Philip Rahv Essay - Critical Essays

Rahv, Philip


Philip Rahv 1908–1973

(Born Ivan Greenberg) Russian-born American critic and editor.

Rahv symbolizes for many readers the Marxist critical movement that was prominent in American letters during the 1930s and 1940s. As a member of the John Reed Club (the Communist party affiliate in New York), Rahv contributed literary essays and reviews to its magazine, New Masses. In 1934 Rahv and William Phillips founded Partisan Review as the literary companion to New Masses. Within ten years, T. S. Eliot was to describe Partisan Review as "America's leading literary magazine."

The essay "Paleface and Redskin" brought Rahv his greatest critical attention. In it, he described the "palefaces" as members of "the thin, solemn, semi-clerical culture of Boston and Concord," and the "redskins" as members of "the lowlife world of the frontier and big cities." Citing Henry James and Walt Whitman as examples of these two trends in writing, Rahv discussed this dichotomy in the American experience and traced its influence on modern writers. Most of his later essays, including "The Myth and the Powerhouse," also stress the importance of history in the creation and appreciation of art.

Throughout his career, Rahv was characteristically opposed to contemporary trends in literature and critical theory. Consequently, his writings had an anachronistic tone, but as Mary McCarthy wrote: "His resistance to swimming with the tide, his mistrust of currents, were his strength."

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 85-88.)

Richard Chase

What one admires most in Philip Rahv's essays [in "Image and Idea"] is the determination to search among our modern cultural closures and total ideologies for "the cultural forms of dissidence and experiment." And what one admires about Rahv's critical method is his abundant ability to use such techniques as Marxism, Freudian psychology, anthropology, and existentialism toward his critical ends without shackling himself to any of them…. The characteristic success of these essays is a success of reclamation: the appropriation toward humanist ends and by methodical means of the irrationality, apocalypticism, and chaos of the modern mind.

Mr. Rahv affirms that modern literature "bristles with anxiety and ideas of alienation," that its frequent informing image is the depersonalized, homeless man of the city, and that the proper task of modern creative writers has been to give the quality of "felt life" to the inner tensions and contradictions imposed by contemporary existence. He tends to regard the devices of the imaginative writer—naturalism, the subtle refinement of Joyce and Proust, the use of symbol and myth—as stratagems employed by the writer for circumventing his personal and cultural plight.

For the contemporary critic Mr. Rahv suggests an "ideal aloofness from abstract systems" and exhorts him to remember that in respect to metaphysics "the art-object is first to last the one certain datum at his disposal." This is a healthily pragmatic attitude, the more so because Rahv is on the whole anything but aloof from the moral and historical meanings of the art-object. Rahv is above all a political critic, in the sense that his...

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Howard Mumford Jones

I am not sure that I know what the "new criticism" is, and I am not certain that Mr. Rahv is a new critic. But his essays [in "Image and Idea"] display one quality which has become tiresome. It is the habit of making dark and dogmatic statements about the American literary past, notably in relation to the American literary present, at least, that is, as interpreted by Mr. Rahv.

For example, the opening essay ["Paleface and Redskin"]. This lays down the proposition that American writers "viewed historically" appear to group themselves around two polar types—paleface and redskin. The paleface is James, the redskin is Whitman, and the national literature "suffers from the ills of a split personality." The palefaces dominated nineteenth-century American literature, and the redskins dominate twentieth-century American literature. When this sort of obiter dictum was uttered by the late Irving Babbit or other members of the neo-humanist group, you took it for what it was worth as propaganda for their side. But Mr. Rahv seriously presents this formula in the first essay of his book as something profoundly serious and profoundly true. It is only a half-truth, one of those half-truths, uttered dogmatically, that lead me to distrust the obiter dicta of contemporary criticism.

A second essay, "The Cult of Experience in American Writing," takes off where the first ends. Here are some representative sentences:

While the idea that one should "live" one's life came to James as a revelation, to the contemporary European writers this idea had long been a thoroughly assimilated and natural assumption … it represents a momentous break with the then dominant American morality of abstention. The roots of this morality are to be traced on the one hand to the religion of the Puritans and, on the other, to the inescapable need of a frontier society to master its world in sober practice.

This seems to mean that at some indefinite time in the nineteenth century, an indefinite group of European writers had "assimilated" the idea that one should "live" one's life. But what writers? Did they mean "live" in the sense that James is supposed to mean it? Did James discover this startling truth only when he went abroad, as the old dig said, to read Turgeniev, or did he learn it primarily from that exciting, transcendentalist-flavored intellectual climate out of which his father came and in which some of his formative years were passed? And about this distinction between redskin and paleface—did they both "abstain"? if so, what becomes of the distinction between them? Abstain from what? From the...

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Robert Alter

[What is] most impressive about Mr. Rahv's criticism is its urgent insistence that the mind remain engaged with the multiplex, ambiguous data of reality despite repeated temptations to slip off into the pleasures of private fantasy, the neatness of intellectual schematisms, the security of dogma, or whatever escape route the signs of the times may point to. Mr. Rahv is at his best, then, as a critic of criticism. He exercises a surgeon's fine skill in exposing the particular failed nerve that produced each of our major literary fads—the religious revival (in the late '40s), the ascendancy of myth (in the mid-'50s, but we are not out of that Sacred Wood yet), the grand sport of symbol-hunting (an intellectual pastime of the '50s, now permanently appropriated by the academic critics), and the current quest for "inner freedom" and spontaneity of consciousness in both the creation and criticism of fiction.

