Marriage, Politics and Betrayal Among the
New York Intellectuals
By David Laskin
Simon & Schuster. 319 pp. $26
This surprisingly engaging exercise in higher gossip covers much the same ground that Norman Podhoretz visited a year ago in his memoir Ex-Friends, but the vantage point is almost entirely different. Whereas Podhoretz, who is now in his seventies, is himself a member of the Manhattan intellectual crowd whose glory days fell in the postwar years, David Laskin is both younger and many miles (he lives in Seattle) removed. Yet both writers reach remarkably similar conclusions, as summarized by Laskin toward the end of Partisans:
"God knows there had never been anything like consensus among members of the New York intellectuals, either on political or social issues; but there had been a shared outlook, a common sense of what and who mattered, an agreement that written discourse, especially their own discourse, was central to the culture as a whole. They had always written primarily for one another, yet they felt with some justification that their words streamed forth from New York to define and illuminate the issues of the day -- their day. The New York intellectuals were never a monopoly. There were many other voices, competing outlets and arenas. Even among this crowd, the sense of who belonged, what they stood for, who held power was always shifting. But there was power, and now it was largely gone."
This is, to be sure, a curious definition of power, since to the best of my knowledge nothing mightier than the power of persuasion was vested in any of these people; perhaps Laskin really means influence, a considerably more accurate characterization of what the New York intellectuals for a time enjoyed. But he certainly is correct when he says, just as Podhoretz does, that their day is done, kissed off by the radical changes in American intellectual life that were set off by the upheavals of the 1960s, the rise of mass popular culture and the technological revolution.
The group Laskin writes about was small, but it made noise all out of proportion to its size. Centered on two journals of left-wing opinion -- first Partisan Review, then the New York Review of Books -- its members brewed up a storm of fierce commentary and invective. Much of it was wildly wrongheaded, and little of it is worth reading any more, but at the time it seemed urgent beyond measure, largely because those who expressed it wrote fluently, passionately and -- by no means least -- cruelly.
Perhaps Laskin's chief contribution to our understanding of this phenomenon is his emphasis on the important roles played in it by women. Though two famous and accomplished men (Edmund Wilson and Robert Lowell) figure large in his chronicle, his real emphasis is on four no less accomplished women -- Hannah Arendt, Elizabeth Hardwick, Mary McCarthy and Jean Stafford -- with rather less attention to a fifth, Diana Trilling. They were, he says, "the women of the so-called New York intellectuals, each one married to a prominent male writer or thinker, yet each attaining considerable prominence in her own right." Laskin's understanding of them is keen and revealing, even though he again ascribes "power" where precious little actually existed:
"This last generation of women before feminism had more power, access, success and recognition than any group of women had enjoyed before. They were ambitious and, for the most part, skilled at turning their ambitions to their advantage. They lived boldly, winning acclaim by writing better than anyone else, loving freely if not always wisely or happily, shouting down literary and political opponents in a time and place renowned for noisy argument. . . . In their accomplishments and nerve, they were the very model of what used to be called `liberated women,' yet they were emphatically not liberated in the way they conducted their private lives, their assumptions, their relationships with men, particularly the men they married. At home with their brilliant husbands, they were wives in the old way their mothers had been and proud of it."
With the exception of Hardwick, who late in her life (now in her early eighties, she is the only one of them still alive) came to a wary accommodation with feminism, these women "never saw the need for or . . . the point of feminism." They had made successes of themselves in a male-dominated world without benefit of feminism or any other movement, and they couldn't imagine the need for such assistance. "These women were male-identified, as we say now, with a vengeance," Laskin writes. "It was an identification purchased at a very high price, for beneath the seeming complacency, the chumminess, the unself-consciousness of relations between the sexes there was often violence, rage, wild frustration, despair and self-destruction."
For all the eclat they enjoyed from time to time, their lives were miserably unhappy. These women "were deeply serious about marriage" yet with the exception of Arendt were mostly unhappy in the marriages they made, and even Arendt's dwindled at the end into "independent lives with long periods of separation." McCarthy's marriage to Edmund Wilson was a disaster from the outset. Stafford's divorce from Lowell was "an excruciating ordeal that very nearly destroyed her emotionally, mentally and professionally," while Lowell's subsequent marriage to Hardwick "began most inauspiciously under the dark star of [his] madness" and endured for two decades almost in spite of itself.
Bad marriages were only the beginning. All these people drank alcohol in prodigious doses, and all suffered the consequences of it. Stafford was the most seriously affected -- after her divorce from Lowell she lived mostly in an alcoholic stupor, though she made valiant efforts to shake free of it and resume her writing life -- but booze was the third partner in the marriage of McCarthy and Wilson, and it was the tie that bound them to all the other members of their tiny, volcanic circle, at least as strong a tie as literature and politics and friendship. That they managed to get any work done at all, much less that some of it was work of a rather high order, was, in the circumstances, not much short of miraculous.
Laskin deals with all of these matters with considerable acuity, but there is one vitally important question that never really gets raised. New York -- Manhattan, to be more precise -- was more than just a place where they lived, socialized and worked. It was also a deeply corrosive influence, a place that demanded so much of their time and energy that they only from time to time were free to think, much less write, unencumbered by its infinite distractions. History has shown that Manhattan is a fine place for journalism and publishing and other essentially commercial undertakings, but it is a poor place indeed for serious writing. It is not mere coincidence that the most accomplished members of this circle, those whose work is most likely to be read into the future, are the one who lived farthest from the red hot center (Lowell) and others who figure only as minor characters in Laskin's tale: Allen Tate, Randall Jarrell and -- above all else -- Peter Taylor.
Manhattan encourages its resident intellectuals to spend too much time drinking and gossiping and grandstanding and squabbling and coupling and back-biting and too little time alone at their desks. The result is a collective body of work far smaller than the sum of its parts. Though Laskin (like Podhoretz) believes that for a time these people had power and consequence, the truth is that the great world out there scarcely knew they existed, paid laughably little attention to the ideas and opinions they so ferociously emitted, and mourns them not at all. Considering that for the most part they were both disagreeable and dislikable, this should be read as evidence that there may indeed be a just God after all.
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.