Paris Letter: Sean Niall, Vol. 6, No. 2, Partisan Review, Winter, 1939.

Part II: The ways forward.

Now Niall turns to the case of IFARI — You may remember from the discussion posted about the IFARI earlier this year — which I reprint here to state the  basics of this organisation founded by Andre Breton and Diego Rivera and also attributed to Leon Trotsky:

“Andre Breton, a founder and leader of the Surrealist movement, and Diego Rivera, the painter of the  Mexican Revolution, are two artists who have long been active on the Left.  Some time ago they rejected the Third International (the Comintern, 1919-1943), politically as well as culturally. They now propose a new federation of artists and writers, Left-wing in tendency and free of all organizational dependence. [In this issue] we print their manifesto calling for the formation of the International Federation of Independent  Revolutionary Art. An increasing number of writers, artists, and intellectuals are coming to realize that socialism offers the only permanent escape from barbarism that is gaining ground so fast in capitalist society. We believe that these intellectual forces, hitherto scattered and isolated, should now draw together into some sort of organization for free discussion and for defense against their common enemies. We are, therefore, in complete sympathy with the general aim of the IFIRA, and we are ready to take part in the formation of an American section of the Federation. This, we think, should incorporate the international aims of the IFIRA in a program otherwise strictly adapted to American conditions. We invite all those interested in forming such a group in the United States to communicate with the editors of Partisan Review.” — editors, Partisan Review,

The Manifesto signed by Breton and Rivera was an attempt to create a leftist, anti-Stalinist, association of Artists that would be Marxist, but stand outside the artistic aims of socialist realism and and prolit cult. It was 1938, and it was clear that Stalin’s trials had betrayed the Revolution of 1917.  Scholars have argued that it was when Breton went to visit Trotsky, then living in exile in Mexico, that the two men drew up this ‘Manifesto,’ which was then signed by Rivera instead of Trotsky.

Naill introduces the first issue of Cle, IFIRA’s  journal as  a recalibration of the Leftist support of surrealism as a revolutionary weapon:

“The purely politically minded might cavil somewhat at a violence of language, a personality of invective, that smacks a trifle of literary ultra-leftism; but those who have been nauseated by the dead-level Stalinization of French liberals, the careerist degeneration of such once brilliant writers as Aragon, and the general sickliness of the whole politico-artistic situation in France, will understand and sympathize with the desire of Cle’s directors to have its opening blast utterly unequivocal and violently purifactive.”

Niall is very hard on Paul Nizan, novelist and member of the Communist Party in France, who he describes as one of the ‘literary stooges’ of the party, whose recently published novel, La Conspiration, “gives the ‘ Communist’ quotation of the season: “Revolution is all. very well, but its just pure romanticism.”

In fact, Nizan was in conflict with the Popular Front position, and Nizan was a friend ad early exponent of Sartre’s Existentialism, exploring modern alienation, conflicts that faced petits-bourgeois radicals caught between contending class forces.  When the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany signed the non-aggression pact in 1939, Nizan left the Communist Party, though he didn’t become a revolutionary or a member of IFIRA.

The last parts of Niall’s “Letter from Paris” are harsh and in places vaguely anti-semitic — the German Jewish refugee musicians are satirised for turning the concert halls into Temples, where they sigh and breathe heavily into their hands and handkerchiefs. He also criticises Cocteau for being morbid and perverse in his new work. Niall details his complaints of decadence, but participates in them as well. He ends by proposing a bottle of bad Champagne with his ‘pals’ as the best antidote to what’s going wrong in Paris.

And so the War begins.


Next Week: Letter from Leon Trotsky to Andre Breton.


Paris Letter: Sian Niall,PR Vol. 6,No. 2, Winter 1939

This is a two-parter again. Part I: The Spectre of Fascism.

The next substantive essay in the Winter, 1939 Volume of Partisan Review  is a second letter from Paris by Sean Niall (Sherry Mangan): it was written in the late autumn of 1938 and it, along with the letter from Leon Trotsky that ends the volume, conveys the tension of those months  opening on to the start of the War.   You might recall from his “Paris Letter” written in the late summer of  the same year that he was 34 at the time. He was a long-time Trotskyist activist in North and South America, closely tied to the Fourth International, as well as working for those sources of regular pay checks for men such as Dwight Macdonald and other PR writers — at Time, Fortune, and Life magazines.

