You must change your life.
— Rilke, “Archaic Torso of Apollo”
Philip Rahv (1908-73) was a powerful presence in New York intellectual life. A poorly educated immigrant from eastern Europe who arrived as a teenager with no knowledge of English, he became an influential literary critic and co-editor of the prestigious Partisan Review . Yet for all his public writing, he hid his private life. William Styron called him “so secretive as to be almost unknowable.” His co-editor, William Phillips, agreed that “he was very close-mouthed about his own life, though loose-tongued about other people’s.” His lover Elizabeth Hardwick confirmed that he stubbornly “guarded his own secrets as if they were chunks of gold at Fort Knox.” Mary McCarthy, who lived with Rahv in 1937, recalled his conspiratorial spirit as he moved through the minefields of literary quarrels and left-wing politics: “Concealment was second nature to him (though he had nothing to hide): he liked confidences, closed rooms, low voices; his eyelids were normally drooped and his gaze darted out between them, following events narrowly, like a watcher behind shutters.” Rahv sometimes gave friends deliberately misleading accounts of his past life.Rahv had no children, did not write a memoir and left no papers in university archives, and no one wrote his biography or edited his letters. He plays cameo roles in all the books about the New York Intellectuals, but most works about him are impersonal, and concentrate on his politics, writing and editing. Little is known about his childhood in Russia, his youth in America and his four marriages, and the details of his contentious but obscure career have to be pieced together from many fragmentary sources. This essay cuts through his protective carapace, brings him out of the shadows and illuminates his private life as well as his work.
Rahv’s life was a series of transformations. He changed from Fevel Greenberg to Philip Rahv, from Orthodox Jew to atheist, from Kosher food to elaborate French meals, from Communist to anti-Communist, from desperate poverty to great wealth. He even changed his mind about the once-adored Henry James. Constantly on the move in his youth, he shifted from Ukraine to Austria and Palestine, and traveled back and forth across America. He changed countries, cities, languages, jobs, wives, lovers, friends, social status, politics and journals.
Rahv was born Fevel Greenberg in Kupyn, Ukraine, then part of the Russian Empire. The village was forty miles southeast of Kharkov and about three hundred miles east of Berdichev, Ukraine, where Joseph Conrad was born in 1857. Fevel, whose name means “wolf” in Yiddish, was the second of three sons; Selig was four years older, David four years younger. According to Andrew Dvosin’s unpublished New York University dissertation on Rahv (1977), his father, Abraham, ran a struggling dry-goods store in a Jewish ghetto surrounded by hostile peasants. The family was educated and spoke Russian as well as Yiddish. Fevel’s grandmother, who lived with them, was a fanatical Orthodox Jew; his mother, Sarah, was an ardent secularized Zionist. Rahv later claimed, using Freudian terms, that his mother’s Zionism was “a sublimation of her repressed sexuality—that’s what comes of marrying a man one does not love.”
The family had survived the Cossack pogroms of 1905. In 1913 Abraham emigrated to Providence, Rhode Island, where he worked as a house-to-house peddler and tried to earn enough money to bring his wife and children to America. In 1917, when Rahv’s grandmother announced, “the czar has fallen,” it seemed to Fevel like the end of the world—and it was. During the civil war that followed the Russian Revolution, Kupyn was captured and recaptured by the Reds and Whites, and the Greenbergs were forced to hide from the rampaging armies. (It’s a pity that Rahv never wrote about Isaak Babel, who reported this war from the front lines.) An unusually literate Russian soldier bivouacked in the village gave young Fevel books by Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. When the family shop was eventually expropriated, Sarah and her sons fled to Vienna. For the next two years, Fevel studied in a gymnasium and learned German. In 1922 the family joined Abraham in Providence.
Rahv told McCarthy about the humiliating outfit the immigrant was forced to wear when he was fourteen and the oldest in the class: “already quite a big boy, he went to grade school still dressed in the old-fashioned European schoolboy style, in long black trousers and black stockings, looking like a somber little man among American kids.” The painter Mark Rothko, who was born in Russia five years before Rahv and came to America when he was ten years old, recalled his similar humiliation:“You don’t know what it is to be a Jewish kid dressed in a suit that is a Russian not an American suit … and not be able to speak English.”
In the 1920s the Zionist family moved from Providence to Jaffa, Palestine, on the Mediterranean coast just south of Tel Aviv, where Abraham had a small furniture factory and employed Arab workers. When that business failed, Fevel defied his mother, refused to remain in Palestine and returned alone to Providence to live with his elder brother, a journalist. But he clashed with Selig, who had an absolutely different outlook on life. Fevel may have blamed his brother for forcing him to wear immigrant’s clothing and for not helping him to graduate from an American high school. He remained estranged from Selig for the rest of his life.
In early 1928, when Fevel was twenty years old, a friend got him a job teaching Hebrew—which he’d perfected in Palestine–at a synagogue in Savannah, Georgia. Professor Doris Kadish discovered from Rahv’s letters that when living in Savannah he had had a love affair with her mother, Ethel Richman. Kadish also found new information about Rahv’s youthful life in America, which both complements and corrects the biographical facts in Dvorsin’s dissertation.
In October 1928 Fevel moved from Savannah to Portland, Oregon, where he continued to teach Hebrew and worked as a radio advertising copy-writer, inventing clever jingles to sell products. He chose Portland because he could earn more money there and live less expensively than in New York. Still an observant Orthodox Jew, he found it difficult to get Kosher food and would not type on the sabbath. Most significantly, during his three years in Portland, he took courses at Reed College, but found several of his professors intellectually inadequate. His English teacher, he wrote in an odd comparison, “is an exasperating, blundering sea ass of the first order.”
He continued to correspond with Richman and to declare his love for her. In soppy letters of October 15, 1928 and May 19, 1929, he exclaimed: “Ah, Ethel, how lonely I am for you. More and more I realize my misery. Must we be separated?… I recall all the tender blissful moments we had together… . I really and truly love you, Ethel, and that you it is that I want more than anything else in the whole wide world.” Even more awkward than “that you it is that” and the cliché “whole wide world,” is an embarrassing poem, “An Evening’s Love,” in which he portrays himself as a lovesick swain. Wrenching the word order to find the rhymes and worthy of a Hallmark greeting card, it is wildly different from his mature hard-boiled persona:
After the pangs of a desperate lover,
When day and night I have sighed all in vain;
Ah, what pleasure it is to discover
In her eyes pity, who causes my pain.
Kadish notes that Richman ignored his pain, “expected marriage and would not have moved to Portland without a clear commitment,” which he was unwilling to give. He did not, of course, tell Richman that in Portland he was having an affair with a young gentile woman. She also wanted to marry him and move to New York, and more than compensated for Richman’s absence.
In 1929 the enterprising Fevel wrote Richman that he and a partner “bought a six cylinder Nash for $1,100 and went to San Francisco to procure shirts to sell in Portland.” Though he planned to enter law school in San Francisco, a letter from that city on December 11, 1931, announced his commitment to a literary career: “I have worked steadily in Portland for a period of three years, easily living on half of my earnings, and am now taking a long vacation, devoting all my time to writing.”
