With the death of Paul Rosenfeld in 1946, we lost one of the influential personalities of the cultural renaissance that followed the First World War. Born in New York City in 1890, Paul Rosenfeld attended Yale and Columbia Universities, and then went on to distinguish himself as a music critic on Dial—one of the chief intellectual centers of the period. As critic, novelist, and man of culture, he made a deep impression upon his contemporaries of the 20’s—an impression that is now beginning to renew itself after the years of neglect that preceded his death. Testimony to the strength and quality of this impression is here given by Edmund Wilson, our foremost literary critic.
The death of Paul Rosenfeld has left me not only shocked at the unexpected loss of a friend, but with a feeling of dismay and disgust at the waste of talent in the United States. Paul, when I first knew him—in 1922, I think—was one of the most exciting critics of the “American Renaissance.” I had read, while in the army in France, an essay on Sibelius in the New Republic, which had upon me the exhilarating effect that wartime reading sometimes does, and later, when I was back in New York, a longer study of Richard Strauss, the great musical hero of the time, which brought into the writing itself something of the Straussian brilliance but probed with a very sure hand what was specious and vulgar in this composer. It was the first really searching criticism that I had ever seen of Strauss, and both these essays amazed me. They had a kind of fullness of tone, a richness of vocabulary and imagery, and a freedom of the cultural world that were quite different from the schoolmasterish criticism that had become the norm in the United States.
Musical Portraits, in 1920, the first book that collected these pieces, seemed at the time absolutely dazzling. Paul told me, when I knew him later, that the point at which he had felt his maturity had been the moment when he realized with pride that he could turn out as good an article as Huneker; but actually he was better than Huneker, who, useful though he was in his role, always remained a rather harried journalist, trying to produce a maximum of copy in order to get money to go abroad. Paul was a serious writer who was working from New York as a base. One had always had the impression that Huneker came in through the back door at Scribner’s in a day when the arts were compelled to give precedence to money and respectability, and that there had been something in Bernard Shaw’s prophecy that, if he stayed in the United States, he would never be anything but a “clever slummocker”; and one now heard depressing reports that he was old, poor, and ill in Brooklyn.
But Paul Rosenfeld seemed the spirit of a new and more fortunate age, whose cosmopolitanism was not self-conscious and which did not have to be on the defensive about its interest in the variety of life. The portraits of Paul’s first book dramatized modem music as no one had done before; they brought into range a whole fascinating world, coherent though international, of personality, poetics, texture, mood. Paul Rosenfeld at that time enjoyed a prestige of the same kind as Mencken’s and Brooks’, though it was not so widely felt as the former’s.
Paul had inherited a comfortable income, and he built himself at Westport, Connecticut, a small and attractive house, where he lived alone with his work and entertained his friends. The first time I ever saw him was in Paris some time in the summer of 1921, and I was dining alone one night in a favorite Italian restaurant—very clean and rather austere: I remember it as always quiet and filled with a clear twilight—to which I had been taken first by somebody during the war and to which I liked to return, ordering almost always the same meal as the first time: ravioli and Asti Spumante. A party of three sat down at the table just across from mine, and though I had never seen any of them before, I recognized them soon as Paul Rosenfeld, Sherwood Anderson, and Anderson’s wife, the sculptress Tennessee Mitchell.
I had heard in New York that Paul was taking the Andersons to Europe, where Anderson had never been, and I observed the party with interest and heard snatches of their conversation. Tennessee Mitchell had the aspect and the manner of a raw-boned prairie woman, and I was touched by Paul’s obvious effort to approximate, for her benefit, a modestly folksy manner. I was reminded of the incident later when I read in Sherwood Anderson’s memoirs that he had sat in the Tuileries one day—he is here apostrophizing himself—with “the tears running from your eyes, because you thought everything around you so beautiful.” It was all very typical of the period, and so are my first memories of Paul after I got to know him in New York.
I spent a weekend with him once at West-port—some time in 1922—and read him an essay I had just written about T. S. Eliot’s Waste Land on the occasion of its getting the Dial prize. In the city I had been leading at that time rather a frenetic life, and I remember what a relief it was to talk about art with Paul in an atmosphere completely free from the messy dissipation and emotion that were characteristic of the 20’s, and to get a good night’s sleep in a house where everything was quiet and simple. I had a delightful dream, which still comes back to me quite distinctly, of little figures that were really alive though much less than life-size, dancing with slow grace to an exquisite Mozartian music which filled me with peace and joy. It was an antidote to the stridencies of the jazz age, which Paul’s spirit had somehow managed to exorcise. He loathed jazz in all its raw forms and could only accept it transmuted by the style of a Stravinsky or a Copland.
