William (Christopher) Barrett

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Pearl Bell

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[One] cannot help suspecting that The Truants was originally conceived on a more modest scale—a memoir in the form of portraits—than what it finally became: a tantalizingly suggestive, but thinly realized attempt to draw, from the exhaustion of Marxism and modernism as they played themselves out in the story of Partisan Review, a far-reaching polemical lesson about the imperative need for a new moral and religious consciousness in our time. The issues he raises are indisputably important, but in this anecdotal context of recollection Barrett fails to do them justice.

There remains a nagging question: what can these memories of the Partisan Review intellectuals mean to those who were never part of that passionate, noisy, incestuous little world? It was, Barrett remembers, "as closed and inbred as a conventicle of monks," and elsewhere, in an ethnically more exact image, he speaks of the ghetto-like mentality of Rahv & Co., who rarely ventured above 14th Street and regarded midtown Manhattan as "an alien territory, the haunt of the middlebrows and philistines of the cultural world." Certainly the political and literary issues that obsessed these nonstop talkers and schemers, while they undoubtedly have some relevance to the present day, are no longer so clear-cut as they seemed thirty years ago. Neither of PR's incompatible fealties—to Marxism in politics and to modernism in art—has the same holy authority for intellectuals today, though neither doctrine has by any means withered away. Among those survivors of the monkish conventicle like Barrett himself, the will to believe has for excellent reasons moved in a very different direction from the Marxist-modernist certainties, taking a conservative and vaguely religious form that is anathema to those radical pieties still lingering in American culture. Those young intellectuals who have any curiosity about the political battles of the mid-century will most likely be repelled by the conservative conclusions Barrett reaches, and it hardly needs saying that the modernist exhilarations of an earlier era have long since subsided, the daring experiments of, say, Ulysses and The Waste Land being now thoroughly absorbed into the classical canon….

The plot is gripping, for Barrett tells the story with great vividness, but what about the actors—what interest do they hold for those who could never have known them? Neither Philip Rahv nor Delmore Schwartz left behind a large and significant body of work, and though Barrett loyally—and rightly—singles out those few poems and stories such as "In Dreams Begin Responsibilities," that will, he thinks, perdure, he must finally acknowledge that, given such extraordinary gifts, Delmore Schwartz's literary career must be judged "a human failure." Though a considerable number of Rahv's critical essays are by no means negligible, as a whole his work, too, is disappointingly fragmentary, the major book on Dostoevsky still unfinished when he died. It is possible to foresee a time when the stubbornly elusive personality of Philip Rahv, hunted like a fox in countless memoirs, will overwhelm whatever interest remains in his achievement as a critic….

To those readers too young to have known the PR circle personally, the appeal of The Truants may well be that of a period piece exceptionally rich in lively gossip and wisecracks. As we know from all the Bloomsbury volumes, the literary memoir can provide the writer with too blanche a carte for settling scores best left buried in the dust of the past. Unfortunately William Barrett has not resisted this temptation strongly enough, though he disingenuously claims at one point that he sought to protect the living, "who are still struggling to cope with things, and who are easily upset by any disobliging...

(This entire section contains 847 words.)

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remark." Having forgotten absolutely nothing, Barrett is not above using the rattlesnake wit of, among others, the young Mary McCarthy to denigrate a few living monuments along with the dead. Philip Rahv rationalized his loose and malicious tongue as "analytic exuberance," which Delmore Schwartz translated as "Philip's euphemism for sticking a knife in your back," and some of that "exuberance" clings to Barrett's memoir. With all the admiration he expresses for Lionel Trilling, he cannot suppress a gratuitous flick of malice in equating Trilling with Walter Lippmann as a Jew "who eschewed religious attachment lest it exclude him from the American mainstream." Barrett is too intelligent not to realize that this comparison is unjust and far from the truth.

The world of the New York Jewish intelligentsia was, as Barrett has skillfully demonstrated, manically complex and as manically diverse as the different personalities that composed it. There is the risk, which all generalizations run, of overriding those idiosyncratic differences that make any intellectual milieu distinctive. Only occasionally does Barrett sound like Lady Jean Campbell, an ex-wife of Norman Mailer, who in a moment of exquisite delirium once told the Catholic novelist Wilfrid Sheed, "All you Jewish intellectuals are alike." But then, Barrett also knows, and better than most, that some are less alike than others. (p. 35)

Pearl Bell, "The Meaning of PR," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1982 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 186, No. 11, March 17, 1982, pp. 32-5.


Seymour Krim