Hemingway once claimed that he had to catch and eat pigeons when starving in Paris; Rahv created a similar myth of his early struggles with poverty. In this version, he lost his job during the Depression, had no savings and spent six penniless months in Chicago as he made his way across the country. He educated himself by reading in public libraries, stood in bread lines and slept on park benches before arriving in New York in 1932. He then changed his name to Rahv—which means “rabbi” in Hebrew—joined the Communist Party and began to publish in their main cultural journal, the New Masses .
The critic Irving Howe—Rahv’s sometime friend, academic colleague and political adversary—observed that “in the thirties, it was precisely the idea of discarding the past, breaking away from families, traditions and memories which excited intellectuals.” Rahv had escaped from the Ukrainian shtetl and decided to leave Palestine after a second visit. He now renounced Judaism and became an atheist. McCarthy offered contradictory accounts of his attitude toward religion. In her satiric novel The Oasis (1949), she states that Will Taub, a character based on Rahv, found it painful to be Jewish, “the source of much unhappiness,” but in her Intellectual Memoirs (1992) she claims that “Philip loved being Jewish.” In The Oasis McCarthy changes Rahv’s birthplace from Ukraine to Romania and summarizes the essence of his life in New York: “a half-forgotten childhood in the Carpathian mountains, immigration, city streets, the Movement, Bohemian women, the anti-Movement, downtown bars, argument, discussion, subways, newsstands, the office.”
Throughout his life Rahv had to constantly transform himself and recreate his identity. After surviving the marauding armies during the Russian civil war, the young man moved restlessly from Kupyn to Vienna, Providence, Jaffa, Savannah, Portland, Chicago and New York. Often separated from his family, he was forced to change countries and learn new languages. He remained secretive about his humble origins, his father’s humiliating failures and the traumas of his frequent changes. His Russian background and Jewish religion, his accent and poverty, his lack of formal education and socialist beliefs made him feel like a permanent exile in America. His radical background and remote intellectual existence alienated him not only from his family, but also from the mass of ordinary people he was trying to convert to Communist ideology. But Rahv turned his hardships into strengths. As Nietzsche proclaimed in Twilight of the Idols : “what does not kill you makes you stronger.”
Rahv had a forceful personality, believed in himself, and set out to forge a new life and identity. In addition to English, he knew Yiddish, Hebrew, Russian, German and French. He never lost his heavy Russian accent, could not pronounce the letter “h” and said ’istory , and left out the definite articles “a” and “the,” which do not exist in Russian. He also acquired a New York accent, said Oiving Howe, and punctuated his speech with dis and dat . His fast, deep, guttural and growling voice was hard to understand, and many people could only recognize a few stray words. He typically dismissed crappy writing with “Who needs it?” Eugene Goodheart recalled “his brusque ‘bullshit!’ as the final term of an argument.”Men and women had quite different opinions about the appearance of this Russian bear, with his swarthy complexion and heavy-set frame, his heavy-lidded and somnolent-looking eyes. The Partisan Review critic Lionel Abel called him “tall, powerfully built and handsome … rather as a prizefighter might be, with a square jaw and a nose flattened.” Hostile to Rahv who’d attacked her husband, Lionel, Diana Trilling wrote, “He was big and with his wide face and broad shoulders he gave the impression of bulk. Notwithstanding his expensive clothes, there was something primitive, even animal-like in his appearance.” When Dorothea Straus, wife of the publisher Roger Straus, first met Rahv, he struck her as crude and almost simian: “He looked like a truck driver set down at a gathering of college professors.” He had a “gross body and massive head with thick features, shovel-shaped nose, large ears with fleshy lobes a shade paler than his face.”
Rahv’s blunt and belligerent character matched his rough appearance. William Phillips, who quarreled bitterly with Rahv and left a scathing portrait, called him “competitive and bad-tempered … aggressive, flamboyantly assertive and domineering.” McCarthy, trying to capture his adversarial stance, qualified and even contradicted her own recollections: “He talked pungently, gently, harshly, drivingly… . A powerful intellect, a massive, overpowering personality and yet shy, curious, susceptible, confiding.” Few friends would call him confiding and shy. “He despised most contemporary writing and contemporary political groups,” she wrote, “being grumblingly out of sorts with fashion, except where he felt it belonged—on the backs of good-looking women and girls”—like the stylish McCarthy.
Attractive and charismatic, Rahv intensified his forceful speech with combative gestures and bullied his adversaries to win arguments. Howe remarked that Rahv opened a conversation by “poking his finger into my chest, establishing a tradition in which mockery served as a token of friendliness.” The poet Delmore Schwartz found Rahv authoritarian and intimidating, and was overcome by the power of his personality. Always ready with a witty remark, Schwartz said, “Philip does have scruples, but he never lets them stand in his way.” Rahv could be treacherous and needed enemies more than friends. He would suddenly attack, verbally or in print, and make cruel fun of comrades. He also liked to recruit other men to carry out his hatchet jobs, “smashing and finishing” the enemy, while he remained safe from hostile fire. But he avoided confrontations with the even more aggressive Clement Greenberg and the huge Harold Rosenberg, who sometimes settled their arguments with fistfights.
The Partisan Review philosopher William Barrett provided a shrewd analysis of Rahv’s contradictory character: “The paradox in Rahv was that he had . . . a kind of Swiftian pessimism about human beings, together with a utopian faith in socialism,” which could theoretically uplift and redeem these people. Attracted to Dostoyevsky’s nihilist characters—Raskolnikov, Stavrogin and Ivan Karamazov—Rahv had his own nihilistic streak. Barrett added, “He had an abysmally low view of people and their motives, and usually found their alleged ideals bogus or unconvincing. He was, however, a Nihilist who could enjoy himself, for he was not insensitive to pleasures. He relished his own creature comforts immensely; and when he was in a good mood, he would exude joviality.” Though Rahv was more saturnine than sociable, Saul Bellow detected an amiable element in his relations with younger writers: “Rahv had a solid Roman-Russian personality, dignified, weighty, and even (there were signs of it) affectionate.” Most of the New York Intellectuals respected Rahv, but found it hard to like him.
Rahv resented and envied the handsome and sophisticated Lionel Trilling. Born in New York, Trilling earned a doctorate from Columbia and became a distinguished professor, respected critic and successful writer of fiction. Happily married and with a son, he was admired by everyone–except Rahv–who remarked that Diana, his wife and camp-fol-lower, “had the courage of Lionel’s convictions.” She told an anecdote that revealed Rahv had never completely lost his old-worth shtetl attitudes and accepted modern American views. When she was pregnant Diana mentioned an incident that took place in her obstetrician’s office. “Rahv interrupted me to ask me what an obstetrician was. ‘You mean you go to a stranger to have a baby?,’ ” amazed that she would let a man instead of a midwife examine her.
