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A Partisan's Review | The Nation

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A Partisan's Review

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In A Partisan View, one of the many memoirs in which score-settling refugees from the glory days of the anti-Stalinist, pro-Modernist quarterly bite each other on their kneecaps and their pineal glands, William Phillips remembers his co-editor, Philip Rahv, like so:

About the Author

John Leonard
John Leonard, the TV critic for New York magazine, a commentator on CBS Sunday Morning and book critic for The Nation...

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He could not throw or catch a ball, ride a bike, play any game, or swim. He did not even seem to know that you can drown if you go in over your head. One summer when we had a house in Peekskill, Rahv came to visit and we went to swim at a nearby pool. Rahv flopped in, came up, gurgled, and went down again. He would have drowned if I had not jumped in and pulled him out. Fortunately, I had worked my way through school as a swimming counselor and lifeguard.

You'll recognize in this passage at least four of the seven types of ambiguity identified by William Empson for the Kenyon Review, which was Partisan Review's principal highbrow competition after the war. I love it. It reminds me of Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts, when Donald Barthelme saved Robert Kennedy from drowning. One imagines Lionel Trilling, unable to make up his mind if Rahv deserves saving--or if getting wet is authentic or sincere. And Mary McCarthy on a diving board, in her birthday suit because she's boycotting silk since Japan invaded Manchuria, deciding that she'd really rather dogpaddle with Bunny Wilson instead. And Lionel Abel and Harold Rosenberg at the other end of the Olympic swimming hole, pushing Hannah Arendt's head under water. And Dwight Macdonald and Irving Howe starting their own alternative aquariums--one socialist, the other anarchist. While Meyer Schapiro explains to R.P. Blackmur, "Mr. Blackmur, when you use your water wings, you don't use them up!" Meanwhile, in the cabana, over and over like Punch and Judy, the alpenstock comes down again on Trotsky.

To this party, because he wrote a couple of books accusing these people of sand-eating dune-buggery, Norman Podhoretz hasn't been invited. So he will piss in their pool.

Not that Norman hasn't had his share of parties. We learn, in Ex-Friends, that at Lillian Hellman's on Martha's Vineyard he met Lenny Bernstein and Bill Styron. That at Truman Capote's Masked Ball at the Plaza Hotel, hunkered down with Lillian and McGeorge Bundy, he had to dissuade Norman Mailer from duking it out with LBJ's National Security Adviser. That this same Mailer, who would subsequently stab Podhoretz in the back as he stabbed his wife, Adele, in the upper abdomen, sought on several occasions to unlimber him at orgies. ("But I was simply not up to it," P. tells us.) That, in fact, the editor of Commentary had been at the stabbing party, although he left early because Allen Ginsberg yelled at him.

On the other hand, Podhoretz invited Styron instead of Mailer to have dinner with Jackie Kennedy, which is one reason Mailer panned Making Itin Partisan Review--another reason being that, fearful of losing his newfound late-sixties popularity, like "an old Bolshevik fearful of being denounced as a traitor by his own Stalinist comrades," Mailer "had been cowed into submission" by the regnant "terror" of a Pod-hating "radical culture"; he was "not perhaps so brave as he thought he was." Hadn't Mailer, after all, told the Pod in private that he admired his book, before attacking it in public? Unlike the way Podhoretz praised Hellman's memoirs to her face (because she was so "mischievous, bitchy, earthy, and always up for a laugh") while secretly despising "the political ideas and attitudes in whose service she corrupted her work and brought...lasting dishonor upon her name," without ever, of course, saying anything nice in print, which would have meant "corrupting my own writing or betraying these standards that were everything to me as a literary critic."

On the third hand, Lillian Hellman alone stood up for him when the rest of the world hated Making It. Even Jackie K. jumped off that Jolly Rogered ship.

Nor have I even mentioned the best Pod party of them all, in the fall of 1962, at a soiree sponsored by Show magazine on Paradise Island, a wholly owned subsidiary of Huntington Hartford off the Caribbean coast of Nassau:

This was what Success looked like...and the look of it made me drunker than all the gallons of rum I consumed that week. This was what it meant to be rich: to sleep in a huge bright room with a terrace overlooking an incredibly translucent green sea, to stretch one's arms out idly by the side of a swimming pool and have two white-coated servants vie for the privilege of depositing a Bloody Mary into one's hand.... All around me, too, was the evidence of what it meant to be famous (for the North American delegation was mostly composed of people whose fame far outweighed my own meager measure of it): it meant that a serene self-assurance had been injected into the spirit to combat the uncertainties and anxieties which, to be sure, remained, but no longer had the field to themselves.

Paradise Island was for the author of Making It what that famous blaze of "indescribably white light" had been for Bill Wilson of Alcoholics Anonymous--either the sight of God or a "hot flash" of toxic psychosis, but definitely a conversion experience: "I loved everyone, and everyone loved me. I did not blame them; I even loved myself." Here, at last, he traded in the Cherokees, SAC red satin of his Brownsville tough-guy boyhood for a svelte suede jacket and an extension cord for his telephone. Norman no longer needed William Phillips, nor any other Elder of the Tribe. He had learned to swim with the sharks.

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