America's Bloomsbury; the Story of the Partisan Review Crowd

By Lemann, Nicholas | The Washington Monthly, November 1986 | Go to article overview

America's Bloomsbury; the Story of the Partisan Review Crowd


Lemann, Nicholas, The Washington Monthly


AMERICA'S BLOOMSBURY

For anyone who has ever worked on a struggling, high-minded publication, the fate of Partisan Review represents the ultimate Walter Mitty fantasy. Here is a publication with a circulation in the low four figures whose every leading writer and editor seems to have been the subject of a biography, a written memoir, or both, and whose editorial policies, especially from the late thirties through the middle fifties, are still intensely discussed and extremely influential everywhere, from the White House and State Department, to big-time academia and the book-and-magazine publishing world. Surely every schoolboy can recite the details of Mary McCarthy's leaving Philip Rahv for Edmund Wilson, or of the skid-row deaths of Isaac Rosenfeld and Delmore Schwartz. The Partisan Review crowd is the American Bloomsbury.

Not surprisingly, the mood of the legatees of the Partisan Review crowd today is self-congratulatory-- of course you've heard the story of how they've repelled the Soviet threat and tamed the welfare monster. So it's a departure from conventional wisdom for Alexander Bloom to say, in the latest addition to the Partisan Review shelf*, that the crowd's story is not in some kind of final glorious phase, but over. Bloom says flatly that "the New York Intellectuals have gone,' and that "[I]n recent years other younger critics have popped up, eager to become New York Intellectuals. Unfortunately for them, it can no longer be done.'

* Prodigal Sons: The New York Intellectuals and Their World, Alexander Bloom. Oxford University Press, $24.95.

Bloom's explanation as to why this is so is an anthropological one: he sees the story of the New York intellectuals as that of the assimilation of a group (an unusual group, to be sure) of ghetto-born ethnics into the comfortable center of American society. He makes the case well enough to prove his point that the intellectuals' status has dramatically changed in a generation, and also, almost unintentionally, that assimilation is a real possibility for even the unlikeliest people. The Yiddish-speaking Brooklyn childhoods of figures like Daniel Bell, Alfred Kazin, and Sidney Hook fill his first chapter; a memorable quote from Irving Howe on how everyone started out as "a talkative little pisher' bluffing through street-corner political arguments resonates through the book, even as the arguments become extremely abstruse. In a way it denigrates the intellectuals to say that their broad shift from left to right has mirrored their increasing age and good fortune, rather than some independent thought process, but it does ring true.

The difference between the original New York intellectuals and their would-be successors today is that the original group started out as true outsiders. They grew up working-poor in the twenties and came of age during the Depression. They were politically radical (almost everyone had at least a flirtation with communism), not in a parlor or common-room way, but because everybody in the neighborhood was, too. They were fiercely ambitious, but as young men most of them were not careerist, if only because in the late thirties it seemed crazy for a poor young Jew to lay the groundwork for a bourgeois middle age. The intellectuals' indifference to money and to the security and prestige of a steady job is practically unknown today, certainly among intellectuals. The touchstone experience for most intellectuals under 40, the Vietnam-inspired student revolution on prestige campuses in the late sixties, is simply worlds away from the experience of coming from Brooklyn to City College to argue about Stalin in the lunchroom. Bloom says the event that symbolizes the end of the New York intellectuals was the publication in 1967 of Norman Podhoretz's Making It (though Prodigal Sons is written in scrupulously neutral academic prose, Bloom seems not to like Podhoretz), because it announced that the intellectuals were now just like everybody else. …

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