Commentary Magazine

How "Partisan Review" Began

Partisan Review was born in the 30’s in the decade that we look back on today with so much curiosity, nostalgia, misunderstanding. It seems so long ago, especially when one considers what has happened since: World War II, Vietnam, two Israeli-Arab wars, Watergate, China, women’s liberation, a sexual and cultural revolution. But despite these enormous changes, many of the questions that haunt us today are updated versions of the questions I grew up with in the 30’s. And if the time between the 30’s and the 70’s often appears foreshortened, it is because of the peculiar sense of contemporaneity that makes the whole modern period seem all of a piece.

Intellectually speaking, I, too, was born in the 30’s. Perhaps it is too egocentric to identify one’s formative years with the beginnings of this era. But I think it can be said that the 30’s were the cradle of our entire epoch, and that we are all living out the unsolved problems—intellectual as well as political—first posed at that time. For what we think of as the contemporary mind had its origins in the profoundly traumatic shift of consciousness that took place in the 30’s.

But of course, none of us thought about such world-shaking matters at the time. Moved by all kinds of immediate considerations, we simply thought a magazine was needed to represent a new approach to literature and politics. Nor did we know that the magazine we were starting was itself to influence writing and thinking for a long time and to set an intellectual pattern for literary publications.

The radical 30’s quickly brought together people from different intellectual and social backgrounds, and just as quickly dispersed most of them into different beliefs and careers. I myself had come from the poor boy’s land, from the Bronx and City College, then graduate work at NYU and Columbia. Despite the lack of money and worldliness, I had managed to avoid radicalization—or, indeed, politicization of any kind. On the contrary, my literary and intellectual development was rooted in the 20’s, in the experience of modernism: my world was bounded on all sides by Eliot, Pound, Joyce, the Cubists, Mondrian, etc. It was only in the depth of the Depression—in the 30’s—that I began to take any interest in social themes and movements. Ironically, however, I discovered the Left not through the world-shaking events of the time, though they obviously provided the setting, but in the material of a course I was teaching at New York University in the 30’s. It was a lowly course in which we had to read some essays to learn something called expository writing. But the standard text was so bad, so pointless, so banal while pretending to be popular in the way only academic collections can be, that I decided to use the Nation and the New Republic as our texts. And in the process of reading and discussing these magazines religiously as they came out each week, both teacher and students became radicalized—though I should add immediately that by radicalized I mean becoming aware of a world outside literature and the arts, of politics, and the problems of society.

Shortly thereafter, I heard of the John Reed Club, a left-wing organization of writers and painters, associated more closely with the Communist party than I realized at the time, and I began to go to its meetings. I should say right off that like most political associations connected with the arts its literary and intellectual level was not the highest. Nevertheless, one gets sucked in—something that people who have never been involved in political movements cannot understand—by the spirit and ostensible goals of the organization, and by the Zeitgeist. What I mean is that one is sucked in, despite one’s awareness of the stupidities of the organization or the cause, by some reformist zeal that places the end above the means and leads one to believe the means could be purified. Anyway, one thing led to another, and I soon became secretary of the John Reed Writers Club, at the same time that I was becoming more and more opposed to the crude literary positions and the corrupt politics of the Communists who dominated the John Reed Club and the literary Left generally. What does one do in such a situation? One dreams of a magazine to express one’s views and to mobilize a group of disaffected writers looking for a similar direction. It was about this time that I met Philip Rahv, who had drifted into the John Reed Club from the West Coast. He was more politicized than I was, having come directly to the Left without going through a modernist phase, as I had. I had already published a piece of non-Marxist criticism in the Symposium, while he had started out writing in the New Masses. He was unsophisticated, but very intelligent and endowed with a shrewd political sense.

I had also written for the New Masses and other Left publications, but I was appalled by the sectarian orthodoxy that prevailed in circles connected with the Communists. Still, I was not entirely aware that the vulgarities of the politics as well as the approach to the arts were not an intellectual aberration but were grounded in the monolithic structure and thinking of the Communists. Rahv and I still had the illusion that a new literary publication could be the organ of those radical writers who had no use for the party-line aesthetics of the New Masses, and could be open to genuine talent, regardless of politics. We had no experience in putting out a magazine, no sense of what it involved, no notion of how to raise the necessary money. We were cocky kids, driven by a grandiose idea of launching a new literary movement, combining older with younger talents, and the best of the new radicalism with the innovative energy of modernism. But we could not envision anything beyond an organ of the John Reed Club, which at least provided a base for such a publication. The only trouble was that there was no money, not at the John Reed Club, or indeed anywhere else.



