American journal, 1934–
Partisan Review was founded by William Phillips and Philip Rahv in 1934. It entered the arena of American left-wing cultural and political controversies with a verve and energy that immediately distinguished it as a political and cultural voice in the struggles over who spoke for the new literary radical left. Impatient with and yet attracted to indigenous American liberalism, populism, and bohemianism, and restless with the views expressed in journals such as the proletarian New Masses, Partisan Review began as a literary adjunct to the communist John Reed Club, whose mandate was to recognize unknown writers and artists with proletarian leanings. Partisan Review immediately announced itself as the inheritor of proletarian impulses and the prophetic voice for the future of new literary values. Its audience would be those who should be affected by the class struggles and upheavals sweeping through industrial societies, and those who would challenge the uneven control of the bourgeoisie over cultural values.
However, the twists and turns of communist cultural policies around propaganda and realism, the Spanish Civil War, Stalinism and its cruelties, the precarious nature of Trotskyism, the rise of the American New Deal, and the necessity to interpret Modernist writers both to themselves and to the new generation caused the editors to reconsider their allegiance to the John Reed style of populism. Partisan Review suspended publication in 1936 and joined with Anvil as a monthly, Partisan and Anvil, beginning what would become the intellectual trademark of the magazine: to criticize leftist politics from the vanguard Modernist position of a literary and radical culturalism that would accommodate American circumstances.
In 1937 the journal suspended publication, severed any residual connection to the Communist Party, and refashioned itself almost immediately as an independent quarterly under the editorial guardianship of Phillips and Rahv, Fred Dupee, Dwight Macdonald, Mary McCarthy, and George L.K. Morris. Fearing conformist leftism, it identified itself in a 1937 Editorial Statement with a larger historical project that would place the “accent chiefly on culture and its broader social determinants.” While there were compelling political reasons for changing the journal’s outlook to one critical of Stalinism and the bureaucratic academicism of the organized left, besides the more urgent need to fight against fascism and philistinism in culture and politics, the Partisan Review’s concern was to speak in a truly American cultural idiom that would register the changes in American culture through literary values not usurped by ideology. This need to identify with American culture continued to plague the journal’s identity crises and editorial policies until the 1990s.
During and after World War II Partisan Review overcame its political alliances of the 1930s by developing a following among serious readers literate and hungry for avant-garde controversies and Modernist experiments. The rapidly fading dependency on realism and proletarian tendencies gave way to the new literary values of T.S.Eliot, André Gide, and William Faulkner, finally fulfilling the call to “independence in politics as well as art” (Editorial Statement, 1937). In retrospect it may be possible to overestimate the influence of Partisan Review on the sensibilities and self-image of the American cultural left; however, it is difficult to underestimate the journal’s sense of its own importance and influence. During the war the struggle over fascism, pacifism, and rapprochement with the reactionary Modernist politics of figures like Eliot or Ezra Pound brought its defense of the mystifying Modernist styles into stark political relief.
Its readership during and after the war may have been 10,000, but its influence was certainly wider, causing Richard Hofstadter (1963) to declare that it was the “house organ of the American intellectual community.”
During the war the journal’s inner circle was broken when Dwight Macdonald’s pacifism clashed with the muted acceptance of the war by Phillips, Rahv, and the art critic Clement Greenberg. Typical of its frequent symposia is the wartime discussion, given the ambiguously traitorous sounding title, “The Failure of Nerve” (1943), in which religion, existentialism, and science become entangled with the issue of whether loyalty to the war effort can be defended. The wartime “London Letter” (1940), a column written by George Orwell, D.S.Savage, and others, forged a link to British intellectuals’ ideological agonizing over commitment to the war, and whether pacifism, anarchism, and anti-fascism were objectively pro-Hitler or self-serving.
It was only after the war that the journal began to take on the voice of the American “intellectual community,” that the accent of the “New York intellectual” became authoritative, if somewhat priggish. New York was a crossroads to Europe, to dissent, to immigrant cultures, to history, and to a barbed independence that gave its writers a style of mind and sense of publicity and purpose that defined its name and aura. Its phases since the war have mirrored the changes in the fortunes and tendencies of American left cultural politics.
