Hilton Kramer

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2010

The great interest of William Barrett's new book ["The Truants"] is that it takes us inside the lives and the minds of one of [the] pivotal intellectual coteries—the Partisan Review circle as it emerged in the years immediately before and after World War II—and reexamines both its leading personalities and its governing ideas with an unusual degree of intimacy, intelligence and candor. "The Truants" is, first of all, an insider's vivid and poignant memoir. It closes, indeed, with its author in tears, and it contains many other pages that, without ever becoming mawkish or self-indulgent, stir the emotions.

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The book is exceptionally well written, and it abounds in brilliant portraiture. Particularly stunning are the accounts of Philip Rahv and Delmore Schwartz. Rahv, the critic and editor who was the leading spirit of Partisan Review until his ouster in the 1960's, remains for Mr. Barrett the quintessential example of that now mythical figure—the New York intellectual. Schwartz, the ill-fated poet, short-story writer and critic who introduced Mr. Barrett to the group in the winter of 1937–38, was for many years the author's closest friend. These, certainly, are the dominant characters in the story that is told here, and it is to their memory that "The Truants" is dedicated. But the book contains sharp glimpses, too, of Hannah Arendt, William Phillips, Clement Greenberg, Mary McCarthy, Edmund Wilson, Lionel Trilling, Sidney Hook, Paul Goodman and other eminences of the early Partisan Review circle. (pp. 1, 32)

This book is something more than an exercise in personal reminiscence, however. It is also a penetrating analysis of the intellectual life of its period. And because our culture is still beset by so many of the illusions that were spawned and codified in the milieu that Mr. Barrett has set out to describe in this book, "The Truants" is very much a text for our time as well. The arguments it recounts, the positions it defines, the careers it retraces, the whole literary, artistic and political ethos that is so cogently evoked in its pages—all of this turns out to contain a good deal of the intellectual debris that continues to litter the cultural scene today.

Foremost among the articles of belief upheld by Partisan Review in its heyday was the conviction that it was somehow possible for intellectuals to hold in tandem a steadfast commitment to what Mr. Barrett describes as "the two M's … Marxism in politics and Modernism in art," and to do so, moreover, without any sense of contradiction or any fear of their ultimate incompatibility. The immense appeal exerted by Partisan Review—for Mr. Barrett and subsequently for others—lay precisely in this independent and large-minded embrace of both radicalism and the avant-garde, a position that required courage as well as independence in the political climate of the 30's….

[The magazine] foundered when its principal editors—Philip Rahv and William Phillips among them—could no longer accommodate themselves to the Moscow-dominated party line in either politics or culture. It was thus as a dissident Marxist journal that Rahv and Phillips, now joined by Dwight Macdonald, Mary McCarthy, F. W. Dupee and the painter George L. K. Morris, revived Partisan Review in 1937, and made it the leading intellectual magazine of the anti-Stalinist left…. [The] founders of the new Partisan Review, as Mr. Barrett writes, "were attacking Stalin and the Soviet Union from the point of view of a purer Marxism, and it was above all the purity of their radicalism that lured me on."

At the same time, he writes, "this radical and avant-garde attitude was not to be confined only to politics; it was to embrace literature and the arts as well." This enlightened cultural program was initiated at a time when the Communist Party and its large liberal following—the so-called fellow travelers then very powerful in the press, in publishing and in certain university circles—were continually upbraiding the avant-garde, often in vicious terms, for its failure to serve the interests of the masses, while the reactionary academic world still looked upon the modern movement in literature and art as little more than a distasteful hoax. "In this situation," Mr. Barrett writes, "it was a bracing challenge to be on the side of the difficult and the rare, and to defend the artist's freedom to be as complex as he wishes within the boundaries of his talent and his medium."

Such, in any case, were the intellectual ideals that launched this coterie of writers and critics, and won them an important following in the years to come.

About the cold-war period Mr. Barrett has much to tell us—much, indeed, that casts an illuminating light on more recent efforts by the intellectual left to ascribe all blame for the cold war to the evil designs of American foreign policy, and to acquit the Soviet Union of all malevolent intent. It is positively chilling, for example, to read the essay called "The 'Liberal' Fifth Column," which Mr. Barrett wrote for the Summer 1946 issue of Partisan Review and which he has now reprinted as an appendix to "The Truants," and be made to realize how little has actually changed in the thinking of the American left in the last 36 years.

