Irving Howe

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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 left-wing theoretician who brushes aside mere particulars in behalf of the largest trends. I seem to be lapsing into a little irony here, but I mean it to be amiable, even admiring, since I think Rahv's criticism was often helped, given bite and flavor, when he shadowed the motions of political argument—just as the New Critics were helped when, even while pledged to the self-sufficiency of the text, they wrote with the ardor of missionaries. Pure critics are rare birds, and they seldom fly very far. (pp. 487-88)

The criticism Rahv wrote in his earlier years was marked by a note of high confidence. In 1949 he put out his first collection, Image and Idea, with pieces on Russian literature and some ambitious, if skewed, studies of nineteenth-century American fiction. He played an important part in the Henry James revival then under way, though he made it a point to distinguish himself from "the James cultists" who failed to see that their idol was finally not in a class with the greatest European novelists. In these early Rahv essays there is a fine interplay between image and idea: his Marxism, no longer mere system, provides cues for placing writers historically; yet his critical judgments are free, supple, and without ideological alloy. He takes pleasure, even, in discovering the moral perspicacity of a reactionary writer like Dostoevsky and in observing how Tolstoy plants his fictions in the soil of history while evoking a sense of humanity not easily reducible to historical categories.

The pieces on American literature are more questionable. Rahv was not well grounded in the American cultural tradition; he didn't know as much about Puritanism, and the steadily enriched views of it provided by recent scholarship, as a critic of American literature ought to know. His essays on Hawthorne and James fail to take into sufficient account the pressures of the pre-Emersonian native past. What he does is to posit as the central trait of nineteenth-century American writing a paucity or thinness of experience…. (p. 491)

There is something puzzling about the emphasis that Rahv and other Partisan critics gave to the "paucity of experience" theme in writing about American literature. It is a theme that stems from Henry James's book on Hawthorne and, more immediately perhaps, from Van Wyck Brooks's criticism, especially his study of Twain. This approach to nineteenth-century American writing is by no means entirely wrong, but it now seems inadequate, even historically patronizing. Why, it's worth asking, did not Perry Miller's version of American literary development, in its essentials available by the mid-forties, influence Rahv and the other New York critics? Perhaps because they felt uneasy with Miller's probings into New England religious thought and experience (probings that had their own element of parochialism, but which could have corrected Rahv's). Perhaps because the New York critics were suspicious of anything coming out of the Harvard English department, which they saw as a home of both native gentility and literary fellow-traveling. Perhaps because, in the self-assurance they felt at the time, they saw no reason to trouble themselves with "mere" academic scholarship. Whatever the reasons, the work of Miller and his disciples had almost no effect on the criticism of American literature that appeared in Partisan Review during the forties and fifties. If Rahv ever paid any serious attention to Miller's books, he never mentioned them in my presence.

Still another once-famous essay by Rahv divided American writers into two categories, the palefaces and redskins, or high-brows and low-brows: "at one pole the literature of the lowlife world of the frontier and the big cities; at the other the thin, solemn, semi-clerical culture of Boston and Concord." "The paleface continually hankers after religious norms, tending toward a refined estrangement from reality. The redskin accepts his environment, at times to the degree of fusion with it…." It's a simple enough division and, as many critics have noticed, it breaks down at crucial points: Melville isn't really paleface or redskin, and a theory of American literature that can't account for Melville has sprung a bad leak.

Still, precisely in their one-sidedness, Rahv's essays about American literature remain valuable. They display the voice of an outsider measuring his distance, a skeptical European sensibility unwilling to take at face value the claims to moral sublimity often advanced for our nineteenth-century writers. Had Rahv possessed a more complex view of the American past, he might have written about Hawthorne and James with greater balance but smaller point. His work, at the very least, challenges the cultural parochialism which often seems characteristic of the academic study of American literature. A critic's limitations can form the basis of his strengths.

Something painful happened to Rahv in the 1950s: he lost his bearings, perhaps his nerve. Plenty of other thoughtful people found this a difficult time, and it seems fair to say that a measure of disorientation could then be a sign of intellectual seriousness. But Rahv's response to the troubles of those years was, I think, unique among the intellectuals gathered around Partisan Review.

He went underground. Not literally, of course, since he kept up a public life as editor and, occasionally, writer. But he decided that the times had become threatening and reactionary; that there were now major risks in speaking out boldly; and that it might well be the better part of Marxist sagacity to lie low for a while…. Like other Marxists and recent ex-Marxists, Rahv overestimated the significance and duration of McCarthyism (which was bad enough without invoking visions of fascism). Perhaps somewhere in his imagination he summoned passages from Lenin about the desirability of taking shelter in a storm. There were also personal reasons for Rahv's partial withdrawal during these years, but I know that he thought of it—or at least spoke of it—primarily in political terms. (pp. 492-93)

He could still turn out a lively piece full of the old fire and scorn, but he had made an estimate—politically mistaken, morally unheroic—that this wasn't the time to take chances. And by not taking chances (they didn't turn out to be such big chances, either), he allowed his energy to dribble away, his voice to lose its forcefulness. The literary essays he wrote during these years, such pieces as "The Myth and the Powerhouse" and "Fiction and the Criticism of Fiction", remain well-argued and well-spoken critiques of anti-historical approaches to the novel. But no literary essay could be central to the wracking political-intellectual troubles of that time. (p. 494)

In the mid-sixties Rahv started coming up for air…. He wrote some reviews for the New York Review of Books, coming to general agreement with its policy of friendliness to the New Left and hostility toward the counter-culture. With the growth of New Left groups on the campus and the appearance of lively young people who might now acknowledge his weight or at least relieve his loneliness up there in Waltham, Rahv began to wonder whether he might influence the undisciplined young rebels. In this he was by no means alone. Just about all of us who had experienced the debacles of the thirties and the dryness of the next two decades were tempted to seek political renewal through forming ties with the insurgent students. (p. 495)

[Essays on Literature and Politics, 1932–1972] gives a satisfactory overview of Rahv's achievement. It is an achievement that now strikes me as greater than most literary people might acknowledge. Rahv never won the sort of following that both Edmund Wilson and Lionel Trilling enjoyed, but with a certain kind of novel—the kind in which image and idea, represented experience and asserted ideology, come into tense relation—he seems to me a better critic than either of them.

For many years Rahv struggled painfully to complete a book on Dostoevsky, and what we have, in Essays on Literature and Politics, are five pieces from that work. All are first-rate, the one on Crime and Punishment a masterpiece of criticism. With ease and authority, Rahv summons in these essays the intellectual and historical forces that condition Dostoevsky's novels: the heterodox reading of Russian orthodoxy, the equally heterodox relation to Western utopian socialism, the borrowing of the Napoleonic motif from Stendhal and Balzac, the complex involvement with Nietzsche. These matters are woven intricately into Rahv's analysis of the novels themselves, so that, when he discusses Crime and Punishment the peregrinations of Raskolnikov, the nihilist sensualism of Svidrigaïlov, the stirring helplessness of Sonia are seen both as emblems of thought and qualities of being. (pp. 497-98)

To read these pieces on Dostoevsky is to experience a pang of regret that Rahv could not break out of his difficulties and finish his book. It would have brought the arid concluding years of his life to the triumph he surely deserved. And it would have delighted his admirers and friends, even those who thought, at one or another moment, that they had no choice but to quarrel with him. (p. 498)

Irving Howe, "Philip Rahv: A Memoir," in The American Scholar (copyright © 1979 by the United Chapters of Phi Beta Kappa; reprinted by permission of the publishers), Vol. 48, No. 4, Autumn, 1979, pp. 487-98.


William Barrett