Silly Season in 1938

The Silly Season in 1938.

It is a season of tragedy here in London, what with the Grenfell Tower human-made disaster and the Brexit idiocy and like shock waves from outer space, the Trumphypocracy.   And it was close to one in havering New York in 1938 as well, as you will know from the pages of Partisan Review, but silly seasons there must be, and since this is my post before taking next weekend off from the internetted world, I am turning here to Herbert Solow’s Riposte at the end of Vol.4, issue 5, 1938.

Solow, who was a serious diner at the top table as a Jewish intellectual, was also amusing and was one of the Luce Empire’s employees, along with Dwight Macdonald. This piece, “Substitution, at Left tackle: Hemingway for Dos Passos,” shares the Riposte pages with Macdonald’s “Time’s Fifteenth,” – while Macdonald’s peppery discussion of Time magazine’s fifteenth anniversary is also a pretty incisive analysis of its politics,  Solow’s is an attack more focussed on Communist Party literary criticism, in which ‘play by play’ excerpts from the New Masses show the fall and rise of Dos Passos and Hemingway according to the fortunes of Stalinism and its campaign against Trotsky.

Solow was a Columbia boy (class of 1924) , and Luce writer, and before he became a Trotskyist and part of the Partisan Review circle, he had been drawn to a journal, that also came from Columbia, the Menorah Journal. It was edited by Elliot Cohen, who fostered a non-parochial approach to Jewish studies, and Solow was recruited to its ranks.  Solow,  who was known to his fellow students as a troubled, brilliant, and un-clubbable intellectual was not without his charm.  He was graduated with a cum laude degree and he stayed on for a B.Litt.,joking that it came with a   “cum grano salis.”  (Alan Wald writes). In my own opinion, he is up there with Philip Rahv as one of the best minds of their generation. (apologies to Allen Ginsberg).

As a developing Marxist and thinking about it in relation to questions of Judaism, Solow became an anti-Zionist, which he wrote about with rigor and which created a  large pothole on  the road of the Menorah Journal.  Solow had stood up for Sidney Hook’s questioning of how the Zionists proposed to deal with the human rights of the Palestinian Arabs.  Alan Wald, again, writes “Solow then and later defended Hook, for whom the episode marked Solow’s beginning as a “member of the permanent opposition.”Menorah JOurnal

When the Moscow Trials  and the exile and persecution of Trotsky got underway, Solow and Dwight Macdonald were involved in the Committee to Defend Leon Trotsky. After the War, Solow stayed on with Fortune Magazine, left Marxist and Trotskyist politics behind, and died in 1964.

I didn’t know much about Solow before reading about him in Alan Wald’s book on the New York Intellectuals, I am surprised that I had heard never heard about him when I was growing up, though by that time he had distanced himself  from the PR  and Trotskyist world.

SO…in his RIPOSTE,  Solow shows us the way the CPUSA  has gone from adoring DosPassos to hating him and how Hemingway has travelled, in the minds of the Stalinists from a bourgeois ‘type’ to a “writer of uncommon merit”.  Here it is: its amusing and scarily true: (you can make the picture larger with your  view menu, I believe.)

page 62
page 63




SO dear comrades. I am having a bit of time off….and will be back with you on 8 July, unless I can’t stay away from Delmore Schwartz’s “The Statues.”





Dwight Macdonald takes Time

Time’s Fifteenth —


Dwight Macdonald, film negative by Walker Evans, sometime between 1934-1941


Having hammered the New Yorker in  PR, vol. IV, no.1, December 1937 with “Laugh and Lie Down,” and contributed to PR, Vol IV, No. 3, February, 1938, a strange and original discussion of  politics through the monuments – both human and of stone – in Washington, D.C., Macdonald claims the first of the editorial columns in  the endpapers, “Ripostes,” for PR, April 1938 with “Time’s Fifteenth.”

Sort of a book-end piece to “Laugh and Lie Down,” “Time’s Fifteenth” is the kind of sardonic critique often best-written by someone who has earlier been in the business themselves.  He didn’t go on to be a Staff Writer at the New Yorker until the 1950s, but back in 1938, he had already been at the birth of the Luce magazine empire. Macdonald was hired in 1929 first as a writer for Time,  and then moved on to Fortune, where Macdonald stayed until 1936, just as he was becoming increasingly politicised in the atmosphere of the Depression.

