The theme of the Summer issue of PR, 1939 was somewhat insular. As Europe became the ground for WWII, American isolationism had its chance to appear again. Philip Rahv’s piece on “This Quarter” was matched by the results of a questionnaire posted to various US writers about the state of writing in the nation. There were 7 questions:
- 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 be advertising — in the case of the newspapers — and political pressures — in the case of the liberal weeklies — has made has made serous 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?
- 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?
- 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 we may be called “literary nationalism” — a renewed emphasis, largely uncritical, on the specifically “American” elements in our culture?
- 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?
Many writers replied and I will include the most interesting in the next weeks of Reading Partisan Review. But I thought it might be most amusing to start out with Gertrude Stein’s avant-garde and bleakly comic and caustic replies:
1. Usable for what, cannot worry about the future of American Writing. The present is enough, and any American is American.
2. An audience is pleasant if you have it, it is flattering and flattering is agreeable always, but if you have an audience the being an audience is their business, they are the audience, you are the writer, let each attend to their own business.
3. After all, if it is written and presumably what you write is written before it is criticised then criticism is bound to come too late always. To the rest of the question it is the same.
4. I suppose if I had to make a living I should have, I do not know, how can you tell?
5. I am not interested.
6. Writers only think they are interested in politics, they are not really, it gives them a chance to talk and writers like to talk but really no real writer is really interested in politics.
7. It does not seem possible for any of you to realise that most probably there will not be another general European war, the more Americans thinks there is going to be one, the more suspicious the continent gets and the less likely they are to fight. Anyway, they are not at all likely to do so but if they were to then the writers would have to fight too like anybody else some will like it and some will not.
Readers might want to read this book by Janet Malcolm, which addresses the reality of the European War to Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas.