An intimate portrait of a noted public intellectual.
In a richly detailed biography of writer, editor, and political pundit Max Eastman (1883-1969), Irmscher (English/Indiana Univ.; Louis Agassiz: Creator of American Science, 2013, etc.) draws on his subject’s prolific published works and abundant archival sources, including vast numbers of letters to and from his many lovers. In his own autobiography, Eastman made much of his love affairs, and Irmscher allows them to dominate a biography that reiterates Eastman’s erotic poems, protestations of desire, and his lovers’ ecstatic responses. Eastman was handsome, attractive, and apparently irresistible to women, even into his 80s. Probably a virgin when he married the strong-willed Ida Rauh, he felt immediate remorse: “I had lost, in marrying Ida, my irrational joy in life,” he proclaimed. That joy could be enhanced by all the women “waiting for him, women who wanted to receive him with open arms.” His three wives—he divorced Ida, virtually abandoning her and their son—acquiesced to his affairs, though they were often considerably hurt. When not focused on Eastman’s sex life, Irmscher traces the evolution of his political thought from socialist to radical conservative. As a student at Columbia, he was influenced by John Dewey, who embodied, Eastman believed, “the essence of democracy.” He rallied to keep America out of World War I, and with his activist sister, he campaigned for women’s suffrage. He established his reputation as editor of the leftist journals The Masses and The Liberator, and he publicized and translated Leon Trotsky. But in the 1930s, he became ardently convinced that a spreading “communist conspiracy” threatened American democracy. As Irmscher discovered, “there was no detail of alleged communist infiltration that escaped his attention.” From having friends like John Reed and Edna St. Vincent Millay, he preferred the company of “free market advocates, right-wingers, and libertarians.” In his critical works, he derided the “linguistic gimmickry” of modernist writers and found a home for his views in Reader’s Digest.
A well-documented examination of a once-prominent radical.