You have to bear in mind that Macdonald was one of the non-jews of the PR crowd, and he had been educated at elite East Coast schools: Philips Exeter for high school, Yale for his degree. Though he was ground down by the day-to-day tedium of being a jobbing writer at Time and Fortune, he wasn’t riven by the contradictions and confusions of those first-generation born working class New Yorkers who made up the world of the “JIs” – the term for the subset of urban intelligentsia that my parents, their friends, their children, and their friends happily threw at each other around  the argumentative dinner table – when I was young.

At Yale, Macdonald became friends with Fred Dupee (among the first of the PR editors)  and George L.K. Morris (who wrote the “Art Chronicle” in Partisan Review) – neither of whom were Jews and both of whom became frequent contributors to the journal.  And Macdonald had to read and talk himself out of the anti-semitism he had shared with many of his own and his friends’ milieux.  These were the public and private institutions and norms of the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant Establishment. But the twist in elite education was that many of the rebellious sons and daughters of WASP culture had been educated into the kind of critical analysis that gave them to tools to argue against that establishment and fight against its social norms.

So Macdonald’s remarks on the 15th anniversary of the “Time Community,” are believable because he worked there, amusing because he pushed against Time’s pomposity, self-importance, and its desire to recruit its readers to a “way of thinking” invented by the weekly magazine for the man “who has little time” to find out about whats important for him to know.

Macdonald begins his column with a letter sent to all of Time’s potential subscribers, inviting them all to celebrate the 15th anniversary of the news weekly by learning more about the ‘community’ to which they could all belong. The letter takes on its readers as intimates, and the tone of its persuasion is in “a chatty, intimate vein… from the “able, shrewd, potent publisher of Time: baldish, bumbling Ralph  McAllister Ingersoll,close relative of the late great Ward McAllister, of “Four Hundred.” With that phrase, Macdonald refers to the  Ward McAllister who invented the epithet and meant it to refer to the  most important people in New York’s elite social circles.”If you go outside that number,” McAllister warned, “you strike people who are either not at ease in a ballroom or else make other people not at ease.”  That number was also rumoured to be the right capacity for Mrs. Astor’s ballroom.  The hypocrisy of inviting thousands of Americans to be part of a tiny elite community which had always already refused them admission was Macdonald’s first satiric target in his piece, but he also made a more incisive political point.

Macdonald doesn’t only make fun of the Luce magazines, he produces an analytic argument about why they take the stance they do.  He writes:

Time has a ticklish editorial task: to give the news an upper-class angle without appearing to violate the creed of “objectivity” which that class holds so dear. The well-fed well-heeled members of the Time Community insist that their spokesmen fight for their class interests by denying the existence of the class struggle. No one is more adept at this delicate manoeuvre than kinetic, bis-browed, twice-wed Henry Robinson Luce.”    

In the 1930s, Macdonald used to refer to Luce as “Il Luce”, on the pattern of “Il Duce!”

In his Riposte, Macdonald goes on to link the corrupt elitism of the Luce magazines to that of the US Government, in particular the scandals which put the The White House in disarray during the Warren Harding Presidency, and prosecuted after his death in 1923– the year that Time was first published.

Having made his attack witty and riveting,  Macdonald turns to the way Time makes sense of contemporary literature; he was lucky that 1923 was soon after Joyce published Ulysses  and Eliot published The Waste Land.

Macdonald says that the first issue of Time aimed to “Settle the hash of two literary pranksters (James Joyce and T.S. Eliot) in an article headlined: “Has the Reader Any Rights Before the Bar of  Literature?” and he gives us a few paragraphs of the article:

“There is a new kind of literature abroad in the land, who only obvious fault is that no one can understand it. Last year there appeared a gigantic volume entitled Ulysses by James Joyce. To the uninitiated, it appeared that Mr. Joyce had taken some half million assorted words — many such as are not ordinarily heard in reputable circles — shaken them up in a colossal hat, laid them end, laid them end to end…” 

“The Dial has  awarded its $2000 prize for the best poem of 1922 to an opus entitled The Waste Land, by T.S. Eliot….It is rumoured that The Waste Land was written as a hoax.”