Sherry Magnan

He opens with a look at the art world in Paris in late 1938 –against the background of the Munich agreement with the signature of French Prime Minister, Édouard Daladier — on the  Munich Agreement of September 30, 1938. The French galleries are hesitant to put on new shows:  ” Paris’s autumn season has proved to be a rickety child, timid, cranky, and ready at the least alarm to give up the ghost entirely. The galleries will still plan no more than one show in advance; publishers’ lists are, to put it politely, not exactly world-shaking; and as for really striking novelties on the concert-programmes, they can practically be counted on the fingers of one thumb.”

He goes on to foreground the political and cultural crisis at hand: It is the “spectre,”  not of Communism,but of Fascism, that is haunting  France: “To a pedestrian meditating on, say, the new establishment in France of concentration- camps for “undesirable foreigners,” the sight of the Greco-vegetarian figure of  Raymond Duncan, suddenly sandal-flapping from his preposterous “Akademia” in the rue de Seine, seems literally a sheer hallucination.”

images-5 Raymond Duncan

In his political/artistic critique, Niall addresses the journal Beaux-Art, a directory of what was going on in the arts. But now, late in 1938, it has taken on a programme for a ‘truly’ national art, meaning a return to academic painting, and an art “purified of cubism, surrealism, abstractionism, and everything else of interest that has occurred since impressionism.”  This is much like the approach of the pre-Nazi German art world. He goes on to link this reactionary move within art with racism: “the latest report from Pere Lachaise Cemetery is that, sure enough, some racial puritan has repeated the castration of the figure on the Epstein tomb of Oscar Wilde.”   Niall explains this general atmosphere  is that the cultural world “is haunted by the jittery feeling that someone or something called war or fascism is constantly looking over its shoulder when it works,” but he finds as well that people haven’t drawn the right conclusions from what this all means: it is is the result of the ongoing betrayals of the Communist Party’s participation in the political and social life of Europe, including stealing Trotsky’s archive of papers, the assassinations of  Ignace Reiss and Rudolf Klement, and the death of Leon Sedov — all Trotskyists.

The decay of the internal life of the Soviet Union has also had a pernicious effect on the left of centre writers and activists within France. Romain Rolland  left the CP with the Moscow Trials,  but now appears to cling to aspects of popular frontism that offer liberal rather than revolutionary prospects.

Niall is a straightforward confident explicator of the complexity of the Left and because of that he is able to flavour his expositions with humour and irony. So, for example, he describes the various literary-political movements and groupings as the “flesh-pots (or rather ink-) pots of literary Stalinism in a country where literary movements live usually an amoeba-like life of perpetual self-divisions and fusions, unamoeba-like enough, however in the violence of diatribe that usually attends them.”

Here Niall turns to the elements of this period that suggest moves forward within the cultural struggle: he is pleased that Andre Breton has criticised the British group of Surrealists for wanting to withdraw from the art battles into “the cozy ambience of surrealist success and Popular Front  High-life”.  Niall applauds Breton for seeing the necessity, at time, to educate its troops when they wander off.  And not to spare exclusion if required.

Next week: Part II:  The Ways Forward, in which Niall discusses the work of the FIARI

Art Versus Method. Part 2. Juan Gris. George K.L.Morris


Unknown-7 Juan Gris (1887-1927)

This is our way into George L.K. Morris’s second half of his ‘Art Chronicle review of MoMA’s Bauhaus exhibition.  Here he turns,  by way of comparison, to the Jacques Seligmann ​Galleries,  to assess the work of Juan Gris (1887-1927). Gris was a Spanish artist who lived in Paris most of his career. He and Picasso and Braque created or invented the school of Cubism, and Picasso was said to have at times been very competitive with Gris. The lithograph in front of us hangs in the kitchen galley of our studio in the Barbican. My mother bought the lithograph, No.38 of a series of 50 of Jean Le Musician, in Paris, 1938 just before she returned to New York after a Carnegie Fellowship in Paris. I don’t know why, but I began to love him — Jean, that is — from the age of about 8, and over the decades, whenever I visited New York to see my parents, I made sure to spend time studying his face. London’s Tate Modern has No. 48 of the same series in its collection: the note that accompanies it explains its content and context:

“Jean the Musician depicts a young man named Jean-Claude Brune. Gris refers to him in a letter of 19 March 1921, describing him as ‘a young man from a family which is very important locally – he’s the son of a conseiller général of this department … he’s a good musician and a very intelligent boy who I think would like to own something by myself.”

