January 2000


By David Laskin
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From the late 1930s through the early 1960s, Partisan Review was the most influential literary and cultural journal in the United States. The editors, Philip Rahv and William Phillips, and their circle of writers and critics composed the core of the group often described as the New York intellectuals. Contributors during those years included many of the leading writers of the day from this country and Europe. Among the many writers whose work was published there: T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, Marguerite Yourcenar, George Orwell, Ralph Ellison, Saul Bellow, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Penn Warren, James Baldwin, and Walker Percy.

PR was primarily a men's club, but there were some remarkable women who, through their extraordinary writing and ambition, were able to not only get their work published but also become prominent intellectuals. David Laskin explores the lives and careers of these talented yet different women in Partisans. Laskin focuses on the interconnected lives and careers of Mary McCarthy, Elizabeth Hardwick, and Hannah Arendt, and, to a lesser extent, on Diana Trilling and Jean Stafford. He also discusses the Southern novelist and short story writer Caroline Gordon, who was not part of this circle, but who, like her husband Allen Tate, had close ties to Northern intellectuals and had a significant influence on a new generation of writers.

The men who were editors, critics, partners, advisers, and husbands of these women included Rahv, Robert Lowell, Edmund Wilson, and Randall Jarrell. Drawing on correspondence, memoirs, and personal recollections, Caskin shows how complex their lives were. He does not romanticize them. They were all, in their way, crazy at times, he notes, mad in every sense but when they were sane they were extraordinarily brilliant, often charming people, most charming of all when they were with each other. They made serious mistakes in judgment, but, Laskin says, they had a zeal and idealism and originality that have all but vanished from the American political scene or migrated to its fanatical fringes. They were often fiercely competitive but they shared a sense of public responsibility.

How were women regarded by this group? In a sense the Rahv set had no women only wives and writers, and if a writer happened to be female, she became one of the boys. Being a wife in that crowd was a fate worse than death. Both women and men writers believed in marriage, but there was a contradiction. The men and women were intellectual peers and companions, but socially, professionally, and emotionally, the men came first. The husbands wrote; the wives did everything else the housekeeping, child rearing, entertaining, nursing, gardening and then wrote. And it never struck any of them to arrange things differently. The women's movement of the '60s changed things. For these women, they had won their first battle without fighting and lost the war without realizing there was one. They managed to get published and become famous, formidable intellectuals without challenging or offending the males who published them . . . But their unintended victory proved to be perishable, personal, bound up as it was with their own gifts, sway, charm, and intimate connections, powers of persuasion. This fascinating group biography gives us a most revealing look into the literary culture of a unique period in history.

Roger Bishop is a regular contributor to BookPage.

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