So, Dwight Macdonald concludes that this is the classic editorial note of the Luce publications:  and “thus have they held it in the thousands of inter-office  memoranda (disguised as magazines called, Time, Life, Fortune) which for fifteen years they have been distributing  among the high-priced, high-powered executive who make up the Time Community. And thus they will continue to hold it, full and true, as long as the Community itself holds together.”  They still do, as far as I can tell. 

Note:I have posted twice so far about Dwight Macdonald: Nov. 5, 2016“Laugh and Lie Down”: Dwight Macdonald — Unmanageable Intellect; and 11 March 2017. Mr. MacDonald goes to Washington. You might want to look at those posts to hear more about the master maverick (is that an oxymoron?!) of the New York Intellectuals…


NEXT:  More on Herbert Solow. — also a fellow of Riposting.









Jean Hélion: Abstract Painter

click to read Morris’s interview with Helion: Jean Helion: Abstract Painter. Volume 4, issue 5, April 1938 — pages 33-42.

Jean Hélion (1904-1987)

FOLLOWING on from Trilling’s critique and vindication of Dos Passos’s American Epic–USA– we return to the Modernism of ABSTRACT ART with George L.K. Morris’s portfolio of pieces by Jean Hélion, who was in 1938 a young and enthusiastic member of the French Abstract painting movement.  Hélion had been an architecture student, then started painting,  and in 1925 turned to abstraction after meeting Otto Freundlich, a German abstractionist.

At the time of his written interview with Morris, Hélion was married and living in the USA,  spending time in both NYC and Virginia with his first wife, Jean Blair. Looking at the work Hélion had created by 1938, and its  distance from the 21st century, it is easy to see the influence of Mondrian and Leger.

Jean Hélion — Abstract Painter Hélion 1930s
Mondrian 1930s
Mondrian 1930s
Helion 1935
Hélion 1930s
Hélion 1930s
Léger 1930s

He was an enthusiastic participant in the description and new philosophy of abstraction, joining in with the group Art Concert and writing for Cahiers d’Arts. He expressed an affinity for Baudelaire’s Modernism.  In his replies to Morris’s questions, Hélion talks most directly about the processes of making art; but he also shows himself willing to think and talk about Soviet art and politics.

For  Hélion, abstract art was firmly attached to the politics of the 1920s and 1930s.  But by 1938, I think it must have been, he had started to begin his turn away from abstraction and toward a return to figurative painting.   For Hélion his change of purpose was tied to the Moscow Trials of 1938-8: “It was in 1936, during the famous trials that saw the disappearance of at least ten of my friends, the very ones who had guided me towards Communism…like Mandelstam…that my Communist faith disintegrated…it was when I stopped being Communist that I stopped being abstract.” (Jean Helion, Memoire de la Chambre Jaune, 1994.  )

Morris asks: When you visited the Soviet Union, did you find indications that a strong plastic expression might emerge from its system of society?

“If all I saw of propaganda was poor, it is probably because the best painters declined to do it [in the Soviet Union, which JH had visited in 1931]. For the immediate future, I cannot see why we should hope that the public would turn suddenly toward us, even in Russia, when our attitude is so dry, when the way toward non-representative painting proves so hard to find.”  Two years on from the start of the Trials,  Hélion is not willing to be optimistic about the future: as for the Abstract painters, “If foreign art should be shown, some people will quickly find their way to it. It will be a minority, gifted, free-minded, among the very best, disregarding origin and profession. But what the power of those amateurs will be is something that cannot be foreseen securely. Let us not dream. A form of art as highly concentrated as that which we are trying to make everywhere, appeals to the smaller part of the  public. Better hopes concern only a future too far to consider.”

Hélion returned to France in 1940 and joined the armed forces, and in 1939, he created a  figurative work, Au Cyclist,Unknown-6 which set him on new paths of painting.

In 1943, after the War, Hélion  met and married Pegeen Guggenheim, the daughter of another proponent of Modernism, Peggy Guggenheim.  Peggy Guggenheim had shown work by Hélion, which is how Pegeen met him. They married secretly in 1944, had three children and divorced in 1956.  Pegeen had an unstable and unhappy life as Peggy’s daughter, but she was a buoyant painter:

Pegeen Guggenheim n.d.

helion1940s  Jean Hélion in the 1940s.

Jean Hélion

” Pegeen in her Atelier.”

