Desmond Hawkins, “London Letter” Partisan Review, Vol.6, No. 4, Summer, 1939.

images-12 Desmond Hawkins, London Letter.


The summer of 1939 was tense and by September, the British had begun conscription of men who were 20 and 21,  Hitler had decided against negotiations with Poland, and the British began to evacuate families to the countryside.  SO, we begin our look at Vol.6, No.4, Summer, 1939 with a “London Letter,” by Desmond Hawkins, a London journalist and broadcaster for the BBC, who went on to create the BBC Natural History Unit.

Hawkins’s voice is very different from Sean Niall’s in his periodic “Paris Letters” — Hawkins has that thin ribbon of fury in it that carries his disdain of the irresolution of the government and the armchair politics of the Bloomsberries:

“To say what is happening in England at the present time is no easy task…The opaque and unruffled surface of public affairs suggest indeed that nothing is happening at all. We are all anti-fascist. We are all devoted to peace and convinced of our superior solicitude in its preservation. … But in spite of our one-way enthusiasm – or perhaps because of it, the air is peculiarly enervating.”

Hawkins argues that there was a kind of intellectual optimism in the years after WWI which ensured that the youth of England grew up imagining that War on that grand scale would never occur again. The result — complacency coupled with a skin of progressive polemicising.  It was the crisis of Czecho-Slovakia that “carried with it the dawning May Day, the revolution painlessly directed from Bloomsbury armchairs. All that experimental theorising presupposed that the British Empire would lie in supine glory on the operating-table while the delectable surgery was performed by Fabian thinkers and planners and Audenesque healers.”

His polemic against the Bloomsbury coterie is amusing, dry, and to the point:

“The prevailing mood, then, in sloganese is an intensified resistance to fascist aggression, for the sake of democracy. To find anything happening one must go behind the scenes. Chamberlain’s real danger is from within his party, and the next months will show whether the Tory right wing – those who oppose Hitler most militantly in terms of imperialist rivalry – can capture the Cabinet. The apparently certain thing is that Bloomsbury influence on political thought will diminish. The daring revolutionary bravado of this decade may even return to the bourgeois womb and be re-born as a Popular Front, Left in its slogans and Right in its motives. Champions of the status quo are naturally delighted to take over a highly moral propaganda which suits their policy. Bloomsbury is putting its left foot forward in order to march backwards, and the playing fields of Eton are about to resume their former strategic importance.”

bloomsbury group Bloomsbury Group

From here, Hawkins turns to the literary scene — principally the ‘little magazines,”the most important one, T.S. Eliot’s The Criterion. “Its cessation was wholly unexpected. In his last editorial, T.S. Eliot wrote:

“Perhaps for a long way ahead, the continuity of culture may have to be maintained by a very small number of people, indeed. It will not be the large organs  of opinions or the old periodicals; it must be the small and obscure papers and reviews, those which are hardly read by anyone but their own contributors, that will keep critical thought alive,and encourage authors of original talent.”

Unknown-18.jpegHawkins goes on: ” Feeling that changed circumstances require changed new energies, Eliot stated that after sixteen years no longer had sufficient enthusiasm for the job. The European mind, which The Criterion existed to mirror, is fragmented. The most powerful group of younger writers have not much in common with Eliot, and there is little public support for any literary review which is not at least nominally anti-fascist. I think it would be true to say that latterly The Criterion commanded respect but not enthusiasm. Its main energy was drawn increasingly from Eliot himself; and the more personal it became, the more freely might its editor consider employing his time in other ways. It is, of course a serious loss to be deprived of what was the only substantial and authoritative review in England, and — as with Yeats’s death — there is a certain sadness in the disappearance of an intellectual landmark which had acquired a very great prestige.”


Hawkins goes on, and circles back to the Bloomsbury intellectuals and artists. “The revolutions of the ‘twenties have been dexterously absorbed and Bloomsbury in the bigness of its heart is writing passionate slogans for the War Office.”  

