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The Real and the Ideal: Reflections on Partisan Review


Boston University, which published Partisan Review for the last quarter-century of that celebrated magazine’s sixty-nine-year history, has just put the entire archive online. It is a miniature history of 20th-century American intellectual life. It sometimes seems like half the century’s memorable essays about literature or politics, and especially the “bloody crossroads” (Lionel Trilling’s phrase) where the two meet, first appeared in those pages.

For example: Leon Trotsky’s “Art and Politics in Our Epoch,” André Gide’s “Second Thoughts on the U.S.S.R.,” George Orwell’s “Reflections on Gandhi,” Albert Camus’ “Art and Revolt,” Czeslaw Milosz’s “Murti-Bing,” Hannah Arendt’s “The Concentration Camps,” Clement Greenberg’s “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” James Baldwin’s “A Letter from the South,” Susan Sontag’s “Notes on Camp,” and far too many others to name.


Partisan Review contributor Albert Camus
Photo courtesy of the
New York World-
Telegram and the Sun Newspaper

The roster of contributors was unmatched: James Agee, Arendt, W. H. Auden, Isaac Babel, Daniel Bell, Saul Bellow, Nicola Chiaromonte, Paul Goodman, Clement Greenberg, Sidney Hook, Irving Howe, Randall Jarrell, Dwight Macdonald, Mary McCarthy, Orwell, Harold Rosenberg, Meyer Shapiro, Susan Sontag, Stephen Spender, Lionel Trilling, Edmund Wilson, among many distinguished others. There was a time when everyone knew what was in the latest Partisan Review.

Today, Cambridge (University) Journals Online sells access to the archive to institutions for (apparently–it’s hard even to find out unless you’re an institution) thousands of dollars a year or to individuals for around $30 per article. It’s a visually appealing format, with a cute (though eventually a bit tiresome) page-turning function. Better than nothing, certainly; and better, probably, than fragile and yellowing back-issues in a small number of university and public libraries.

Not much good, though, to young freelance writers hanging on by their fingernails, like the people who started Partisan Review, and those who read it in those first couple of decades, when it mattered most to the culture. The people who created and sustained the journal lived cheaply in large cities and, by and large, did not have teaching or publishing or foundation jobs. If they’d had to have access to an institutional subscription or pay the equivalent of $30 per article to read the magazine, there would be no Partisan Review to digitize now.

There’s a reason why a lot of modern culture was produced by people living on a shoestring, from the New York intellectuals to all those poets and painters starving in their fabled garrets. It’s time-consuming to do something original; it requires bad manners, or at least a lack of automatic deference for received wisdom; and it helps to have an abundance of low-paid but undemanding jobs around–mailman, night watchman, librarian, clerical worker–that one can drift in and out of, as well as a few cheap urban neighborhoods where like-minded artistic riff-raff can congregate. (Russell Jacoby’s description, in The Last Intellectuals, of the ecology of the freelance intellectual has never been bettered.)

This scruffy, relaxed, undisciplined lifestyle–which rested on a political economy of full employment, free education, generous public services (including, let’s not forget, a fully funded postal service not handicapped by the current huge giveaway of practically free service to the credit-card industry), decent urban mass transit, and public subsidies for culture–is just what a business-dominated society makes it increasingly difficult to achieve, or even aspire to. Globalization, tight money, slashed government budgets, the destruction of unions: the result of all these and the rest of the corporate agenda is pervasive insecurity.

Every adolescent knows how hard it is “out there,” in the relentlessly competitive, incessantly rationalizing global economy–where “rationalizing” means “cost-cutting,” and “cost” means employees. In a world where there are only managers and those at the mercy of managers, and where the social safety net for the unemployed or unemployable is gaping with holes, young people without imagination or ideals will decide to become managers; of the others, all will be intimidated and most defeated. After all, before they’ll even be granted a chance to please the managers, they’ll have to demonstrate an eager determination to please the managers’ proxies, the educators.

Those who aren’t rendered shallow and docile by this market-oriented socialization may want to start a 21st-century equivalent of Partisan Review. It will be a hard slog. Introducing The New Partisan Reader in 1953, the editors described their “ideal reader”:

receptive to new work in fiction, poetry, and art, aware of the major tendencies in contemporary criticism, concerned with the structure and fate of modern society . . . informed about new currents in psychoanalysis and the other humanistic sciences, and [convinced] above all that what happens in literature and the arts has a direct effect on the quality of his own life. This may make our ideal reader sound formidable, but is not this our common idea of an educated man, the pivot of any decent society and lively culture?

As market rationality tightens its grip, it’s harder to speak with such mellow confidence of “our common idea” or to assume that enough people (with money, that is) care about a “decent society and lively culture” to keep an impractical project like Partisan Review afloat for nearly seven decades. I suspect those poor naïfs didn’t even have a business plan.

On the other hand, ideals take a long time to gutter out, and sometimes they even flame back into life. New journals are always starting (a welcoming nod to n+1, The New Inquiry, Jacobin, Aeon) or restarting (The Baffler). If none of them can hope to be as central to American culture as PR was, maybe that’s a good thing: the larger the conversation, the more centers it needs.

Still, the pressures on the freelance life are intensifying. The Internet may be a refuge for a while. Information wants to be free, and all that. But the very idea of a free good goes against the grain of a business culture. That goes double for free spirits.