Rahv attracted many women, but could not keep them. He was jealous of Delmore Schwartz’s success with the ladies and complained that “poets get all the girls,” though he did quite well for a prose writer. Dorothea Straus (who agreed with Diana Trilling about Rahv’s unattractive appearance) observed, “Always aware of his ugliness, never realizing its fascination, he was nonetheless a lusty woman-taster. Yet he refused to trade on his position. ‘Bah,’ he would exclaim contemptuously, ‘most girls prefer ink to blood!’ ”—writers to aristocrats and warriors. In fact, Rahv exuded what Howe called “sexual magnetism—primitive, even animal-like.” Schwartz’s ex-wife called him “crude, sexually aggressive and unconcerned about rebuffs.” Hardwick, who overcame her fear and entered his harem, confessed that she was at first “terrified of the great pasha. Usually described as gruff or grumpy—he was also curious, sly and prying.”
Mary McCarthy and Rahv met in New York in the spring of 1937 when she was twenty-five and he was an editor of the Partisan Review , and she soon became a contributor to that journal. McCarthy, who had a Jewish grandmother and an Uncle Moses Gottstein, was not a Jew but was (like Tom Stoppard and Madeleine Albright) Jew-ish. In the summer they moved into her friend’s elegant flat in Beekman Place, near the United Nations. Schwartz, a witty observer, caustically called Rahv “manic- impressive” and “Philip Slav.” He saw that Rahv was intellectually superior and socially inferior to McCarthy “in precisely the way that suited her profoundest need.” Fascinated by his Ukrainian background, she unconvincingly compared him to exotic Mediterranean figures. She aroused the interest of Nathalie Swan, her Vassar classmate and Rahv’s future wife, by confiding, “My dear, I’ve got the most Levantine lover!” In her Intellectual Memoirs she idealized Rahv by comparing the middle-aged Russian to a Renaissance baby: “He had a shy, soft voice (when he was not shouting), big, dark, lustrous eyes, which he rolled with great expression, and the look of a bambino in an Italian sacred painting.”
Yet in that hothouse year she soon became disillusioned. She said he was always absorbed in reading, he said she never stopped talking. Schwartz noted that she found him too uncouth, “too Slavic, too Marxist, too Jewish, too un-American to suit her.” When they visited Dwight Macdonald’s country house in Connecticut, they argued about Henry James and swam naked—except that Rahv couldn’t swim, sank and had to be pulled out of the pond by Phillips. McCarthy recalled that during the Depression Rahv’s ideology extinguished his humanity: “if we were approached by a beggar, Philip explained to me why charity was an error: the working-class needed to sharpen the contradictions of capitalism” and it was best to let the poor man starve.
Though Rahv was deeply immersed in politics, he had no experience in the practical details of government. A plausible and illuminating episode in The Oasis reveals Rahv’s odd mixture of self-confidence and naiveté. McCarthy stated that his surrogate Will Taub “had offered himself to the State Department as an expert on communist strategy, only to endure the scrutiny of a pair of plainclothes detectives, to have his wires tapped and his tax returns opened to question, and to be told in the end that his arsenal of ideas was rusty, since he had lost contact with the Party.” Phillips wrote that Rahv, remembering Russian oppression, “had an immigrant’s fear of authority; he literally trembled at the thought of the law, the police, going after him.” He must have been terrified when his naïve offer was refused and he was pursued by the police, the FBI and the IRS. He learned his lesson and remained cautious in the 1950s when the ex-Communist was especially vulnerable during the witch-hunts of Senator Joe McCarthy.
Rahv used Mary McCarthy as bait to attract the brilliant Edmund Wilson to the Partisan Review , and Wilson swallowed the bait but not the journal. Rahv’s enemies claimed that he’d praised Wilson so effusively that McCarthy was persuaded to exchange lovers. She met Wilson in October 1937, while she was living with Rahv, and had a secret affair with him that fall and winter. It was exciting to have two men in love with her at the same time, even though she had to deceive one of them. After staying overnight with Wilson, McCarthy assured Rahv that nothing had happened and he guilelessly believed her. In December, when McCarthy finally wearied of her duplicity and told Rahv about her affair with Wilson, he gave her a wounded look and solicitously asked, “what do you want to do?” By allowing her to choose between them, he intensified her guilt. She later tried to compensate for her betrayal by idealizing Rahv and claiming that she had never loved Wilson.
Rahv was then married to the most shadowy person in his life, a woman named Naomi, whom he had not lived with for a long time and could not afford to divorce. Wilson offered McCarthy a tempting package: marriage and the promise of children as well as his impressive ancestry, comfortable wealth and literary prestige. Rahv loved McCarthy but didn’t try to keep her, and may even have thought she’d be better off with Wilson. Howe explained that Rahv “was not really much of a fighter, for he shared the uneasiness of the immigrant (you have to watch your step in the land of the goyim).” McCarthy later recalled that Wilson encouraged her to become a writer, but “if it had been left to Rahv, I never would have written a single ‘creative’ word… . His love, unlike Wilson’s, was from the heart. He cared for what I was, not for what I might evolve into.” The young, beautiful McCarthy, who married Wilson in February 1938, fulfilled her promise. She became an elegant stylist, subversive satirist and sceptical observer of social nuance; a novelist, travel writer, literary and theater critic passionately interested in politics and ideas. Despite her satiric portrait of Rahv in The Oasis , she and Rahv remained on good terms and each went on to have four marriages. The loss of McCarthy left a deep and permanent wound, and in some ways Rahv spent the rest of his life searching for her ideal replacement.
McCarthy’s The Oasis , originally published in Cyril Connolly’s Horizon , satirizes the conflicts of Rahv, Macdonald and the Partisan crowd who try to live up to their utopian ideas in a remote community in New England. In that book she did not show much loyalty to or affection for Rahv. She wrote that Taub, whose name means “deaf” in German and who doesn’t listen to other people’s ideas, scorns the idealistic utopians. He gives the peculiar short harsh grating laugh, “vainglorious and taunting … that was indicative of his polemical humor.” Taub tries to assume an authoritative pose, but is mocked by his colleagues and seems ludicrously out of place in the rural setting: “A transparent air of proprietorship emanated from his whole person; to his fellow colonists he suggested a summer hotel manager, with his large, city feet clad in new white shoes which creaked even on the grass and betrayed his every movement.” The historian Gregory Sumner noted that in the novel, “Taub viewed the Utopians as hopelessly naïve, a group of ‘irresponsible moralists.’ … A manipulator with a vindictive streak, he privately relished the thought of the experiment’s collapse.”
In real life, Rahv cynically proclaimed that it was stupid to believe in that “crap called friendship.” When reminded that he had attacked many people, notably the writers Leslie Fiedler and Norman Mailer, he curtly replied, “Fuck them!” But it was different when he was the victim. Intensely secretive about his own life, he was vulnerable and ashamed of his past, and felt betrayed by his old friend and lover. McCarthy may have punished Rahv, whom she professed to love, for not fighting to keep her from an unhappy marriage to Wilson. Rahv threatened to sue McCarthy for libel, but soon realized that if he went to court he would have to admit he was the fatuous and unattractive Taub. “That book! That book! ” he would lament to colleagues.
