“Artists, for instance, should be capable of figuring the situation out….”

James Agee was a literary friend of Dwight MacDonald and of Delmore Schwartz, and  for a time he was with, but not wholly of, Partisan Review.unknown-2             images-1

Agee was born in Knoxville, Tennessee in 1909, where his father died when James was 6.  Under the guidance of his Episcopalian mother and a teacher, Father James Harold Flyte, who taught him at an  Episcopalian boarding school in the South,  James came north as a teenager to be educated, first at Philips Exeter Academy, an elite boarding school on the East Coast, (where Dwight MacDonald had been just a few years earlier), then on to Harvard. James excelled in English and wrote prodigiously, and was elevated into the poetry elite in 1934, when his collection of verse — Permit me Voyage– was published as part of the Yale Younger Poets series.

Its title, I presume, comes from Hart Crane’s poem sequence, “Voyages,” which ends “Permit me voyage, love, into your hands . .” and by taking on the words of Crane, who had died in 1932, Agee set up the scaffolding for his own passionate and confusing life.

The “Lyrics” that appear in the December 1937 issue of PR were probably solicited by Macdonald, who had become friends with Agee and who had helped him get a job working at Fortune and then at Time magazine. In 1937, Agee was sent on assignment to document the lives of the  sharecropping families in the South.  He went with the photographer Walker Evans; the book that Agee wrote (though Fortune rejected the original commissioned article)  along with Evans’s photos is now considered one of the most brilliant narratives of life during the American Depression of the 1930s, and a precursor to the New Journalism of Hunter Thomson and Norman Mailer.  It was published as Let Us Now Praise Famous Men in 1941 to little acclaim and poor sales. The “Lyrics” published at the end of 1937 may be a coda to or reflections on that trip. unknown                           

In a notebook entry  by Delmore Schwartz a few years before Agee’s death at 45 from a heart attack, the poet writes: “Agee:the world well-lost for loving description & bohemian Xtiase [aj: Christianise ] piety.” Most of the many who have written about Agee’s appeal, his love of language, his love of drinking, his difficulty working, his laziness and his ‘genius,’ as a kind of poet maudit, kin to Schwartz, but with more élan and more energy.

“I am a Communist by sympathy and conviction,”  Agee announced, but he was also an unresolved Episcopalian, dogged by strictures of“the mortal sin of ‘pride.’ Agee takes his discussion of pride and heaves it over to the Soviet Union, combining his disdain for the Stalinist elites of art and industry with his sense of sin. He writes:

“The most dangerous form of pride is neither arrogance nor humility, but its mild, common denominator form, complacency. Artists, for instance,should be capable of figuring the situation out to the degree that they would refuse the social eminence and the high pay they are given in Soviet Russia. The setting up of an aristocracy of superior workers is no good sign, either.”

The Lyrics printed on pages 41-44 of issue 1, dec 1937, are, indeed,  lyrical and Whitmanian, Yeatsian, and Blakean, and they are political, with reverberations of W.H. Auden’s crisp metaphors covered with a haze of  Biblical transcendence .  Here is the first of the 11 “Lyrics” :

Remember limber thunder in the deaf: the metal tasting air:                         Cities like silly medals lay: wind:

Flashed the whole forest pale:                                                                                       Spasm and blindness blenched and the bunched cloud

Delivered his blue columns.

Remembering thunder: deliberating in the shadow cold; the fuse air:

The paltry metals on that pitiful breast: the wind:                                     Violating the pale forest crest:

Twittering blaze, the hunched cloud                                                                                                                                                                                               Voided, and slept aloof, the miles                                                                           Restored into the sun, the clean sun                                                                     Sheened in his scope:

Remembering unlimbering thunder in the deafness and the tinder air:           The pinned and pendant cities: in the woods                                                                 A whole year’s  generations struck one white:                                       Collaborative, and determinative thunder:

{To read the other 10 lyrics, please go to: http://hgar-srv3.bu.edu/collections/partisan-review/search/detail?id=283905,     which brings you to Partisan Review, Vol 1v, No.1. 1937. Then go to page 41.}

images  Agee, quizzical

In his essay of 1962, Dwight Macdonald declared that like the cult of James Dean,

“There is an Agee Cult that has come into existence because of the power of his writing and his lack of recognition while he was alive, but chiefly because it is felt that Agee’s life and personality, like Dean’s, are at once an expression of our time and a protest against it. It is also felt that it was not their weakness which betrayed them, but their vitality. In their maimed careers and their wasteful deaths, the writer and the actor appeal to a resentment that intellectuals and teenagers alike feel about life in America to-day, so sleekly prosperous on the surface, so frustrating in the depths.”

