ESSAYS ON LITERATURE and Politics collects most of the significant critical work of Philip Rahv (1908-1973), the guiding spirit of Partisan Review for more than 30 years. As editor of this bi-monthly (and, at the tag end of his career, of the short-lived Modern Occasions) Rahv served as America's ideological gadfly, a critic who delighted in uncovering, usually by blasting, the subsurface biases and underpinnings of belief. "Piety," he once said, "[is] alien to my temperament."

During his lifetime Rahv published only three books of essays (though he edited several Partisan Review readers and a number of anthologies): Image and Idea (1949), The Myth and the Powerhouse (1965), and Literature and the Sixth Sense (1972). This last book, Rahv's own selection from his life's work, includes much the same contents as the present volume (plus important appreciations of Freud, Henry Miller and Naturalism), but lacks Rahv's masterly analyses of Dostoevsky's major novels, probably his most sustained examples of practical criticism. Prefaced by an affectionate memoir from Mary McCarthy -- Rahv's lover before her marriage to Edmund Wilson -- Essays on Literature and Politics preserves the trenchant intellect of a fine critic, one who, like his fellow critics Williara Troy, Issac Rosenfeld and R.P. Blackmur, has been overshadowed by the looming presence of Edmund Wilson.

Unlike Wilson, who carefully nurtured his reviews into articles and his articles into books and his books into an oeuvre, Rahv thrived on the immediate give-and-take of conversation and used up what little time remained in editing the work of contributors to Partisan Review . (Several writers have called him the best copy editor of their experience.) Rahv's editorial acumen first became apparent in 1934 when he and his longtime associate, William Phillips, started Partisan Review as the cultural organ of the John Reed Clubs, those rather romantic-sounding young communist organizations named after the author of Ten Days that Shook the World . However, as Stalinsim began to distort both Marxism and the truth, Rahv broke away and took the magazine with him.

In December 1937 the new and independent, though still left-leaning PR began its run as the premier literary and intellectual journal of the '30s and '40s. The contents page of the very first issue was already star-studded: Delmore Schwartz, James Agee, Edmund Wilson, James T. Farrell, Dwight Macdonald, Mary McCarthy, Sidney Hook, Lionel Trilling, Rahv himself, not to mention Wallace Stevens and Pablo Picasso. Those now famous people, many of whom were associate editors of PR, Rahv labeled "The Truants" in honor of their heady sense of intellectual freedom (he also once planned a novel about them with that title), but the rest of the world still refers to them, often with justifiable envy, as the Old Left, the New York Intellectuals, the "Family."

As in all families there was squabbling among the members (Rahv fell out with Schwartz and Hook; he called Wilson's Axel's Castle the first instance of the middle brow in America), as well as a lot of feuding with rival clans. William Barrett and Alfred Kazin make clear in their meoirs of this period that Rahv was truculent, unforgiving, narrow in his intellectual interests (Marxism and modernism), and often downright mean and vindictive. For instance, he hated the New Critics -- especially Cleanth Brooks -- with their esthetic derived from the textual study of poetry. Rahv's esthetic was grounded in the real, rooted in the ideas and movements of history -- and appropriately, he wrote vigorously and clearly about the novel, the "one bright book of life." Since he was edgy about all systems, his critical practice conformed only to the flexible and unimpeachable dictum of T.S. Eliot, a rather unexpected hero: "Be very intelligent."

Essays in Literature and Politics divides Rahv's critical activity into three main areas: "American Writing and Writers," "Russian and European Literature," and "Politics, Religion and Culture." No matter what the subject, Rahv concentrates on clarifying large themes and evaluating a writer's ideas.

For example, the pieces on American fiction work variations on the "cult of experience," a theory originally adumbrated in Rahv's most famous eassy, "Paleface and Redskin." In Rahv's widely accepted view, at the heart of classic American writing is a fascination with, and fear of, experience and life. This tension, strong in Hawthorne (see "The Dark Lady of Salem") reaches its apex in Henry James, where it becomes the central theme of his art. (PR, not incidentally, helped pioneer the James revival of the '40s.) Rahv wittily and rightly describes Hawthorne's Dimmesdale, the minister in The Scarlet Letter, as "the ancestor of all those characters of Henry James who invent excruciatingly subtle reasons for renouncing their heart's desire once they are on the verge of attaining it."

The essays on European literature -- the most hefty section of the book -- emphasize the conflict between political and religious ideas. the paradigmatic figure here is Dostoevsky, but there are excurisions in the works of Tolstoy ("the last of the unalienated artists"), Gogol, Chekhov and Solzhenitsyn. In his studies of Crime and Punishment and The Possessed -- the best short introductions to these novels -- Rahv considers the perennial Russian question of "what is to be done," of how one must live, of where to seek the meaning of life.

The last cluster of the Essays on Literature and Politics deals with cultural and political issues.Here the connecting theme is the temptation of ideology, the recurrent desire of men to lose themselves in systems. According to Rahv, proletarian literature of the '30s was coopted into becoming party literature; the New Critics took recourse in myth and tradition because they feared history and wished "to overcome the reality of the felt experience of art by converting it to some moral or spiritual platitude"; and religion is popular, he said, not for its spiritual values, but because it offers solace and refuge from the world.

William Barrett has written that Rahv's strongest insult was to say that a person had no ideas. For Philip Rahv to be truly alive was to interpret, criticize, attack. His career reminds us that thinking about books and ideas can be more than a game or fashion, but also a way of life, a mode of action.