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This item is taken from PN Review 152, Volume 29 Number 6, July - August 2003.

In April Partisan Review, the legendary journal - no one ever mistook it for a magazine - posted out its final issue to subscribers and was declared dead. Born of the analytical and creative energies of the 1930s, in its heyday it had been a monthly; then it became a bi-monthly, and finally a chunky quarterly. Originally it was dedicated to politics, with a contentious urgency that made it necessary reading for anyone with misgivings about the direction of American establishment thought. Soon it was insisting that creative and critical work are complementary, and its durable legacy was, and is, literary.

William Phillips, one of those who established the magazine in 1934, died last September in his nineties. The final Partisan Review was a tribute to him, an after-tremor, as it were. Partisan helped define and redefine cultural engagement in the widest sense. It had a distinguished innings, its age at death being sixty-six years. What is amazing is the continuity of publisher in that time, and the determination and purpose of its best editors.

The journal's obituary in the New York Times failed to mention that it was originally a partisan of the Communist Party of the United States, an orientation it preserved for three years. It declared independence in 1937, with a spectacular issue that included Delmore Schwartz's most famous story, `In Dreams Begin Responsibilities', poetry by Wallace Stevens and contributions by Lionel Trilling, Sidney Hook and Edmund Wilson. Schwartz and Stevens would not have found houseroom in the original journal and Trilling, too, would have looked out of place. The stances Partisan took, in relation to the establishment and to radical parties, were at times reminiscent of those taken by Left Review and Our Time, though its impact was deeper and more durable than theirs.

As time passed the political fire in its belly subsided. It became a journal of cultural definition and discovery. Philip Rahv, its first editor, steered the journal for 35 years, into the middle of the Cold War. A Ukrainian by birth, he arrived in the United States when he was fourteen; by his mid-twenties he was a literary and political force to be reckoned with. His essay, `Paleface and Redskin', about the tensions within the American imagination between consciousness and experience, remains a crucial document. Rahv was a catalyst in more ways than one: he brought people together. The lines of Lowell's `Man and Wife' remind us of how fateful the Rahvs' soirées could be:

... you were in your twenties, and I,
once hand on glass
and heart in mouth,
outdrank the Rahvs in the heat
of Greenwich Village, fainting at your feet
too boiled and shy
and poker-faced to make a pass,
while the shrill verve
of your invective scorched the traditional South

Delmore Schwartz also worked for Partisan, and many major American writers of the century received exposure there. At odds with the establishment, it became established, a legitimator and validator of the new, of the changes that in turn become established changes.

In its heyday it reached 15,000 subscribers; the April 2003 issue went out to just over 3,000. It was no longer the citadel that the aspiring writer felt the need to conquer, to gain a double endorsement, artistic and political. Nowadays The New York Review of Books and The New Republic, heirs of the metropolitan critical spirit of Partisan but better funded, have taken up the baton. Nowadays it always appears to be `a matter of funding'.

After William Phillips's death Partisan was owned by Boston University, and it was the University Chancellor who quietly turned off the life support system, without eliciting much protest. Edith Kurzweil, widow of Phillips, was Partisan's final editor. The Chancellor declared that, after Phillips died, he had taken counsel from a `broad spectrum of intellectuals': `the unanimous opinion' was that it had become obsolete.

`It was magnificent when it was the left's response to Stalinism,' he declared. `Following Stalin's death it continued to still have relevance because we were in the Cold War period. But after Perestroika, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the breaking down of the Berlin Wall, the magazine lost its purpose.' Did it lose its purpose or its direction? When it had direction, it saw its task as critical and informative. Partisan Review brought news: of the New Criticism, of existentialism, Abstract Expressionism, and here major early work by Robert Lowell, Norman Mailer, Elizabeth Hardwick and Susan Sontag was first aired. Morris Dickstein, a contributing editor to the journal for many years, insisted on the odd synergies that led to its establishment and success: `it was a very small enterprise to begin with, the work of a very small circle, mainly Jews in the New York area, who were not academically credentialed. And they turned out to be among the most brilliant intellectuals America has ever produced.'

The need for journals of the seriousness and conviction of Partisan Review has not diminished in America, or in Britain. The combination of critical and creative, the privileging of radical analysis, the rejection of the impoverishing irony that would have dismissed Abstract Expressionism and that now affects the reception and transmission of Modernism in this country: these never can be obsolete. If the intelligentsia of New York is still predominantly Jewish, it might be thought that the Partisan spirit is more necessary than ever in bringing its analysis and dispassionate appraisal to bear on wars and road maps every bit as crucial to the future as the wars and ideologies of yesteryear.

At the outbreak of the Spanish-American war, Stephen Crane wrote a strange poem that reminds us of the ways in which nations evolve through conflict, and how they are narrowed and betrayed. For Crane, New York rather than Washington epitomised what was happening just over a century ago, what we see repeating itself on a grander scale, but (one hopes) without the same complicity:

There exists the eternal fact of conflict
And next a mere sense of locality.
Afterward we derive sustenance from the winds.
Afterward we grip upon this sense of locality.
Afterward, we become patriots.
The godly vice of patriotism makes us slaves,
And let us surrender to this falsity
Let us be patriots

Then welcome us the practical men
Thrumming on a thousand drums
The practical men, God help us.
    They cry aloud to be led to war
    They have been poltroons on a thousand fields
    And the sacked sad city of New York is their record
Furious to face the Spaniard, these people, and crawling worms before their task
They name serfs and send charity in bulk to better men
They play at being free, these people of New York
Who are too well-dressed to protest against infamy.

This item is taken from PN Review 152, Volume 29 Number 6, July - August 2003.

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