Performing Seals

Christopher Hitchens

  • Partisans: Marriage, Politics and Betrayal Among the New York Intellectuals by David Laskin
    Simon and Schuster, 319 pp, US $26.00, January 2000, ISBN 0 684 81565 6

A man I met told me that F.R. Leavis had once been invited to Columbia University to talk, and was afterwards bidden to a reception in his own honour. The co-editor of Scrutiny had been very much himself and, after his departure, was discussed as visitors tend to be. A certain elderly member of the English Department even observed: ‘He seemed perfectly all right to me. I can’t think why everybody calls him “Queenie”.’

The gay life was more or less unguessed at by those we know as ‘the New York intellectuals’. And when they referred to themselves as ‘the PR crowd’, in recognition of the fact that a New York intellectual was defined by his or her relationship to one magazine, they meant not Public Relations but Partisan Review. Nonetheless, their private relations have been as exhaustively explored as those of the polymorphous Bloomsbury set, and now we have a nearly zipless account, partly obscured by the fog of booze, of their interpersonal ‘doings and undoings’ (expression of Mr Norman Podhoretz).

Queenie Leavis of course became an official widow, and it is les veuves on whom David Laskin relies most heavily in this relatively orderly account of sexual and matrimonial chaos. Diana Trilling outlived Lionel by many a book; Mary McCarthy enjoyed the same revenge on Edmund Wilson; the witches of Eastwick (lacking only their Hardwick) have vented about Robert Lowell. To interview all the exes of Philip Rahv would be an undertaking from which the most committed Boswellian might recoil. (Though it’s fascinating to speculate what might have happened if Rahv and Mary McCarthy had made a go of it; a marriage between the most politically savvy and the most literary would have been quite something and would certainly have broken up in the most thrilling way. McCarthy and Wilson had their terminal scene in a fight over whose turn it was to take out the garbage.)

Staying in the realm of the possible and the actual, Mr Laskin has stuck himself with those whose private lives became the problems of the group as a whole; their plate-smashings and face-scratchings and ‘commitments’ or ‘committings’ (to mental hospitals, I mean); their dramas of adultery and rivalry. Paradoxically, this is why so many of the club escape mention except in footnotes. Irving Howe, for example, gave no sexual trouble to anyone we know about. Nor indeed did Diana Trilling. William Phillips and William Barrett seem to have been uxorious or monastic by contrast to the friends whose hands they held at moments of crisis. Irving Kristol and Gertrude Himmelfarb are Philemon and Baucis, not Abelard and Héloïse and never mind Dorothea and Casaubon. No breath of scandal attaches to Susan Sontag, much admired and desired as she was and is. My old comrade Norman Birnbaum was once married to Edith Kurtzweil, who still helps to bring out the etiolated remnant of PR. As far as I know, theirs was a separation on principled grounds. Hannah Arendt’s beloved husband Heinrich Blucher was unfaithful, but not with anyone of whom we’ve all heard. One problem with keyhole vision, then, is the want of perspective.

Where the perspective is not too constricted, it is too broad. Dawn Powell wrote, reflecting on Edmund Wilson, that ‘in order for a genius to be a genius, he must have a selfless slave between him and the world so that he may select what tidbits he chooses from it and not have his brains swallowed up in chaff. For women this protection is impossible.’ Well, Lenny Bruce had as good a claim to the title of Jewish intellectual as many of those in these pages, and he phrased it just as tersely when he said that all men want wives who are perfect mothers, perfect secretaries, perfect cooks and top-dollar, tireless hookers. This will be found to apply to politicians, Hollywood producers, suburban accountants and humble joiners. Laskin insists that the difference in this case is that ‘the men wanted slaves and peers,’ though I don’t find that this is a sufficient limitation or distinction. Many men in many vocations want wives who can be envied and respected as well. Finally, it was Mary McCarthy – the former Mrs Edmund Wilson – who did eventually find that she could obtain the same wifely protection from a man, or men, and Laskin is consistently disobliging about both her and her resulting work.

Delmore Schwartz once opined that

All poets’ wives have rotten lives,
Their husbands look at them like knives ...
Exactitude their livelihood
And rhyme their only gratitude.

He would have been stirred to his depths, perhaps, by Sylvia Plath’s implied response – about the female love for a fascist and a boot in the face – but she didn’t specify that a versifier was required to put the leather in. Nor, it turns out, did you have to be Jewish, or an alcoholic, or a Marxist, or even, much of the time, a New Yorker. Robert Lowell, for example, was only one of the above and his liquor intake fluctuated with his mania rather than being, as with Rahv, a steady and consistent and reassuring thing. Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammett were with the Stalinist faction rather than the group which Laskin ignorantly (and annexing the Stalinist locution) terms ‘Trotskyites’. But an account of a highly strung weekend in their company, with the names left out, could be placed like tracing-paper over many of the reminiscences here.