By the time I went to Reed College in 1970, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, which had sold only 600 copies when it was first published in 1941, had been republished and become the ubiquitouspaperback on my campus. I expect that if you are reading this post, you have also either read Agee’s ruminations during the Depression, or seen the Walker Evans photos.

The New Left embraced Agee’s energy and anger, and the Walker Evans photos gave us a new post-hippie fashion forwalker-evans-fl-burroughs poverty-beauty. Wraithlike young women with stray hair tucked behind their ears and the abject gaze of the truly hungry were quickly translated into the images of the post-68ers as faux Appalachians.


in 1983, William Barrett published The Truants: Adventures Among the Intellectuals, and in it he provided some discussion of why someone like Agee would keep his distance from the PR circle:  noting first that “the sheer intensity of the group itself could be enough to drain one’s energies –especially away from writing…Besides, there was a danger for creative writers particularly in becoming too deeply involved in a circle were every item of experience was intellectualized. James Agee felt this chill and withdrew.”

Barrett describes the friendship that developed between Agee and Schwartz in 1939.”I thought at the time that here were the two best literary talents of their generation. . .That afternoon they talked as poets together, without inhibition and without artificiality.  . .But when Delmore became intricately involved with Partisan Review, the friendship faded out. Agee felt the close-knit atmosphere of the New York Intellectuals as an alien  one and did not wish to get too near it.”

Picasso’s 1937 Contribution…..

Fandango of lettuces pickled fish of swords of cuttlefish of ill-omen disarm of hairs of tonsures standing in the middle of the frying -pan in balls on the wafer of the sherbet of the fried codfish in the mange of his heart of ox — his belly full of the jelly of bedbugs of his words– little bells of the plate of snails braiding intestines– from The Dream and Lie of Franco, 1937.

350px-PicassoGuernica.jpgIn the 21st century, Picasso’s Guernica remains a defining image of the horrors of war. Painted in grey-scale in 1937 for the Paris International Exhibition, Guernica articulated the suffering of the Basque country during the Spanish Civil War, when German planes aided Franco’s forces to destroy the democratic government.  When Guernica was shown in Paris, Antony Blunt, the British Art Historian and one of the ‘Cambridge spies’ criticised it from a strictly CP perspective:  Nigel Wheale writes that

“In a Spectator article, ‘Picasso Unfrocked’,(8 October, 1937) Blunt had denounced Guernica as too obscure and self-referential, and its reliance on the worn-out Cubist idiom frankly ‘elitist’. Against Picasso’s formalism, Blunt went on to champion the work of Mexican social realist Diego Rivera.” (Nigel Wheale, The Fortnightly Review, 3 March, 2013)  

An important member of the Art World, Keeper of the Queen’s Pictures, and an agent for the Soviet Union, Blunt was a friend and relative of the Windsors, and the Royal Family may have fallen in line with Stalin’s views of art through Blunt’s encouragement though perhaps without knowing it.

The surrealists, rather than the Stalinists, were more engaged by Guernica’s symbolism and  vision and the anarcho-surrealist tone that suffuses the  painting.  It makes sense that the PR editors would want to include Picasso within their range of ‘independent’ but revolutionary culture. In the  1937 December issue of PR, an example of Picasso’s political art occupied three pages of the journal. First is a prose poem whose violent language and savage metaphors detailing the reality of war experience is presented without editorial introduction,  and  on the following two pages are 4 of 18 images that Picasso had published earlier in the year with the title The Dream and Lie of Franco.

Image result for The Dream and the Lie Picasso 1937


The etching  at the top of  the page above is Franco in the dress of a street walker or courtesan; the one below shows Franco, his hands in prayer, surrounded by barbed wire. On the page below is Franco attacking an ancient monument of beauty; below it is a horse caressing a wounded or dead fighter.The silent chaos of syntax and image which binds poem to etchings is almost a moment of agit-prop, in which The Editors of Partisan Review stand back from commentary and let the poem and pictures overtake commentary’s function.


NEXT: James Agee ‘Lyrics’

Lionel Abel on Ignazio Silone

‘Sartre says Abel is the most intelligent man in New York City. Kenneth Rexroth, the poet-critic, says Abel is the most intelligent man in New York City. Abel himself will not say that he is the most intelligent man in New York City. But he will say that Sartre and Rexroth are both magnificent judges of intellect’. Dick Schaap, The New York Herald Tribune,  1965.


