Abstract Painting 1938: Letters from a “Park Avenue Cubist”to the dead and to the living

george_l-_k-_morris_and_suzy_frelinghuysen You might first want to turn to an earlier blog post here, which introduces George L.K. Morris and his wife, Suzy Frelinghuysen: see Archive, January 7, 2017. click here“The forms arrive pleasant, or strange, hostile, inexplicable, mute, or drowsy….”

The “Art Chronicle” by George Morris in Vol.4, no.4, March, 1938 is framed as a set of letters to contemporary painters — Charles Demuth, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Peter Blume.  The device might be thought of as part of Morris’s noblesse oblige towards contemporary painters.  Able to bankroll Partisan Review  when necessary, and committed to making abstract painting a serious category of American painting, Morris was one of the Founder-Members of the  American Abstract Painters Group in 1936. The group was active in promoting abstraction, and in 1937, it held its first exhibition, at the Squibb Gallery in New York.


Letter I: To the American Abstract Artists, American Fine Arts Galleries,

Morris begins his “Chronicle” with a letter “To the American Abstract Artists, American Fine Arts Galleries,”  It is somewhat annoying that he writes about ‘this exhibition’ without making it clear which exhibition he is referring to, but it is a letter in prospect of a group show. I assume it was written to the group he had helped to found before its initial exhibition. But if I am wrong about that, please let me know. Morris predicts violent reactions and much negative response to the works on display. Addressing the artists, he writes, as if  frankly, “The strongest public opposition will issue, as always, from the large troupe of perpetual gallery-visitors” who will search the canvases for half-secreted “representational objects”.  But he is more concerned about those who are held back by “bourgeois conformity”, and who will pronounce that these abstractions “are purely emotional; that they are not emotional enough; that they are academic; that they are governed by no laws at all”.  Morris, as one of the PAC (“The Park Avenue Cubists”, as they were called  by the less well-heeled of the PR  contributors) is also pretty sure that Communist Party –socialist realist– artists will criticise abstract paintings for being without a connection to problems of social justice, “adding that illustrative propaganda is a natural function of art, that much past culture was essentially propagandistic.”

So, to his colleagues and friends at the American Abstract Artists group, he finishes his letter by moralising the mission of this art:

“In our present environment, so full of divergent  currents. only discipline and restriction can build up a lasting flexibility.  You saw how the artists of the world had gone completely awry with their elaborate campaigns to conquer the visible world (Impressionism), the unconscious world (Surrealism), the political world (Propagandism), the complex texture of a new locality  (American Scene). I cannot foresee what your group may be producing in a decade. But in the meantime you qualify as the sole organisation in America that is dedicated to the hewing out of an authentic and appropriate cultural expression.”

Letter II:  To Charles Demuth, Whitney Museum.

Charles Demuth, 1883-1935
Morris’s second letter in the piece is addressed to Charles Demuth, one of the ‘regional American painters,’ known as well for his Cubist-Realist works. Borrowing from the technique and experience of the abstract painters of Europe, Demuth made a contemporary industrial America realist genre, with one part of his aesthetic built from geometrical principles of Cubism, and the other from the experience of industrial landscapes in the centre of  America.  He was a member of Alfred Steiglitz’s group, along with Georgia O’Keeffe and other painters whose focus on clarity of line went by the name of “Precisionism.”DEMUTH232px-Demuth_Charles_Aucassiu_and_Nicolette_1921207px-Brooklyn_Museum_-_Roofs_and_Steeple_-_Charles_Demuth_-_overall.jpg

After Demuth died in 1935 from diabetes,  the Whitney Museum put on a show of his work, the Charles Demuth Memorial Exhibition December 15, 1937 to January 16, 1938.Morris’s letter to him is from the living to the dead.  The tone of this letter is kind and quite gentle.  It is from one gentleman to another, dead, gentleman. Demuth never rushes his work, his paintings have ‘poise and monumentality,’  both qualities preserved from Demuth’s early water-colours and paintings,  Morris likes the restraint of Demuth’s work: “There is no strain, your accent was never forced.”  

Morris reminds us that Demuth had been criticised for ‘coldness’ in his work, but as gentleman to gentleman, Morris reinterprets cold as an urge towards the stability of the canvas. “Your pictures are not lively, but they live with an internal vitality that will endure. . . . You were always the architect within the canvas boundary, with  a passion for exhausting every means whereby the parts might be welded together.”

Letter III: To Georgia O’Keeffe

After the respect and admiration of Morris’s letter to Demuth, his address to Georgia O’Keeffe is like a smack upside one’s head. All of Morris’s snobbiness comes to his assessment of her: ” Legend has it that you emerged as a school-teacher from Texas,” as if that was explanatory… “But you have been deluded. You felt that everything you touched was sensational and ‘artistic,’ whereas in reality there was only the sign-painter’s slimy technique.”  My guess is that most of his crass critique  comes from the values of boys’ schooling when he was at Groton Academy: “Your flower-pictures grow tiresome; even the sexual over-meanings became sticky and dull.. . . Your forms grow into gas…only the academic critics can now applaud you, and the columnists who write for housewives; they believe correctly that they have found a celebrated modern painter who has joined their ranks at last.”    NO Noblesse Oblige in this case.


Letter III: To Peter Blume, Julian Levy Gallery.

Here again, Morris picks another weak target and beats him up. I can’t really figure out what these letters are driving at– I certainly can see why Blume’s “The Eternal City” can be grouped with Salvador Dali’s work, and that there is something here that doesn’t work.  Was Blume a CPUSA member? Is that why his anti-fascist work is presented as fascist itself?  Though the painting was well-received by critics when Blume first exhibited it at the Julian Levy Gallery in 1937, it hasn’t garnered much interesting criticism or attention since.   And Morris doesn’t use the painting or Blume’s work in general to make a point about abstraction or even aesthetics.


Peter Blume, The Eternal
Let’s just move on…. to RIPOSTES Minutiae of Left-Wing Literary History. This one is bound to be more amusing.



Fred Dupee on André Malraux


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)

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.


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.

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.

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.