(NY Times) William Phillips, Co-Founder and Soul of Partisan Review, Dies at 94
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Sat Sep 14 07:19:26 MDT 2002
William Phillips, Co-Founder and Soul of Partisan Review, Dies at 94
September 14, 2002
By JOSEPH BERGER
William Phillips, the co-founder and longtime editor of
Partisan Review, the forum for the brilliant and
contentious stable of writers who became known as the New
York Intellectuals, died yesterday in Manhattan, where he
lived. He was 94.
Partisan Review's circulation never exceeded 15,000, but
Mr. Phillips and his co-editor, Philip Rahv, kept it at the
forefront of the great ideological and cultural currents of
their time with an extraordinary knack for discovering
hungry and talented writers and critics who were to make an
indelible mark on American culture and politics.
Lionel Trilling, Mary McCarthy, Irving Howe, Dwight
Macdonald, the art historian Meyer Schapiro, and the
critics Clement Greenberg, Harold Rosenberg and F. W.
Dupee, little-known mavericks and rebels when they began to
contribute to Partisan Review, helped make it the nation's
most influential literary and political journal in the
years immediately before and after World War II.
P.R., as it was known to aficionados, published many famous
short stories, including Bernard Malamud's "Magic Barrel"
and Isaac Bashevis Singer's "Gimpel the Fool" (his first in
English, in a translation by a young writer named Saul
Bellow). The magazine also introduced American readers to
existentialism and to Susan Sontag's landmark cultural
essay, "Notes on Camp."
In its pages, Greenberg gave Abstract Expressionism its
first serious attention, Allen Tate and Robert Penn Warren
spread the ideas of the New Criticism, and European writers
and intellectuals like Hannah Arendt, Jean-Paul Sartre,
Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus and Arthur Koestler were
able to reach an American audience. Robert Lowell, Norman
Mailer, Elizabeth Hardwick, James Baldwin and Norman
Podhoretz were among the young Americans whose early work
appeared in this little magazine.
"We were outsiders beginning something new and had no idea
how long it would last or how important it would be," Mr.
Phillips said in a 1997 interview. "I finally realized what
was marginal then has become fairly central to the
Mr. Phillips was the quiet half of the Partisan Review's
ruling pair, and his partner, Rahv, a brilliant editor and
critic, took much of the credit for the magazine's luster.
But if the rigorous but overbearing Rahv, who died in 1972,
was the spirit of the magazine, Mr. Phillips proved the
more durable editor, guiding Partisan Review for more than
"He kept it together, and he kept it going," said Edith
Kurzweil, the magazine's current editor, who married Mr.
Phillips in 1995 and is his sole immediate survivor. "His
standards were extremely high, and he had taste and
intelligence. It's easy enough to ask established people to
write if you have enough money to pay them. It's much
harder judging a new talent as a good writer."
Mr. Phillips, a bohemian son of Eastern European
immigrants, was a Marxist when he and Rahv founded the
magazine in 1934 in a Greenwich Village loft. He continued
to read manuscripts into his 90's, after the magazine had
lost much of its influence and was dependent on university
He insisted on engaging Partisan Review in the great
ideological debates: the battle between Trotskyites and
Stalinists in the 1930's, the backlash against Communism in
the late 40's and 50's, and the 70's disputes between
neoconservatives and the dwindling corps of deep-dyed
liberals. The social historian Christopher Lasch said Mr.
Phillips and Rahv "earned from American intellectuals a
lasting debt of gratitude by exposing the totalitarian
character of Soviet Communism."
As an occasional writer for the magazine, Mr. Phillips was
overshadowed by his contributors. He was so able to see a
question's many sides that he found it difficult to chisel
a tidy position.
"That fearful thing - a writer's block - had descended upon
him and would not relinquish its grip," William Barrett,
the philosopher and editor at Partisan Review, wrote of Mr.
Phillips in his 1982 memoir, "The Truants."
Yet Mr. Phillips's deficiencies enabled him to step out of
the limelight and manage his crew of brilliant, cranky
polemicists who felt comfortable discoursing on Trotsky in
one issue and Tolstoy in the next.
Mr. Phillips was a kind-hearted man who revealed his
resentments with a dry, sometimes Yiddish-flavored wit. He
once said that the woman who could abide Rahv's personality
would have to become his "alter-Iago." Another time, he
called Rahv a "manic-impressive" and said there would be no
point in his undergoing psychoanalysis: "Most of us, under
analysis, break down and admit our shortcomings," he said.
"Philip would break down and confess he was a great man."
Their relationship became what Barrett once described as a
"strained and bickering marriage" held together by a
beloved child, Partisan Review.
Unlike others at the magazine, Mr. Phillips did not allow
ideology to overcome common sense. Macdonald resigned from
Partisan Review because he wanted it to be more political
and because he opposed American entry into World War II,
thinking that socialism might emerge victorious in a war
among Europe's capitalist societies; Mr. Phillips and Rahv
recognized that Hitler's defeat was paramount.
Fortified in later years by endowed positions at
institutions like Harvard and Columbia, Partisan Review's
early writers found an economic comfort they could not have
imagined in the cold-water flats of their youth. Yet, as
their memoirs disclose, those days of wrestling about art
and politics remained the most rewarding of their lives.