“The concentration on likeness ….can be seen as part of a widespread return to realism in France and Italy in the early 1920s. The prevalence of a classicising style at this time reflected the desire of many artists, including Amédée Ozenfant (1886-1966), Charles-Edouard Jeanneret (1887-1965), Gino Severini (1883-1966) and Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), for a ‘return to order” in the arts. This change in style has been understood in terms of a widespread desire for stability and tradition after the disruption and chaos of the First World War.”


Morris has moved from the modern, technological, and antiseptic Bauhaus to the classicism of Juan Gris. He upbraids the viewing public for ignoring the show of Juan Gris’s work by contrast to the popularity of the Bauhaus exhibition: and reads his work in comparison with the Cubists.  “Gris has never been easy to write about. He did not assault the public with anything comparable to Picasso’s sensational impasto, nor does he lure the spectator with the engaging succulence  of Braque. His work was always very reticent.”

Morris takes Gris as his example of the triumph of ‘art’ over ‘method’ and  carries into his analysis his programme for aesthetic excellence, and is grounded in his own participation in the world of the “Park Avenue Cubists”: Gris is praised for that ‘reticence,’ for ‘charm and. monumentality’ associated with the Spanish aristocracy, which he names as ‘an aristocratic suavity’ still unsurpassed. Morris shifts Juan Gris technique and execution of form back to his being: “Only years of culture and an inborn feeling for style can dictate what [that form] should be”.

Morris’s argument, in both parts of his commentary, manages to avoid giving any considered criteria by which to make either aesthetic or methodological judgments. He falls back on his own ‘inborn feeling for style.’ The enigma remains. Bauhaus and Juan Gris both win.


Next Week: Sean Niall,  PARIS LETTER





Art Chronicle: Art Versus Method George L.K. Morris. Partisan Review, Vol.6, No.2

Part 1: Morris on Bauhaus

George L.K. Morris, you may recall, was the chief financial backer of  Partisan Review,and served as art critic for the journal.  Morris was known as one of the “Park Avenue Cubists,” a group of abstract artists, born into  old American families with money and educational privileges. His wife, Susy Frelinghuysen, was an opera singer as well as another member of the “Old East Coast” elite.   Morris and Suzy created a life for themselves as advocates of abstract art. george_l-_k-_morris_and_suzy_frelinghuysen Another member of the PAC was the painter Charles G. Shaw, who trained for a time to become an architect, and  made the skyline of New York City an emblem of American new-york-oddly-enough Shaw was also a rich New Yorker, an heir to the Woolworth fortune, and a graduate of Yale.

And backing them all was the patron of European and American Modernist art — collector, painter, philanthropist —  A.E. Gallatin, who created in  1927 The Gallery of Living Art, a few years later renamed The Museum of Living Art’  at NYU.   a-e-gallatin

In 1939, when the Moscow Trials were being discussed still in uncomprehending tones, and Trotskyism was a growing argument with the Stalinist Popular Front, Morris used his “Art Chronicle” to review an exhibition at MoMA on the Bauhaus Movement, as a counterpoint to a show at the Jacques Seligmann Gallery, on 57th street, near MoMA, of paintings by Juan Gris.  The political argument about the popular front was about the meaning of revolutionary activity: was an alliance, even temporary, with the ruling classes of Europe to defeat Fascism a road to the defeat of revolutionary socialism altogether, or the only way to secure Fascism’s end?

Bauhaus_University_Weimar_03440px-WalterGropius-1919 Walter Gropius 1883-1969.

Morris’s article doesn’t explicitly take up these issues, but his commentary on how MoMA understood its task in putting on the Bauhaus exhibition, compared with the Juan Gris show at Jacques Seligmann Gallery offers elements of a wider critique.

The Bauhaus project of refining and stripping away ornamentation in favour of a modern simplicity of form with straightforward and explicit functionality,  was the work of  many, but Walter Gropius, an architect and advocate of modern design along with Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee and others conceived of a site where architecture and design could be studied and reformed for the modern age.  The exhibition at MoMA was to honour the work of the Bauhaus, which had been shut down by the Nazis in 1932. The buildings were closed, but the impact of Bauhaus remains with us.  One of the more important slogans for the project was “Art and Technology” — a more forward-looking idea than the contemporary version inBelgium of — “Art and Craft”.

Alfred Barr, Director of MoMA at the time, wanted to make Bauhaus’s history and its achievements available to an American audience: He writes in the Preface:

“It is twenty years since Gropius arrived in Weimar to found the Bauhaus; ten years since he left the transplanted and greatly enlarged institution at Dessau to return to private practice; five years since the Bauhaus was forced to close its doors after a brief rear-guard stand in Berlin.