With his fair reddish hair and mustache, his pink cheeks and his limpid brown eyes, his good clothes which always followed the Brooks-cut college model, his presence, short though he was, had a certain authority and distinction. It was something that made Anderson call him the well-dressed man of American prose. He had a knack of turning pretty little speeches, and he was also genuinely considerate in a way that was rare in that era; but he could be forthright when the occasion demanded, and, though naturally candid and warm, he would retire—what always amused me—at a suspicion of imposture or imposition, into a sceptical and ironic reserve. He was, I think, the only man I have known of whom it could truly be said that he possessed a Heinesque wit, and I always thought it a pity that his humor, which contributed so much to the pleasure of being with him, should have figured so little in his writing. (Since writing this, however, I have looked into his admirable little book, An Hour with American Music, and I see that it is full of wit.)
When I got to know him better we sometimes compared notes about our childhood and education. He had gone to school on the Hudson and had afterwards been graduated from Yale, and the latter institution, though he seemed to feel a certain respect for it, rather oppressed him at the time he had been there; but he had been fortunate in being able to escape to spend his summer vacations in Europe. When he had once found out, he told me, that there existed somewhere else an artistic and social and intellectual world larger and more exciting than anything he had known in America, and that he could always go back to it later, he found that he could endure New Haven, to which he was so ill adapted, without fears of suffocation. He had grown up in uptown New York in a German Jewish household and he had never belonged to any church or been trained in any religion; but he had had at home a grounding in classical German culture, musical and literary. When he went to Europe in the summer, he loved to visit a German uncle, who was something of a bon viveur.
Paul’s parents had both died when he was young, and his only close relative was a sister. He never married and, so far as I could see, had no real desire to marry, enjoying the bachelor’s life which his moderate means made possible. His strongest tie was undoubtedly with Stieglitz, toward whom he stood in something like a filial relation; and the group around Stieglitz became for him both family and church. The only traditionally and specifically Jewish trait that ever came, in my intercourse with Paul, as something alien that blocked understanding between us was the quality of his piety toward Stieglitz, whom he accepted and revered as a prophet, following his direction in the same unquestioning spirit that is sometimes exemplified by the followers of Marx, Freud, and Trotsky; and his range as a writer on the plastic arts was limited by the exclusiveness of his interest in the work of the Stieglitz group. It was difficult, if not impossible, to persuade him to pay attention to any contemporary American painter who was not a protégé of Stieglitz’s, and if Stieglitz had excommunicated a refractory or competitive disciple, Paul, following the official directive, would condemn him not merely as an artist but as a reprobate who had somehow committed unpardonable moral treason. He had the tone of the old-fashioned brother whose sister has fallen to shame or the member of a Marxist sect reacting to the name of a heretic.
For the rest, his affectionate and generous nature had to spend itself mainly in the sympathy that he brought to the troubles of his friends, and in the tireless encouragement of talent. He was tactful and unobtrusive in helping people who needed help, his judgment was usually shrewd and sound, and he did not want thanks in return. His taking the Andersons to Europe is an example that happens to be known of the kind of thing he liked to do, and one has heard of his finding, at a critical time, resources for a now famous composer; but he undoubtedly did more for more people than anyone will ever know.
It remains in my mind that he was present at the deathbed of Randolph Bourne, desperately feeding him oxygen in the effort to keep him alive. Bourne had been one of the most remarkable of the group that had founded the Seven Arts. As a hunchback, he was unfit for the services and thus set free to repudiate the war as an able-bodied writer could hardly have done so roundly; and the intellectual light and the moral passion, the mastery of self-expression, that led people to forget his deformity as soon as he began to talk, made Bourne’s friends of that era feel that he was keeping alive spiritual values that might otherwise have gone by the board. “When he died,” Paul wrote, “we knew the entire younger generation in America had gone . . . . We see the size of him plainly in the bitter moments in which we realize how vacant the scene has become in the many fields to which he brought the light of his own clear nature!”
Paul later sold his house at Westport F and took a little corner apartment in an old and elevator-less house on the west side of Irving Place. There, however, he continued to flourish. He liked to give evening parties which were all the more agreeable for being of rather an old-fashioned kind. What was unusual in the dry 20’s was that there was very little liquor served: a highball or two, or a little punch; and poets read their poetry and composers played their music. One met Ornstein, Milhaud, Varèse; Cummings, Hart Crane, and Marianne Moore; the Stieglitzes and all their group; the Stettheimers, Mumford, Kreymborg. One of the images that remains with me most vividly is the bespectacled figure of Copland, at that period lean and long-nosed, gray-faced, and rather unearthly, bending over the piano as he chanted in a high, cold, and passionate voice a poem of Ezra Pound’s for which he had written a setting.