Lionel Abel, 1958  (1910 — 2001)

Lionel Abel was pugnacious, irascible, badly -behaved and a bright spark within the Partisan Review scene.  My parents became friendly with him during his long relationship with Florence Samuels, who lived in her mother’s rent-controlled flat on the Upper West Side, and  waited for a very long time for Lionel’s wife to die, so he could marry her. This never happened and Florence herself died before Lionel.  I went to tea with Abel and Florence one afternoon while I was doing my Phd, and for reasons that I can no longer understand  I engaged in an argument with him in which I defended Derrida (I considered myself both a Marxist and a Foucauldian at the time, so why did I take up that challenge?) Lionel quizzed me and quoted to me and generally wore me down, while Florence and my mother looked at me proudly, and urged me on into the forest of confusion.They wanted Lionel to cry ‘uncle’ but I went into the kitchen to help clear up the cups, and went straight out the back door, licking my wounded amour propre.    The following day I was rootling around in Books, Inc, the  bookstore that used to be there next to the Whitney Museum that used to be there as well, and by unluck, there was Lionel as well, looking smaller and nicer than the day before, picking up and putting down books.

In the world of NY intellectuals, Lionel was known for his cranky positions and his wit. He was brooklyn born and came from a family of rabbis.  Unlike many of his first generation American friends, he was interested in the contemporary European avant-garde, and was less concerned with his own Americanisation. He brought to Partisan Review writers like Silone and thinkers like Jean-Paul Sartre.

Two Italian anti-fascists were associated with Partisan Review: Ignazio Silone and Nicola Chiarmonte (who will begin writing for PR in 1944, and who worked with Silone in 1955 on the journal Tempo Presente). Silone wrote two important novels, Fontamara and Bread and Wine, and Abel’s discussion outlines how each narrative relates to the revolutionary situation at its origin.  As with Wilson’s piece on Flaubert,  Abel makes a significant distinction between Fontamara, published in 1933, during the rise of the Italian fascists and Bread and Wine, published in 1935, after the fascists are in place in Italy.  Fontamara presents the struggle of uneducated peasants to acquire political knowledge and turn it into action, which inspired the novelist and inspires the reader, and Bread and Wine, which turns from the access  to  political theory from the city to ‘the country, ethics, the heart.’

Abel, like other writers in this issue,  uses his discussion of the two books to make an argument about the structure of the contemporary situation of Stalinism, that the  “Communist International has been has been shown by its recent history that it is no longer a revolutionary party”. Abel tells us that:

Fontamara was a book of hope. Bread and Wine is a book of misery and doubt”.  But he also tells us that “No man is more friendly to the friendliness of the town for the country, of ethics for politics, of theory for the heart, than is Ignazio Silone. And if he has communicated to us certain doubts as to how and under what circumstances these can be brought together, be sure it is out of sympathy and friendliness for us”

Both Fontamara and Bread and Wine can be found in or obtained through your library.


James T. Farrell, “Mrs. O’Flaherty and Lizz”

James T. Farrell was very familiar to readers of my parents’s generation, and not very familiar to my own.


James T. Farrell              South Side Chicago

Studs Lonigan is the anti-hero who suffers a remarkably difficult life in Farrell’s novel trilogy about life in the South Side of Chicago. Lonigan goes through a long downhill slide into alcoholism, defeat and death, and the novel belongs to the tradition of american naturalism — where social and economic forces determine a person’s life more than character or morality. Like Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, human potential is worn down and wrecked by capitalism,  Farrell was able to capture not only the degradations of wage labour but the cruel, often intolerably cruel behaviour and words of the American working class at home.

As an anti-Stalinist and member of the Committee to Defend Leon Trotsky, Farrell’s contribution to the first issue of the new style Partisan Review — “Mrs. O’Flahrety and  Lizz — does not glamorise the life of working people; rather it demonstrates the ways in which capitalism and religion break down and corrupt human authenticity.

Next to Wilson’s high minded Marxist discussion of Flaubert, Farrell puts the reader face to face with the misery of the O’Flaherty women, who are engaged in a three way set of rivalries, self-justifications, and accusations.  By the end of this four page short story, the reader is appalled by the characters themselves, by the social and economic struggles that pit them against one another, and by damage wrought by cliches of Catholic piety. Its a dramatic juxtaposition — Wilson’s view from above alongside Farrell’s immediacy — and Farrell’s sentences can shift around, at one moment violent, at another benign, and contradictory  even within a clause.  This piece was part of his novel, A World I Never Made. 