In his later years,  Hélion became something of a hero to a new generation of painters in France,who emulated his ‘revolutionary’ art, while eschewing propaganda. And among American painters, Roy Lichtenstein cited Hélion as an influence.


Jean Hélion in his later years.

Here we have another element of Partisan Review’s interest in European Modernism. Hélion  was, indeed, a critical figure in the growth of Abstraction, and in 1938, a growing critic of Stalinism. What the PR intellectuals thought of Hélion’s  rejection of abstraction as inextricable fromhis rejection of Stalinism, I have still to find out.

If you go to the Guggenheim Museum in NYC — there are many Hélion paintings to see. click to see more:  Jean Helion










Protecting the Left Flank: Lionel Trilling on DosPassos’s USA

Lionel Trilling
Trilling and Freud
Lionel Trilling was one of the contributors to Partisan Review who maintained his reputation as a brilliant critic and teacher throughout his life.  But he was also often suspected of being too stylish, elegant, and at ease in the world to be a true radical. And he wasn’t a radical in the sense of a poet maudit and writer like Delmore Schwartz or a maverick polemicist like Dwight McDonald.  He was cautious and somewhat aloof from the more tendentious positions and persons of the PR group.

And he was a life-time Columbia academic.  Many of his colleagues and friends were Columbia graduates, and some had shorter term academic jobs at a number of prestigious universities, but Trilling was the model of a Modernist New York Intellectual Professor.  He was always an anti-Stalinist, and continued as Liberal Leftist during the Cold War, and afterwards, when his very influential book, The Liberal Imagination was taken as a medicine to help the dilemma of middle-class liberal indecision about the Cold War itself.

As our examination of PR  moves into the 1950s and 1960s, we will learn more about the changes and nuances of Trilling’s literary and political positions, but here in VOL 4, No. 5, April, 1938, he addresses John Dos Passos’s trilogy, USA, which is, on the one hand, a version of ‘proletarian literature,’ with its topics and issues of 1930s working class life, and on the other, an avant-garde  almost abstract, collage of real headlines, advertisements and the detritus of everyday life. (See my post, “The Migratory Worker,” Dec.17, 206, for more about Dos Passos.)  The three volumes of USA and photo of DosPassos:

trilogy       Dos Passos

Trilling starts out by saying that USA is a good read, in fact, “It stands as the most important American novel of the decade,” though “it is startlingly normal; at the risk of seeking paradoxical, one might say that it is exciting because of its quality of cliche.”  He starts, that is, with a mobius strip of meaning.  The judgement of the trilogy’s importance becomes the argument that its normality and cliched sentiments is the foundation of its importance.

DosPassos isn’t a great writer, Trilling continues, and he is no model for writers, as are “Stendahl or Henry James or even E.M. Foster,” (what does that ‘even’ suggest about Foster?) — its not that Trilling is sitting on the fence,  but he is jumping back  and forth over it. Dos Passos is a writer who “not only represents a great national scene but he embodies…the cultural tradition of the intellectual Left.” 

SO, Trilling argues that the lack of particular heroes and heroines in the novel conforms to the intellectual Left’s focus on the collectivity: in its political character: “that the social forces now dominant are evil; that there is a conflict between the dominant social forces and other, better, rising forces; that it is certain or very likely that the rising forces will overcome the now dominant one.”   The foundation for this is the assumption that collective aspects are more important than the individual.   DosPassos, however, does focus on individual moral crises in place of generalised classes– and although the events and situations of the novel may turn on class issues, “he does not write of a class struggle.” Trilling argues that the characters who we meet aren’t at the top or the bottom of class structure; they are struggling individuals. Their movement from class to class, if you will, makes for the uncertainty of their moral codes, their confusion, their indecision. Almost more that the people of a fixed class, they are at the mercy of the social stream because their interests cannot be clear to them.

Critics have complained that there is no uplift in the novel; that it ends for most characters of moral worth with despair. But Trilling writes, “Despair with its wits about it is very different from despair that is stupid.”   Trilling is certain that sitting with despair is also a dialectical movement into re-thinking.  When Harold Rosenberg was quick to tell Philip Rahv that Trilling was only upholding ‘bourgeois values,’ Delmore Schwartz came up with a better argument; namely, that Trilling wrote for Partisan Review to “protect his left flank,” another cautionary criticism of sitting on the fence.

click for the whole essay: Trilling on Dos Passos