In those days I saw a good deal of Paul in a business as well as a friendly way, for I was working first on Vanity Fair, then on the New Republic, and Paul wrote a good deal for both. He grew rather stout at this time, and his style betrayed a tendency toward floridness. He felt afterwards, he told me, that his writing—like so many other things during the boom—had, to its detriment, become somewhat over-inflated. My impression is that when people say that they do not like Paul Rosenfeld’s style, they are thinking of characteristics that only became rampant in some of the work of this period, and that they have no real idea of his criticism either before or after. As an editor, I had sometimes to struggle with him over the locutions and vocabulary of his essays, and I am fully aware of his faults. He had spent so much time in Europe and he read so much French and German that he could never quite keep his English distinct from his other languages, and habitually wrote “ignore” as if it meant the same thing as ignorer and “genial” as if it meant possessing genius. He had also a way of placing adverbs that used to set my teeth on edge, as did some of these adverbs themselves, such as ‘doubtlessly” and “oftentimes.” There were moments when he did overwrite, working himself up into a state of exaltation with romantic Germanic abstractions that sounded a little ridiculous in English. But, going back to his essays today, one is not much bothered by this or even necessarily conscious of it. One finds a body of musical criticism that covers the modem field more completely than one had remembered and that stands up both as writing and as interpretation so solidly as to make quite unimportant these minor idiosyncrasies and slips.
There is of course an objection to Paul’s writing that is based on disapproval on principle of the romantic and impressionistic school he enthusiastically represented. In the serious literary journals, a new tone had just been set by T. S. Eliot’s The Sacred Wood, which was spare and terse in style, analytical and logical in treatment. Paul, for lack of any intellectual instrument adapted to dealing with literary ideas (though he was expert at dealing with musical ones), was somewhat less satisfactory—except when writing of certain kinds of poetry that had something in common with music—on the subject of literature than he was on music and painting; but it was very unjust that this fashion should have prejudiced against him the editors of the kind of magazine on which he most depended for a market. The same tendency appeared in the musical world; and the critics—though less, I think, the composers—complained of his lack of scholarship in the technical side of music. To this a writer who is not a musician can only reply that it seems to him that the moment the critic departs from the technical analysis of a score, he is writing impressionistic criticism; and that Berlioz in his essays on Beethoven’s symphonies, or Debussy, when putting on record such an opinion as that Edvard Grieg was a marshmallow stuffed with snow, was just as much an impressionistic critic as Paul Rosenfeld ever was. Berlioz and Debussy, of course, were a great deal more literary and programmatic than the generation of Schoenberg and Stravinsky have liked to be thought to be; but I believe that Paul was right in insisting that every valid work of art owes its power to giving expression to some specific human experience and connecting it with some human ideal. For musicians it must of course be profitable to read the kind of score-by-score study that has been made by Albert Berger, for example, of the development of Aaron Copland, but, as a layman who merely listens to music, I do not see that it is easy to dismiss the interpretations given by Paul of the emotional and social content of the more “abstract” modern composers: Schoenberg and Stravinsky, Hindemith, Bartok, and Berg.
All these years we talked much of such matters. The kind of writing I did myself aimed at something rather different from his, and he horrified me once by saying that his idea of good prose was something that was laid on like a thick coat of paint; but we had in common a fundamental attitude and invoked a common cultural tradition which it is easiest to call humanistic. Among the few things that I really look back upon with anything like nostalgia in the confusion and waste of the 20’s are such conversations as those with Paul when we would sit in his corner room, beneath his little collection of Hartleys and O’Keeffes and Marins, surrounded by his shelves full of Nietzsche and Wagner, Strindberg, Shaw, and Ibsen, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, Flaubert, Claudel, and Proust, Henry James and Poe, and the English poets that he had read at Yale; or walk back and forth at night between my place and his.
He liked New York, was a thorough New Yorker, and—except for a few weeks in the summer when he would visit the Stieglitzes at Lake George and, Georgia O’Keeffe once told me, take the same walk every afternoon—he rarely, save for out-of-town concerts and a few out-of-town lectures, had the curiosity to leave it. He did visit the Andersons in Virginia, and once got as far as New Mexico—when Georgia O’Keeffe was there—and even saw an Indian corn dance; but it was difficult to make him take interest in any but the most self-consciously aesthetic aspects of American cultural life.