Next. Week: More from the Summer Issue, 1939. “This Quarter: Twilight of the Thirties,” by Philip Rahv..




Sean Niall’s “Letter from Paris,” PR, Spring 1939, Vol.6, No.3


It’s Spring 1939 and Sean Niall, the brilliant Paris correspondent of Partisan Review begins his ironic and depressing report from Paris with a take-no-prisoners opening:

“The last Paris Letter’s gloomy prognosis of the season has proved only too correct. Indeed, it is so bad that Parisians pretty much accept Virgil Thomson’s melancholy crack that ‘this is just a winter dropped out of everybody’s life; and the sooner we forget it, the better.’ “
{If you want to read about the ‘last letter’s gloomy prognosis, go back in this blog to: Paris Letter: Sian Niall,PR Vol. 6,No. 2, Winter 1939, which is in two parts.}On 30 November, 1938, a General Strike in Paris was defeated, and,  at present, Niall writes, “The literary left roughly reflects the discouragement and disarray of the French workers and peasants.”

Niall brings together the central themes of the moment at hand: what the Left is doing, what the Literary Left literature is writing, and what we should be doing about the Nazism and the mess in Europe. By March, Hitler was in Prague, and the same month, the Spanish Civil War was over with the defeat of the Republicans and the fall of Madrid.

“Artistic Paris, like the rest of France, is oppressed as by the lowering atmospheric depression before a crashing thunderstorm…[and] if there is peace, it is the peace of despair. “

Niall is on the side of the anti-Stalinist Communists and Trotskyists: “Never have the Second and the Third Internationals fallen to such depths of discredit. Their effect has been to turn the French proletariat,not to revolution but to inactivity and despair and the almost jemenfoutisme  (trans. “I could give a F*ck”) of the feeling that, “If you don’t lift your head, nobody will club it.”

Niall turns to the places of hope; to him, it lies in the 4th International (the Trotskyists), the P.S.O.P. (Parti socialiste ouvrier et paysan, PSOP), and the P.O.I, (The Workers’ International Party), both of which had dissolved by the end of 1939. And I think he was right about that – except that the hope never materialised into action or socialism. But then and there, the Trots were the closest to what PR could endorse, and their writing showed how the importance of Modernism could be understood within a revolutionary cultural framework.

SO he takes a number of books which people are reading in Paris and submits them to his literary-political verdicts:



1. First is the newcomer to the field of literature, a man called Jean-Paul Sartre, and his collection of short stories, The Wall (Le Mur) are pretty good, but not great. He is about 34 and is too cautious and too committed to already worked tradition of narrative in literature to produce the astonishment that this moment requires:
“With all their excellent qualities, they somehow disappoint. Certainly – to take an American example—they are far superior to those of, say, Hemingway. But they have the faults of their qualities – a cautiousness, a sense of prose tradition, a tendency to choose the sure-fire effect – that render them, despite their youthful richness, a little literary, a little thin. Sartre, a very young writer, may well go on to greater self-confidence in and self-abandonment to his own art; yet he may equally well….degenerate into a mere “Man of Letters” homme-de-lettres.

Among the other books he has chosen are a few whose topic is more political, but also influenced by, and hoping for a synthesis of Marxism and Psychoanalysis.  I find this interesting because in the 1970s and early 1980s, there was a strong push by left wing writers and political writers to advance the link between these two methodologies through the category of the ‘subject.’ I recall the line in Coward and Ellis’s Language  and Materialism,  where they proclaim that the great project facing the left is the the question of ‘the subject’ in history.

UnknoCoward and Ellis n-1 1977. But Niall is sceptical of a unification of two such disciplines-in-formation.

One of the more surprising discussions, perhaps, to readers of today is about Gaston Bachelard, the phenomenologist of the forces of nature. His The Psychoanalysis of Fire, a haunting and poetic phenomenological mapping of fire’s meanings over the centuries, was, for many of my generation, a gentle way into what became the dominant literary-theoretical persuasion of the late 20th century. He was, as well,  was a central influence on philosophers such as Michel Foucault, Louis Althusser, and Jacques Derrida.

