Commentary Magazine


The Lyrical Left, by Edward Abrahams

A Usable Past?

The Lyrical Left: Randolph Bourne, Alfred Stieglitz, and the Origins of Cultural Radicalism in America.
by Edward Abrahams.
University Press of Virginia. 288 pp. $28.00.

The Lyrical Left is not merely a historical account of the rise and fall of cultural radicalism in pre-1917 New York City, but a parable about the need for radical prescriptions in today’s America.

Beset by physical and psychological torments throughout his life, Randolph Bourne, the first of Edward Abrahams’s two main subjects, died of influenza in 1918 at the age of thirty-two. The essays that make up his best-known collections, Youth and Life (1913), Untimely Papers (1919), and The History of a Literary Radical (1920), are marked by the flowing rhythms of a poet, the polemical skill of an editorialist, and the dissident bravery of a Henry David Thoreau. All the same, there is a poignant thinness about his achievement, in intellectual substance no less than in numerical bulk. While to the 20′s he became a romantic symbol of the revolt of youth, his legend faded fast with the fall of the stock market; in the reconsidered view of Lewis Mum-ford in 1930, “Bourne was precious to us because of what he was rather than what he had actually written.”

Since the 60′s, though, there has been a renewed interest in Bourne, for reasons not hard to fathom. Fun, truth, beauty, freedom, peace, feminism, youth, and a socialist revolution that would somehow not be socially encumbering were the ideals that filled his dreams. He sought, too, to reform education in order to end the alienation of students from their environment and from one another. Finally, he bitterly opposed America’s involvement in World War I, which he saw as a fatal threat to unfettered individualism. “War,” he said in his most famous formulation, “is the health of the state.” Given these positions, it was almost inevitable that a paperback edition of Bourne’s essays, entitled War and the Intellectuals (1964), would find a market on college campuses in the glory days when the younger generation, in Abrahams’s words, was conducting a “principled opposition to the war in Vietnam,” carrying on a “desperate search for community and individual redemption” and intoning the mantra that “imagination is revolution.”

In the 80′s, War and the Intellectuals is no longer in print. But if Bourne has ceased to be a beacon for students, liberal historians are paying more attention to him than ever. Thoughts of Ronald Reagan may be as crushing to them as thoughts of the wartime Woodrow Wilson were to the later Bourne—but in a time of darkness they continue to be solaced by the faith of the early Bourne that cultural radicalism is not only a means of pursuing the long-range triumph of a more comprehensive radical agenda, but indispensable to its meaningfulness. “Bourne’s struggle still suggests,” Abrahams writes in summation of him, “that political goals that do not have cultural ramifications and do not offer some hope for personal freedom and self-expression are incomplete.” Which is why, Abrahams adds, Bourne’s example “remains compelling to those who still believe that the right combination of political change and cultural renewal might yet fulfill the promise of American life.”

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Almost in spite of himself, Abrahams has composed quite an interesting appreciation of his second subject, the photographer and art-gallery proprietor Alfred Stieglitz. He begins, to be sure, with the daunting statement that he is going to concentrate on Stieglitz’s ideas, as he has on Bourne’s, even though “Stieglitz was, by and large, inarticulate.” Wherefore, he says, he has had to rely not only on the confused and contradictory statements in Stieglitz’s correspondence and elsewhere, but “also on what others said in his behalf, on whom and what he published, and, finally, on the kind of art that he showed over the years.” As for formal art analysis, “I have mainly left [it] to the art historians.” Fortunately, that last statement is not really true.

Stieglitz’s career was so variegated as to defy categorization. He helped lay the foundation for the art of modern photography. He founded the Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession (on the fourth floor of a building at 291 Fifth Avenue) in order to exhibit the latest expression of modern art and modern philosophy. (America’s first one-man shows of Matisse and Picasso were among 291′s most notable achievements.) He published Camera Work and 291 as a means of disseminating the ideas of such exponents of modernism as Sadakichi Hartmann, Charles H. Caffin, and Marius de Zayas. And he communicated to a small group of American artists, including Mars-den Hartley, Arthur Dove, John Marin, Charles Demuth, and Georgia O’Keeffe, whom he would marry, his prophetic faith that their work would make a difference to the future of the national sensibility.

In those pages in which the author of The Lyrical Left manages to forget his commitment to Stieglitz’s ideas, an exciting sense of an extraordinary career comes through. But it is in his discussion of Stieglitz’s photography that Abrahams is at his best.

The pictures that Stieglitz took of European peasants in the early 1890′s sentimentally evoked an agrarian world that was fast disappearing. When he brought his camera into “ugly New York,” however, in the years between 1893 and 1902, sentimentality all but vanished from his work. Yet if he captured objective qualities of urban life at the turn of the century, the pictures he shot were nevertheless profoundly personal statements. Thus, his own overpowering loneliness inspired him to photograph a man caring for horses harnessed to a public carriage. “How fortunate the horses seemed, having a human being to tend them,” was his retrospective comment on The Terminal (1893).

Examples from Stieglitz’s second series of New York prints have been reprinted so frequently, Abrahams justly points out, that they have formed our mental image of what the aggressive metropolis looked like on the eve of the modern era. Yet in these pictures, too, Stieglitz projected a self-conscious awareness. Gesturing toward the panorama of lower Manhattan, he exclaimed to Theodore Dreiser in 1902, “If we could but picture that mood!” It was a mood that in Dreiser’s The “Genius” (1915) would be dominated by the tense-ness of sexual desire. In Stieglitz’s The Hand of Man (1902) and The Flatiron Building (1903)—the first a study of a locomotive belching black smoke in a railroad yard, the second a wintertime shot across a park of a vaulting structure that reminded Stieglitz of “the bow of a monster ocean steamer”—the artist was likewise aware of his masculine drives.

The Steerage (1907), his most famous photograph, taken on an eastbound crossing of the Atlantic but destined to become the quintessential visualization of the immigrant experience to America, superbly combines, as Abrahams well says, “Stieglitz’s lyrical views of humanity” with an “intuitive sense for abstract composition.” Among its early admirers was Picasso, who declared that Stieglitz was the only photographer who understood his medium.

Stieglitz stopped taking pictures in 1937, at the age of seventy-three. In the socially-conscious era of Ben Shahn’s paintings and Walker Evans’s photographs, he was a lonely and embittered man, for his emphasis on the self was as out of date as Randolph Bourne’s. The final judgment, though, of the liberal Edward Abrahams is that the cultural vision of the lyrical Left constitutes a “usable past.” At a time when American society is engaged in the enormously difficult task of defining and delimiting personal “rights,” he apparently remains committed to a belief in their boundlessness.

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