In the 19505 the nervous loyalty to the crusade against fascism, the affluence of postwar reconstruction, and the unraveling of socialism forced Partisan Review to confront the “age of conformism.” The attempt to find and defend any positive value of American democracy was complicated by the ravages of McCarthyism and the barbaric nature of cold war communism and capitalism. The road of accommodation to the perceived demands of its audience can be marked by the flags of some of its symposia and exchanges: “The Situation of American Writing,” 1939; “Colloquium About Liberalism,” 1948; “Religion and Intellectuals,” 1950; “Our Country and Our Culture,” 1952; “This Age of Conformity,” 1954; “The Crisis in Communism,” 1957; “The Negro Writer in America,” 1958; “The Cold War and the West,” 1962; “What’s Happening to America,” 1967; “On the New Cultural Conservatism,” 1972; “Writers in Exile,” 1984;
“The Politics of Political Correctness,” 1993. The journal’s rapprochement with American culture is clearly part of its history.
After the 1960s, the notorious critiques of kitsch and conformism that gave the journal a nuanced position against mass culture were turned into an often heavy-handed critique of the countercultural generation who formed part of the self-consciously democratic culture of late capitalism. Struggles for and against the student movement divided the editorial board and its writers. As Partisan Review’s audience aged and moved on from the necessary difficulties of Modernism against its enemy, indifference, massmindedness, and conformity, the journal’s engagement with a clearly defined audience grew problematic, and its responses to the new generation’s political preoccupations were quarrelsome and defensive.
Originally Partisan Review’s editors and writers were not part of university life. The formative intellectual personality can best be characterized by a tone of detachment from the academy, and its incorrigible, often gnarled defense of experimental Modernism and socialism gave its intellectuality a quality that distinguished it from other journals like the genteel Kenyon Review and Southern Review. It debated the American New Criticism, Russian formalism, surrealism, film, Modernism and the novel, psychoanalysis and culture, Sartrean existentialism, the self and society, and diverse theories of alienation.
The journal published a range of independent intellectuals like C.Wright Mills, Paul Goodman, Harold Rosenberg, Hannah Arendt, Karl Jaspers, and Lionel Trilling, whose preoccupations were perhaps most typical of its intellectual style. It was an organ for the essays and prose of writers like Stephen Spender, James Baldwin, Edmund Wilson, Saul Bellow, Vladimir Nabokov, Norman Mailer, Philip Roth, Mary McCarthy, Diana Trilling, and Alfred Kazin. These writers defined Modernism as a total cultural condition, not simply a literary movement. Often its own contributors attacked the journal as if its parental voice were the center of the entire intellectual world (Leslie A.Fiedler, 1956;
Norman Podhoretz, 1979). As wide-ranging as the modern themes appeared to be, some questions seemed superficially addressed. Jews and the Holocaust, race and segregation, Jewish intellectual identity, and the fate of the labor movement were considered but not with adequate depth.
Often Partisan Review was simply “keeping abreast” but losing ground to more culturally avantgarde positions (Harvey Teres, 1996). For Russell Jacoby (1987), however, the New York intellectuals were doomed to be “the last intellectuals,” who no longer had a public role after the 1950s.
In the 50th anniversary edition of Partisan Review (1984), the founding editor, William Phillips, mused that the New Left was “a complex of outworn Marxist notions, vaguely progressive ideas, trendy causes like environmentalism and various liberation movements, sympathy for something called the Third World, pacifism, anti- Americanism, an obsessive fear of nuclear power.” Struggling to keep Partisan Review from becoming a neoconservative journal, it spoke for a new calling—a new liberalism— which would “examine each issue on its own,” perhaps reflecting, in the name of social responsibility, the very fragmentation that the early passionate calling to Modernism wanted to understand and heal.
Today the original incentives toward a revolutionary critique of capitalism would appear distant, instead giving ground to a critique of how democratic values have declined. The powerful incentive for its readers is not to identify with its 1930s’ anticapitalism or its postwar critique of the American system, but to remain closer to the mainstream of American intellectual life and to excavate some fragments of ethics from the tradition. In this Partisan Review is indistinguishable from other small journals.