As he got older, Rahv married increasingly younger wives. All were beautiful divorced gentiles. The second and third were extremely rich but, unlike the brainy McCarthy and Hardwick, had no literary interests. Nathalie Swan (l910-83) had been McCarthy’s classmate at Vassar; and McCarthy had consulted Swan’s sophisticated mother, listed in the Social Register and founder of the charitable Junior League, about whether to marry Wilson. She was greatly impressed by Mrs. Swan’s grand house in Connecticut, with its butler and maids, fine food and wines. Nathalie had studied at the Bauhaus in Berlin and earned a degree from Columbia’s graduate school of architecture. When she met Rahv, the elegant, finely chiseled beauty resembled McCarthy. In The Group (1963) McCarthy attributes Swan’s “hauteur of fine anger” and “fathomless scorn” to her character Lakey—a sly allusion to Swan Lake .
Swan, who had inherited a great fortune, was Rahv’s in-house Guggenheim. She paid for his divorce, they married in 1940 and he dedicated his first book “To Nathalie.” Early in 1941 he followed her to Chicago, where she worked as an architect. When they returned to New York they moved around from Greenwich Village to Riverside Drive, to 59 Street and Lexington Avenue on the East Side and to a large studio off Central Park West. They also had a magnificent country house in Millbrook, New York, near Poughkeepsie and Vassar, with modern furniture and abstract expressionist paintings, a state-of-the-art kitchen and added bathrooms—essential to Rahv who’d grown up with an outdoor privy and loved American plumbing.
Since Hardwick had once been Rahv’s lover and was still in love with him, she and her husband Robert Lowell had a special intimacy with him. Lowell enthusiastically wrote to Elizabeth Bishop, “You should see the Rahvs’ house… . It has a hundred acres or so of land. Meadows that have to be mown, with woodchucks that Philip traps … a stream that could be dammed for swimming pool, a kitchen that was once exhibited in House Beautiful .” Quite carried away, he compared it to a vast Russian estate with Rahv as the master: “One has the feeling of Tolstoy, versts, owned serf villages, and the grand old PR whiskey drinking gossips … [with] a sick and murderous cat.”Swan, who had to play hostess as Rahv showed off his recently acquired properties, confessed that she needed a few stiff drinks in order to get through the fierce, exhausting evenings. But the whiskeys soon became pernicious. Straus saw Swan, “stout, florid and thoroughly drunk … but with a dignity that was impressive.” McCarthy, who cast a cold eye on the Rahvs, wrote to Hannah Arendt—the Grossmutter of the New York Intellectuals—about their dreadful but puzzling degeneration a few months before their divorce:
The Rahvs seemed to me in a very poor state. They seemed so old
and in Philip’s case sour… There’s something awfully wrong,
with Nathalie, at least. I don’t think it’s alcohol … But she was in a
state of stupor, her skin looked grey and coarse… Either she’s
ill or unbalanced or both, or else she’s unhappy beyond belief.
And Philip took no notice whatever. My conclusion was that he is
terrified , like a child coming on death or a dreadful accident…
Nathalie is too far gone to communicate with, and she has
tremendous pride, which appears to be all that keeps her in motion.
In October 1958 Lowell optimistically reported that Swan, who had gained a lot of weight, has now “lost seventeen pounds and intends to lose seventeen more and is drinking rather less and is looking quite pretty.” The following March Lowell said that after their divorce in 1955 and Rahv’s third marriage, Rahv and Swan continued meet every week, though the idea that they might go back to each other and repeat their wretched existence filled Lowell with dread. Swan gave Rahv the beloved Millbrook house and they remained friends till his death.
Elizabeth Hardwick, who became Rahv’s lover during his marriage to Swan, was another romantic surrogate for McCarthy. (Hardwick also had affairs with Allen Tate and Arthur Koestler before her tragic marriage to Lowell in 1949.) Hardwick met Rahv in 1945, and in her Foreword to McCarthy’s Intellectual Memoirs she compared the Rahvs’ social life on East Tenth Street to a cerebral boxing match: “an evening at the Rahvs was to enter a ring of bullies, each one bullying the other.” In his poem “Man and Wife,” Lowell addressed Hardwick and recalled the memorable evening when he first met her. Fueled by alcohol, he “outdrank the Rahvs in the heat / of Greenwich Village, fainting at your feet.”
Hardwick, who dedicated A View of My Own (1962) to Rahv, stated that “he had one of the best minds of his time.” She conceded that he was arrogant, and did not explain why his life was “not particularly happy.” In fact, he felt the lack of a university education, endured those miserable marriages, lost two journals and suffered a permanent sense of displacement. Both McCarthy and Hardwick remained fond of their old lover, wrote his eulogies—McCarthy in the New York Times Book Review , Hardwick in the New York Review of Books —and had a lifelong rivalry for his affection and admiration. David Laskin noted, “It was important to McCarthy to establish herself as closer to Rahv than anyone else, especially Hardwick.” According to McCarthy, Hardwick was so much in love with Rahv that she asked Swan to “give him up… . Don’t let her tell you otherwise.” But Rahv chose Swan over Hardwick as McCarthy chose Wilson over Swan. Rahv said he didn’t like sex with Hardwick and she confirmed that their sexual relations were unhappy. Rahv took a bleak nihilistic attitude toward sex and equated it with emotional pain. He lacked trust, feared intimacy and was reluctant to expose his deepest feelings. He believed that carnal love is “as tender and demonstrative as it is torturous and recurrently brutal… . Sexual love only brings more tensions and anxiety.”
In October 1958 Lowell told Bishop, longing for gossip in distant Brazil, that Rahv–always on the lookout for his next wife—had another outspoken but promising Jewish-American prospect: “The Rahvs are now finally separated and Philip seems to have a girl, a young Viennese woman, pretty and teaching sociology at Brandeis, who talks, and thinks Philip isn’t aesthetic enough in his literary criticism. Philip is as devious as Stalin about it all and we haven’t met her.”
But the nameless sociologist dropped below the radar when Rahv met Theodora Jay Stillman (l915-68), part of the Vassar network and a friend of Swan’s younger sister. She was descended from John Jay, Founding Father, second governor of New York and first chief justice of the United States. Her first husband, who owned the bank that became Citigroup and a great deal more, belonged to one of the wealthiest families in America. (Two of his older daughters married Rockefellers.) Theo, as she was called, had married Chauncey Devereux Stillman in 1939 and had two daughters with him: Elizabeth, born in 1944, and Theodora, born in 1945. Straus described the teenaged “Little Theo,” who became a surgeon, as “extraordinarily tall and thin with long legs in tight jeans. Her beauty was wild and casual, with flowing hair and aquiline features.” Rahv married Stillman in 1956, a year after his divorce from Swan, and six years later they bought a fashionable townhouse at 329 Beacon Street in Boston. He dedicated his second book, The Myth and the Powerhouse , “To Theo.”
Straus, like McCarthy and Lowell, was a close observer of Rahv’s triumphant progress through the upper regions of American society. She gave a precise portrayal of Stillman, whose substantial girth was a striking contrast to her daughter’s svelte figure: “She was as tall and massive as Nathalie but she had black hair and flashing black eyes under heavy brows. Her flesh was very white and she seemed to have more of it than most people; it covered her luxuriously like velvet. She had a straight, sharp-tipped nose with long aristocratic nostrils… . Her mouth was voluptuous and she had a faint mustache.” Rahv, who liked zaftig women, ungallantly summed up his lovers by stating, “Mary got no tits. Lizzie got no tits. Theo … she got tits!”