Only a miracle could produce a magazine, and it could be said that Partisan Review has been sustained all these years by miracles, though miracles are often man-made. Anyway, the first miracle arrived in the form of an urbane Englishman, John Strachey, just turned Left, who was coming to New York and agreed to give a talk—on literature and dialectical materialism—for the benefit of the John Reed Club. We hired a hall, sold tickets, publicized the event—all quite amateurishly, for professionalism had not yet invaded the realm of serious or radical culture. Nevertheless, the lecture turned out to be a smash hit: people were begging for tickets, and trying to crash the gate. It was a Sunday night, and Rahv and I and our wives left the hall with our pockets stuffed with money, scared of losing it or of being robbed until we could get to the bank the next morning.

We had raised the unbelievable sum of eight hundred dollars, enough to run a magazine for a year in a collapsed economy. We had no rent, no salaries, nobody to phone, and printing costs made the Depression seem like a literary Utopia. There was no financial support from the John Reed Club, or from any other source, but we were able to supplement the original windfall by running lectures and dances. In fact, we were so enterprising that the John Reed Club became known for having the best dance floor in the city. And we finally made it when we were arrested for “charging admission at a party” and “selling drinks without a license.” It was at a party one Saturday evening for the German composer, Hanns Eisler, who had been prominent in Communist activities and had just arrived in this country. The affair had been going full swing, when a man approached me as I was standing next to the table where the punch was being sold, and asked me the price of a drink. I told him it was twenty-five cents, and he asked whether I would pour one for him. I did and dropped the quarter he had ostentatiously given me in a box full of money on the table. He then asked me to step outside with him, informed me that he was a cop, and said that I had violated the ABC law. Apparently another cop had taken Rahv outside, too, and told him he was running an affair without a license. They took us to a nearby police station, where they said we could explain things to the captain and then go home. We then got our first lesson in police methods, for as soon as we got there they frisked us and put us in a cell for the night, while assuring us we would be released on bail in the morning. I was permitted to call my wife, but of course it was impossible to raise the bail money on Sunday. However, with remarkable resourcefulness she managed to find a friend who put up a Soviet government bond as bail.

I thought I would make the best of it by trying in the meantime to get some sleep. But even if I could have slept on one of the hard benches in the cell, I would have been kept up all night by Rahv’s stalking back and forth as though he were in a cage, cursing one by one with all the petulant and fulsome rhetoric he could sputter out, all those members of the John Reed Club who were not in jail, and who were probably having a good time at the party.

At the trial several months later we were defended by an International Labor Defense lawyer, which meant his primary duty was to carry the class struggle into the courtroom. Only secondarily, and as a fringe benefit, as it were, was he concerned with what happened to Rahv and myself. And though we were finally found not guilty, the judge told us later he had almost sentenced us out of sheer desperation and annoyance at the noisy antics of our lawyer. In the end, apparently what saved us was that the ensnaring and careless tactics of the cops in arresting us ultimately outweighed the provocative and ideological ineptness of our defense. The trial itself was of course a farce. Since I could be made to look more respectable, I became the featured defendant. Much was made of the fact that I was a college instructor, and before long the judge began to address me as Professor Phillips. Also, our attorney kept piling copies of things that I had written on the judge’s desk and pushing them under his nose, while the judge kept pushing them away, obviously irritated at this crude attempt to build up my “character” and professional status in a way that clearly had nothing to do with the charges.



Partisan Review began as a monthly, and as the organ of the John Reed Club. But it was understood from the beginning that Rahv and I were the main force behind the magazine, and its chief editors. Since the magazine was sponsored by the John Reed Club, however, it had to have the kind of editorial representation all organizations—especially political ones—demand. Hence the masthead of the first issue looked like a showcase of participatory democracy.