However, the proliferation of books on its history and significance by both its founding writers and the next generation who observe it from afar indicates that it retains its presence, not only as one of the longest lasting journals on the American scene, but as a cultural institution whose history reflects the American struggle for an intellectually respectable left identity.
The Partisan Reader: Ten Years of Partisan Review, 1934–1944, New York: Dial Press, 1946
The New Partisan Reader, 1945–1953, edited by William Phillips and Philip Rahv, New York: Harcourt Brace, 1953
The Partisan Review Anthology, edited by William Phillips and Philip Rahv, New York: Holt Rinehart and Winston, 1962,
Writers & Politics: A Partisan Review Reader, edited by Edith Kurzweil and William Phillips, Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1983
Partisan Review: The 50th Anniversary Edition, edited by William Phillips, New York: Stein and Day, 1985
A Partisan Century: Political Writings from Partisan Review, edited by Edith Kurzweil, New York: Columbia University Press, 1996
Bloom, Alexander, Prodigal Sons: The New York Intellectuals and Their World, New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986
Cooney, Terry A., The Rise of the New York Intellectuals: Partisan Review and Its Circle, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1986
Fiedler, Leslie A., An End to Innocence: Essays on Culture and Politics, New York: Stein and Day, 1972, (original edition, 1955)
Fiedler, Leslie A., “Partisan Review: Phoenix or Dodo?” Perspectives USA 16 (Spring 1956)
Gilbert, James Burkhart, Writers and Partisans: A History of Literary Radicalism in America, New York: Columbia University Press, 1992 (original edition, 1968)
Greenberg, Clement, Art and Culture, Boston: Beacon Press, 1989 (original edition, 1961)
Guilbaut, Serge, How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art: Abstract Expressionism, Freedom, and the Cold War, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983
Hoffman, Frederick J., Charles Allen, and Carolyn F.Ulrich, The Little Magazine: A History and a Bibliography, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1946
Hofstadter, Richard, Anti-lntellectualism in American Life, New York: Knopf, 1963; London: Cape, 1964
Hook, Sidney, “The Radical Comedians: Inside Partisan Review,” American Scholar (Winter 1984–85):45–61
Howe, Irving, A Margin of Hope: An Intellectual Autobiography, San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982.; London: Secker and Warburg, 1983
Jacoby, Russell, The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe, New York: Basic Books, 1987
Kazin, Alfred, New York Jew, New York: Knopf, and London: Secker and Warburg, 1978
Krupnick, Mark, Lionel Trilling and the Fate of Cultural Criticism, Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1986
McCarthy, Mary, Intellectual Memoirs: Neiv York, 1936–1938, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1992
Macdonald, Dwight, The Root Is Man: Two Essays in Politics, Alhambra, California: Cunningham Press, 1953
Macdonald, Dwight, Against the American Grain, New York: Random House, 1962; London: Gollancz, 1963
Phillips, William, A Partisan View: Five Decades of the Literary Life, New York: Stein and Day, 1983
Podhoretz, Norman, Breaking Ranks: A Political Memoir, New York: Harper and Row, 1979; London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1980
Rahv, Philip, The Myth and the Powerhouse, New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1965
Rosenberg, Harold, Discovering the Present: Three Decades in Art, Culture, and Politics, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973
Teres, Harvey, Renewing the Left: Politics, Imagination, and the New York Intellectuals, New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996
Trilling, Lionel, The Opposing Self: Nine Essays in Criticism, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1979; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980 (original edition, 1955)
Trilling, Lionel, The Last Decade: Essays and Reviews, 1965–1975, edited by Diana Trilling, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1979; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982
Wald, Alan M., The New York Intellectuals: The Rise and Decline of the Anti-Stalinist Left from the 1930s to the 1980s, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987
Wilford, Hugh, The New York Intellectuals: From Vanguard to Institution, Manchester: Manchester University Press, and New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995
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