Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Numb Modernism: Sentiment and the Intellectual Left in Tess Slesinger's the Unpossessed

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Numb Modernism: Sentiment and the Intellectual Left in Tess Slesinger's the Unpossessed

Article excerpt

To date, twenty-three bright young men have written to Tess Slesinger telling her that her Bruno Leonard, in her book The Unpossessed, is exactly like them and where in blazes did she get such intimate information?

--Simon and Schuster, May 28, 1934

If you haven't yet been pinked with the accusation that you're one of "The Unpossessed," it's probably because you haven't been in any arguments recently. (You can expect it any minute, though. Over 600 copies of Tess Slesinger's book were sold yesterday, several possibly to your friends.)--June 1, 1934

Simon and Schuster's series of plucky New York Times advertisements suggests at least two reasons to take note of Tess Slesinger's satire of ineffectual New York radicals and a left-wing magazine that fails to materialize. First, the ads rightly bill The Unpossessed (1934) as paradigmatically of its time. Subtitled "A Novel of the Thirties" and dedicated "to my contemporaries," The Unpossessed claims to crystallize the gestalt of its immediate moment, a view endorsed by reviewers who claimed that Slesinger--"a psychic adept at picking things out of the air" (Chamberlain 1934)--captured Depression-era "bewilderment and waste almost perfectly" (Cantwell 1934, 53) in "quite simply and dogmatically the best novel of contemporary New York City" (Chamberlain 1934). (1) The novel's short-lived burst of popularity registered on best-seller lists of 1934, prompting both a fourth printing within the first month of publication and Slesinger's rise to minor celebrity. (2)

Second, Simon and Schuster capitalizes on the novelty of a new American type burlesqued in literature: the radical intellectual, as manifest in the characters of Bruno Leonard and would-be contributors to his magazine. According to Lionel Trilling, Slesinger was the first to represent in realist fiction radicalized American intellectuals and, in particular, the influential New York group clustered around the Menorah Journal (1915-1962). (3) From 1928 to 1932 Slesinger was married to the Menorah's assistant editor, Herbert Solow, and through him became acquainted with the journal's core members--Anita Brenner, Elliot Cohen, Clifton Fadiman, Albert Halper, Felix Morrow, Henry Rosenthal, Lionel Trilling, and, more peripherally, Max Eastman and Sidney Hook--caricatured aspects of whom surface in The Unpossessed. (4) Yet even as the novel's continued value to American literature relates to its trenchant satire of 1930s intellectuals, both Simon and Schuster and later critics lead us astray when they locate the novel's crux at the level of character. The target on which Slesinger ultimately sets her sights has significantly broader and more enduring implications. Neatly condensed into the trope of the magazine that Slesinger's characters hope to produce, the novel's main critique is aimed at cultural discourse and its means of circulation. In particular, Slesinger shows two of the era's most prominent, and purportedly antagonistic, discursive nodes--modernism and radicalism--to partake of a common system of value: namely, the rejection of sentiment, pejoratively gendered as feminine, and the deprecation of embodied personhood in favor of objectivity and intellectual autonomy. The Unpossessed suggests that such impersonalizing constructions of value precede and permeate the terms of explicit political and cultural debate.

Extended to tragicomic extremes, impersonality in Slesinger's hands becomes "the twentieth century social disease" (Slesinger 2002, 283) (5) that produces the novel's population of ghosts, corpses, puppets, and dolls. These figures we might term impersons: hapless, at times tenderly pathetic, individuals whose gutted personal lives and numbed sensibilities evince the consequences of dogmatic anti-sentimentalism. In assuming an impersonal narrative voice, The Unpossessed dramatizes these consequences through form, reenacting the depersonalizing disease in high modernist style. …

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