This phase of the magazine, its first phase, which should really be called the old Partisan Review, was shortlived. It lasted for two years, through nine issues. At the same time the editorial board kept shrinking, until at the end there were only three editors, Rahv, I, and Alan Calmer, a sensible, self-effacing member of the John Reed Club. (There was also a short period when Partisan Review merged with Anvil, Jack Conroy’s magazine in the Midwest. But that marriage did not work out and PR decided to go it alone again.) All this time Rahv and I were becoming more and more fed up with the literary politics of the Communists, with their manipulation of theories, slogans, and writers, and we were coming to the conclusion that an independent literary movement could not exist within the orbit of the official Communist party. Hence we suspended publication until we could regroup and find new sources of financial support.

It is hard to reconstruct the atmosphere of literary and political life in the 30’s, at least in those circles affected by the general radicalization of the time and by the influence of the Communist party. For this atmosphere was not simply a matter of extremes, as sometimes pictured by biased observers: it was neither a fool’s paradise of utopian hopes and beliefs nor a wasteland of disillusionment and cynicism. It was a complex of contradictions that I tried to summarize in a piece I wrote in the 60’s:1

The going version of the story [of what happened in the 30’s] is that the radical spirit ruled the 30’s while the 40’s and 50’s were dedicated to conservatism, philistinism, chauvinism, and that now the pendulum is swinging once more to the Left. This picture is really too simple, and comes out of the sentimental association of radicalism with purity. It ignores the unsavory side of the radical movement, brought mostly by the Communists, just as it leaves out the legitimate distaste for party-line thinking that originally led many people to break with the ideas and organizations linked to the Communists. Still, the going version of the story does contain a certain amount of truth. The fact is that despite all the illusions and duplicities of the 30’s, it was a time when human aims seemed more attractive than national goals and when articulate people talked more about the hope for an ideal society than the benefits of the existing one. It was a time when responsibility meant responsibility to ideas and convictions, justice seemed more important than expediency, the greater good meant more than the lesser evil, dreams seemed more cogent than reality.

Mostly the 30’s was a period of contradictions. It was a time of sense and nonsense, idealism and cynicism, morality and immorality, disinterestedness and power drive, and it was a time when it was possible to believe simultaneously in democracy and dictatorship, in an anti-human abstraction called History and in a moral idea of man usually regarded as unhistorical. It seemed possible to believe in everything and its opposite; and a theory of dialectics along with a policy of expediency were used to rationalize the untenable and to justify the reprehensible.

If we are content to itemize these pluses and minuses and to reiterate that they add up to a state of contradiction, it is not so difficult to say what happened in the 30’s, and what has happened since then. The trouble starts when we try to figure out the exact relation of sense to nonsense, of right to wrong, both in the radical tradition and in the swing away from it toward the Center and the Right. For this means we must decide whether the radicalism of the 30’s was an aberration or a movement in the main line of history, or both, and whether the anti-radical mood that followed was a reaction against being taken in or a reconciliation with things as they are. What we think of these things has as much to do with the future as with the past. . . .

This is an abstract and backward look, but it does correspond to the situation that one lived through. For the short period I was connected with the John Reed Club, it seems to me I was constantly debating with myself, and with those who had abdicated before what they thought was history but was only the bureaucratized doctrines of the Communist party, whether the evils of the party outweighed its contribution to the socialist cause. It is still true and still one of the major dilemmas of radicalism that there are almost no democratic, socialist movements anywhere, strong enough and revolutionary enough to challenge the virtual monopoly of the Communists on the Left. But it was even truer and more disheartening in the 30’s that if one broke with the Communists one had to retire from effective, radical, organized politics. Hence their hold on people who could not make more than one decisive political choice in their lives.

The relation of the party to its intellectual fellow-travelers is worth noting, particularly since there seems to be some parallel to the relation of the Russian intelligentsia with the Soviet government. Despite most accepted notions, there was no intellectual reign of terror, at least not within the fold, so to speak, though the treatment of outside opposition was ruthless. On the contrary, there was a kind of cynical acceptance of disaffection and even criticism of the party by writers, so long as it was not made public or generalized into a fundamental condemnation of the Soviet regime and its satellite parties. And such, I understand, is the position of intellectuals in the Soviet Union, who apparently are permitted to speak freely to each other about the party and the government and are persecuted for the most part only when they insist on airing their views outside elite circles. But of course, though such latitude kept cynical writers in bounds, it was only another sign of corruption and personal manipulation to those of us who were young enough to be mobile and who were genuinely interested in the political dimensions of literature and not in its controls. Still, I should emphasize that breaking was not easy for anyone, and for some it was traumatic—which is why so many writers moved so far to the Right after disengaging from the Communist Left.