I tried again and again to get him to read such writers as Ring Lardner and Mark Twain, but I never had the least success. When I finally resorted to the device of giving him Huckleberry Finn as a Christmas present, he obstinately refused to open it, having heard that Henry James had once said that Mark Twain wrote for immature minds. I told him one day, later on when the first liveliness of the 20’s was spent, that he would not have lived very differently if he had been the leading music critic of Frankfort, Dresden, or Munich; but he protested at once against this. He could never be so free, he said, in Germany—or anywhere else except New York.
The depression was disastrous for Paul. This income dwindled almost to nothing; and he was forced to give up Irving Place, moving downtown to a small apartment on 11th Street just off Fifth Avenue, then finally to a less accessible one in the far reaches of West 11th Street. The Dial suspended publication in 1929; the New Republic was in the hands of an editor of whom it might almost be said, as the Nazis said of themselves, that when he heard the word culture he reached for his gun. Paul, for the first time in his life, was obliged to resort to real hackwork: little odd jobs and reviews, for which he was not well paid. He developed diabetes and grew thin; and something, I believe, went wrong with his personal affairs—though of this I never heard him speak.
The staffs and the principal contributors of the Dial and the New Republic, both non-commercial affairs financed by rich patrons, had been groups of serious writers who had had lunches and dinners together where plans and current events were discussed, and who had been part of Paul’s social life as well as a stimulus to his work. But now, when endowments were drying up, there was a movement toward the political Left, and such groupings and common undertakings as the New York “intellectuals,” as they were now always called, continued to go in for in the 30’s were mostly oriented in the direction of Communism. Paul intensely disliked all this, and, though one of the great merits of his criticism had been its insight into musical personalities as the reflections of their national and social backgrounds, he would indignantly deny at this time that art had anything to do with history. When I argued such questions with him, I found that “the artist” meant for him a being unique and godlike, and that Paul would not admit for a minute that a philosopher or a scientist or a statesman could achieve an equal creative importance.
On one occasion he was somehow persuaded to attend an election rally held by the Communists in Cooper Union, at which there were to be speeches by writers who had announced that they would vote for the Communists and who paid their homage to Communism as a literary restorative and bracer in the vein of the new convert to evangelism or the patent-medicine testimonial. But, seated in a conspicuous place in one of the front rows, he attracted unfavorable attention by pointedly refusing to rise when the “International” was sung.
I was deep in Left activities myself, but I always continued to see him and occasionally went to concerts with him. If you dined with him in his apartment, he cooked and served the dinner; and the difficulty was, if you ate out with him in one of the Greenwich Village restaurants, ever to pay back his hospitality, as he invariably snatched the check and insisted on settling it himself.
Even now that he had no regular platform, he continued to go to concerts and make notes on his impressions of the music he had heard and to put them away in his files under the names of the various composers; and he continued to look for new talent and to acquire new protégés—though he sometimes had fits of gloom in which he would declare that American music was an abomination of desolation.
He was sharply unsympathetic with the tendency of American composers to abandon the abstruse researches into which they had been led by Schoenberg, the high seasoning and classicizing and virtuosity of abbreviation characteristic of Stravinsky and others, and to try to produce a music that could be heard and enjoyed by bigger audiences than those of the Composers’ League. He was shocked, almost personally hurt, when Americans whose work he had thought promising did anything for the radio or Hollywood or published popular books. He expressed his views on this general subject in his essay on Kurt Weill and Gebrauchsmusik, in which he asserted that all music was useful, since “all works of musical art express essences and ideas and thus, with their symbols of the inner truth of life, provide the best of bases of social relationships.” But there was of course no reason why composers who “deeply felt the spirit of symbols of social rituals” should not provide these rituals with music—so long as the music provided “conveyed an individual interpretation of the meanings of the ritual” and not merely “general and conventional symbols and a sort of collective expression.” “Let us,” he concluded, “by all means have Gebrauchsmusik. But let it be the work of artists, not of ‘revolutionary’ academicians.” It will be seen that these considered and formulated views were less severe than his instinctive attitude toward the practice of American composers; and I guessed that this attitude was part of his feeling of being rather out of things and reluctant to see other artists care anything for popular success.
But it worried me to feel, as time went on, that he was beginning to lose his self-confidence. He had put a good deal of work into the writing of what I took from his descriptions to be a kind of symphonic novel based on a visit he had made to Rome, but he had decided that his whole conception was vitiated by some moral falsity and he withheld it from publication, which seemed to me a morbid symptom. A healthy writer either knows what he is doing or doesn’t discover his error till long after he has published his book.
