Commentary Magazine


“The Way It Was”

To the Editor:

Never have I observed a critic abdicate so absolutely his editorial responsibility as did Mr. Henry Popkin in his report (October) on Mr. Harold Loeb’s wholly delightful book, The Way It Was. . . . Mr. Popkin seems to have substituted some queer kind of emotional prejudice for the critical integrity we have a right to expect from professional reviewers. He seems to have dedicated himself exclusively to representing the book as (in his own words) a “Portrait of the Artist as a Shlimazl,” at whatever cost to the truth as found in the text. . . .

In two short pages, I was able to count seventeen misstatements and distortions. To cite a few:

  1. Mr. Popkin states that Mr. Loeb decided one day to become a man of letters because he “liked the company of writers.” On the contrary, the narrative clearly indicates Mr. Loeb’s purpose to become a writer ever since his childhood and that he had worked in that direction even before he had ever met a writer.
  2. Mr. Popkin asserts that Gordon Craig put Mr. Loeb in the “inferior category of work people.” The text discloses quite the opposite.
  3. Mr. Popkin states that “from the first” Mr. Loeb “had harbored profound suspicion of his ‘arty’ friends.” The book shows that, “from the first,” Mr. Loeb had gone overboard for his arty friends. It was good reporting and good narrative for Mr. Loeb to have disclosed the sad finding that they too sometimes had feet of clay.
  4. Mr. Popkin suggests that Mr. Loeb was “not very happy as an editor.” Other, more dispassionate critics reported that the book was suffused with a kind of “exhilaration.” Mr. Loeb seemed to be saying that he had never been happier than during the years he edited Broom.

Most of Mr. Popkin’s adverse criticisms have the quality of piddling barbs. It seems a cheap way to dispose of a book which is an important addition to the literature of an important literary period and which sheds so much light on The Way It Was.

Charles Bonner
New York City

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Mr. Popkin writes:

I am not entirely sure just what the trouble is with Mr. Bonner. I can, however, reply to his points about Mr. Loeb’s book and my review of it.

1. Mr. Loeb gives more than one reason for his literary ambitions; I think I am therefore entitled to take the one I find “mainly” valid. On page 31, Mr. Loeb writes: “I did not want to go back to business and devote my life to making money. I wanted to throw in my lot with such writers, painters, sculptors, poets, dancers, harpists, and crackpots as Mary Clarke had gathered about her.” Page 10: “Disdainful of the rich and powerful, I was seeking and finding strength and beauty among the sensitive poor.”. . . Page 30: “I did not limit my contact with this alluring world to week-end visits.” He extended his contact by frequenting the Sunwise Turn bookstore for “good reading, good conversation, and lively minds.” And, much later in the book, at a time when he is considering a break with the literary life, Mr. Loeb writes: “They [writers] were in my opinion the only people fit to associate with.”

It is less easy to demonstrate that Mr. Loeb was moved by a burning desire to write. Certainly one is entitled to doubt the force of this ambition in a novelist who encouraged himself by saying: “Anyone can write a novel.”

2. On page 94, Mr. Loeb tells how he discovered some letters from Craig to Kreymborg. In one letter, Craig tells how to cajole “work people” into doing more work. In the second letter, Craig gives similar directions for cajoling Mr. Loeb. This evidence suggests that Craig put Mr. Loeb into the category of “work people,” rather than artists. I preferred this descriptive category to a more abusive term, “dullard,” which word Mr. Loeb uses to convey Craig’s apparent conception of him.

3. On “profound suspicion,” I followed my statement with two early instances of Mr. Loeb’s doubts. If more are wanted, back in the days of the bookstore (page 35): “And it wasn’t long before my initial enthusiasm for Mary Clarke and her theories began to wear thin in spots.” This attitude is more fully explained in the sentences that follow. Still back in the bookstore days, a broken marriage “disillusioned” Mr. Loeb and persuaded him that artists needed “something positive” (page 55). Before starting Broom, Mr. Loeb “had become more than a little fed up with those who spelled art with a capital A” (page 66).

4. I said that Mr. Loeb “suggests that he was not very happy as an editor,” and found the suggestion in a particular statement: “Most of what was being written was not good.” When a magazine editor makes a statement like that, it hardly suggests delirious joy. . . .

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