It was, then, one of the principal missions of Partisan Review in this immediate postwar period to take a strong stand against this widespread misperception of Soviet policy—a policy, after all, that had already sent millions to their deaths and enslaved many millions more—and the magazine upheld this position with a steadfastness that was unusual at the time. Yet there was, all the same, a great flaw in the position that Partisan Review adopted toward Communism and the Soviet Union, and this, too, is one of the central themes explored in Mr. Barrett's book, and the theme that is alluded to in the very title of "The Truants."…

[In] attempting to speak for a "purer Marxism" than Stalin's, Partisan Review remained theoretically hostile to the values of bourgeois democracy and categorically opposed to the very ethos of American capitalism. The magazine's own concept of an ideal Marxist revolution may have been confused, and indeed something of a chimera. Its commitment in that direction was certainly muted during the early years of the cold war, when the magazine was seeking—and finding—a wider and less ideological readership. But for Rahv, at least, this intellectual strategy turned out to be more a matter of discretion than of hope or belief. Marxism remained for him an unquestioned faith, and the revolutionary ideal—however quiescent at times—was never abandoned. The death of Stalin in 1953 gave it a new luster and impetus, and the radical movement of the 60's a new sense of opportunity and purpose.

There thus occurred what Mr. Barrett speaks of as "a drastic reversal" in Rahv's political stance—his "conversion away from anti-Communism," and his open and increasingly shrill avowal of radical causes. This was truancy indeed, for his reemergence as a Marxist firebrand came, as it happened, at a time when Rahv's personal fortunes were prospering as they never had in the past. He was appointed to a professorship at Brandeis University and occupied a huge townhouse on Beacon Street in Boston. He took up cooking as a hobby and prided himself on living well. Yet the more he prospered, the more violently did he denounce the system that had brought his success. (p. 32)

The portrait of Philip Rahv strikes me as quite the best thing in Mr. Barrett's book. Written with delicacy, precision and even at times a grim humor, it is not only an important contribution to intellectual history but a literary feat of no small distinction. Rahv was indeed a formidable personality of considerable influence, and Mr. Barrett has now succeeded in making his unusual story a permanent part of our literature.

If the portrait of Delmore Schwartz, fine as it certainly is, does not achieve quite the same distinction, it is only because this story of a shattered talent and a shattered life has already been told by Saul Bellow (in "Humboldt's Gift") and James Atlas (in his biography of the poet) at even greater length. What Mr. Barrett adds, however, is important in two respects. He gives us a very moving account of the vicissitudes of a high-spirited, intellectual friendship that, for him, ended in the scene of madness and tears that closes the book. And he recalls for us the sharp and divisive controversy between Schwartz and Lionel Trilling that defined not only the differences separating two of the most gifted writers to be associated with Partisan Review, but the deeper division that put into question the magazine's abiding role as a champion of modern literature and avant-garde culture.

It was Trilling's belief that the classics of modern literature so beloved by the radicals of Partisan Review could not, in the end, truly be reconciled with their political outlook. (Rahv's late reversal in repudiating the work of Henry James after his early and very persuasive defense of it would certainly bear this out.) Trilling's was not a position that Partisan Review wanted to hear, however, and it earned him the enmity not only of Delmore Schwartz and Philip Rahv but of the whole community of literary and artistic modernists, and the issues raised by this dispute have continued to haunt Trilling's posthumous reputation as a critic to the present day.

Mr. Barrett gives us a marvelous account of these issues in the chapter of "The Truants" called "Beginnings of Conservative Thought"—a discussion that also contains one of the most intelligent analyses of Trilling's criticism anyone has given us. Trilling, writes Mr. Barrett, was "calling attention to the value of class distinctions for the writer, speaking sympathetically, even when critically, of the middle class, and bringing forward a less audacious and experimental canon of authors to be admired. Where the intellectuals had been preoccupied with figures like Joyce and Proust, or Dostoevski and Kafka, Trilling urged the case of more conventional novelists like E. M. Forster and Jane Austen…. All of this was disquieting to the more austerely modernist tastes of the magazine."…

It might be true that such writers could not be reconciled to the magazine's politics, but neither, in Mr. Barrett's view, could Trilling's own critical outlook—despite the value it placed on complexity and flexibility—really come to terms with the depths of their vision. For Mr. Barrett, Trilling remained at heart—despite the fact that he was "ahead of his time" in preparing the way for a more conservative criticism of modern culture—"a thoroughgoing liberal to the end: the cast of his mind was the rational, secular, and non-religious one of classical liberalism." And it is from this perspective that Mr. Barrett accomplishes something very remarkable in his analysis of Trilling's thought. He takes up the critique of the liberal mind that Trilling launched in "The Liberal Imagination" and extends it to Trilling's own writings in that book. In the end, though he parts company with Schwartz's radical views, he nonetheless defends the modern vision, and his own criticism of Trilling's position is, as a result, even more profound than anything Schwartz had attempted.

In this section of "The Truants," the author reminds us that he is not only an invaluable witness to the events and personalities he has memorialized in these memoirs, but one of our best critics as well….

"Follow the zigs and zags of any given intellectual," Mr. Barrett observes at one point in his narrative, "and you may turn out to be reading the fever chart of the next generation." In "The Truants" certainly, William Barrett has written a book that not only illuminates the "zigs and zags" of the Partisan Review intellectuals, but a "fever chart" that is essential reading for anyone attempting to understand the art and culture and politics of the present age. (p. 33)

Hilton Kramer, "Partisan Culture, Partisan Politics," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1982 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 7, 1982, pp. 1, 32-3.

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