Are this book, then, and the exhibition which supplements it, merely a belated wreath laid upon the tomb of brave events, important in their day but now of primarily historical interest? Emphatically, no! The Bauhaus is not dead; it lives and grows through the men who made it, both teachers and students, through their designs, their books, their methods, their principles, their philosophies of art and education.”

Morris however, sees the show as an example of what MoMA always gets wrong:

“The current survey of the Bauhaus and its teaching methods is ideally suited to the policies of the Museum of Modern Art, for whom historical sequence has from the start been more interesting than the showing of good paintings. At any rate, the Museum found it difficult to spoil the odds and ends that found their way out of Germany into the present exhibition, as they were nearly all uniformly bad to begin with.”

Morris here draws the divide between aesthetics and method that gives the ‘Art Chronicle’ its sub-title, “Art versus Method.” In autumn 1939 issue of PR, Clement Greenberg will theorise this issue of aesthetics in his canonical essay “Avant-garde and Kitsch” but you can tell in Morris’s piece that he has either incorporated a popular frontist view into his review, or has decided that a work being avant-garde is not as compelling as its being ‘fine’ aesthetically.  His criticism of the MoMA staff impugns their aesthetic capacity, and being the child of rich collectors and Rockefellers, the Museum is accused of crass philistinism:

The insensitive touch is apparent in the work of pupil and master alike, in the painting, the sculpture, the pottery, the furniture, and in the peep-shows that the Museum evidently intended as a lure for the uninitiated.”

Morris also asserts us that it is really the German “temperament, so at home within the limits of tonal and musical structure, flattens out before plastic problems into a heavy slickness and bad taste,”as much as it is trouble with MoMA curators that renders the exhibition ‘a drag.’

Yet he also wants to insist on the importance of Bauhaus, and he devises a view of its work that is committed to the ‘life-affirming’ qualities of Bauhaus processes and products:

“Turning from the exhibition to the catalog we are confronted with something vastly more absorbing. Here are gathered all the enlightened devices for instruction and presentation that must have made life at the Bauhaus a joy for students and teachers alike.  Everyone was taught to be completely free with his hands, and this is certainly the essence of plastic creation.”

It is, of course, very difficult to judge Morris’s judgements about the Bauhaus exhibition because he doesn’t evince any criteria by which to assess the art in the show. It is when he then goes on to discuss the Juan Gris show, that we see what he has in mind for aesthetic success.


Bauhaus Masters on the roof of the Bauhaus building: Josef Albers, Hinnerk Scheper, Georg Muche, László Moholy-Nagy, Herbert Bayer, Joost Schmidt, Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Lyonel Feininger, Gunta Stölzl, Oskar Schlemmer, photo: unknown 1926, reproduction 1998. Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin, with the courtesy of Société Kandinsky, Paris.

Next Week: Part 2. Morris on Juan Gris

In Memoriam: Philip Roth — 1933-2018


One of the great New York Intellectuals and its greatest Novelist.  Why not read something by him today…

“I turn sentences around. That’s my life. I write a sentence and then I turn it around. Then I look at it and I turn it around again. Then I have lunch. Then I come back in and write another sentence. Then I have tea and turn the new sentence around. Then I read the two sentences over and turn them both around. Then I lie down on my sofa and think. Then I get up and throw them out and start from the beginning.”

Gertrude Stein: The Autobiography of Rose, PR, Vol 6, No. 2

This week we have Gertrude Stein’s short piece, “The Autobiography of Rose”, and whoever it was who chose to put it right after Trilling’s  consideration of Hemingway, made a smart decision, for as Adam Gopnik succinctly wrote in a New Yorker article from  (24 June, 2013),

It isn’t the least of Stein’s virtues, or importance, that Hemingway was in many ways the popularizer of a style that she had invented. One could even say, to borrow Picasso’s famous disparaging remark about his imitators, that Stein did it first and Hemingway did it pretty. But, prettified or not, Hemingway’s style was the most influential in American prose for more than fifty years, and this makes Stein’s style less an outcropping than a bedrock of modern American writing.”  

But as for me, alas, I don’t like Gertrude Stein, and I didn’t like her even more when I read the book about her relationship of accommodation with the Vichy government, as retold by Janet Malcolm in Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice…it is a good read, if you want to read about them instead of reading Stein herself.

SO here is the text from Partisan Review: `You should be able to vary the size of the page on your computer..