At about this time, I met Fred Dupee, who was the literary editor of the New Masses. I told him about our plans, and tried to persuade him to leave the New Masses. Dupee was not an ideologue, nor very responsive to abstract political arguments, but he was a man of great sensibility and taste: hence he was aware of the political atmosphere around the New Masses and had no difficulty in grasping its ultimately corrupting effect on all literary activity. He said he had a friend, Dwight Macdonald, a classmate at Yale, now a writer for Fortune, who was moving Left, in the direction of the Communist party, whom he wanted us to meet. So we arranged to get together at my house one Sunday—which we referred to for a long time as “Bloody Sunday.” As I recall, we were at it all day long; and I still have in my mind a picture of Rahv and myself backing Macdonald up against a wall, knocking down his arguments, firing questions without giving him time to answer, and constantly outshouting him. Now, if anyone has ever argued with Dwight Macdonald, he knows that it is not easy to outtalk him, even on theoretical questions, which was not where his talents lay. All I can say is that we were fired up enough with the rightness of our position to keep banging away, and Dwight was uncertain enough to listen, with the result that at the end of the day we were all agreed we should revive Partisan Review as an independent, radical literary journal. As for the money, Dwight and Fred had a friend, George Morris, a gifted abstract painter, who, they thought, might be interested and could help finance it. The sum we needed for a year, according to our calculations, was fifteen hundred dollars.

Mary McCarthy, another friend of Dupee and Macdonald, also joined our group, and the first issue of the new Partisan Review came out in December 1937. The editorial board consisted of Dupee, Macdonald, McCarthy, Morris, Rahv, and myself, with Nancy Macdonald as business manager. It was, as I look back, a remarkably aggressive and varied board, so aggressive and varied that one had to wonder how we were able to work together for so long. There were: Fred Dupee, as I have indicated, a man of great taste and sensibility; Dwight Macdonald, possessed of an enormous bustling energy, stubborn, opinionated, full of convictions in all areas, a very good journalist; Mary McCarthy, remarkably intelligent and astute, a first-rate prose talent, utterly committed to what she thought was right and honest; George Morris, shy and modest, but firm in his ideas about modern art; Rahv, intellectually alert and arrogant, ready to steamroller any opposition with an endless stream of heavy but wild and original rhetoric. Rahv and I, partly because of our political experience, supplied the theoretical base of the magazine, and tended to restrain the more adventurous instincts of some of the others. Perhaps we tended too much toward sobriety, but at a time when we were in an almost constant state of siege, it seemed necessary to be aware of the political and literary consequences of our acts. For, as expected, the Communists and those writers and editors under their influence kept up a steady attack and used every means of sabotage against us.

Some of the contents of the first issue are worth noting, because in its variety as well as its direction it set the tone for the future of the magazine. The issue included Delmore Schwartz’s famous story, “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” poems by Wallace Stevens and James Agee, essays by Edmund Wilson and Lionel Abel, reviews by Sidney Hook, Lionel Trilling, Arthur Mizener, and William Troy, and a long editorial, stating the aims of the magazine.

This statement was not free of the ponderous political rhetoric of the period. But it did, I believe, introduce for the first time the combination of social concern and literary standards that guided a new creative and critical movement. And it would be interesting to quote from it at length, if only to see how well some of its formulations have stood up:

As our readers know, the tradition of aestheticism has given way to a literature which, for its origin and final justification, looks beyond itself and deep into the historic process. But the forms of literary editorship, at once exacting and adventurous, which characterized the magazines of the aesthetic revolt, were of definite cultural value; and these forms Partisan Review will wish to adapt to the literature of the new period. . . .

But Partisan Review aspires to represent a new and dissident generation in American letters; it will not be dislodged from its independent position by any political campaign against it. And without ignoring the importance of the official movement, as a sign of the times we shall know how to estimate its authority in literature. But we shall also distinguish, wherever possible, between the tendencies of this faction itself and the work of writers associated with it. For our editorial accent falls chiefly on culture and its broader social determinants. Conformity to a given social ideology or to a prescribed attitude or technique, will not be asked of our writers. On the contrary, our pages will be open to any tendency which is relevant to literature in our time. Marxism in culture, we think, is first of all an instrument of analysis and evaluation; and if, in the last instance, it prevails over other disciplines, it does so through the medium of democratic controversy. Such is the medium that Partisan Review will want to provide in its pages.