The persecution of the Jews by Hitler came later to weigh upon him and to become overpoweringly identified with the difficulties he was facing at fifty. The times had not brought to fulfillment that creative and enlightened era of which we had seemed to be witnessing the dawn when the Seven Arts was founded: totalitarian states and class pressures were closing down on the artistic elite. The independent American journalism that had flared up for a while in the 20’s had given way to the streamlined commercial kind, and the non-commercial magazines were composed for the most part, by this time, of second-rate academic papers and the commentaries of talmudic Marxists. Even the New Yorker, more liberal and literate than most of the new magazines, and in its own way quite independent, was unable to find a place for Paul: it, too, had a conventional style, which sometimes ran to insipidity through the anxiety of the editors to eliminate anything in the least unusual. It was primarily a humorous weekly and had a department that exploited the absurdities that appeared in other papers, so that the New Yorker had itself to be always on its guard against writing that might be thought ridiculous. It was one of the most cruel blows of Paul Rosenfeld’s later years that the New Yorker would not print his articles after asking him, as he assumed, to act as their regular art critic. Paul’s prose, as I knew, had its blemishes, but at its best it would have been hopelessly refractory to the New Yorker processing mill.
There was at that time not a single periodical that would print the work of a writer simply because he knew his subject and wrote about it well. Paul sometimes showed signs of a fear that he had been made the victim of a boycott; and at others was too ready to blame himself.
He said to me once that his inheritance from his grandmother had unfitted him to struggle with the world; that he had thrown up his first and only job—as a reporter on a New York paper—simply because he did not need it to live. Certainly he was unfitted for putting himself over or making terms with editors and publishers; no one ever had less sense of business. He never could understand that writing was a commodity like any other, which, from the moment one lacked a patron, had to be sold in a hard-boiled way. The world came more and more to divide itself for him into two classes, black and white: the negative forces of darkness that were closing down to crush him and the few pure children of light who survived and could heal and save.
I was distressed by him in these latter days and used to wonder how the circumstances had been combined so that a shift in economic conditions had had the result of undermining so able a man by way of his very virtues even more than by that of his weaknesses. Certainly it was unwise of Paul to have depended as much as he did on the writing of musical criticism. Since he was himself not a musician but a writer, he should not have tied his talent up with the reporting of contemporary concerts. It is impossible for a master of words completely to express himself by merely rendering the effects of some other art; and I have never really understood why Paul did not tackle some bigger subject—a history of American music or a biography of some composer—which would have got him an advance from a publisher and supplied him with a sustaining interest. One might have said the same thing about Huneker; but it is no great comfort now to realize that Paul, in an age which prided itself on having emerged from the philistinism of Huneker’s era, should have burnt out in much the same way and been left in the same neglect. The burning out and the public indifference seem somehow to work together. They are an old and depressing story in the American intellectual world.
When I got back to New York from Europe in the autumn of 1945, I spent a wonderful evening with Paul, which, though I may have seen him once or twice afterwards, has left me with a last lively impression that I am extremely glad to have. He was in very much better spirits than he had been during the years of the war. He had received from a foundation a substantial grant to do a book of literary standing. And it seemed to cheer him to hear about Europe now that the war was over and the arts might be expected to revive. I told him about my enthusiasm for Benjamin Britten’s opera, Peter Grimes, which I had heard that summer in London. And both of us were glad to find someone to whom to express ourselves freely about the current state of letters and art.
He was angry over his treatment at the hands of one of the highbrow quarterlies, the editor of which had first asked him to be a member of the advisory board, and had then refused to print his articles, keeping them, however, for months without letting him know about them. I had had with this same magazine an almost equally annoying experience; and I managed to make Paul laugh by describing to him an essay in which this portentous editor, in the course of a rigorous analysis of Macbeth’s “Out, out, brief candle” speech, conducted in the rigorous spirit of the new “methodological” criticism, had said something like, “We cannot know why Shakespeare has chosen for death the curious adjective dusty, but the epithet has a quaint appropriateness that can be felt but hardly explained.” We rapidly became so hilarious, abounding so, as Henry James would say, in our own old sense, affirming our convictions so heartily and making such delightful fun of the more tiresome of our contemporaries, that we went on till what was for Paul a late hour, walking the autumn streets and making stops for coffee and beer at Child’s and the Lafayette, almost as if we had been back in the 20’s, with the new era of American art just beginning to burst into life between Macdougal Street and Irving Place. Less than a year later, Paul died of a heart attack as he was coming out of a movie, to which he had gone alone.
And now, despite the miseries of his later years, he remains for me, looking back, one of the only sound features of a landscape that is strewn with deformations and wrecks: a being organically moral, on whom one could always rely, with a passion for creative art destructible only with life itself. I do not doubt that his musical criticism will be collected in an omnibus volume—as it already should have been—and will become in its field a classic.