SO…you can see how many of the marks of Modernism and post-modernism were invented here.  Gopnik notices:  “All marked styles—and any style that isn’t marked isn’t a style; what we call a “mannered” style is simply a marked style on a bad morning—hold their authors hostage just a bit. Stein’s style makes subtle thoughts sound flat and straightforward, and it also lets straightforward, flat thoughts sound subtle. Above all, its lack of the ordinary half-tints and protective shadings of adjectives and semicolons—the Jamesian fog of implication—lends itself to generalizations, sometimes profound, often idiosyncratic, always startling. It is the most deliberately naïve style in which any good writer has ever worked, and it is also the most “faux-naïf,” the most willed instance of simplicity rising from someone in no way simple.  

What differentiates this kind of writing from someone like Hemingway, I would say, is that, whatever you think of Trilling’s critique of him, Stein’s repetitions and possible permutations through the power of absent punctuation sounds like the disease of  intentional echolalia: to drain sentences of meaning altogether. In this way, its intention is the opposite of the estrangement/ Verfremdungseffekt. Instead of asking the audience to refuse to identify with the action of a play in order to make viewers process it intellectually, Stein’s style of writing evacuates its sentences of their referentiality in a world of concepts and idea and reduces it to the almost meaningless echolalia of children.

Unknown-5  Gertrude Stein by Pablo Picasso

Next week: William Gruen begins to answer the question, “What is logical empiricism”?

Lionel Trilling on Hemingway the Man and Hemingway the Artist.


Lionel Trilling

Lionel Trilling (1905-1975) 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. William Barrett, in his memoir of the Partisan Review clan, praises Lionel Trilling for his elegance of manners, of writing, and of demeanour.  But he also suggests that Trilling may have been the first of the PR writers to move towards a developing conservative strand in American intellectual life.

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.

Hemingway the Artist

Hemingway the artistIn his essay on Hemingway, Trilling makes a political argument into an aesthetic one by differentiating between Hemingway ‘the artist’ and Hemingway ‘the man’, suggesting that the early Hemingway’s work was of high literary value, while his later works, contradictory in their focus on the “man” as the bearer of socialist politics, now have gravitated towards a ‘liberalism’ of ‘good behaviour.’

Hemingway the  Man.

Hemingway the man.

Trilling begins with two recent works by Hemingway: The Fifth Column and  The First Forty-Nine Stories:  “Hemingway the ‘artist’ is conscious; Hemingway the ‘man’ is self-conscious; the ‘artist’ has a kind of innocence; the ‘man’ a kind of naivety; the ‘artist’ is disinterested; the ‘man’ has a dull personal axe to grind; the ‘artist’ has a perfect medium, and tells the truth even if it is only his truth. But the ‘man’ fumbles at communication and falsifies.” He goes on, “Insofar as we can ever blame a critical tradition for a writer’s failures, we must, I believe, blame American criticism for the illegitimate emergence of Hemingway the  ‘man’ and the resulting inferiority of his two recent major works.”

Hemingway was greeted with two competing interpretations: on one side, he was thought of as a brilliant new style maker in fiction, on the other, that he was a writer of   “cruelty, religion, anti-intellectualism,” and these reactions in turn had a strong impact on Hemingway’s ideas about what kind of writer he wanted to be:“For upon Hemingway were turned all the fine social feelings of the now passing decade, all the noble sentiments, all the desperate optimism, all the extreme rationalism, all the contempt of irony and indirection– all the attitudes which, in the full tide of the liberal-radical movement, became dominant in our thought about literature.” 

So half the audience adored and imitated him, and the other half reviled him as a border-Nazi. But a third other idea was that he attacked ‘good human values.’ He tried to put in the ‘correct social feelings.’ in the ‘required social way.’   So he brought in Hemingway ‘the Man.’ Trilling cites Edmund Wilson’s argument  that Hemingway’s “ideas about life or rather, his sense of what happens and the way it happens, is in his stories sunk deep below the surface and is not conveyed by arguments or preaching but by directly transmitted emotion it is turned into something hard as crystal and as disturbing as a great lyric. When he expounds his sense of life, however, in his character of Ernest Hemingway, the Old Master of Key West, he has a way of sounding silly.”

At this point, Trilling slides into his political point about Hemingway’s deterioration: “If , however, Hemingway ‘in his own character,’ were apparent to the practitioners of this  critical tradition, they did not want Hemingway’s virtues – the something ‘hard’ and ‘disturbing.’ Indeed they were in a critical tradition that did not want artists at all–it wanted ‘men,’ recruits, and its apologists were delighted to enlist Hemingway in his own character, with all his confusions and naivety, simply because Hemingway had now declared himself on the right side.”

