“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.


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.”:

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 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 Kiernan, 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


‘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……


[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.


Next:Report from Rose Stein



Working Artists: Balcomb and Gertrude Greene

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…


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.

balcombgreene-port       gg1937

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

Six-Sided Planes

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