A World I Never Made.jpeg

In her Intellectual Memoirs, New York 1936-1938, Mary McCarthy, so closely associated with PR in the 1930s and with the group of New York Intellectuals for her whole life,  writes that it was Farrell who introduced her to the world of the Trotskyist Left Opposition against Stalin, and to ‘the boys,’ as McCarthy and Hannah Arendt referred to Rahv and Schwartz and others in the PR circle of talents.  She went to a party at the Farrell house, where

“the guests were all intellectuals, of a kind unfamiliar to me. I could hardly understand them as they ranted and shouted at each other. What I was witnessing was the breakup of the [Communist Party’s} virtual monopoly on the thought of the left. Among the writers who had been converted to Marxism by the Depression, Farrell was one of the first to free himself”

{ AJ: I grew up thinking that shouting and ranting were always the best way to discuss intellectual matters, and always urged my own students to go on that way. This may have been an error……}

It was McCarthy’s awakening, and she remained a strong. Leftist throughout her writing life, even while others moved rightwards, and even as she was criticised for her way of living, her love of beautiful clothing, and her sexual adventures.

NEXT: Lionel Abel on Ignazio Silone

“Flaubert’s Politics”

If you are new to this blog, please click on the ABOUT tab above to learn about what I am aiming to do in this commentary on Partisan Review in the 1930s. Annie J

Edmund Wilson.jpegRahv-Mugshot-197x300.jpgGustav Flaubert.jpegMary McCarthy.jpeg

Edmund Wilson,  Philip Rahv,  Gustave Flaubert, Mary McCarthy

After Schwartz’s story and Stevens’s poem — one from a newcomer, the other from a distinguished man of letters — PR turns to the kind of political literary criticism that would be critical and historical.   The essay, “Flaubert’s Politics” is a tour de force by the decade’s most highly regarded American critic, Edmund Wilson, who made his name in the 1920s and 1930s, and who championed the work of F.Scott Fitzgerald. In 1938 he married Mary McCarthy, who at that time was  having a serious relationship with Philip Rahv of PR. In her  Intellectual Memoirs, McCarthy explains how Wilson came to contribute to the first issue of the new PR.  The  Stalinist purges of Old Bolsheviks had begun and Philip Rahv was clear that the journal would polemicise against this turn within the Soviet Union. Wilson had come to the PR office to meet with the editors, and McCarthy, always well-dressed, was particularly so that day, ‘to make a good impression’.  “He bustled into our office, short, stout, middle-aged, breathy — born 1895; we others were in our twenties…”

As an elder literary statesman, Wilson agreed to contribute an article, and in it he proved that Flaubert was a anti-Stalinist Marxist avant la lettre and of Marx’s party without knowing it. Wilson had published a version of it in 1932 in the Herald Tribune Book Review, but its importance in the first issue of PR was not only because of the crisis caused by the Moscow Show Trials in 1936 and 1938, but also because it modelled  the new kind of critical thought that Partisan Review endorsed.

Wilson begins with the  complexity of politics in France during Flaubert’s life (1820-1881), a period ‘of alternating republics and monarchies, of bogus emperors and defeated  revolutions, when political ideas were in confusion’. Flaubert agrees with the Goncourt brothers that the only response is to stay away from ‘any social conviction,’to remove oneself from the fray. The Revolution of 1848 had appalled Flaubert, and he shied away from what he felt were the manacles of political attachment, in particular ‘the authoritarianism’ of the socialists.  “Nothing exasperated him more  — and we may sympathise with him today– than the idea that the soul is to be saved by the profession of correct opinions.” And so may we sympathize with him today.

But then Wilson pivots away from Flaubert’s opinions and suggests that the novelist was an idealist in tradition of Hegelian”Idea”, as was Marx (up to a point) and opening the second, and central movement of the article.  Wilson acknowledges that when Flaubert ‘reasons about society — which he never does except in his letters — his conceptions seem incoherent.’ But his deeper commitments are apparent within his novels. So Wilson  points out scenes in  which  Flaubert locates moral value in the working class and rural labouring class- and that  brings him closer to Marx. In ‘L’Education Sentimentale’ Flaubert  recognises the enemy as the bourgeois, and the putative ‘hero’ of he novel is as ineffectual as the bourgeois men he detests. Senecal, the communist, when he gets work in a pottery, becomes ‘an inexorable little tyrant,’ and an authoritarian.  HIs counterpart,the dull but honest clerk, Dessardier, becomes a member of the National Guard, and knocks down a young revolutionary.Immediately rebuking himself, he spontaneously joins the working men in the street. He is then killed by a policeman, who turns out to be Senecal.