The novelist Alan Lelchuk, Rahv’s young friend and later the associate editor of his journal Modern Occasions , described Rahv and Stillman as a cordial couple, though he sometimes could be short with her. Rahv got on well with Stillman’s two daughters, who allowed him to sell their Gilbert Stuart painting to finance his journal. Rahv liked the big houses and wealthy life style, and put up with the social elite. Lowell called Stillman “a very strange ‘girl’ by the way … Long Island society, divorced, exquisite conventional, costly apartment, very dumb, she and Philip [like Rahv with Swan] showing no trace of emotion.” But he was educating Stillman, who dutifully worked through a summer reading list that included Jane Eyre and Portrait of a Lady .
Guided by Stillman, Rahv acquired a rejuvenating chromatic wardrobe, more suitable to a country club than the bohemian depths of New York. He wore, Lelchuk wrote, “snappy ties, pastel-colored shirts, spiffy sports jackets,” a blue blazer and grey flannel trousers, green-and-yellow striped shirts and bright red socks. He also, unexpectedly, became an accomplished French chef. He had a serious recipe book, spent hours in orderly preparation of the ingredients, and had all the food ready to cook and serve with superb wines. Straus, always eager to deflate Rahv, noted that he gobbled his food with the relish of a connoisseur who appreciated his own creations.
During summers on Martha’s Vineyard the Rahvs lived in an arty community—his world, not hers—that included Styron and the ogreish Lillian Hellman, who once tried unsuccessfully to seduce Rahv. Stillman built the requisite modern bathroom for him and a new study in the attic. Straus, their guest, recalled, “Through the thin partition I could hear their bed protesting beneath the burden of Theo and Philip’s titanic lovemaking, then Philip’s snoring, Theo’s cough.” Straus’ bed presumably did not protest that night.
Tragedy struck on the night of September 25, 1968. When Rahv was away and Stillman was alone in the big Boston house, she fell asleep with a lighted cigarette and was suffocated and burned to death. If he’d been at home, he might have saved her or died with her. When he returned the next morning he got the most tremendous shock of his life: his house burned, all his manuscripts and annotated books gone, his wife horribly dead. At her funeral Rahv, normally so guarded, was overcome with emotion, could barely stand up and had to be supported by her daughters.
After Stillman’s death Rahv sold the house on the Vineyard he’d inherited from her and lived on the money she left him. He took great pleasure in a beautiful woman and her family’s paintings by Degas, Lautrec and Sargent, and enjoyed the company of the well-born and wealthy without the slightest embarras de richesses . The “redskin” moved smoothly into the “paleface” world (to use the terms he made famous) and lived like a European aristocrat, in the novels of his beloved Henry James, who had captured an American heiress. Money gave him ease, grace and status. He’d come an astonishingly long way from the Ukrainian shtetl and a few nights on park benches to the great American fortunes and vast country estates.
Rahv cuttingly remarked that Clement Greenberg (who shared his birth name) “might appear to be a serious intellectual but he was really a social climber and a snob.” Lowell, amused by the newborn Boston Brahmin who’d invaded his territory, made the same accusation against Rahv by asking, “Have you ever noticed how snobbish the old rebel bo-hemians are?” Though Rahv, an old Marxist, liked the luxurious (but not uxorious) life, he tried to keep up with his old friends, did not cultivate the upper crust and was more an intellectual than social snob.
Lelchuk wrote that Rahv’s fourth wife, Betty McIlvain (1931-2017), was “a woman unlike any he had ever known, not an upper-class lady with credentials and money, but the pretty daughter of a West Virginia farmer,” divorced and with a fourteen-year-old son. Born in Charleston, West Virginia, she graduated from Sweet Briar College and earned a doctorate in French at Indiana University. Academic but not intellectual, she was a Fulbright scholar at the Sorbonne, taught French at the University of Massachusetts and published From Sartre to the New Novel in 1974. Fiery, romantic and very good-looking, McIlvain was attracted by Rahv’s brains and charm. Straus recalled that Rahv, now sixty-two and twenty-three years older than his new wife, had said, “ ‘She iss just de right age, tirty-nine!’ But she appeared even younger. An instructor at some obscure college in Massachusetts, she looked like a high school student herself… . She was short and sturdy, built close to the ground. She had a very white smile, cropped gold-tipped hair and tawny skin and eyes.” Along with his new wife, Rahv acquired another country house—this time in Dublin, New Hampshire, not far from Boston. They spent the winters in Newton, a comfortable Boston suburb, where her son went to school.
But Rahv and McIlvain had clashing temperaments. In a destruc-tive pattern, he insulted her, she threatened him and he was afraid. When he demeaned her as “a hog-caller’s daughter,” she threw a chair at him. He took many pills for high blood pressure and other ailments, drank heavily, and was both violent and severely depressed. She complained to Straus, “I can’t get him to leave the house. He just sits all day and night—never writes a word anymore—hardly talks… . He doesn’t even go to the post office for his mail.” Their brief, miserable marriage began in 1970—only two years after the Beacon Street fire—and ended eighteen months later in a bitter divorce. Rahv moved away from middle-class Newton and found a bachelor flat in Cambridge.
Throughout his marriages Rahv edited the most prestigious journal in America. In February 1934 he and William Phillips had founded the Partisan Review (which fortuitously echoed the initials of Philip Rahv as well as Phillips and Rahv) under the sponsorship of the John Reed Club. A cultural arm of the American Communist Party, the Club was named for the flamboyant American reporter who’d backed the victorious Bolsheviks in the Russian Revolution and was buried in the Kremlin. Just as Rahv had changed his name from Greenberg, Howe from Horowitz and Daniel Bell from Bolotsky, Phillips (1907-2002) had changed his name from Litvinsky. These men wanted to escape from the Jewish stereotype and create a new identity that would ease their passage into gentile society. Phillips had attended CCNY and did graduate work at NYU, and was married from 1933 until his wife’s death in 1985.
George L. K. Morris, who’d been at Yale with Dwight Macdonald, had a private income and agreed to pay the annual budget of $1,500. Partisan Review was avant-garde in literature and art, Marxist in politics. In its spectacular debut, the first issue had Delmore Schwartz’s story “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” a poem by Wallace Stevens, an essay by Edmund Wilson and a review by Lionel Trilling. Rahv also discovered or encouraged many young writers: Bellow, Styron, John Berryman, Randall Jarrell and Bernard Malamud. Rahv always paid, when the work was set in type, at the rate of 2 ½ cents a word or about ten dollars a page—a good fee in the Depression.
