In the two decades immediately following World War II, New York City was the center of American intellectual and artistic life to a degree unequaled before or since. Part of William Barrett’s agenda in this book is to invoke the flavor of that time and place by describing his involvement in the life of the Partisan Review, one of the major journals of opinion published in New York during that period. Since he was close to the circle of writers who produced the Partisan Review and served for part of this time as a member of the magazine’s editorial staff, he is ideally situated to provide an insider’s view of the personalities and issues which concerned those who had a major role in shaping American cultural life in the immediate postwar era. In this respect, he writes a fascinating and intriguing account.
Unfortunately, one of the qualities characteristic of American cultural life in that age was a narrowness of perspective and a passion for clique-building that often resulted in bitter disagreements, frequent back-stabbing, and broken friendships. One of the major story lines of Barrett’s memoir concerns the split between Philip Rahv and William Phillips, founders of the Partisan Review, which ultimately resulted in legal action to resolve control of the publication. Barrett, although he portrays himself as an inadvertent participant in these disputes, did side with Phillips, and maturity has not lessened his passion for being on what he feels is the right side of these and other matters. Along with evocative accounts of life among the intellectuals, The Truants is filled with more or less subtle but corrosive and derogatory accounts of the characters and the lives of many of Barrett’s acquaintances and associates from that period.
Let one of the more vicious episodes suffice as an example. John Berryman was a major American poet of the postwar period and, in the opinion of many, the founder of the “confessional” style of poetry whose practitioners included Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, and other significant poets of the time. In addition, Berryman was widely hailed as a brilliant teacher, a major biographer of Stephen Crane, and a scholar of Shakespeare. Yet Barrett portrays Berryman as “stupid,” “hollow,” “panting,” and “plodding.”
Apparently, according to Barrett, Berryman committed two great mistakes: he was not part of the tight Partisan Review circle, and he was for a time a friend of Delmore Schwartz. In fact, Barrett assures his readers that Schwartz himself thought Berryman stupid. Schwartz and his own tortured life are important subthemes of this book; Barrett and Schwartz were close friends for a time, before Schwartz’s emotional collapse prevented him from having any friends at all. Indeed, Schwartz is the only person in this book, other than...
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