NO ONE ALIVE today is better equipped to write about the Partisan Review intellectuals than William Barrett. As a junior editor of the famous "little magazine" from 1945 to 1952, he was a witness to the in- fighting and politics (both literary and international) that shook the grubby little office in downtown Manhattan and propelled fresh neurotic energies into the world. More important for our immediate delight, he knew all the flamboyant personalities connected with the most influential highbrow publication of its time: chief editor Philip Rahv, Delmore Schwartz, Mary McCarthy, Edmund Wilson, Lionel Trilling, Dwight Macdonald, Harold Rosenberg--the list is endless, the names a juicy Who's Who of recent cultural history.
Barrett's memoir is unique because of his unusual combination of qualities. Now 69 and a respected American philosopher, he was a New York Irishman who became an "assimilated" Jew by attending the preponderantly Jewish City College of New York during the Depression '30s. He felt at ease with poor, noisy, strident Jewish intellectuals from the start, so that his transition to the bubbling caldron of the Partisan Review was almost like taking a post-graduate course. His older Jewish mentors, Philip Rahv and co-editor William Phillips, felt the same family warmth towards their young Irishman. And it was all sealed by Barrett's long-time friendship with his spiritual brother Delmore Schwartz--the blond bombshell who originally introduced him to the PR crowd, then almost sucked Barrett into his own pit as the doomed poet became increasingly paranoid and violent.
But back to the author's rare set of temperament- credentials for dealing with such a steamy period in New York intellectual life--the postwar '40s and '50s--and such an equally peppery collection of individuals. As his backward glance so clearly shows, William Barrett never tried to compete with the stars in the Partisan Review firmament. He had neither the aggressive self-confidence nor the flash; in fact, he was always the inquiring young philosopher, trying to see past the immediate editorial disputes (should art critic Clement Greenberg be permitted to go unchallenged with his formalistic hard- line about American painting?) to the basic worth of people and issues. This quiet objectivity is what gives such spice and reality to the anecdotes he tells, and his stories of literary foolishness and feuding are little short of priceless.
We see the eminent critic Lionel Trilling shocked as a girl scout when he meets his hero, E. M. Forster, camping it up as an elderly queen at a Greenwich Village homosexual party. Cyril Connolly stubs out his cigar in Diana Trilling's chocolate mousse and is never forgiven. Delmore Schwartz mimics Alfred Kazin's forthcoming investigation of Moby Dick by taking the stance of a harpooner, calling out "Whale ahoy," and then hurling the invisible dart with the triumphant cry of "Gefilte fish!"--a reference to Kazin's supposed "Jewish schmaltz" as a writer. Simone de Beauvoir pretends to understand English and misreports entire conversations in her book about a visit to New York. Edmund Wilson, as well, pretends to understand Italian and files a report from Milan which hinges on a misreading of "scholastic" for "socialist." Ah, how sweet it is!
What is impressive about the gossipy aspects of Barrett's book is that they are never featured out of context. Funny and even powerful as some of his glimpses into human weakness are, they are used to flesh out the atmosphere of an intellectual milieu that thrived on "Schadenfreude"--glee at another's misfortune. Philip Rahv and Delmore Schwartz were the chief instigators for this kind of malicious fun, and they were the two men who affected Barrett most deeply, but he rarely reports these stories without trying for a deeper evaluation of the personalities involved.
In this sense his memoir reads like a thoughtful novel --he 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. To give the full weight of his intention, some background is necessary.
Partisan Revieworiginally grew out of the Communist Party in the early 1930s. But by 1938, when the magazine jigsawed together its special identity, Rahv and co-editor Phillips had long broken with Stalinism and found the mixture that was to sustain them until they split apart in the early '60s--"Modernism and Marxism." They rebelled against the one-dimensional socialist realism that had been the stereotyped tool of the Communist vision. The time had come--and the success of the magazine seemed to prove it--to integrate such forbidding modernists as T. S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens with socialist theoreticians, Freud with Thorstein Veblen, Trotsky with Aubrey Beardsley: a sophisticated stew of the most unlikely kind that nevertheless seemed to answer a hunger in the intellectual mind.
William Barrett now looks back upon this 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 (borrowed from an unwritten novel by Philip Rahv, and the perfect choice for the points Barrett wants to make). 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.