McCarthy, then living with Rahv, said his rather casual “day consisted of dropping in at the magazine, arguing with whoever was there, reading the mail, directing the composition of the ‘Editorial Statement’ that would lay down the line of the new PR , and writing an occasional review for The Nation .” Schwartz, in a letter to his publisher James Laughlin, provided an amusing example of Rahv’s high-handed methods and, like Lowell, compared Rahv to Stalin: “last year Rahv destroyed the Xmas card you sent me at PR so he may have done so again (he acts thus on principle with regard to mail addressed to his fellow-editors from those he regards as important people: it makes him feel that he is still a revolutionist, outwitting the Federal Government and emulating Stalin’s way of dealing with the Politburo.)”
Rahv had a certain timidity behind all his bluster and, as Lionel Abel remarked, “the one person least likely to take any kind of risk, physical or social—was Philip Rahv.” Yet in 1937, when the Communist parties in Europe seemed the only hope of defeating the Fascists, he had the courage to oppose the prevailing tide and break with the Party over Stalin’s murderous Purge Trials. In The Myth and the Powerhouse he stated that “Soviet Communism had nothing in common with the classic socialist ideals but, like fascism, was a form of revolutionary reaction … arbitrary in its violence and boundless in its hankering for power and mastery.” That year he was officially expelled from the Party, which condemned him “as a counter-revolutionary Trotzkyite (now collaborating with a group of Trotzkyites to revive the Partisan Review as a Trotzkyite periodical),” and published an “exposure” of Rahv in the Daily Worker. He also opposed the pacifist Macdonald and supported the Allies early 1941 by declaring “this is our war!”; attacked Senator Joe McCarthy; and remained faithful to his social and economic Marxist principles.
Phillips did all the basic work and kept the Partisan Review going. He angrily reported that after Rahv moved to Boston to teach at Brandeis, “he would come in every few months for a day, interrogate me and the women in the office, spend most of the time gossiping, then disappear… . The relation of Rahv and myself was the only marriage held together by a magazine.” The co-editors finally fell out in the radical 1960s when Rahv opposed the new counterculture and Phillips supported it in an attempt to make the aging journal au Courant . Eugene Goodheart explained, “in the sixties, Phillips and Rahv were ideologically at loggerheads. Rahv was a man of the old left, thought of himself as a true, unreconstructed, anti-Stalinist Marxist. Phillips took PR to Rutgers in 1963 and bonded with Richard Poirier, whose inclinations were New Left. (He later turned conservative.) Apart from political differences, there was rivalry about control over PR and personal dislike on both sides.”
In Boston in the late 1960s, Lelchuk heard a terrible, fierce, cursing fifteen-minute phone fight when Poirier called Rahv. Poirier had published an article comparing the Beatles to Claudio Monteverdi and Robert Schumann, and firmly placing them among “the very great.” Rahv felt Poirier was eroding and denigrating the image of Partisan Review and, punning on his French name and ungainly shape, called Poirier “pear-ass.” He was deeply hurt by losing his wife in the fire and bruised by losing control of Partisan . The journal had been the leading intellectual quarterly for three decades until it was overtaken in 1963 by the New York Review of Books , which drafted Rahv and many other long-time contributors.
Rahv lacked the elegant style and penetrating vision of Lionel Trilling, the warmth and range of Irving Howe. Compared to Edmund Wilson, his interests were narrow. He knew Hebrew, but never wrote about the Old Testament. He ignored the Classics and Shakespeare, poetry and theater, art and architecture, music and ballet. He had all the qualities needed to write a great book on Dostoyevsky: mastery of nineteenth-century Russian history and thought, expert knowledge of the language, and psychological penetration. He wrote six incisive essays of about 135 pages on Dostoyevsky, but never published his long-awaited book. His commissioned work on Trotsky for the Modern Masters series—Howe later did the job—and the memoir he planned to write never appeared. A sprinter rather than a long-distance runner, he wrote essays, not books, and was better known as a brilliant editor than as a writer. Despite his impressive learning, intellectual energy and lucid style, he never realized his full potential. In a judicious judgment, Alfred Kazin explained: “He was naturally a talker rather than a writer, a pamphleteer, a polemicist, an intellectual master of ceremonies and dominator who just escaped being entirely absorbed in parties, gossip and talk by his genuine absorption in issues and ideas… . [He was] more fascinating as a controversialist than he could ever be as a writer.”
Rahv wrote with a pencil in longhand while standing up and with notes placed on the side of his specially built wooden shelf. But his collaboration with Phillips was more contentious than calm. Phillips wrote, “There were constant interruptions, for he could not stay put at the typewriter for more than a few minutes at a time, and he would pace the room, waving his pencil like a weapon.” His first and most important book Image and Idea (the title refers to art and thought), published in 1949 when he was forty-one, opens with two chapters that provide the intellectual framework. “Paleface and Redskin,” his short and most famous essay, was influenced by D. H. Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature (1923), especially the chapters on Fenimore Cooper and Walt Whitman, and by Wyndham Lewis’ Paleface (1929), which defended the sovereignty of the mind against the onslaught of emotions, and concentrated his fierce fire on the exaltation of Negro and Indian primitivism.
Rahv argues that “viewed historically, American writers appear to group themselves around two polar types: Paleface and Redskin. . . . Consider the immense contrast between the drawing-room fictions of Henry James and the open air poems of Walt Whitman… . At one pole there is the literature of the lowlife world of the frontier and of the big cities; at the other the thin, solemn, semi-clerical culture of Boston and Concord.” Rahv’s stimulating idea of two traditions is more convincing than Hemingway’s misleading but often-quoted pronouncement in Green Hills of Africa (1935): “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn ,” which ignores the entire paleface, novel-of-manners tradition from Wharton and Fitzgerald to Cheever and Updike. Rahv’s concept influenced many books, most notably Leslie Fiedler’s Love and Death in the American Novel (1966).Rahv’s “The Cult of Experience in American Writing” states that from James to Hemingway writers have been propelled “toward an immersion in experience.” In “The Dark Lady of Salem,” an allusion to Shakespeare’s sonnets, Rahv identifies two crucial elements in Hawthorne’s fiction: “the spectral strain of the Gothic tale and the pietistic strain of Christian allegory.” Continuing his major argument and recurrent theme, he states that “Hawthorne’s isolation from experience incapacitated him as a novelist.”
Rahv’s essays and anthology The Great Short Novels of Henry James (1944) stimulated the revival of James’s reputation. “The Heiress of All the Ages” traces the development of the classic Jamesian heroine, torn between innocence and experience: the “passionate pilgrim” and the “good American bewildered in the presence of European order.” “Attitudes Towards Henry James” defends the writer against his detractors. Rahv calls that difficult and sophisticated American author “at once the most and least appreciated figure in American writing,” and rightly praises the late novels, The Wings of the Dove and The Golden Bowl , as his greatest works. (Rahv would have envied my interview with the Dowager Marchioness of Cholmondeley, who told me that as a teenager in World War I she had dined with Henry James.)
Rahv spoke with unusual authority on literature in Russian, his boyhood language. In “Tolstoy: The Green Twig and the Black Trunk” he explains the critic’s difficulty with Tolstoy’s deceptively simple fiction, which is “at once so intense and so transparent in all of its effects that the need is seldom felt to analyze [it].” But, denying the problematic element in Tolstoy’s dogmatism, he unconvincingly claims that there is no real discontinuity between the creative and nonfiction works. He concludes that Tolstoy’s doctrine of Christian anarchism is not essentially religious, but is important for “its formulation of a social ideal and of a utopian social program.”