In that way critics on the left could forgive the ‘silliness’ or immaturity of the Hemingway ‘man’ writings, because that was the mark of their political commitment: of showing that Hemingway was “on the right side.”

“For what should have always been obvious is that Hemingway is a writer who, when he writes as an ‘artist,’ is passionately and aggressively concerned with truth and even with social truth.”

Trilling moves to the politics of America in and after  WWI: Trilling approves of Hemingway’s claim that the strength of  American prose originated in Huckleberry Finn’s trip down the Mississippi; Trilling adds to the horror of death and destruction:

“TO the sensitive men who went to war, it was not, perhaps death and destruction that made the disorganising shock. It was perhaps rather that death and destruction went on at the instance and to the accompaniment of the fine grave words, of which Woodrow Wilson’s were the finest and gravest: Here was the issue of liberal theory; here in the bloated or piecemeal corpse was the outcome of the words of humanitarianism and of ideals… Words were trundled smoothly o’er the tongue — Coleridge had said it long ago:

“Like mere abstractions, empty sounds to which/ We join no feeling and attach no form/ As if the soldier died without a wound. . ./Passed off to heaven, translated and not killed”.
SO it is, Trillling argues, against that language of complacent Liberalism that Hemingway’s search for the truth must be placed.

Trilling then adds a third category to ‘artist,’and ‘man’; contemporary politics. While arguing that the ‘artist’ seeks truth, he implies that Stalinist Popular Frontism and American Liberalism obfuscate the actuality of revolutionary possibility woven into the best works of the ‘artist.’  So, while elevating the ‘artist,’ Trilling also elevates the work of the artist by finding in it the contemporary questions and in places, possible answers to political as well as artistic problems.

Trilling never did become one of the Partisan Review writers who slid into conservatism over the years. He remained an anti-Stalinist Socialist throughout his life.

To read the whole of the essay, cut and paste the link below.

NEXT WEEK; Gertrude Stein






Allen Tate and his modern eclogue, Vol. 6,No.2. Winter

Tate Portrait-5

The next piece in this Winter, 1939 volume of Partisan Review is a poem in the form of an eclogue by the American poet, Allen Tate.  You might begin with the idea of an eclogue:it is a kind of pastoral poem, set in the countryside, and in the form of a dialogue between two shepherds –understood to be pastoral poets– as well as being rural farmers. Virgil invented the form, and it is associated with philosophical reflection in a place out of the way of the worldly concerns of politics and money and war.  Tate was a member of a group of writers who called themselves the “Southern Agrarians,” who were a group of twelve American writers, poets, essayists, and novelists, all with roots in the Southern United States and who united to write a pro–Southern pastoral manifesto, published as the essay collection I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition (1930).I’ll Take My Stand was attacked at the time, and since, as a reactionary and romanticized defense of the Old South and the lost cause of the Confederacy.  So, I am asking myself, why is Tate being published in Partisan Review?!?! 

The answer, I suppose is that Modernism and Socialism crossed paths and shared ideas along the way to WWII.  The religiosity, the conservatism, and the racism of the Agrarians ran alongside Modernism and its advocates.  Certainly T.S. Eliot’s and Pound’s Modernisms can be considered congenial companions to Tate’s poetic voice. But the reasons may be more haphazard, having to do with connections made in the period when Tate was living in New York in the 1920s,  or through Tate’s work at The Nation.  

Frankly, I don’t understand the poem…. and I wholeheartedly invite readers to tell me what you think is going on in it, how it might have found a place in Partisan Review, and what its intention is beyond the sardonic critique of the Modern by one of its practitioners….

Thank goodness we have Hemingway and Trilling next week. See you then!


Eclogue Of The Liberal And The  Liberal Poet – 

In that place, shepherd, all the men are dead.

Yes, look at the water grim and black
Where immense Europa rears her head,
Her face pinched and her breasts slack.

I said, shepherd, all the men are dead.

Shall I turn to the road that goes America?
Is that a place for men to be dead
Or living? If you don’t mind being asked.

Try it and see. It’s a pretty good way
To skim three thousand miles in a day
And none of them America.

But what about her face and the tasked
Wonders of her air and soil, her big belly
That Putnam writes about under the sun?

I don’t know Put, I don’t know his Nelly-
To name her that if she’d name it fun
But you know she hasn’t any name,
Nowhere you touch her she’s the same,

What, shepherd, are we talking about?

You started it, shepherd.

Shepherd, I didn’t.

You did; you saw the poetical face of Europe.

