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.
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.
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.
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.
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 .