Jewish in religion and fluent in German, Rahv had a special affinity for Kafka and wrote the first essay about him in English. Defining Kafka’s quintessential traits, he explains, “Kafka combines in his fiction the real and the unreal, extreme subjectivity of content with forms rigorously objective, a lovingly exact portrayal of the factual world with a dreamlike dissolution of it.” Rahv twice quotes Kierkegaard’s aperçu , “sometimes it is healthier to keep a wound open,” which was the theme of Edmund Wilson’s The Wound and the Bow (1941). Rahv responds to this potentially destructive idea with a humane credo: “the avant-garde actually represents … the effort to preserve the integrity of art and the intellect amidst the conditions of alienation … in the modern era.” Unlike the New Critics before him and the French Structuralists afterwards, he was always alert to the social and historical contexts of literature, which Nietzsche called the essential “sixth sense.”
In rare revealing moments Rahv lifts the veil from his personal life and writes self-reflectively in the third person. Like Chekhov in czarist Russia, “he suffered in his childhood and early youth the ravages of that backwardness, cruelty and servility which were as much a family as a national inheritance.” Like Gogol, “he appeared on the literary scene like an utterly unexpected and rude guest after whose departure life at home could never again be the same.”
In contrast to the positive appreciations in Image and Idea , the first four chapters of The Myth and the Powerhouse (1965) aggressively attack writers who deny actual experience with a pugnacity that intensified as Rahv got older. The more interesting chapters on individual authors, especially Dostoyevsky, are firmly based on Rahv’s political, intellectual and moral values. In the title chapter, “The Myth and the Powerhouse,” history is the powerhouse of change, myth represents the fear of history. “Religion and the Intellectuals” attacks his second target: the escapist religiosity of intellectual converts. “The Criticism of Fiction” condemns the obsession with symbol and allegory, the emphasis on style and technique. By contrast, Rahv focuses on what he considers the primary concerns of the novel: “the plot, the complications of the intrigue, the arrangement of scenes, the temporal sequence, the narrative perspective or point of view.” He regrets the ascendency of criticism over literature, which has become infinitely worse in our own time.
As with Image and Idea , the longer chapters in The Myth and the Powerhouse are followed in the second section by shorter reviews of contemporary books. Rahv demolishes, with considerable relish, Maxwell Geismar’s misguided James and the Jacobites , Arthur Miller’s “fallacy of profundity” in Incident at Vichy , Leslie Fiedler’s “straining for that facile and fashionable brilliance of phrase” in Waiting for the End , and the glorification of primitive instinct and violence in The American Dream of Norman Mailer, his favorite target. Irritated by their egoism, he failed to recognize Fiedler’s critical originality and Mailer’s impressive writerly achievements. But Rahv awards high praise to Saul Bellow’s Herzog , which confirms him “not only as the most intelligent novelist of his generation but also as the most consistently interesting in point of growth and development… . He is the finest stylist at present writing fiction in America.”
Rahv’s third book, Literature and the Sixth Sense (1969), gives the proletarian literature of the 1930s, which he’d praised as Communist, “the political autopsy it deserved.” But he does not give a convincing account of why so many writers ruined their work by blindly submitting to Soviet ideology. He reacts to F. R. Leavis’ overrating D. H. Lawrence by recklessly dismissing all of Lawrence’s fiction after Sons and Lovers . “The acrimony, the fits of jeering and hectoring” that Rahv condemns in Lawrence, apply with equal force to himself.
Rahv’s chapter on Freud, which mistakenly insists that “psychology is a science,” praises him “as a writer, a master of expository as well as narrative prose, who brought superb literary resources to bear upon the expression of ideas.” He also admires “the originality, rare psychological insight and comic genius” of Dostoyevsky’s two novellas, The Friend of the Family and The Eternal Husband . And he perceptively notes Bernard Malamud’s “feeling for human suffering … and for a life of value, order and dignity.”
Rahv extolled two courageous, important and influential novels: Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich . Orwell, who published a regular “London Letter” and his best essay “Such, Such Were the Joys” in Partisan Review , sent several poignant letters to Rahv as he struggled to finish this novel before tuberculosis killed him. Noting Orwell’s character and integrity, his “images of loss, disaster and unspeakable degradation,” Rahv identifies his major themes as lost illusions and the revolution betrayed. Most critics saw Orwell’s novel as a prophecy of the future, but Rahv correctly perceives that “its importance is mainly in its powerful engagement with the present.” The crusading Ivan Denisovich , based on Solzhenitsyn’s personal experience as a prisoner, was the first revelation, published with the permission of Nikita Khrushchev, of Stalin’s cruel repression in the slave-labor camps. Rahv compares the work to Dostoyevsky’s House of the Dead , analyzes its artistic perfection and defines the theme as “the nature of man under extreme conditions of inhumanity.”
Rahv’s last, retrospective book, Essays on Literature and Politics, 1932-1972 , was published posthumously in 1978. He had once attacked Maxwell Geismar for denigrating Henry James. Now, as in his chapter on Leavis and Lawrence, he attacks Leon Edel’s magisterial five-volume psychoanalytic biography for inflating James’ reputation. “That Edel makes too much of James,” he states, “that he overestimates his importance in the most extravagant manner possible, that he is much too expansive, even rapturous about him, has been evident all along.” Rahv then recants his earlier appreciations and criticizes James’ unconvincing treatments of sex, his snobbery and his Victorian strain. In his second literary chapter Rahv admires Delmore Schwartz’s literary criticism and traces the sharp descent of his career. In doing so, Rahv reveals the weaknesses he shared with Schwartz. He, too, was nervously secretive about his life, incapable of sustaining personal relationships and terribly lonely in his last years.
New chapters on Russian literature, especially the three on Dostoyevsky, form the heart of this late book. Rahv relates the theme of disintegration in The Possessed to nineteenth-century Russian revolutionaries and to Stalin in the 1930s. Dostoyevsky’s art is “radical in sensibility and subversive in performance,” and the murder in the novel, “endlessly multiplied, has become the foundation of the new Russian state.” Rahv wittily describes the influential style in Notes from Underground : the “narrator’s unrestrained, spluttering, hectoring speech, disconcerting interjections, verbal flare-ups, and gesturing that combine boastful defiance with wriggling self-abasements.” Rahv found it hard to accept Dostoyevsky’s religious views. In “The Other Dostoyevsky” he argues, against the traditional interpretations, that the novelist is “at once an extreme skeptic and an extreme believer,” that “he never really succeeded in extricating himself from the torture chamber of doubt and unbelief.”
