A Partisan's Review
Over the past week, I have been reading – or rather, skimming the pages of The Partisan Review much in the manner of a delinquent attendee at a mass. Periods of intensity to absorb as much as I can followed by a boredom when I realize so many of those writing in the 1930s for the TPR were Communists who defended soft authoritarianism, Trotsky, and mocked the bourgeoise with a sneer that only the an educated hypocrite is capable of towards the very society that protects his voice. That said, TPR is a gold mine of history, criticism, thought, and a kind of aggrieved engagement with the world that is rare in the American magazine world. Nowhere do all these come together than in a biting essay about The New Yorker by that indefatigable curmudgeon Dwight MacDonald, who is a rarity, a provocateur with an interest in ideas. He’s also touch too erratic. He alternates between pooh pooh-ing the American middle class for its ambitions and private hopes, which admittedly are often indistinguishable from self-interest and avarice, while constructing in another essay a mausoleum of words for the then newly fallen Trotsky. Franklin Foer wrote a while ago that MacDonald was America’s “greatest hatchet man”. I don’t know enough about American literary culture, but I can see how MacDonald might have been a formidable force in the world of commentary and criticism. Like many high minded men with a taste for the real world working, he was also a dope who ended up getting conned by the CIA to work for a journal funded by them! None of this is to deny his sharp eyed and and sharp tongued essay on The New Yorker in the 1920s/30s. He sweepingly issues a denunciation against the New Yorker, much in the manner of the judges during the Stalinist purges:
“The reader, that is to say, enjoys the illusion of “seeing life” without suffering the embarrassment of actually doing so. These writers admit the existence of sex, but they are at considerable pains to protect the reader from its grosser aspects. They frequently describe the life of the submerged classes, and always with sensibility. Here, too, they are careful not to shock the bourgeois reader. Poverty is suggested rather than bluntly described, and their underdogs are drawn, not from the proletariat, whose sufferings are meaningful and hence trangic, but rather from the ranks of the declassed. They write of minor actors, of provincials drifting rootless in the jungle of the city, of boxers and alcoholics and prostitutes. From these futile lives they extract a facile pathos. The New Yorker has formularized the pathos as well as the humor of the inadequate. Treated subjectively, inadequacy may be comic. Presented objectively, it yields a mild kind of pathos, verging towards – but skillfully kept just this side of the sentimental.”
While I have not read the New Yorker of the 1920s/30s – based on what it put out these days, it is not hard to see that the genteel and safe domesticity of The New Yorker’s concerns, the circumspect social disquiet on its pages, its market friendly explorations and exegesis remain firmly ensconced in its place even to this day. To an extent, the New Yorker today acts as the deodorant to the sweaty body politic of the American nation. It grants the reader a veneer of respectability, access to easily digestible bits of classicism, a glimpse at the radicalism of hip hop and abstract art while granting both, an access to the respectability and the possibility of price inflation at the auction houses. All this said, to say there is a New Yorker is like saying all elephants come in one shape. Every issue may resemble the previous one, but each carries with it a particular set of idiosyncrasies, each production is a byproduct of a cunning no different than a chess player's calculation to calibrate his expectations of the rival, which in this case is a promiscuous readership. But the very same qualities that make the New Yorker an exemplar in high quality production unlike any, it shine and cleverness also lure us into a lull. Does the New Yorker still have a politics? Over and beyond Twitter trolls who rant against the magazine for being “in the tank for Obama”, few have bothered to investigate its politics systematically. To my knowledge, no one recently has written a penetrating and critical piece on The New Yorker, especially under the editorial leadership of David Remnick , much in the manner as MacDonald did in the late 1930s when it was run by its founder Harold Ross. The closest we see are critiques of specific aspect: about its key contributors or the demographic (socially mobile, culturally middlebrow, financially secure elite) who form the magazine’s principal readership. For example, in 2007, James Wolcott wrote an entertaining, mean spirited, and perceptive piece on Adam Gopnik, the Emerson of the Upper West Side, if you will. Strangely that Wolcott essay is missing online – but Gawker (while it lasts before the thunderbolts of Peter Thiel reduce it to digital smithereens) still has a few excerpts of it.] Elsewhere, William Deresieswicz wrote a scathing indictment of the Ivy league education induced culture of banality and pseudo-meritocracy in the wonderfully titled essay, Excellent Sheep. (A useful summary of why it pissed off so many is here.) None of these critiques are however about The New Yorker, its sensibilities or politics – except in an oblique way. Nor are they critiques of a diminishing magazine culture, which in a way is a metonymy for the larger intellectual culture. To an extent the absence of such critique is a reflection of a number of factors: the reducing number of magazines who treat each other as competitors, the shrinkage of an audience who could be bothered by such skirmishes, the conservatism of the middle class American readership who have grown richer over the decades and see little virtue in acts of self-criticality or arguments about literary politics, the fraying memories of the reading public whose idea of culture is one tweet-storm squaring off with another tweet-storm, the absence of grand ideological battles where partisanship is seen an extension of being. [A terrific exception to this somnolent state of affairs is the magazine n+1, which continues to push out critical pieces about its peers. Its language is often laced with indignation at the spineless genuflection of its peers to that almighty God: the market, which demands progressive mediocrity as regularly as Baal required human sacrifice. In their refusal to kowtow, n+1 has managed to remain angry, perhaps because an older generation of editors has ceded ground to a newer cohort of millennials.] In essence, the kind of hand wringing and sermonizing seriousness that Macdonald et al brought to the investigation of cultural politics (with The New Yorker as a stand-in for the post Depression middle class) is probably seen now by commissioning editors as either as an indulgence or, worse, as a genre of critical analysis that is past its due date much like a daguerreotype.