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ISAAC ROSENFELD

Jim Burns

  

"I am used to thinking of the writer, then, as a man who stands at a certain extreme, at a certain remove from society. He stands over against the commercial culture, the business enterprise, that whole fantastic make-believe world which some people would like us to believe is the real world. of course it can't be that for the writer."

The above is from a talk that Isaac Rosenfeld gave to the staff of the magazine, Chicago Review, in 1956, the year when he also died at the age of thirty-eight. It neatly sums up his basic attitude, which was one that had kept him from riding on the postwar bandwagon that allowed many writers to participate in what Rosenfeld thought of as a "fantastic make-believe world" of publicity and profit. He had been uncompromising in his refusal to join in, so much so that he was seen as a man who "followed a discipline of conduct that looked like unswerving downward mobility." Rosenfeld had been a brilliant scholar and writer who impressed almost everyone who knew him, and yet he never fulfilled the promise that others saw in him, perhaps because to do so would have been tantamount to being involved in the "fantastic make-believe world" he disliked so much. Of course, it's necessary to also consider whether or not forms of personal waywardness affected his judgments. Someone who knew him well called him "the last Bohemian," but Alfred Kazin thought that his bohemianism probably held back the development of his literary talents.

When he first started publishing Rosenfeld was often mentioned alongside Saul Bellow, but as Kazin observed: "Unlike Bellow, who could use every morsel of his experience, Isaac lived his fantasies and in company'." There is a suggestion here that the bohemianism, and the refusal to make an effort to change his views, may have been a cover for a failed writer. There is a degree of truth in that idea, insofar as Rosenfeld failed to produce the work that was expected of him. But what he did produce was of much more interest than the tidy but dull writings of authors who played the literary game and consciously sought success. Herman Melville accurately described such people: "He who has never failed somewhere, that man cannot be great. Failure is the true test of greatness.. .And if it be said, that continual success is proof that a man wisely knows his powers, - it is only to be added, that in that case, he knows them to be small. Let us believe it, then, once for all, that there is no hope for us in these smooth pleasing writers that know their powers." Whatever else can be said of Isaac Rosenfeld, he can never be dismissed as simply a "smooth pleasing writer."

He was born in 1918 in Chicago and grew up "in the contentious atmosphere of free-thinking Russian Jews who were saturated in rebellion and socialism." Rosenfeld and Saul Bellow were friends in the early 1930s and both were attracted to Trotskyism while still in high school. In 1933 they enrolled at the University of Chicago, where Rosenfeld studied philosophy. There are, in memoirs of the period, engaging portraits of Rosenfeld as a teenage intellectual, and Bellow has recalled him delivering erudite papers to college debating societies at an age when most boys would have been reading comics. Rosenfeld passed through various Trotskyist groups, and continued his interest in politics when he moved to New York in 1941, his intention being to study for his PhD in philosophy. But his literary interests, which had always paralleled his philosophical and political enthusiasms, began to take precedence, and he abandoned academic work and started to publish reviews and short stories in such magazines as the New Republic and Partisan Review.

It is true, as Alfred Kazin has said, that Rosenfeld did not milk his experiences for use in his fiction, but he did sometimes write stories which drew on his background to a degree. The Hand That Fed Me, 'for example, which appeared in Partisan Review in 1944, concerns a young Jewish writer who, whilst enrolling for the WPA Writers' project, meets a Gentile girl who later abandons him. The story is written in the form of a series of letters from the writer. Interestingly, the piece, though having a form of socio-economic framework because of its setting, is not at all political. The writer is more concerned with his personal relationship with the girl, and the story is essentially an exercise in a psychological study of its central character. Rosenfeld had read deeply in Russian literature - he and Bellow were sometimes referred to as "underground men" - and he was also an admirer of Kafka, and his writing reflected the interest he had in those areas of literature.

A further display of Rosenfeld's darkly satiric intentions can be found in another early story, The Party which revolves around a political party that falls apart when its members become bored with its failure to actually do anything. Rosenfeld's experiences amongst the Trotskyists had clearly shaped this piece, and it was probably based on the Workers' Party and its leading theoretical light, Max Shachtman. As Alan Wald put it, "Rosenfeld describes the peculiar mentality of a devout but self-abnegating member loyal to the forms of the movement - the rituals of party interventions and social affairs, the veneration of 'old guard' leaders and the dynamics of faction struggle - even as Its political content is lost Rosenfeld's ideologues are brutally satirised because they remain impervious to experience." That this story transcends the limitations of a specific period is easily seen when one refers to contemporary Trotskyist sects, with their magazines which continue to promote irrelevant ideas and often seem to rely on "the dynamics of faction struggle" for their continued existence. And it's not unusual to come across Shachtman's name in them, even now.