Now printed in December 1937, with the Moscow Trials of older Bolsheviks and their supporters, Wilson foregrounds the parallels between the Moscow Trials and France in the decades of revolutionary politics:

“Today we must recognise that Flaubert had observed something of which Marx was not aware.  We have had the opportunity to see how even a socialism which has come to power as the result of a proletarian has bred a political police of almost unprecedented ruthlessness and pervasiveness — how the socialism of Marx himself, with its emphasis on dictatorship rather than on democratic processes, has contributed to produce this disaster. Here Flaubert, who believed that the artist should aim to be without social convictions, has been able to judge the tendencies of political doctrines as the greatest of doctrinaires could not; and here the role chosen by Flaubert is justified.”

Political literary criticism  but independent.

Next: Lionel Abel on Ignacio Silone

PR sets out its stall. vol.4, no.1.

The first issue of the repurposed Partisan Review would set the agenda for the journal’s life.   The design of the journal was created by Theodore Roszak (1907-1981), a painter and sculptor and lithographer who went on to make the Eagle on the top of the American Embassy in London, and who later made eerily surrealistic lithographs (one of which was on the wall of my parents’ living room — a flaccid penis floating above a woman’s body in some kind of expressionist space-time continuum). Roszak was the child of Polish parents, and lived much of his life in the Village with his wife, Florence, and their daughter, Sara-

Florence and Theodore Roszak


His design for the journal is a model of Modernist style: sans serif modern and blocky primitivism.

Design for Partisan Review

“In Dreams Begin Responsibilities”

The opening pages of PR sets offers the polemical bravado of its “Editorial Statement” against the poignant scene of first generation Jews,narrated by a Modernist but sentimental young man, Delmore Schwartz (1913-1966).


The story, “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities”  features themes that remained central to Schwartz’s writings. At its centre was the situation of the immigrant Jew in New York, and the mis-matched marriage of young people who didn’t know much about themselves, each other, or America.
The narrator, who is the son of this couple, reconstructs his parents’ courtship in the idiom of Freudian psychoanalysis and through its most popularized analytical object: the dream. Old Country anxieties filter into the New World of New York while the translucence of the narrator’s dream is perforated by modern technology, the movie projector. It is a movie that the narrator watches within his dream within his sleep. The narrator/son/moviegoer is the keeper of knowledge. As the couple’s first American-born son, he knows more than his parents about what will happen to their lives, their marriage, and the world into he, the narrator, will be born. He stands up in the cinema of his dream  and tries to stop the film and redirect the courting couple, to change the future. The futility of his efforts becomes clear, and he wakes, facing the burden now of being an adult:

“I woke up into the bleak winter morning of my twenty-first birthday, the window-sill shining with its lip of snow, and the morning already begun” (PR, VOL.IV. NO.1 p.11.)

“The Dwarf”

images.jpeg Wallace Stevens (1879-1955)

Now it is September and the web is woven.
The web is woven and you have to wear it.

The winter is made and you have to bear it,
The winter web, the winter woven, wind and wind,

For all the thoughts of summer that go with it,
In the mind, pupa of straw, moppet of rags.

It is the mind that was woven, the mind that was jerked
And tufted in straggling thunder and shattered sun.

It is all you are, the final dwarf of you,
That is woven and woven and waiting to be worn,

Neither as mask nor as garment but as a being,
Torn from insipid summer, for the mirror of cold,

Sitting beside your lamp, for the citron to nibble
And coffee dribble . . . Frost is in the stubble.

What better start to the PR programme than to publish a poet whose work embodied the Modernist contradiction (a few years later explained by Clement Greenberg in an issue of PR in 1939),  as the dislocation of the advant-garde from social engagement to the realm of abstraction. Stevens had won an award from the left journal ‘The Nation,’ in 1936. But Stevens was not a Leftist. He was a conservative man who happened to be one of the most original American Modernist poets.The ‘independence’ of the Journal is guaranteed by ‘The Dwarf.’

Vol 4, No.1 is a December issue and the  bleak winter of Schwartz’s story is mirrored by  Wallace Steven’s poem, ‘The Dwarf,’ which recuperates the wintry death into the figure that has emerged from the ‘pupa’– the mind as the final metamorphosis but perhaps the  of forms of  of ‘being.’ But like much of Modernism, it is also an unacknowledged  romantic poem as well — taking Wordsworth’s theory of the liberation of thought from body as the road to permanence, with its ‘vacillating calculus of loss and gain,’ (Geoffrey Hartmann) and showing its more frightening form.


[Pupa of the rose chafer beetle, Cetonia aurata]

It is all you are, the final dwarf of you,
That is woven and woven and waiting to be worn

NEXT POST: Edmund Wilson on Flaubert’s Politics.

Want to read the articles and poems and stories?

Reminder: all issues of Partisan Review are available online :
Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center

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