A lifelong Trotskyite, Rahv admires the revelations and style of Isaac Deutscher’s great three-volume biography of the intellectual genius and charismatic Marxist leader, “the principal organizer of the October insurrection and victorious commander of the Red Army in the Civil War.” Rahv’s chapter on the Great Purge Trials in Moscow, in which “the state continued to massacre the first born” of the 1917 Revolution, recalls Goya’s horrific portrayal of Saturn Devouring His Son and explains the direct cause of his break with the Communists. But he does not mention, as Arthur Koestler explained in Darkness at Noon , that Nikolai Bukharin and many other Soviet leaders made forced confessions to sacrifice themselves for the principles of the Revolution and to save their families. Rahv concludes that “by compelling the makers of the Revolution to confess that they betrayed it, Stalin was attempting to justify his own betrayal.”
Rahv also recognizes the impressive achievement of Solzhenitsyn’s August 1914 , which describes the destruction of the Russian army in East Pussia that year. The novel is clearly indebted to Tolstoy’s portrayal of Napoleon’s campaign in War and Peace , but Rahv shrewdly observes that “ideologically, mainly because of his mystical, religious populism, he is closer to Dostoyevsky than Tolstoy.” Opposing the ecstatic reception of Svetlana Stalin’s Only One Year , massively improved by her editors, Rahv states that she mistakenly idealizes America and says nothing new. But she does describe the suicide of her mother, which Stalin took as a personal betrayal and made him more ruthless and murderous than ever.
The chapters in Rahv’s final book are not arranged by the birth dates of his subjects or the publication dates of his essays. So the chapter on Solzhenitsyn in the New York Review of Books of 1972, one of the last things Rahv wrote, is followed by an excerpt from the New Masses of 1932, one of his earliest pieces. This bizarre order makes it difficult to trace his intellectual development. All his essays had previously appeared in the Partisan Review and other prominent journals, and more than half the chapters—53 out of 94—in his last three books were reprinted from earlier volumes. So Rahv actually wrote two books, not four, of original essays.
Rahv had often expressed his hostility to the academic world and its narrow approach to literature, but he accepted Howe’s invitation to teach at Brandeis University, originally sponsored by the Jewish community, in Waltham, Massachusetts, near Boston. It provided a measure of prestige, and he remained there from 1957, the year after he married Stillman, until his death in 1973. Lelchuk recalled that the three powers in the English department—Rahv, Howe and the poet-critic J. V. Cunningham—fiercely defended their own territory. Though Rahv had a zest for literary combat, he knew how to play the academic game. He tried to be polite, took his job seriously, attended important meetings and voted on tenure decisions. He was a powerful, nonstop talker, tyrannical and dogmatic, yet as a teacher could be accessible and stimulating with the best students. But his pronunciation was indistinct, almost a breathless mumble, and most students couldn’t understand his English or his ideas. Straus reported that while at Brandeis and under Stillman’s regimen, “he had his teeth capped and … they shone out of his swarthy face as brightly as the porcelain fixtures in his bathrooms. He lost weight, bought some new clothes and after many years revisited Europe,” though she does not say when and where he went.
In the fall of 1970, when Rahv was teaching at Brandeis, he severed his ties with Partisan and founded his second journal, Modern Occasions . It ran for only six issues in two volumes, and coincided with the breakdown of his marriage to McIlvain. He still had considerable literary influence, asked prominent writers to contribute, and the first issue contained work by McCarthy, Lowell, Philip Roth, Noam Chomsky and the art critic Hilton Kramer. Mark Krupnick, one of his associate editors, gloomily reported, “once we had begun it was downhill all the way.” Unlike Partisan Review , the journal had no positive program, and rejected all the dominant movements and ideas of the 1960s: personal liberation, sexual freedom and cultural primitivism. Rahv was emotionally and intellectually opposed to long hair, pop music, pornography, drugs, hippies, drop-outs, student rebellions, Vietnam protests, Black Power and Eastern mysticism as well as the fuzzy concepts of the prevailing gurus: Timothy Leary, R. D. Laing, Norman O. Brown and Herbert Marcuse. Krupnick, angry at the failure, called Rahv “a wrathful, disappointed old man entirely given over to destructiveness.” Rahv even attacked his old colleagues, Trilling and Greenberg. At first, Rahv put his own funds into the journal, but didn’t want to lose more money and would not apply for grants. Exhausted and disappointed by the reception of the journal, whose circulation reached about 2,500, he lost the will to continue.
Like a tragic hero, Rahv had a humble beginning, reached intellectual heights and suffered a sharp decline. The spectacle of his degeneration was terrible. A stimulating but contentious colleague, he got angry if anyone failed to meet his needs and after many bitter fights alienated most of his old friends. Phillips recalled that in 1969, a year after the Boston fire, Rahv was in horrible shape: “His body was shot from emphysema, high blood pressure, gall bladder trouble, aggravated by chain smoking, sleeping pills and whiskey. It was very depressing, despite our quarrels, to see him falling apart.” When Lelchuk saw him in Cambridge shortly before his death, Rahv was wrecked by his bitter divorce and unable to write. He had lost confidence, was depressed and helpless, collapsing physically and psychologically.
On December 22, 1973, Rahv died from a fatal overdose of alcohol and pills. Anne Sexton, who been his pupil at Brandeis summer school and later saw him socially, thought he committed suicide. Secretive to the last, he concealed his motives and, though suicide seemed probable, no one knew for sure if his death was accidental or deliberate. McCarthy, living in Paris at the time, refused to accept Hardwick’s account of his last years and belief that he killed himself, and told Arendt: “I doubt Lizzie’s picture of utter ‘ isolation ,’ heavy drinking, sleeping drugs, total disintegration… . It’s strange, but his death has hit me harder than anybody’s… . I realize that I must have loved him when we lived together and continued to do so, though unaware of it.”
At the end of his life Rahv criticized the lack of conviction in America and exclaimed, “I wish I were in Israel. At least people there believe in something.” He did not visit Israel after it became independent in 1948, but Brandeis had close ties to that country. In a tribute to his early years in Palestine and to his Zionist mother, who hoped he would stay with her, he left the million dollars he’d inherited from Stillman to the state of Israel. (Arendt, who died two years after Rahv, left her considerable estate to her Israeli relatives.) But he did not sign the marriage-separation agreement before his death and—in a final bitter twist—McIlvain contested his will and got most of the money.
Rahv’s writing met Wyndham Lewis’ demand in One-Way Song for a plain and forceful style: “These times require a tongue that naked goes, / Without more fuss than Dryden’s or Defoe’s.” The ideas in his essays now seem familiar because they have been absorbed into the way we think about Hawthorne and James, Kafka and the great Russians. His impressive learning and persuasive arguments, his passionate interest in character, destiny and human experience —historical and political as well as personal—remain valuable nearly a half-century after his death.
Rahv led a paradoxical life. Though he was Jewish and loved intellectuals, McCarthy and Hardwick, he married three gentile wives and two women with no literary interests. He was a socialist who luxuriated in great wealth, a Marxist who admired conservative, even reactionary writers: Dostoyevsky, James, Conrad, Yeats and Eliot. He was hostile to academics, but became a professor; bequeathed his fortune to Israel, though it wound up in the hands of his hated wife. Cosmopolitan and bilingual, he brought a dynamic personality and sophisticated Russian ideas to the Partisan Review and the New York Intellectuals.
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