At times, therefore, the book reads like one of those People magazine items, based on name-recognition and dependent on verb forms like ‘rubbed shoulders with’. Thus Allen Tate and Caroline Gordon ‘had in fact lived in New York for several buzzing years in the mid-1920s, moving in loose-living, hard-drinking, left-wing bohemian circles and consorting with the likes of Hart Crane, Maxwell Perkins, Katherine Anne Porter, Louise Bogan and Edmund Wilson’. The likes of, eh? Still, this helps introduce a rather interesting section on Tate, John Crowe Ransom and the so-called Southern Agrarians. Tate, who was more or less openly nostalgic for the Old Confederacy, half-adopted ‘Caliban’ Lowell and had him to stay in his ramshackle home, Benfolly in Tennessee. It’s clear that his long poem, ‘Ode to the Confederate Dead,’ exerted a powerful influence on Lowell and spurred him to write the ironic riposte for the Union many years later. But Laskin has little room for this element of their rivalry, which barely rates a mention when compared to both men’s divorces, remarriages and drinking bouts. The great contest between the Southern Agrarians and the New York lot took place during the award of the Bollingen Prize to Ezra Pound in 1948; an episode about which almost everyone worth mentioning managed to write something worth reading. Laskin doesn’t even touch on it, because it didn’t break up any marriages.

There are uncollected hints dropped here. The PR crowd, who were later mostly to despise the 1960s radicals for their commune-oriented and kibbutznik utopianism, disliked the countryside and asserted the cosmopolitan city. Yet Edmund Wilson, who had actually read Marx, managed to combine a distaste for Tate’s Dixie bucolic nostalgia with his own superior preference for nature as opposed to vulgar capitalist industrialism. And Robert Penn Warren, once a dogged Agrarian, made the transition from Dixie to Northern liberalism, or from the Southern Review to Partisan Review, a while after reviewing Mary McCarthy’s The Company She Keeps for the latter. Something might have been done with this, if it did not make such an imperfect fit with the shifting sexual allegiances.

‘When love congeals,’ Cole Porter wrote, ‘It soon reveals/the faint aroma of performing seals.’ And, alas for biography of this type, most recollections of awful scenes between men and women are depressingly similar. One may exempt Robert Lowell’s Ballard-like moment in crashing a car and cruelly disfiguring Jean Stafford, but then one can only say ‘cruelly’ if the crash was intentional, which is no more than a believable speculation. I can imagine Edmund Wilson testifying that he was more afraid of being beaten by Mary McCarthy than she was of being beaten by him; I can even imagine it being true. But this is all small change; the paltry personal clues to pieces of writing like McCarthy’s A Charmed Life or Stafford’s mordant short story, ‘An Influx of Poets’.

Laskin several times makes the point that the women of this narrative had a pre-feminist life, or a career path that pre-dated feminism as we know it. They all worked, in other words. This is true in the sense that they were active before Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique. But two of them had a crack at the earlier work of Simone de Beauvoir. Mary McCarthy pointed out waspishly that the great Parisienne was no more than an appendage to Sartre. Elizabeth Hardwick took a higher tone, at least as sarcastically described by Lowell, who wrote in 1953:

Elizabeth has just finished a wonderful crucifying polemic on the Second Sexe. She proves with all the eloquence of Shelley that no woman can ever be as good as a man. It’s quite gone to her head she walks around with her nose in the clouds, and I am dirt under her feet. What man could ever have thought up anything so sensible?

Hannah Arendt makes her appearance in the story because she can’t be left out of it; she was the arriving, irrupting, avenging conscience of outraged exile Europe and the one who rendered isolationist positions no longer tenable by the ‘herd of independent minds’ (expression of Mr Harold Rosenberg). She was also to roil the American Jewish world a second time, by her attribution of diffused responsibility through Eichmann in Jerusalem. Before abandoning her beloved Germany she had conducted an affair with Martin Heidegger and may have resumed it after the war; it’s been suggested lately that this might supply a covert motive for her refusal to blame only the Nazis for the Final Solution. This contingency isn’t discussed here, again because it doesn’t really ‘fit’. We do learn, though, that Diana Trilling didn’t like her at all and imagined (on no evidence) that Arendt wanted to make off with dear Lionel. And Laskin will certainly upset some people by his observation that ‘American Jewish intellectuals, especially those in the PR group, fought Arendt far more zealously than they had fought Hitler.’ The latter controversy over Eichmann was also the cement in the solidarity between Arendt and Mary McCarthy. Again, though, there is no overlap here between the intellectual and the sexual and the story has been told more exhaustively by other biographers.

This book would have been entirely different if Elizabeth Hardwick, la veuve des veuves, had agreed to co-operate with it. Time and again, Laskin comes up against the absence of her testimony and admits to the lacunae that he’s unable to fill in. But the smart old lady of West 67th Street doesn’t want to play. She knew ’em all, she was there, she is as spry as ever, and she’s keeping her own counsel. Perhaps she is readying a text of her own after all. If so, I’m quite prepared to wait for it.