William (Christopher) Barrett

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Seymour Krim

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 440

[In a sense, The Truants] reads like a thoughtful novel—[Barrett] cannot separate Partisan Review and its sometimes overbearing contributors from the cultural and historical pressures of the period. As evidence, just when we are thoroughly hooked by his first-rate personality portraits, we see that Barrett is really after a lot bigger game than we had originally expected….

William Barrett now looks back upon [the] bold effort to link together the values of high art and revolution as by and large a self-willed illusion. Although he himself was a Marxist during his days on Partisan Review, he finds that he and his fellow editors never once questioned the inherent loss of liberty that would occur in art and thought if their beloved "socialism" ever came into being. They were self-hypnotized utopians "escaping for a while from the harshness of … practical reality," hence the title of his book, The Truants…. More, by searching for "original and sweeping ideas," the Partisan Review intellectuals conveniently forgot the number one condition for their own existences: the survival of the United States as "a free nation in a world going increasingly totalitarian."

Thus does William Barrett's loving memoir of the New York radical/intellectual life ultimately turn into a finger-pointing lecture before it is wrapped up. One could never really fault a man as decent and serious as Professor Barrett for coming out of the ideological closet and declaring himself, even though the sternness of his chastising moral tone is sometimes at odds with the warm tolerance that flavors the rest of his book. It is obvious that like other New York thinkers and polemicists of the day who have been through the mill of radicalism, he has come to embrace fundamental American values as a crucial bulwark against a darker future than the intellectual adventurers of the Partisan Review era could imagine. Certainly he has earned the right to his pulpit.

But the simple truth is that most readers will be much more enthralled by Barrett's authentic sketches of people and scenes than in his grave, schoolmasterish warnings. History will very likely cross us up again as unexpectedly as it has in the author's own lifetime, and some of his topical rhetoric may soon be left high and dry. What will remain unchanged is his honest, witty, compassionate record of a time and place that can never come again. And for that indelible picture we are all enormously indebted to William Barrett, scrupulous reporter, even more than to William Barrett, critic of failed hopes.

Seymour Krim, "Partisan Review: Legends of the Old Left," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1982, The Washington Post), February 28, 1982, p. 5.

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