You said it was no place for men to be.

I meant seawater; you thought I meant hope.

Hell, I reckon you think I am a dope.

I didn’t say that; I said there was no place.

If not in a place, where are the People weeping?

They creep weeping in the lace, not place.

Is it something with which we may cope-
The weeping, the creeping, the peepee-ing, the

Hanging is something which I will do with this

Alas, for us who peep, weeping.
Alas, for us you see but little hope.

Alas, I didn’t say that; you rhymed hope with rope.
I meant I was going to hang us both for creeping.

Afterwards they could process us into soap;
Afterwards they would rhyme soap with hope.

What a cheerful rhyme! Clean not mean!
Been not seenNot tired expired!
We must now decide about place.
We decide that place is the big weeping face
And the other abstract lace of the race.

Shepherd, what are we talking about?

Oh, why, shepherd, are we stalking about?



Andre Gide: “Pages from a Journal,” Volume 6, No. 2, 1939.


Unknown-4And far from Florida, the next piece in Partisan Review, Vol.6, No. 2, Winter 1939 are a few pages from André Gide’s Journal, which are reflective, analytical, in places lyrical, yet overall, somewhat anodyne. An earlier post on this blog, “But we shall not turn our face from you, O glorious and grieving Russia”, posted on December 17, 2016 gives an overview of Gide’s life, work,and politics, and might serve as an introduction to the present article if you don’t know much about him.

We know that the American critic, Fred Jameson, asked the question, “Why doesn’t anyone read Gide anymore?”, and that in 1965, twenty years before Jameson, so did Paul de Man, in a review of new books on Gide in the New York Review of Books:

It has almost become a commonplace of today’s criticism to state that André Gide’s work had begun to fade away even before the author’s death in 1951. Compared to Proust, to Valéry, to Claudel, and, outside France, to Henry James, Joyce, and Thomas Mann, he seems hardly to be part of the contemporary literary consciousness. An easy contrast can be drawn between the relative indifference that now surrounds his work and the passionate intensity with which the generation of Europeans born before 1920 used to follow his every word, considering his private opinions a matter of general concern. During the Thirties, he was without doubt the most public literary figure in France, much more so than Malraux, Camus, and Sartre, for all their overt political activity, ever were.”  

The same things might be said again in 2018; that Gide, though a prolific writer, a Nobel Prize winner, a man who wrote openly about his sexual life, and a writer who took politics seriously, if not quite coherently, has slipped away from the canon of modernism. One obvious reason for this is that as a life long intellectual he was always in dialogue with the ideas around him, and always reflecting on their interconnections, and therefore chameleon-like in his preferences. The “Pages from a Journal,” published in PR after a summer and autumn of advancing Nazism, anti-Semitism, and, in the Soviet Union, political trials and executions, are a compendium of things Gide was thinking about at that time.

He opens with the reflection that “Early in life I put myself on guard against beliefs I owed to habits encouraged by my parents, to my protestant upbringing,  and even to my country”. He says that it took him a long time to understand that his concerns were born from his position in class society. He sees that his sympathy for the poor and the labouring classes arose only because he was bourgeois: that is, of his ‘critical survey’ of the world around him, “I knew well enough that had I been less privileged I could not have taken it”.  And for that reason, he could see that the revolutionary ideas come from the privileged classes, and are then taken up by the working class and its allies.

Having been compared to Rousseau,  Gide now writes that Rousseau’s idea that “men are naturally good’ is absolutely wrong.  “This utopian view of the past dangerously falsifies every project, every prediction of the future.”  So he counterpoises to it the Marxist concept of  humanity as always being in the process of becoming… there isn’t an a priori, idealist ‘goodness’ in us; rather, everything is made, toiled towards, going on. Natural law may exist and that law may be immutable; but “there is nothing that man creates, there is nothing human which cannot be changed — beginning (or rather, ending) with itself.”

From this Marxist concept, Gide goes on to look at Lenin’s statement, in his unfinished The State and Revolution that “Until now, there has not been a single revolution which, everything considered has not resulted in the strengthening of administrative machinery of the State. And what is the USSR today? The dreaded bureaucracy, the administrative machinery has never been stronger.

Just as Gide pitted himself against the bourgeois mores and concepts of his parents, now he  frees himself from the degenerated Stalinist State, returning to a place not that different from Thomas Mann’s.  Free from his Marxist discipline over three years, Gide learns that his freedom is the richer for those years.

