Today I am posting one more of the writers who answered the 7 questions set by the editors of Partisan Review: these are Harold Rosenberg’s responses, the art critic and art historian who for many years engaged in a critical debate with Clement Greenberg in the pages of Partisan Review, and later in The New Yorker. Rosenberg was the art critic for The New Yorker from 1967 until his death in 1978. Rosenberg is famous for coining the term, ‘Action Painting” to describe the Abstract Expressionist aesthetic.
- Are you conscious, in your own writing, of the existence of a ‘usable past’? Is this mostly American? What figures would you designate as elements in it? Would you say, for example, that Henry James’s work is more relevant to the present and future of American writing than Walt Whitman’s?
- Do you think of yourself as writing for a definite audience? If so how would you describe this audience? Would you say that the audience for serious American writing has grown or contracted in the last ten years?
- Do you place much value on the criticism your work has received? Would you agree that the corruption of the literary supplements by advertising — in the case of the newspapers — and political pressures — in the case of the liberal weeklies — has made has made serious literary criticism an isolated cult?
- Have you found it possible to make a living by writing the sort of thing you want to, and without the aid of such crutches as teaching and editorial work? Do you think there is any place in the present economic system for literature as a profession?
5. DO you feel, in retrospect, that your writing reveals any allegiance to any group, class, organisation, region, religion, or system of thought, or do you conceive of it as mainly the expression of yourself as an individual?
6. How would you describe the political tendency of American writing as a whole since 1930? How do you feel about it yourself? Are you sympathetic to the current tendency toward what may be called “literary nationalism” — a renewed emphasis, largely uncritical, on the specifically “American” elements in our culture?
7. Have you considered the question of your attitude towards the possible entry of the United States into the next world war? What do you think the responsibilities in general are when and if war comes?.
Harold Rosenberg’s Replies:
- What is a ‘usable past’? The phrase seems to me most intelligible if it is taken to mean a literary tendency to which a writer deliberately attaches his own work in order to modify it, Thus Thomas Mann consciously uses the romantic movement of the 19th century, and Eliot French symbolism and English metaphysical poetry. For an original artist this is a very peculiar orientation, not far removed from that of the academicians. The writer stands outside his work and builds it up from carefully selected materials. His posture implies a readiness to regard himself as a representative figure, a literary landmark. It implies also that the professional literary practice has been raised to the level of a philosophy — a philosophy of the practical value of Art. One sets out to use (and change) the art of literature in the interests of its future; and through this one hopes to change the world. Merely to imitate, even to imitate persistently certain selected models is not to ‘use’ the past in this sense. Imitation is more naive than such using, has a closer resemblance to life itself. Long before we have culture or even conscious aims, we imitate. And the writer who does not seek primarily to affect the history of literature tends to live in his work rather than use it. Baudelaire establishes himself inside of Poe as a base of operations; he apes him but does not use him.Through Poe he achieves a heightened sense of himself, whereas the ‘users’ are always talking of the ‘self-abnegation of the Artist.’ I still find much human appeal in the writer who is conscious by means of the past though not of the past as a means. Another distinction is that imitation is always of individuals, while to elect a section of the past as usable indicates an intent to capture and exploit, for the sake of special interests, a specific historical area. In short, the whole idea of “usable past” is shot through with the politics of art. The American cultural past consists of the total results of a combined official using, and inspired individual aping of the European past. Beginning with Independence, American writers and artists have behaved in the native tradition by exchanging in rotation the following masters: British and French classicism, Rhenish romanticism, the Great of All Ages (Transcendentalism), Italian classicism (mainly in sculpture) French realism (social and psychological), French symbolic, etcetera. In America, though not in Europe, to be an American has always meant to be a properly dated European. Today, for instance, some people believe it means to be a Russian or German patriot. Outside this American culture — always under two or more flags — have lived the millions of native and immigrant americans who missed the chance to study with Thorwaldsen or at the Ecole des Beaux Arts or to enjoy the regulation Wanderjahe at Gottingen and Montmartre. These frontiersmen, tillers of soil, and builders of towns have been for the main part neither Americans or non-Americans in the cultural sense — because their culture has been a homemade, transitional folk customs, without national scope, or they have had no culture at all, except for racial or sectarian remnants (Pennsylvania Germans, Huguenots, Mexicans, Scandinavian, Negro, Mormon, Quaker). These lower case Americans have been and remain ‘aliens.’ Their culture lies in the future not in the past.
