In conjunction with the death of Partisan Review, I’m receiving a “kill fee” — but it’s not what it sounds like. Honest. I wasn’t even there when John Silber pulled the trigger. I liked William Phillips. I was out of town with, er, my cousins.
No, a “kill fee” is what publishers pay to a writer for an unused article. When Edith Kurzweil, the editor of Partisan Review, learned that Boston University Chancellor John Silber was closing the journal, she told me that I’d get a kill fee for my unused review of a book by John Lukacs.
I have divided feelings about the death of this journal, founded in 1933 by William Phillips and Philip Rahv. Partisan Review
was a force to be reckoned with from the late 1930s to the early 1960s. But I got to know it late in its twilight. About ten years ago, I began looking after Boston University’s end of its arrangement with Phillips and his wife Edith Kurzweil. They continued to live in New York and Edith did the editorial work. But the journal’s staff worked in Boston and the University underwrote about 85 percent of the costs.
This was a painful time for Partisan mostly because it had fallen so far behind the dance of cultural politics — a dance in which it had once been among the leading figures. From the late 1930s through the 1950s Partisan was the principal voice of the non-Communist Left in America. Any history of neoconservatism has to acknowledge the Partisan Review of that era. It opened intellectual windows, showing Americans who felt intellectually discontented with American culture that they had much better alternatives than the embrace of ideological radicalism. Partisan Review taught a generation or two of intellectuals how to engage in intelligent cultural criticism. It is a contribution not to be underestimated.
But by the mid-1960s, Partisan was already past its moment. Stalinism was out on the American Left, and while Philips turned his criticism on the follies of the New Left, he had trouble finding firm footing against the shape-shifting anti-Americanism of the Sixties and Seventies. I don’t mean to diminish what he and Edith accomplished. They continued to attract many good writers and Partisan Review to its very end.
But the problem is summarized by the articles in the last issue. Bernard Avishai contributes an essay reflecting on Arthur Koestler’s memoirs. Clare Cavanagh has a nice piece, “The Art of Losing,” about the difficulty of translating Polish poetry. A long piece by Michal Govrin translated from Hebrew ruminates ruefully on the war between Israel and the Palestinians. Irving Louis Horowitz sizes up Pat Buchanan’s new magazine, The American Conservative. And Walter Laqueur takes a long view of American intellectuals views of U.S. foreign policy, “1948-2003: Some Reflections.”
These articles are worth attention but they are hardly required reading. They offer intelligent thought about old issues (e.g. the Cold War), continuing troubles, and perennial concerns such as the difficulty of translation. The writing is better than, say, the usual op-ed page of the New York Times, and less clotted than The New York Review of Books, but there is nothing here that is going to set people’s imaginations on fire. And for a journal named Partisan, there is almost too much civilization.
A year or so ago, when I excoriated the new edition of Cornel West’s Race Matters in the journal “(“Anti-Matters”), Edith reported to me the little gasps of surprise she heard from long-term Partisans, one of whom nearly swooned at the idea. I suppose it was then that I realized Partisan was for all practical purposes finished. A journal of cultural criticism that continues to fight the Cold War and whose readers think it is daring to attack race charlatans like Cornel West is a journal that has no grip on contemporary realities.
Although Phillips and Rahv started Partisan Review when they were Marxists and members of the John Reed Club, they broke with the Communists in 1937 and restarted the journal. In its new form, it gave a center and definition for Left-leaning American intellectuals who had begun to see through the lure of communism.
But many of these intellectuals moved to the right and eventually found their homes in journals like Commentary, The New Criterion, and The Public Interest. Phillips and Kurzweil meanwhile sought a zigzag path through the culture wars, attacking “political correctness” in higher education, for example, while staying true to the New York City ethos of disdain for the last several Republican presidents.
Phillips died last fall and, after weighing some alternatives Boston University decided to put his journal to rest too. The novelist Cynthia Ozick, a frequent Partisan contributor, opined in the New York Times that, “Partisan didn’t expire of itself; it was executed; by fiat, by John Silber, the chancellor of Boston University.”
The truth is that Partisan Review would have vanished decades ago but for John Silber’s support. Still, I want my kill fee.
— Peter Wood is a professor of anthropology at Boston University and author of Diversity: The Invention of A Concept.