"I remember Camus arriving in America and calling us first
thing, thinking he was meeting people who were more
important than we were at the time," Mr. Phillips
reminisced in 1997 when an anthology he edited, "60 Years
of Great Fiction From Partisan Review" (Partisan Review
Press), was published. "I miss being in the midst of a
community of so many talented, intelligent people. You were
marginal in terms of the main culture, but you felt a
tougher intellectual life. The talk! The talk was
William Phillips was born Nov. 14, 1907 in East Harlem. His
father, who changed the family name from Litvinsky, was a
failed lawyer from Odessa whom his son once described as "a
luftmensch," literally "a person of air." His mother was a
chronically depressed hypochondriac who often consulted
quacks. She once separated from her husband and took their
son back to her native Kiev for three years before
"I learned early to cut out, to turn into myself, as though
what was going on was a psychodrama in which I was a
suffering spectator, a victim," Mr. Phillips wrote in his
memoir, "A Partisan View" (Stein & Day, 1983).
Growing up poor in the heavily Jewish East Bronx, he
attended City College, where he studied with the legendary
philosopher Morris Raphael Cohen and also encountered T. S.
Eliot's essay collection "The Sacred Wood," which, he said,
sent him "swimming in the exotic waters of modernism."
While taking graduate courses in literature at New York
University, he met Edna Greenblatt, whom he married in 1933
and whose salary as a high school teacher helped support
them in rougher years. Like more than a few Depression-era
couples, they made a deliberate decision not to have
children. She died in 1985.
The Depression, Mr. Phillips once wrote, destroyed his
"faith in the idea of a future" but stirred his interest in
politics, particularly Marxism. He joined the John Reed
Club, a Greenwich Village organization of writers and
artists that was supported by the Communist Party.
"It was a time of sense and nonsense, idealism and
cynicism," he wrote 30 years later, adding it "was possible
to believe simultaneously in democracy and dictatorship."
Although he rose to secretary of the club, he was put off
by crude party-line exhortations and agitprop aesthetics.
He dreamed of a magazine to express the subtler
distinctions of his own views, and found a congenial
dreamer in Rahv, an immigrant from Russia who was receptive
to avant-garde culture and disenchanted with writing for
the Communist journal The New Masses. When an English
lecturer packed the house at a club event, they had the
$800 windfall they needed to start Partisan Review as the
official organ of the John Reed Club.
"We were cocky kids driven by a grandiose idea of launching
a new literary movement, combining the best of the new
radicalism with the innovative energy of modernism," Mr.
Phillips once recalled.
But they were constantly pressured to subordinate literary
standards to Soviet ideology. When they broke away from the
club after nine issues, they were branded agents of
imperialism, and longtime friends stopped talking to them.
They were fortunate to recruit Dupee, the literary editor
of The New Masses; his Yale classmate, the argumentative
Macdonald; and their brilliant friend Mary McCarthy. Dupee
brought in a backer, an abstract painter with an
independent income, George L. K. Morris, who supplied the
$1,500 to get the first independent issue off the press in
The journal, the editors promised, would be devoted to "the
modern sensibility in literature and the arts and to a
radical consciousness in social and political matters." It
was a brave manifesto because they were intent on attacking
Stalin and the Soviet Union from the standpoint of a purer
Marxism and an advancing avant-garde culture when modernism
was under attack for not advancing the interests of the
The first issue was auspicious. As well as Delmore
Schwartz's famous story, "In Dreams Begin Responsibilities"
(about his parents' marriage), it included a poem by
Wallace Stevens, essays by Lionel Abel and Edmund Wilson,
and reviews by Lionel Trilling and Sidney Hook.
The writers drawn to Partisan Review formed a discernible
world that some compared to an American Bloomsbury. It was
inhabited by erudite thinkers who hung out in Stewart's
Cafeteria in Sheridan Square and enlivened parties with
luminous conversations, bitter feuds and talk of torrid
love affairs. The atmosphere was so "pervasively Jewish,"
Barrett wrote, that he tended to forget he was "not a Jew
In its heyday, mostly as a quarterly, the magazine
published landmark essays like Leslie Fiedler's "Come Back
to the Raft Ag'in, Huck Honey," which drew attention to the
issues of race and homosexual overtones in American
literature; Greenberg's "Avant-Garde and Kitsch"; and
Macdonald's "Mass Cult and Mid-Cult." In politics, it
remained consistently anti-Stalinist and in 1946 published
a blistering editorial against left-wing thinkers at The
New Republic and The Nation, calling them a "Fifth Column"
that was "licking Stalin's boots."
The McCarthy era presented a difficult test, which Lillian
Hellman said Mr. Phillips failed by not defending her and
other writers when they were attacked by the House
Un-American Activities Committee. Mr. Phillips countered
that Partisan Review did oppose McCarthyism in several
editorials, but argued that Hellman and others did not
deserve a defense because they were silent when countless
Soviet intellectuals were arrested and tortured by Stalin.
By the 1960's and 70's, Partisan Review's best writers had
moved on, and Rahv had let most of the burdens of editing
the magazine fall on Mr. Phillips. In 1965, when the board
decided to list Mr. Phillips as editor-in-chief, Rahv sued
"I do not believe there has ever been a lawsuit about a
nonprofit literary magazine, and only an intransigent
revolutionary mind, deeply immersed in the tradition of
Marxism, could have thought up such a parody of capitalist
property relations," Mr. Phillips wrote.
Rahv won the right to see manuscripts, but in 1969 he
resigned to start his own magazine. Partisan Review was
then published under the auspices of Rutgers University,
which provided Mr. Phillips with office space and a
professorship in the English department. In 1978, Rutgers
canceled the arrangement, and Mr. Phillips found a home for
the magazine at Boston University.
In later years, Mr. Phillips tried several times to
recreate the enchanted intellectual world he knew, bringing
together warring partisans like Howe, Sontag, Lionel and
Diana Trilling, and Norman Podhoretz. But at one soiree,
after Donald Barthelme attacked Lionel Trilling's novel,
and Diana Trilling retorted by savaging Barthelme's work,
Mr. Phillips understood his task.
"It was clear," he said, "that I was trying to mate lambs
Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company
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