The announcement a few weeks ago that Partisan Review was closing shop after a run of nearly seventy years brought sadness–since PR at its best was a central site of American cultural life–but also a sense of inevitability. No one expected the journal to go on much longer after the death last year of its longtime editor William Phillips, who helped found it in 1934. Sadly, PR had been without vital signs for many years, its existence more and more a matter of cryonics.
At its proudest, PR offered a powerful if not always coherent emulsion of European Modernist culture and American left-wing anti-Stalinism. It justly took pride in denouncing Stalinism at a time when many on the left were still apologists for all that occurred in the Soviet Union, while it provided trenchant literary commentary on Eliot, Kafka, Malraux, Camus, Silone and many others. And the commentary came from such critics as Dwight Macdonald, Mary McCarthy, Irving Howe, Hannah Arendt, Lionel Trilling, and Steven Marcus. PR developed a distinctive New York style of cultural criticism, engaged with literature–especially the literature of ideas–but with a particular awareness of social context and the alienated condition of the modern artist. Other quarterlies–such as Kenyon Review–carried more refinedformal literary analysis. In PR, it was the ideas that mattered most.
Both the cultural and political underpinnings of PR had collapsed by the 1960s. Its anti-Communism became irrelevant, since younger generations of Americans were all anti-Communist by then; virulent anti-Communism had largely become an excuse for a slide toward the right. The cultural avant-garde of high Modernism no longer held sway. What came along to replace it was baffling: a flirtation with the mass culture that PR writers had always disdained. The new sensibility often seemed indifferent to aesthetic discriminations.
PR‘s longstanding battle with the Stalinist left was poor preparation for understanding the student insurgency of the 1960s. The New Left had little connection to the struggles of the 1920s and ’30s, and zero interest in the Communist Party. The old categories of analysis didn’t apply. PR also missed a good deal of what was most interesting in the cultural sphere, since it was happening in literary genres it hadn’t much needed to bother with before. European thought in the “human sciences,” by such as Claude Lévi-Strauss, Jacques Lacan, Michel Foucault and Roland Barthes, didn’t make much of a dent in PR. Nor did innovative American critical writing, which PR considered too theoretical and abstruse. There were, to be sure, the exceptionally important essays of Susan Sontag, who made her debut in PR. But her sensibility never fit easily into the PR context, and the work that interested her–by such as Jean-Luc Godard, Robert Bresson, Antonin Artaud, Michel Leiris–never became part of PR‘s canon.
I published my first review in PR in 1964, and became a participant in William Phillips’s attempts at dialogue between older and younger lefts. I recall a number of evenings of heated debate at his apartment in the Village, in a group that included Lionel and Diana Trilling, Steven Marcus, Robert Jay Lifton, Irving Howe, Richard Poirier, Morris Dickstein and others–meetings in which Phillips was attempting to find a probably nonexistent middle ground. (Lionel Trilling, who described the Columbia student uprising as “modernism in the streets,” was closer than Phillips to understanding the cultural politics of the time.) I was a contributing editor of the magazine from 1972 to 1986, though I contributed less and less as my disagreements with Phillips grew ever greater. I wanted in particular to bring into PR some of the work of structuralists and their kin, but I largely failed. It never found a context in the magazine. Nor did sympathetic analysis of the “movement.”