised into what Rahv calls ‘the mechanism of political seduction.’

Rahv goes on to tell the story of Kenneth Burke’s speech at the 1935 Conference, where he used the term ‘people’ rather than ‘workers,’ and was criticised for using a term that obfuscated the distinction between explicit classes —  But in August that year the Comintern decided to make the switch from ‘workers’ to ‘people’ as a Party revision. “Within the space of two years the “revolutionaries” of 1935 had substituted the stars and stripes of New Deal Marxism for [what Louis Aragon had called in his letter of support to the 1935 Conference]“the red flag of the new materialism.”

One more point about the 1935 Conference. It was there that Waldo Frank became a CP ‘hero’ .Portrait_of_Waldo_Frank.jpg     He had been a radical youth, rebellious at school, and an eager convert to Communism, and then to the CPUSA. He was given the privileged task of making the opening saddress at the 1935 Conference, held at the MECCA TEMPLE on W. 55th Street, NYC:mecca-temple-1935 Frank gave a rousing speech, at the end of which “he concluded with the cry: “Everything remains to be done. Let us get to work! “‘ Frank was elected President of the League of American Writers, which he remained until the second Conference in 1937.

So it was then that the CP took on the campaign as the People’s Front, and with it the focus of the struggle turned to Spain.  And there it was seen purely as the battle between fascism and democracy, and in the USA, to “defend our bountiful bourgeois democracy.”  As the popular front became the password for the War, the elements of socialist revolutionary thought eroded, and  at the Second Conference, Earl Browder “called for the denial of free speech and the democratic rights of public controversy to all political opinion to the left of the Communist Party.”

When Frank was replaced by Donald Ogden Stewart as President of the League of American Writers’, it was because Frank had met Trotsky in the 1937, and had encouraged Dewey to set up the International Tribune to investigate Stalin’s charges against Trotsky. Earl Browder condemned Frank’s position, and Frank left the Party in 1937.

Donald Ogden Stewart, on the other hand, was a Hollywood screen-writer, and a solid member of the CP. Stewart fits Rah’s definition of a ‘stooge’ :’a necessary lubricant’ in the CP practice of ‘political seduction.’220px-donald_ogden_stewart Stewart with his Oscar

Rahv draws his piece to a close by returning to the literary itself. In contrast to what CP writers say of the greatness of contemporary literature, “an imaginary crop of masterpieces was invoked to give the Congress its literary raison d’être. Actually, of course, literature in America has seldom been so stagnant as at present.”

But as a man interested in the truth, Rahv was ready to praise the early years of the CPUSA.“The Stalinists, despite their insane sectarianism played an advanced role in the early 1930s. They popularised some of the fundamental ideas of Marxism among American intellectuals, no matter how much they themselves misapplied these ideas in practice. Their literary policy was a reflection of a narrow and factional Party Line, but since the Party based itself on revolutionary principles, it was possible for them to release certain revolutionary forces. But the point about the Stalinists now is that they not only stand between the writer and Marxism but between him and the elementary kind of integrity. The tradition of individual judgement, of skepticism, of scientific verification is inherent in the very terms and conditions of knowledge. The collectivity of the Marxist movement aims to raise this tradition to a level of material consistency and conscious political direction.”

Appendix — personal note.  Rahv was also very interested in James, and though he  roasted my mother when she applied the principles of cultic piety to the Master, Rahv belongs in my Tintner-James karass (see Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle).  He dismissed my sister and myself when my mother declared that her children were readers of James, but had little time for Proust. As if Rahv could care about what College Students thought?!  Finally, Rahv was a member of the faculty at Brandeis University from 1957 until he died, which is where I had my necessary and exhilarating hazing as an Assistant Professor in the 1980s, and my education as a combatant against the anodyne with the help of Allen Grossman and Timo Gilmore.

NEXT: Ballet and Miro.