The rest of the pages are romantic, somber, suffused with his sense of aging. He was 70 when this was published and he speaks frankly of his physical frailties. These pages are moving to read, and they offer a reason  why no one reads Gide anymore.  He writes his funerary speech himself. He faces his desire to mix heaven and hell and find a reconciliation, but insists it can’t be done.

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Volume 6, No.2 Winter 1939. Elizabeth Bishop, “Florida”

It is something of a shock to move from Harold Rosenberg’s polemical voice in his discussion of Thomas Mann to the poem by Elizabeth Bishop, who we have looked at before in her life as a Vassar Girl and a short fiction writer, and as a poet. I have been immersed in the atmospherics of 1938-39,  when it seems as if everything written the adumbrates the “ancestral voices prophesying WAR.”  And the terrain of Bishop’s “Florida” resonates with that year as well.  I came across a blog that seems to have run aground late in 2015, but the post I read there about “Florida” is a fine example of how the anxieties of the past can pale in the company of our own terrible landscape of the Trumpocracy and the Refusal of the reality of the Anthropecene’s damages to the worlds we live in,  The author, Joyelle McSweeney, names the genre into which Bishop’s poem fits as the ‘necro-pastoral.”
 She writes:

“I first wrote about  the Necropastoral in January of 2011. The Necropastoral is a political-aesthetic zone in which the fact of mankind’s depredations cannot be separated from an experience of “nature” which is poisoned, mutated, aberrant, spectacular, full of ill effects and affects. The Necropastoral is a non-rational zone, anachronistic, it often looks backwards and does not subscribe to Cartesian coordinates or Enlightenment notions of rationality and linearity, cause and effect.  It does not subscribe to humanism but is interested in non-human modalities, like those of bugs, viruses, weeds and mold. Marosa di Giorgio: “Esa loca azucena nos va a asesinar.” The definitive processes of the Necropastoral are decay, vagueness, interembodiment, fluidity, seepage,  inflammation, supersaturation.  The Necropastoral is literally subterannean, Hadean, Arcadian in the sense that Death lives there. The Necropastoral  is not an “alternative” version of reality but it is a place where the farcical and outrageous horrors of Anthopocenic are made visible as Death.”

Of “Florida” she writes: “Florida is also, according to  Elizabeth Bishop, the state with the prettiest name. While prettiness is associated with weakness, it is also a weapon: this is the ambivalence of the necropastoral. For Bishop, the prettiness of Florida is completely toxic, undead, ex-terminus, grown through with mangrove roots like corpse fingernails, flown over by condors and other flesh eaters. Debt, death and extermination flourish in this flowery state, exposing its necropastoral force”

“Florida” – Poem by Elizabeth Bishop

The state with the prettiest name,
the state that floats in brackish water,
held together by mangrave roots
that bear while living oysters in clusters,
and when dead strew white swamps with skeletons,
dotted as if bombarded, with green hummocks
like ancient cannon-balls sprouting grass.
The state full of long S-shaped birds, blue and white,
and unseen hysterical birds who rush up the scale
every time in a tantrum.
Tanagers embarrassed by their flashiness,
and pelicans whose delight it is to clown;
who coast for fun on the strong tidal currents
in and out among the mangrove islands
and stand on the sand-bars drying their damp gold wings
on sun-lit evenings.
Enormous turtles, helpless and mild,
die and leave their barnacled shells on the beaches,
and their large white skulls with round eye-sockets
twice the size of a man’s.
The palm trees clatter in the stiff breeze
like the bills of the pelicans. The tropical rain comes down
to freshen the tide-looped strings of fading shells:
Job’s Tear, the Chinese Alphabet, the scarce Junonia,
parti-colored pectins and Ladies’ Ears,
arranged as on a gray rag of rotted calico,
the buried Indian Princess’s skirt;
with these the monotonous, endless, sagging coast-line
is delicately ornamented.

Thirty or more buzzards are drifting down, down, down,
over something they have spotted in the swamp,
in circles like stirred-up flakes of sediment
sinking through water.
Smoke from woods-fires filters fine blue solvents.
On stumps and dead trees the charring is like black velvet.
The mosquitoes
go hunting to the tune of their ferocious obbligatos.
After dark, the fireflies map the heavens in the marsh
until the moon rises.
Cold white, not bright, the moonlight is coarse-meshed,
and the careless, corrupt state is all black specks
too far apart, and ugly whites; the poorest
post-card of itself.
After dark, the pools seem to have slipped away.
The alligator, who has five distinct calls:
friendliness, love, mating, war, and a warning–
whimpers and speaks in the throat of the Indian Princess.rats