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.”
Phillips wanted to be a mediator, but he was nonetheless moving rightward, with accelerating speed as the 1970s turned into the 1980s. I often thought he was much too stung by the attacks of his old friends Norman Podhoretz and Midge Decter, who had turned Commentary into a neocon organ. Phillips resisted; he never wanted to identify himself outright as conservative. There is a depressing yardstick of how far he did move right in the symposium on political correctness sponsored by PR in 1993, later published as Our Country, Our Culture (the title echoed that of a more robust PR symposium from 1952). All the neocons holding sway during the “culture wars” contributed: Hilton Kramer, Roger Kimball, David Lehman, Glenn Loury, Robert Brustein, Heather MacDonald, Ronald Radosh. One after the other, they railed against “political correctness” as the clear and present danger to American civilization. Behind PC they found multiculturalism lurking, and behind that affirmative action, denounced over and over again.
Phillips himself identified PC at the symposium as “a New Left configuration,” encompassing “extreme and radical feminist theories, gay and lesbian liberation studies and activities, ideas stemming from the deconstructionists, neo-Marxists, and remnants of old, revolutionary postures…. It is to a large extent anti-American, in some quarters anti-capitalist, pro-Third World, pro-minority, and anti-Western cultural and political interests.” The language of patriotism entwines here with a confused understanding of the issues. One senses increasing rigor mortis in attitude and in the prose. The move of PR to Boston University, presided over by the ultraconservative John Silber, was itself a bad sign (though it must be said that a move somewhere was made necessary when Rutgers University attempted, in 1978, to force Phillips into retirement and to take over the magazine).
One can’t then mourn for the demise of PR such as it had become in its long moribundity. But its disappearance is significant, sad and troubling as a sign of our present cultural state. We have lost a chief organ of mediation between high culture and a public of enlightened, largely urban laypersons. In fact, there is virtually no mediation at all now between academic intellectual work–in literary and cultural criticism especially–and that general public, if such still exists. The loss, I think, is grievous.
In 1941 a survey indicated that more than half of PR‘s readers were in their 20s. By the time it died, its small readership must have been largely septuagenarian. What are the 20-year-olds now reading? If anything–if they are not wholly sated on MTV–it is certainly not the quarterlies. Successful magazines now aim at sociocultural “niches.” The academic niches have some healthy periodicals–some of them indeed a good deal livelier than what PR had become–but their circulation is wimpy. Those who claim the role of public intellectual tend, in the vacuous media context, to become merely pundits.
Probably no quarterly publication could now perform the work of cultural mediation, bringing high art and smart commentary to a general audience: We’ve speeded up to the point where quarterlies always seem a bit out of it. Instant commentary is the thing. The more important question may be whether there is any print medium that is willing to take on the strenuous exercises in literature, culture and politics that once animated PR. Laying PR to rest makes us realize how long we’ve missed what it once did, and how long it’s been since anyone else made the attempt.