Still, if Rosenfeld by the mid-1940s had withdrawn from direct involvement with radical politics, he certainly never lost his interest in political ideas, nor did he deny that his early experience had helped shape his overall approach to writing. Just before he died he wrote an essay, Life in Chicago, in which he cast a cold eye on the city and, in particular, its university which, he thought, had lost something when money and social success became its guiding principles, and the students switched their interests from politics to sport and popular music. In Rosenfeld's view, "politics furnishes the best of all bases for secular culture," and he remembered the 1930s when "politics was form and substance, accident and modification, the metaphor of all things." Theodore Solotaroff, who admired Rosenfeld's work as a reviewer and essayist, said of him: "Like many of the young writers who came out of the Depression, he had learned, as he says, 'through political activity, to admire the vigour which a social orientation will impart to thought,' and from the start his criticism was given vitality and point by his consciousness of what a given book was saying - implicitly and unconsciously as well as explicitly -about the times, about us." The thrust of Rosenfeld's comments in Life in Chicago was that the quality of intellectual life had declined, and he was particularly cutting about the way in which even supposedly bright students had taken to cultivating the "cool" lifestyle of the hipster and the habits of what was soon to be labelled "beat." He noted that it was still possible to find "students without nonsense whose culture heroes might be some great poet, novelist, painter, philosopher, or composer, rather than the jazz musician," but too many others were simply involved in a "masquerade" that Rosenfeld obviously had little time for.

His approach to writing naturally placed him alongside many of the critics described as New York Intellectuals in the 1940s, and he was regularly published in Partisan Review, Commentary, and the New Republic. What he did as a reviewer was widespread in terms of the kind of books he wrote about, and a glance at his bibliography sees him dealing with poetry, novels, and other odds and ends, usually within a framework of one thousand words or so, and I would guess taking pot luck insofar as which books were given to him to review. He was, in other words, reviewing as a job, and his style was described as designed for unscholarly but intelligent readers. But he was never just a hack, churning out weekly pieces for a price. A review by Rosenfeld, even of a minor work, always had a serious side, and he was, as someone said, concerned to develop "a specific awareness of what was happening to the human image and to the values of the heart and mind that preserve it, during what he called an age of enormity." He didn't have a "methodology," and instead relied on his natural instincts about the purpose of literature to take him to the core of the book he was reviewing. He wanted, he claimed, to restore "confidence in our abilities, within our right, to take a simply human measure of literature," and Theodore Solotaroff said that, in doing so, he "helped keep alive the fundamental reasons for bothering about literature at all."

Writing regular short reviews can be a death trap for a young writer, as Seymour Krim so brilliantly described in What's This Cat's Story where he told how his addiction to the quick fix of the review, and its immediate response from the intellectual community, destroyed his talents as a short-story writer and would-be novelist. Rosenfeld did work on a novel, though, and it was published to some acclaim in 1946. Partly autobiographical, Passage From Home tells the story of a young Jewish boy who, bored with the restrictions of family- life and the presence of a seemingly dull father and mother, develops a liking for an aunt who lives in what appears to be a colourful and exciting bohemian manner, and therefore offers an alternative for him to follow. The book, though having an obvious Jewish dimension, was not just about a Jewish rite of passage, and its central theme of alienation could easily be understood by anyone sensing a clash of values in a relationship with their parents and indeed in their response to the world they lived in. The hero of Rosenfeld's novel eventually realises that, in Alan Wald's words, 'the bohemian alternative to the alienation of conventional life is illusory, and he becomes resigned to his outsider status. This experience teaches that alienation is the permanent condition of humanity.'