Because the cultured Americans have been, almost exclusively, members of the upper class, while the americans are workers and farmers, storekeepers and country doctors, many writers today believe that the ‘soil’ and the folk is more Revolutionary, as well as more American, than the library, the museum, and the idea. This is a very serious mistake. The most brutal and philistine american executive-type is also opposed instinctively to European art and literature, and likes to stage himself as a plain guy, a member of the cultural rank and file. And in literature itself the ‘people’s writers, from Mark Twain to Sinclair Lewis, merely start with the soil; they climb in the direction of the Academy, of which, as the antithesis of the real but uncultured folk, is also neither American nor European but merely an upper class sublimation of unreality.
On the other hand, writers like Poe, Whitman, or James, who take off from the contrast and tension between Europe and America, remains equally relevant, whether they move East, West, or up and down. America can be known only through the perspective of international culture. Conversely, it can only understand world ideas only if it applies them to itself.
Every writer today who is worth anything shows in some way the influence of the overturn that took place in American prose and poetry via Gertrude Stein and others. I wish to characterise this movement as essentially aristocratic (European-minded American) aping of american proletarian speech. (Examples:Stein, Pound, Eliot, Stevens, Moore, Cummings). This writing, which at its best goes much farther in the direction of both aural accuracy and literary associations than Whitman’s private lingo, represents a synthesis, a new era in American consciousness and consciousness of the world. Our living language is brought into focus with the living language of the past: it need not fear that looking back to the masterpieces of Europe and antiquity will turn it into a pillar of salt. On the other hand, American letters need strive no longer to shape every experience into a plaster of Paris model of a European original. Through bringing its major social element into play, American culture has begun to develop an identity of its own.
Already, however, in novels, Hollywood, Broadway, this experimental ‘cultural-proletarian’ language is being academicised, cleaned up, made “natural” (example: Abe Lincoln in Illinois), made 100% American, i.e. zero.
2. A writer remains alive so long as he postulates the existence of a section of the population whose cultural dynamism is at least equal to his own, and whose influence is or will become dominant. Into this lively soluble mass he drops his own work, with the hope that it will cause a coagulation of taste and thought. . .The number of people who understand the International -American rhetoric is definitely growing, This, as noted above, also increases the rewards for, and consequently the chances of vulgarisation, which has started to drain the meaning out of the movement.
3. The newspapers and liberal weeklies have never been serious about literature; seriousness has been confined to the reviews and ‘little magazines’. It is easy to see why: these publications, orienting themselves on ‘American interests,’ have assumed a smug proprietorial defense of ‘our literature’; while all serious efforts in American letters have been directed more or less humbly towards the European-American equation. More directly, however, liberalism assumes that all questions can be solved through ‘moderation’ — even lies and vulgarity must be treated moderately; and there is here a definite hatred and fear of ideas and acts carried through to their conclusion. Whereas literature tends, especially in modern times, towards exaggeration and finality (its moderation, too, is exaggerated) , and this has been congenitally distasteful to the liberals. In addition, there is outright individual dishonesty and log-rolling constantly at work in that ‘social-minded’ atmosphere. When the liberal weeklies are moderately hospitable to experimental critics like Burke or Schapiro or to poets like WIliams or Fearing, at the same time surrounding their contributions with those of all sorts of publishers’s bootlickers and editors’ boys, they show even less concern for values that the reactionary supplements who attack a thing merely because it is new. Thus, whatever is good in The Nation or The New Republic, and there have been many good pieces and excellent writers presented there, has been forced to cling with its teeth to a slippery intellectual surface.
4. Sure there’s a place for literature as a profession. In fact, it’s one of the few professions that has a future — along with military aviation, demagogy, patriotic preaching, spying, etc. The worse society gets the more professional it becomes, and the greater the demand for this type of intimate service.
5. See my review elsewhere in this issue of Democracy and Socialism. Arthur Rosenberg, Knopf.
7. In time of war the writer has at least the obligation not to find the ‘good side’ of it.
Next Week: Desmond Hawkins, London Letter