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Review of Richard Laskin’s Partisans: Marriage, Politics and Betrayal Among the New York Intellectuals

The New York Observer

Partisans book coverEven a quick study of the cerebral crew known as the New York intellectuals reveals that the female of the species never received the attention she deserves. For the most part, Mary McCarthy, Hannah Arendt, Jean Stafford, Diana Trilling and Elizabeth Hardwick wrote as much as-??and, in the case of Arendt, more and better than-their male counterparts, and yet the women were usually banished to the back room of the Partisan Review clubhouse. Histories of the group have done little to rectify this oversight; while women’s names are sprinkled liberally on the dust jackets and in the indexes, even the finest accounts-such as Alan Wald’s The New York Intellectuals (1987) and Alexander Bloom’s appropriately titled Prodigal Sons (1986)-are mostly devoted to the “boys”: Daniel Bell, Alfred Kazin, Philip Rahv, William Phillips, Delmore Schwartz, Edmund Wilson, Lionel Trilling, Irving Howe and Dwight Macdonald.

The bias is particularly odd because-as David Laskin points out in Partisans: Marriage, Politics and Betrayal Among the New York Intellectuals-the women’s achievements may be the notable feature in this period of American intellectual history. “As a generation, these women had unprecedented opportunities-to write, to publish and edit, to stand up as public figures, to marry multiple times and have love affairs as they desired,” he writes. Indeed, among the many reasons the New York intellectuals capture our imagination is that their literary accomplishments didn’t preclude equally robust social lives. The “P.R. girls,” as their nemesis Diana Trilling called them, “were lucky enough to encounter a generation of men who were interested in their minds as well as their bodies and as eager for their work as their love,” Mr. Laskin writes.

Work versus love, writing versus “wifely duties”-herein lies the tension, both for the women and for Mr. Laskin. Any successful intellectual biography strikes a delicate balance between the work and the life. Focus too tightly on the former and you have a dissertation; stick too closely to the latter and you get a cocktail of salacious anecdotes. In order to reconcile these approaches, Mr. Laskin pairs off his subjects much as he did in A Common Life (1994), his book about literary friendship and influence. “As wives and husbands they were most fully and unconsciously themselves,” he writes in Partisans. “Marriage was their mode, their stage, their fallback position, their default option.”

The concept of marriage has an almost talismanic hold over Mr. Laskin, who argues that the group’s serial devotion to matrimony reveals something essential about them as intellectuals. Marriage is crucial to his enterprise not because the New Yorkers married frequently, but because they married badly-a “theme” that gives him an excuse to fill his book with truckloads of gossip.

Think of Partisans as a pointy-head bio-pic, a docudrama about intellectuals that does its best to avoid their ideas. The skittish, clichéd segues with which Mr. Laskin lurches from textuality to sexuality are the stuff of parody. “But it wasn’t all high-minded analysis and embattled idealism down at the seedy little P.R. office near Union Square,” he reassures the reader after a meager one-paragraph history of Partisan Review. “There was also plenty of gossip, intrigue, and back stabbing, as well as off-hours boozing and competitive sex.” Page after page, Mr. Laskin dissects these flamboyantly disastrous marriages-in particular McCarthy’s to Wilson, and Lowell’s to Stafford and, later, to Hardwick-with the fastidiousness of a Talmudic scholar poring over Scripture. “The evidence is highly suggestive that Wilson did in fact beat [McCarthy] up in June 1938 and that the beating was traumatic enough, whether physically or mentally, to bring on a psychological collapse,” he concludes soberly.

Simon & Schuster files this book under “women’s studies”; given the author’s fascination with marital violence, why not “Comp-Hit”? Not content to describe every lurid episode in detail, he constructs a carefully calibrated hierarchy of wretched behavior. “Certainly there is a stronger case against Lowell for spousal abuse than against Edmund Wilson,” he reasons after a particularly spicy passage. It seems that McCarthy got off relatively easy compared to Stafford, who was permanently disfigured in a car crash she believed was Lowell’s attempt at murder-suicide. Remarkably, she agreed to marry him after their high-speed “courtship.” (“He said he was in love with me and wd. I marry him and to avoid argument I said sure, honey, drink your beer and get me another one,” she writes to a friend.) One reads in horror as Ms. Stafford announces their marriage; in the same letter she describes Lowell-accurately, it turns out-as “an uncouth, neurotic, psychopathic murderer-poet.” Ah, love.

It’s not entirely fair to say that Partisans is pure gossip. Because Hannah Arendt’s marriage to Heinrich Blcher was relatively peaceful, Mr. Laskin is forced to discuss her work, which he does quite well. The connections he draws between the New Yorkers and the Southern Agrarian writers are also intriguing, although one suspects he includes literary critic Allen Tate and his wife, novelist Caroline Gordon, out of prurient interest in their long, tortured marriage. When Tate accepted a job at Princeton in 1939, he summarily quit both his and his wife’s positions. “It was years before it occurred to me,” said Ms. Gordon, “that Allen had resigned my full professorship-always a hard thing for a woman to come by-without consulting me.” Mr. Laskin affords her only slightly more respect; though he notes that she published nine novels and two story collections, which makes her one of the most prolific writers in the book, he tells us virtually nothing about them.

The stated goal of Partisans is to praise these honorable women (“our teachers and mentors,” he gushes, “they were the writers whose words taught us what we were thinking”), and so there’s something odd about the author’s fixation on the most demeaning details of their tempestuous couplings. Odd, that is, until one understands the book’s implicit argument: Rather than celebrate the emerging feminist movement of the late 50’s and early 60’s, these women chose to define themselves through their patriarchal, exploitative marriages. If Mr. Laskin is disappointed that they were professionally, but not emotionally, “liberated,” he is positively outraged that they refused to rise up and embrace their victimhood.

When Ms. Hardwick dares to offer a modest humanistic credo (“I’m a feminist, of course, but it’s not my interest to look at things from the woman’s point of view. You write as who you are”), Mr. Laskin fairly seethes with contempt. “Hardwick had been one of the boys since the old P.R. days back in the 1940’s, and she never really renounced her membership in the club. She’d always gotten too much out of it,” he writes. Incredibly, he concludes that it was their antifeminism-not their intellectual accomplishments-which ultimately bound the diverse group together. “They refused to see that they were exceptions. And because they were successful, at least by their own lights, they refused to see the point of feminism. Gender had been no impediment in their own careers, every one of them insisted at various times in her life. So why make such a fuss about it?”

In the midst of his ax-grinding and gossipmongering, Mr. Laskin manages, inadvertently, to pose a genuinely interesting question: Why did the New York intellectuals-male and female alike-lose their relevance and authority in the 60’s? The answer surely has something to do with their parochial brand of Cold War liberalism, as well as their inability to appreciate various aspects of the counterculture, of which feminism is one. But to hang so much on their failure to understand the importance of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963) is absurd. Mr. Laskin’s suggestion that a writer squanders her chance in the great literary sweepstakes if she rejects feminism betrays a naiéve, overly politicized notion of how literary canons are formed: “Had Stafford not ridiculed “women’s lib’ in the 1960’s and 70’s,” he writes, her novel, The Mountain Lion, “might have found a place on feminist reading lists instead of assuming the shabby-genteel status of a neglected classic.”

Though Mr. Laskin makes good on his promise to shine a spotlight on these extraordinary women, his pathographic group portrait is so unflattering that one would prefer the discreet shadows of their erstwhile obscurity. “Neglected classics” never looked so good.

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