Passage From Home was highly praised when it appeared, and the book became something of a key work of the New York Intellectuals, portraying as it did the struggle between fathers and sons that so many of them experienced as they broke away from traditional ways of life and gravitated to the bohemian world of New York. But although Rosenfeld developed a theory of alienation it could not be said that he used it to follow a fashionable line. Alienation could, in some circumstances, lead to an "underground" existence, but in a 1952 review of Sartre's collection of stories, Intimacy he asserted that much of its supposed identification with an "underground" philosophy was sheer posturing, and that, as Theodore Solotaroff summarised it, "writers have no more right to their disaffection than anyone else, particularly in view of the self-preening uses to which it is put." To develop a philosophy of "contactlessness, the emptiness and superfluity of existence, the sexual miseries and perversions, violence and self-destruction" from the lives and experiences of a small group of cafe habitues was surely misleading. And in a significant passage, Rosenfeld highlighted the difference between how he saw the writer standing at a distance from "a fantastic make-believe world" and those people who imagine themselves in some sort of "underground situation:"

" To some extent flattery deceives us on this topic: we like to imagine ourselves underground, living at a perpetual extreme, and we seize on every aspect of our age, its disorder and violence, amorality and unbelief, which confirms this estimate. We achieve by this means of a passive heroism, to which romantic periods are prone, especially when the active modes promise little success. But there is still another way in which we deceive ourselves - this is a fundamental error and its cause lies in our predominant style of perception into human matters. We are used to seeing a subject through its individual accidents; we call on biography to give the direction and pursue the unique and the aberrant to such an extent that almost all understanding has become a form of psychopathological analysis. This has put a high value on confessions, disclosures of the private life and its feelings, usually revulsions, which earlier ages have found neither interesting nor tolerable. The tone of very much modern writing is, accordingly, one of malaise. But we are so accustomed to it, we are seldom aware of it as such; and when we do take this malaise into direct account, we readily mistake it for what it is not: a report from the underground."

Rosenfeld went on to point out how Sartre's fiction was constructed to "allow his characters to proclaim and act out their disgust with life. The symptoms are the standard neurotic ones - contactlessness, the emptiness and superfluity of existence, the sexual miseries and perversions, violence and self-destruction   Neurosis becomes the equivalent of life. The ordinary syndromes, which we would otherwise discount to sickness, become on this inflated interpretation synonymous with subjectivity, crisis, anxiety, and other existential categories, and we read as ontology what we should recognise as disease." Reviews such as this demonstrated how Rosenfeld could deal with ideas within the framework of a few hundred words. As Theodore Solotaroff pointed out:

"He had been trained in philosophical analysis by such men as Eliseo Vivas and Rudolf Carnap, and when he came to write practical criticism, he was able to fortify it by a precise use of general ideas, without which book reviewing soon becomes a relaxed form of prejudice or advertising."

The cool, considered prose with which Rosenfeld constructed his reviews and essays was in contrast to a personal life that became increasingly disordered in the post-war years. He had hit a block, insofar as creative work was concerned, and though a few short stories and some excerpts from an unpublished novel did appear in magazines, he was looked on as a writer whose career was on a downward spiral. He thought that his writing block had some relation to sexual inhibition and he was attracted to the orgone box theories of Wilhelm Reich, in whose theory of the orgasm he saw "the possibility of carrying his search for freedom into the three sectors of his character: his natural drives and the struggle against his inhibitions; his intellect and its commitments to first principles of thought and conduct deriving from and in harmony with nature; his spirit and its thirst for the full being and transcendency of ecstasy." Rosenfeld could associate his personal needs with his political ideas because Reich theorised "that a self-regulated man and community would develop from complete sexual freedom and satisfaction," and that seemed to Rosenfeld "the most powerful means of transforming culture so as to remove its terror and the potential for further terror." Similar ideas were thrown around by the Beats and others in the 1960s, and William Phillips, one-time editor of Partisan Review, thought that Rosenfeld had "the kind of perverse and radical sensibility that would have flourished in the sixties."

Leaving New York, Rosenfeld took teaching posts in Minnesota and then at the University of Chicago, though he seems to have existed on the fringes of academic life rather than at its centre. Memoirs portray him as living in bohemian disarray. Saul Bellow thought that he "preferred to have things about him in a mess. I have an idea that he found good, middle-class order devitalising," and Mark Shechner added, "there was a principle of perverse monasticism in this life, a disorder, as Bellow observed, that had become a discipline." But he was never a self-conscious bohemian, dressing and behaving in a way meant to attract attention. As Bellow said, he did not pursue eccentricity for its own sake, for its colour. He followed an inner necessity which led him into difficulty and solitude." He died alone, in a furnished room in Chicago in 1956.

