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The writing is leaden, the thinking is cut-and-dried, the trite point made in the title is made all too often. But Matthew Josephson (1899-1978)--exponent of Dada, political radical, writer of popular history and biography--was both one of many rebellious American literary intellectuals and the one among them, perhaps, best known for his commercial success. That interesting, provocative dichotomy is worth a close look--something that Shi, a Davidson historian, has at least the background (from his dissertation and subsequent writings) to provide. Helpfully, too, he had journals, letters, and living persons to draw on, as well as the mass of writings by MJ's contemporaries. As personal biography, nonetheless; the book is only sporadically effective. Josephson grew up comfortably but resistantly in Brooklyn; became a cocky literary insurgent at Columbia--and the friend of Malcolm Cowley, Kenneth Burke, and others in the Village; married the forceful, forbearing Hannah (in her brief appearances, almost a more palpable presence than MJ); went to France, met the Dadaists, promoted their cause in Secession and Broom; worked briefly on Wall Street--to his permanent gain and lasting disillusion; and then--with ""the seed of social awareness"" germinating, with his own illness, his parents' death, the rejection of his first novel--swung into, or slipped into, or lapsed into the dual role of political activist and popular writer. Shi makes much, along conventional lines, of Josephson's fellow-traveling in the 1930s--why didn't he see through Stalin? why were ""so many bourgeois writers attracted to Marxism?"" At the same time he fails to follow up his own apt observation (however inaptly put) that Josephson, in withholding total commitment, was ""a fellow traveler both as a Dadaist and as a Communist."" But he does see, without making the connection, that Josephson's degree of independence spared him the guilt later felt by many of his colleagues, kept him apart from both the ex-Communist anti-Communists and the Cold War-liberal-anti-Communists, and thus enabled him to speak out during the Truman-McCarthy era. Shi, in short, keeps poking at Josephson from one or another angle, instead of taking him whole. On Josephson's writing, much of what he has to say is merely serviceable--the Beardian anti-business stance of the histories (The Robber Barons, The Politicos, etc.), the identification with activist writers that fueled the biographies (Zola, Hugo, Stendhal), the color and drama and verve that made both so popular. The exception comes quite far along, with some fresh, stimulating material vis-à-vis Josephson and pro-business historians like Allan Nevins. There's also, late on, the affecting disclosure of Josephson's discomfiture at Hannah's career and increasing independence combined with his realization that his chance for ""serious writing"" was past. Without any special distinction, the book does raise a multiplicity of issues for further, thoughtful consideration.

Pub Date: April 1st, 1981
Publisher: Yale Univ. Press