Interest in the New York intellectuals of the 1930’s, 1940’s, and 1950’s has steadily increased in recent years, as surviving members take the occasion of their advancing age and, one presumes, increased leisure to produce memoirs and autobiographies in which they claim to set the record straight, defend themselves and their friends from the unwarranted vilifications of rivals, and wearily reflect on the spiritual debasement into which their heirs on the contemporary scene have fallen. The tone of these memoirs generally is elegiac, occasionally, as with Norman Podhoretz, combative and hectoring, less often, though Irving Howe is a notable exception, hopeful. None is likely to make its way into the canon of classic autobiographies. Even now, the interest generated by these works is largely confined to the participants themselves, that surviving stratum of the New York literary world that has not been completely submerged in the profit and loss sheets of multinational corporations, and scholars whose research on these figures demands that their memoirs be digested thoroughly and, one hopes, critically. The constant temptation when reading their work and writing about it is to value their place and importance in shaping the cultural environment of the United States as highly as they do themselves.
Reading William Phillips’ recent collection of reminiscences gives one the sense of a man at the center of things intellectual. Phillips was among the founders of Partisan Review, which, in 1985, he continues to edit. Phillips’ own view of the journal’s place in setting the agenda for debate over culture and politics emphasizes the Partisans’ central but fiercely independent role among American intellectuals. He tries to show that they maintained a delicate balance between iconoclasm and swimming in the mainstream, and that when individual writers stepped beyond the boundaries, the aberration was either temporary or ultimately led to their leaving the fold. At the center of it all is Phillips himself, l’homme moyen sensuel, a voice of reason and restraint amid the cacophony of competing intellectual postures, who held the ship of Partisan Review on a steady course, skillfully navigating between the Scylla of Stalinism and the Charybdis of neoconservatism. There will be occasion to return to the politics of the journal and the function it performed among what was until quite recently the most important segment of extra-academic literary intellectuals in this country.
First, however, something must be said about Phillips’ self-image as truth teller, the man who comes before readers to correct the errors, bad faith, and tendentious misrepresentations of previous chroniclers of the New York intellectuals. En passant, Phillips takes swipes at Lillian Hellman, Francis Mulhern, Robert Coover, E. L. Doctorow, Dwight Macdonald, Alfred Kazin, and Norman Podhoretz, among others. Lengthier, more venomous attacks are launched against Simone de Beauvoir, William Barrett, and, most of all, former coeditor of Partisan Review Philip Rahv. This reviewer is not in a position to dispute many of the accounts that Phillips gives of controversies and conflicts among the New York intellectuals, although competing versions of many of the stories exist (Phillips invariably disputes them, presenting his own as the more accurate, objective, unbiased). In two instances, however, about which this reviewer does know something, Phillips’ memory has played him false. In the midst of narrating the story of his first visit to Europe in 1949-1950, Phillips remarks upon making the acquaintance of Stuart Hall, who is identified for the uninitiated as the editor of New Left Review. Since this journal did not even exist until the early 1960’s, it is unlikely that Hall could have been editing it in 1950. Moreover, Hall has never, to this reviewer’s knowledge, edited the New Left Review, which was, until quite recently, edited predominantly (although not exclusively) by Perry Anderson. A small point, perhaps, but in the light of Phillips’ sharp (and unsupported with any evidence other than Phillips’ own word) indictment of Mulhern for participating in the “steady erosion of truth on the left” because of the latter’s claim against Partisan Review’s “accepting the political premises of McCarthyism,” it seems worthwhile to note that Phillips’ command of the history of rival publications is not always certain.
A more consequent lapse of memory concerns a controversy which flared up in the pages of Partisan Review in the late 1930’s. It is cited here, not merely to demonstrate the fallibility of Phillips’ memory but to illustrate as well the political bias that has dominated his thinking from the 1950’s to the 1980’s. In thinking about this episode, the reader will possibly wonder if Phillips is as innocent of the charge of supporting the premises (if not all of the specific practices) of McCarthyism as he avers. The incident involves Kenneth Burke, whom Phillips brands (along with Granville Hicks and Malcolm Cowley) a “fellow-traveler” of the American Communist Party. Sidney Hook, one of the few figures who emerges from Phillips’ indictment of Left intellectuals unscathed, had attacked Burke’s Attitudes Toward History in the December, 1937, issue of Partisan Review, charging Burke with, among other...
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