Rosenfeld's output was small if one compares it to other, more successful writers. One novel, a collection of stories, and a collection of essays and reviews. And the latter two were published posthumously. There were were also scattered pieces in magazines which were never collected. He planned other novels, including one which was set in Greenwich Village. A posthumously published story, "Wolfie," also has that setting, and is a dark exploration of an oddball characters obsessive need to see a woman he admires seduced by someone else. Had Rosenfeld ever completed his novel he may well have come up with something which went beyond the usual picaresque account of bohemian capers. It may have been of course, that his penchant for ideas and his philosophical training got in the way of his fictional skills, though not of his other prose work. His stories, though interesting, are not always well-developed as fiction, and his taste for allegory may not have been beneficial, though it was said that he was, in later years, "trying to break away from the large, symbolic design of Kafka and write about his own experiences in the world in more immediately concrete ways." It's perhaps fair to say that, of the work that did see print, it is his novel, the best of his essays and reviews, and a few of his short stories, which should be remembered. Having said that, I'm of the opinion that anything written by Isaac Rosenfeld was, and still is, of interest, and that it is of more value than the bland, careful writing, or the slick, attention-seeking work that so many other writers produced. There was a seriousness to all he wrote, and it was a seriousness that indicated he was a man who cared about life and about writing.

 

NOTES:

Passage From Home, originally published in 1946, was reissued in 1988 by Markus Wiener Publishing, New York. Rosenfeld's stories were collected in Alpha and Omega (MacGibbon-Kee, London, 1966) and the essays and reviews in An Age of Enormity (World Publishing Co. Cleveland, 1962). Much of the material from these two books, together with some extracts from Rosenfeld's journals, is in Preserving the Hunger An Isaac Rosenfeld Reader, edited by Mark Shechner, and published by Wayne State University Press, Detroit, 1988. This also has an informative introduction by Shechner which, together with the introduction by Theodore Solotaroff to An Age of Enormity, provide a good picture of Rosenfeld. Both books also contain a short memoir by Saul Bellow, which is also included in his It All Adds Up (Viking Press, New York, 1994).

A fictional portrait of Rosenfeld by Bellow can be found in "Zetland: By a Character Witness," in the collection, Him with his Foot in his Mouth and other Stories ( Penguin Books, Harmandsworth, 1985).

Wallace Mark field's novel, To An An Early Grave (Jonathan Cape London, 1965) is about four Jewish intellectuals on their way to attend the funeral of someone who closely resembles Rosenfeld, and their conversation evokes memories of the man and his activities.

Seymour Krim 's What's This Cat's Story is in his collection, Views of A Nearsighted Cannoneer (Dutton, New York, 1968) and provides a convincing picture of a period when criticism "was very much in the air," and gave him status amongst the intellectually skilled people he mixed with. The book also has examples of Krim's work as a critic and a section from a novel he was writing in 1948 but which he abandoned when under pressure to produce reviews and essays. The British edition of Views of A Nearsighted Cannoneer (Alan Ross/London Magazine Editions, 1969) does not include the critical pieces nor the extract from the novel.

Rosenfeld's On the Role of the Writer and the Little Magazine can be found in The Chicago Review Anthology, edited by David Ray, published by the University of Chicago Press 1959.

There are references to Rosenfeld in various histories of the New York Intellectuals. See, for example, Terry Cooney's The Rise of the New York Intellectuals (University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, 1986), Alexander Bloom's Prodigal Sons (Oxford University Press, 1986), and Alan Wald's The New York Intellectuals (University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 1987).

Individual memoirs by members of the New York Intellectuals group refer to Rosenfeld. William Phillips' A Partisan View (Stein &Day, New York, 1983) and Alfred Kazin's New York Jew (Secker & Warburg, London, 1978) are two of the more interesting, with Phillips being less enthusiastic than Kazin. The latter's portrait of Rosenfeld has been described as "an accurate and penetrating miniature, the best short portrait of him available." It is a moving account of what Kazin saw as Rosenfeld's "Inability to compromise with the things of this world" and his consequent failure to fulfil his early promise. What Kazin meant by "compromise' may be open to interpretation. As early as 1946 Rosenfeld was pointing out how there was "a new political and social orientation on the part of the old radical intellectuals," and he diagnosed it as a shift from Marx to Freud, from "change the world" to "adjust yourself to it." In Theodore Solotaroff's view: "He saw it as an orientation that 'blesses the bourgeois in all of us' by shifting the perspective from a radical and historical understanding of contemporary society to one of accommodation and apologetics and by trading In the lonely sense of differences for the 'ecstasy of belonging.'" Rosenfeld's bohemianism may have been the ground he occupied on the basis that, if he couldn't change the world, he'd at least refused to adjust to it.