Gaston Bachelard. 440px-Gaston_Bachelard_1965

But Niall reduces him to the size of a pretentious bug: calling him a “pretentious literary gent.”“ Bachelard, who apparently fancies himself as a rebel, often distinguishes himself carefully in this book from “classic psychoanalysis,” but the real distinction is that he has introduced psychoanalysis into belles-lettres. This fancy little volume strikes one as the Izaak Walton’s Compleat Angler of psychiatry, and, if translated, should most correctly be published with prodigious margins on hand-chewed paper by some Nonesuch Press for the delectation of psychoanalytic bibliophiles.”

SO we could say that Niall gets it wrong often, but with brio and lashings of bile. If you want to read more of this piece, go to

then find Partisan Review, 1939, Vol.6. No. 3.

As for me, I agree… 1939 has been one hell of a year for us.

Rimbaud’s “The Hands of Jean-Marie,”translated by Lionel Abel


“Women arrested as Arsonists/’pétroleuses’ in massacres of  the Paris Commune

‘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,

Those of you who have been  reading this blog for two years or more may recognise the quotation from Dick Schaap from a post on Abel and the Italian novelist, Silone. {Lionel Abel on Silone, October 15, 2016} Its the sort of thing people circulate about whiz-kids within the conventions of a coterie of like-minded  intellectuals. And of course, the quotation is scratchy around its edges… but now that I am back in London, after 10 days in New York and then a week of the flu, its a pleasure to be reminded of the bon-mots of the later 1930s.

We are still in 1939, still waiting, as it were, for the Second World War to begin, and our next item in the Spring issue is a translation of Rimbaud’s poem “Les Mains de Jean-Marie,”  Rimbaud’s poem of solidarity with the Paris Commune of 1871, when from March 18 -May 28, 1871, Paris’s workers established a proto-socialist city within Paris. After the siege of Paris that ended the Franco-Prussian War, and before the French regular army massacred over 25,000 Parisians in the streets around the Commune, the ideas and debates about how to live were as alive as they had been in the Revolution of 1789, and women figured prominently in the legends of the Paris Commune, as the myth of female arsonists at the end of the Commune were circulated and many were arrested.

Lionel Abel translated a volume of Rimbaud’s poems Some Poems by Rimbaud, Exiles Press, 1939. And the same year, Delmore Schwartz translated A Season In Hell.  With the March of Hitler, the Moscow Trials, and the debates around Communism and Fascism, it is not surprising that the Paris Commune would be a common reference point for anti-Fascists and anti-Stalinists.

Wallace Fowlie has written of “The Hands of Jeanne-Marie,”:
“Of all the Rimbaud poems directly inspired by the Commune, Les Mains de Jeanne-Marie is perhaps the most successful and the most moving. In it Rimbaud describes the struggle of the communards with the Versaillais, and recalls the action of women from the working class who literally fought in the streets during the terrible week of May 21-28, when they
helped defend the barracks on the Place Blanche, the Place Pigalle and the Batignolles. The poet contrasts the beautiful delicate hands of women in love, as celebrated by various parnassian poets (cf. Etudes de mains by Theophile Gautier) with the rough hands of women who fought in the streets of Paris. Rimbaud is intent upon exalting revolutionary violence and he does it by pointing out this contrast between the white hands of
noble ladies and the dark hands of the typical communarde women.
The last three stanzas of Les Mains de Jeanne-Marie contain very precise allusions to the Commune and especially to the repression that followed the “bloody” week of May 21-28. The hands of the communards are apostrophized as being sacred: o Mains sacres. The “chain” named in the next-to-last stanza is undoubtedly a reference to the long line of communard prisoners who were sent to Versailles, and who numbered from one hundred and fifty to two hundred each day. They were bound hand to hand, in ranks of four. On the way they were insulted and derided by the crowds watching them.”

Here follows Abel’s translation:

IMG_0509  IMG_0510IMG_0511