Both the range and the direction of the magazine were indicated by some of the subjects and contributors in the early issues: André Gide on the Soviet Union, Edmund Wilson on Henry James, Meyer Schapiro on Lewis Mumford, James Burnham on American capitalism, William Phillips on Marxist aesthetics, F. W. Dupee on Malraux, Philip Rahv on contemporary fiction, Max Brod on Kafka, Harry Levin on Heine, William Troy on Thomas Mann, Leon Trotsky on art and politics, Clement Greenberg on avantgarde and kitsch, Harold Rosenberg on myth and history, Eliseo Vivas on John Dewey, R. P. Blackmur on current poetry, W. H. Auden on Yeats, Louis MacNeice’s diary; fiction by John Dos Passos, James T. Farrell, Franz Kafka, Ignazio Silone, Eleanor Clark, W. C. Williams, Charles Jackson; poetry by Elizabeth Bishop, Louise Bogan, E. E. Cummings, D. S. Savage, Julian Symons, Theodore Roethke, John Berryman, Randall Jarrell, Dylan Thomas, R. B. Fuller, George Barker, David Gascoyne, Wallace Stevens, Allen Tate, Robert Fitzgerald; also theater criticism by Mary McCarthy; “Letters from Prison” by Rosa Luxemburg; and a symposium on the “Situation in American Writing,” with John Dos Passos, Allen Tate, James T. Farrell, Kenneth Fearing, Katherine Anne Porter, Wallace Stevens, Gertrude Stein, W. C. Williams, John Peale Bishop, Harold Rosenberg, Henry Miller, Sherwood Anderson, Louise Bogan, Lionel Trilling, Robert Penn Warren, Robert Fitzgerald, R. P. Blackmur, and Horace Gregory.

Clearly, this list is more than a roster of well-known figures and younger writers who have since become well-known. It indicates a bringing together of diverse talents, but more than that a bringing together of writers committed to modernism and literary innovation with radical social and political thinkers, most of whom were either non-Communist or anti-Communist. This was the first time in this country that such an idea of intellectual community had been forged, and perhaps the last time, for since then there has been a wholesale dispersal of writing and thinking. There have been many reasons for this intellectual decentralization, but the principal ones seem to me to come from the brain drain by the mass media, from the drifting of writers across the country, mostly to universities, which have tended to set up at least the appearance of intellectual foci, from the large and varied geography of the country, and from the confusion of chic with advanced art and thought. And it is hard to say whether it is a cause or consequence, but the breakup of this community has been accompanied by a breakdown of old beliefs and assumptions in both politics and the arts and an enormous diversification of ideas, styles, and goals. Those who are pleased with this state of affairs refer to it benignly as pluralism, those who take a negative view think of it as a collapse of values and standards. In any case, both responses might be exaggerated, for as we know, the past always looks more cohesive in retrospect.

But for those who are especially troubled by the lack of a center today, it might throw some light on the differences between the 30’s and the present situation, to consider why it was possible in PR’s infancy to bring together in one magazine so many of the gifted and adventurous minds of the time. For one thing, it cannot be emphasized too strongly that the commercial publications, particularly those in the middle range of culture, had not yet thought of coopting serious writers by offering fees—and the illusion of an audience—of a size only a purist or a madman could refuse. In addition, the time was ripe for intellectual fusion. Modernist and experimental writers were looking for a social base; and writers who had acquired a historical consciousness were both sufficiently disillusioned with the Communists and sufficiently loyal to their radical experience to feel a kinship with each other. It was a time when literature and politics were able to coexist, without either one trying to absorb or destroy the other.

Because it has been too complex for easy definition, there is a good deal of disagreement about what has happened since. On the whole, though, it might be said that the following period has seen an erosion of the idea of a central tradition and a shift in the modernist sensibility—though I do not think, as some traditionalists claim, that modernism is dead. But it would be too schematic to see these changes simply as signs of cultural decline, for while there has been some adaptation to the cultural situation, there also has been a good deal of serious writing maintaining the old adversary role through styles of intransigence and experiment. However, this phase of our literary history—and the place of Partisan Review—is another story.


1 “What Happened in the 30’s,” COMMENTARY, September 1962.

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