Because Mr. Rahv has such a strong sense of criticism as a responsible activity, mediating, ideally, between life and art, he is quick to raise just the right questions as to the ultimate implications of a critic's commitment to a particular method or ideology. It may have been obvious, even in 1950, that the vogue of Christianity among the intellectuals was, after Marxism, merely a turning to a new form of authoritarianism, but Mr. Rahv is able to analyze precisely the way in which Rome and Moscow are complementary escapes from the stubborn complexities of human nature. The "Utopians on the Left" assume man's innate goodness, the "Utopians on the Right," his inalterable depravity; the former position as a rationale for political action courts disaster, the latter view is "the permanent alibi of those unconcerned with justice"; both alternatives finally shirk the...

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Julian Moynahan

[In "The Myth and the Powerhouse," Rahv is too often] found fighting a species of rear-guard action against troops who have long since retired from the field or may never have left the barracks in the first place. For instance, he looks with suspicion upon a religious revival "current" among intellectuals in the early 1950's, yet from the perspective of the present the only real question is whether such a revival ever occurred. Similarly, he views with alarm the illiberal and anti-historical assumptions of "myth" critics—people who come up with archetypal and symbolic readings of novels and poems while ignoring or hypostasizing personal and historical dimensions of meaning in literary works. But who nowadays pays any serious attention to myth critics, or to New Critics, or to psychoanalytic critics, or to Camp critics, or to you-name-it critics?…

Mr. Rahv is out of step with the new tendencies and as a critic has really nothing to recommend him except taste, experience, honesty, humaneness, knowledge of several foreign tongues and literatures, and a rather single-minded devotion to the idea that the theme of human history is freedom. He is attracted to the novel as the dominant modern literary form because in its conquest of historical actuality, in its "realism," the novel spotlights the social arena in which the issues of freedom are to be fought out. It therefore becomes important to him to emphasize Gogol's social realism in...

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Mark L. Krupnick

Rahv is best known as an editor, since its founding in 1934, of Partisan Review. [The essays in Literature and the Sixth Sense] are very much the writings of a partisan and public man who is as much concerned about influencing cultural debate as in elucidating texts. So this is literary criticism of a special kind: the essay as position paper, as a tactical exercise in a continuing war of ideas. Rahv acknowledges the influence of psychoanalysis, existentialism and anthropology, and he uses all of these resources of modern criticism to good effect; but his method depends basically on Marxism, with its stress on the social determinants of literature, the art object as it exists in the dimension of time....

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John P. Sisk

[A book like Literature and the Sixth Sense,] ranging as it does over a period in our cultural life so marked by change at all levels, could be a useful record even if its insights and judgments were no longer especially relevant. Rahv himself accedes to this record-value in his decision to reprint his essays without substantial changes, and so delivers himself to the whimsies of the Zeitgeist. But what continually struck me as I reread pieces I had not read for years was how well they stand up despite the fact that they carry the imprint of their particular times and occasions. This is especially true of the splendid synoptic essays on Hawthorne …, Henry James's heroines …, and the introductions to...

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Frank Kermode

[Rahv's] criticism has strength rather than ingenuity, eloquence rather than wit. He mimics nobody, preferring his own voice with its certainty of timbre and its dynamic range (loud but controlled in polemic). Consequently he collects well, keeps well. To me, a critic with virtually nothing in common with him …, the weight of [Literature and the Sixth Sense], its clarity and certainty, are extremely impressive. Apart from anything else, it was no small achievement to go on doing unfashionable things, to follow one's own road, when American criticism, for virtually a generation, was headed in a quite different direction. It called for sobriety and patience, for a sense of vocation and a sense of history....

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Mark Shechner

[Rahv] was fairly unproductive as a critic: his collected writing would scarcely total more than a thick volume of occasional essays and book reviews, a scattering of uncollected editorials and manifestoes, and an unfinished book on Dostoevsky which he labored over in desultory fashion for more than thirty years. Yet the editors of [Essays on Literature and Politics 1932–1972] are quite justified in claiming that he was, in his own right, one of the finest literary critics of his generation….

Though he wrote slowly and took great pains in the articulation of his positions, he was a formidable rhetorician who drove home his points with a pungency and directness that bespoke not only a sure...

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Denis Donoghue

Experience is Rahv's word; it turns up on virtually every page of [Essays on Literature and Politics 1932–1972]. Sometimes he uses it to mean everything in life that the mind should encounter not by chance but by purpose and an intuitive sense of what it needs. So he speaks of "a dichotomy between experience and consciousness" as the typical American disability. But sometimes he uses it to mean 'felt life' rather than 'life's total practice,' and in that sense it is hard to see that there could be a dichotomy between experience and consciousness. I can only explain this ambivalence by saying that to Rahv experience was the grander term and that while he revered consciousness and was stirred by ideas, he knew...

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William Barrett

[Philip Rahv's break with Communism marked the real beginning of his career as a literary critic]. Starting in 1939, and then through the 1940's, he wrote some solid and really first-rate essays in literary criticism, which still remain the best memorial to his powers of mind and sensibility. One of the remarkable things about them too was the degree to which his Marxism had receded into the background. In fact, he had not given up his beliefs; when pushed in conversation, the Marxist formulary would come out as flat and dogmatic as ever; but in his literary criticism, and much to its benefit, he seemed to look the other way. The god of Marxism had not died for him, it had simply withdrawn—and, as it turned out,...

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Irving Howe

Though he wrote mostly about literature, and often surpassingly well, Rahv's criticism can't be understood apart from a fancied relation (mostly in his head) to some ideal Marxist text. Sometimes this stood as a relation of mimesis, sometimes parody, most often allegory. His essays moved along a double track. On one track he could faithfully follow the work being examined—an obligation he took with great seriousness—while on the other he might also trace out the half-blurred footprints of Marxism. Just as some of the New Critics seem in retrospect to have been ministers manqué, their rhetoric soaring to a preacher's climax while their matter failed to keep pace, so Rahv wrote with the pleased stateliness of the...

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