Bravo, old sport

Christopher Hitchens

  • Critical Crossings: The New York Intellectuals in Post-War America by Neil Jumonville
    California, 291 pp, £24.95, January 1991, ISBN 0 520 06858 0

Each morning, the great, grey New York Times publishes a box headed ‘Corrections’, which box makes a sort of running auto-adjudication on the performance of the journal of record. On one day, there is a matter of spelling or nomenclature set right. On another, a date or a place. Occasionally, the correction goes so far as to specify what the paper might, or even should, have said. Some see, in this parade of scruple and objectivity, a Victorian combination of public rectitude and private hypocrisy whereby the more influential subscribers get their chance to ‘set the record straight’. Others discern a sort of semiotic inquisition, useful for disciplining errant or over-imaginative reporters into the uses of impartiality. (Alexander Cockburn comes right out and says that its purpose is to convince the public that everything else in yesterday’s Times was historically and morally true.) Anyway, last November the paper ran a ‘Correction’ which is unlikely to be bested:

An article on Saturday about Israeli efforts to control violence after the killing of Rabbi Meir Kahane included an erroneous identification, supplied by Israeli officials, for a man detained as a suspect in the killings of two Palestinians. The man, David Axelrod, is not related to Leon Trotsky. A man with the same name, who is a descendant of Trotsky, was questioned briefly by the police in a case of mistaken identity.

The arcane character of this item, which was at the top of that day’s menu, might make it appear incongruous among the Saks and Bloomingdales ads, the opinion-poll findings, the Broadway listings and the remainder of the quotidian fare. But all across the Upper West Side of the city there is still a constituency, or at any rate a readership, to which any news of any relationship between Trotskyism and Judaism is as vivid and important as any despatch from Trump Tower or Wall Street. In this circle, or set of interlocking circles, the names of Rudolf Slansky, Ehrlich and Alter, Max Schachtman, Andres Nin, Amadeo Bordiga and John Dewey are, still, names with which to puncture an argument, break up a friendship, revise an article or inaugurate a new and daring small magazine. Keywords include ‘Doctors’ Plot’, ‘Deutscherite’, ‘PR Crowd’, ‘Vyshinsky’ and ‘neo-con’. New York is the last intellectual capital in history to concern itself with both the Surrealist Manifesto and the Platform of the Left Opposition.

Neil Jumonville’s book contains rather more references to Trilling than to Trotsky, which, given the reverse emphasis in most discussions of his subject, is by no means disproportionate. Mary McCarthy described the fell consequences of getting the proportions wrong in her essay ‘My Confession’. Having airily declared, at a fellow-travellers’ publishing party, that Trotsky should be allowed his day in court, she found her signature conscripted by a Trotskyist ‘defence committee’ that hadn’t troubled to ask her permission. Before she had time to object, she was pelted with so much obloquy by the Stalinists that it seemed ignoble to remove her name. And then she began to look into the matter:

It is impossible to take a moderate tone under such conditions. If I admitted, though, to being a little hipped on the subject of Trotsky, I could sometimes gain an indulgent if flickering attention – the kind of attention that stipulates: ‘She’s a bit off but let’s hear her story.’ And now and then, by sheer chance, one of my hearers would be arrested by some stray point in my narrative: the disparaging smile would slowly fade from his features, leaving a look of blank consternation. He would go off and investigate for himself, and in a few days, when we met again, he would be a crackpot too.

Some of these people turn up in The Group. At approximately the same time as Mary McCarthy was chivvying and being chivvied all over Manhattan, Saul Bellow submitted his first short story for publication in the student magazine of Northwestern University. (It took third prize in the competition.) Entitled ‘The Hell It Can’t’, the story was intended to rebuke Sinclair Lewis’s Popular Front novel It Can’t Happen Here. I once went to the labour of digging up this un-anthologised tale, which describes an episode of vicious fascist violence, and could see in it, if I chose, premonitions of Bellow’s later impatient pessimism.

Still, long after he had himself ceased to be a Trotskyist, Bellow had the generosity to make his hero Augie March run into the Old Man in Mexico, and to speak of him thus: ‘I was excited by this famous figure, and I believe what it was about him that stirred me up was the instant impression he gave – no matter about the old heap he rode in or the peculiarity of his retinue – of navigation by the great stars, of the highest considerations, of being fit to speak the most important human words and universal terms. When you are as reduced to a different kind of navigation from the high starry kind as I was and are only sculling on the shallow bay, crawling from one clam-rake to the next, it’s stirring to have a glimpse of deep-water greatness. And, even more than an established, an exiled greatness, because the exile was a sign to me of persistence at the highest things.’ Augie March reports Trotsky as ‘very gingery and energetic, debonair, sharp, acute in the beard’, which doesn’t go all that badly with Mary McCarthy’s ‘small, frail, pertinacious old man who wore whiskers, wrinkles, glasses, shock of grizzled hair, like a gleeful disguise for the erect young student, the dangerous revolutionary within him’.

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