Michael Dirda Reviews 'Rosenfeld's Lives,' by Steven J. Zipperstein

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By Michael Dirda
Thursday, June 11, 2009


Fame, Oblivion, and the Furies of Writing

By Steven J. Zipperstein

Yale Univ. 274 pp. $27.50

According to Hemingway, more writers fail from lack of character than from lack of talent.

Certainly, Isaac Rosenfeld (1918-1956) -- the boyhood pal of Saul Bellow and, for a time, his serious rival -- was once thought to be a comer, the likely front-runner in the race to produce the Great Jewish American Novel. Like almost everyone with literary ambitions back in the 1940s and '50s, Rosenfeld regularly turned out essays, reviews and provocative cultural think-pieces for Partisan Review, Commentary and the era's other intellectual magazines. Along the way, there were a couple of awards, including a Guggenheim. He even taught for a bit at the University of Minnesota, in New York and in his home town of Chicago.

Gradually, however, and then increasingly, Rosenfeld started to talk more than publish, to launch into new projects and then abandon them, and to pour his soul -- and best writing -- into letters or notebooks. He had married young and at times felt burdened by his two children. Soon he and his vivacious wife began an "open" marriage. They drank, partied, quarreled and generally slummed about with a feckless bohemian crowd in 1950s Greenwich Village. Rosenfeld was just emerging from a long period of writer's block when he suffered a heart attack and died. He was 38.

Those who knew Isaac Rosenfeld mourned, and Saul Bellow eventually memorialized him in an unpublished novel called "Charm and Death." Yet what had Rosenfeld really done with his life? There was a single novel, "Passage From Home" (1946), which his biographer, Steven J. Zipperstein, likens to early Philip Roth as a psychological portrait of "the making of a Jewish intellectual," and a handful of semi-autobiographical stories, and enough essays to make a posthumous volume titled "An Age of Enormity." That's pretty much it. In truth, Zipperstein shows, Rosenfeld simply didn't have the hunger that kept Bellow at his desk day after day. He just didn't work hard enough, preferring to coast along on charm and fading promise.

From an early age, though, the man certainly could write. Zipperstein quotes from an unpublished sketch about a serious young intellectual of 13, who escapes from his family and life's complexities by -- what else? -- going to the library:

"This trip to the library, necessitating an early breakfast, a clear knowledge of the subject to which he would confine his research and the necessary and important books that had dealt with it, a sharpened pencil in case his pen ran dry, a note book; all this had to be assembled without haste and yet without delay. The trip itself, on foot if the weather permitted, followed by a consultation of the card catalogue, the wait at the desk, and the explanations with [sic] the librarian, whenever it happened -- and it did quite frequently -- that the books were out. Then a seat at the right table, in relation to light, drafts, and other people using the library. This was an exhausting ritual, especially to one who took it quite seriously, as the student did."

In photographs the young Rosenfeld looks chunky and amiable, with thick black specs and a sloppy, nonchalant air. At parties he was famous for reciting a kind of pastiche/parody -- in Yiddish -- of T.S. Eliot's "Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." This was thought to be hilarious, and as recently as 1999 poet Robert Pinsky named it "the finest poem by an American in the twentieth century." Pinsky must have been teasing because even as a joke the poem doesn't seem any good at all: "I grow old, I grow old/And my navel grows cold." Perhaps you need to have heard the author declaim it when both you and he were seriously drunk.

Because Isaac Rosenfeld's life simply isn't all that long or interesting, Zipperstein, a professor of Jewish culture and history at Stanford, uses the man's might-have-been career as a way of examining the place of failure in American literature. No doubt American writers -- most famously, Scott Fitzgerald -- are obsessed with this theme, because our whole society worships at the altar of the Bitch Goddess Success. For every Bellow there is a Rosenfeld, a Delmore Schwartz, a Wallace Markfield and a thousand other brilliant shipwrecked talents.

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