PARTISANS by David Laskin


Marriage, Politics, and Betrayal Among the New York Intellectuals
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A largely anecdotal account, covering the late 1930s to the late ’60s, of what Alfred Kazin called “a tiny incestuous fiefdom”: the intellectual couples around the Partisan Review, perhaps the era’s most influential cultural and political journal. Laskin (A Common Life: Four Generations of American Literary Friendship, 1994) focuses on the women writers and intellectuals in the circle, particularly novelists Mary McCarthy and Jean Stafford, critic Elizabeth Hardwick, political philosopher Hannah Arendt, and novelist Carolyn Gordon (the latter, and her husband, the Southern poet Allen Tate, were not really members of the PR circle, but frequently intersected with it). They are largely revealed through their often stormy marriages to, respectively (excepting Gordon), first PR founding co-editor Philip Rahv and then critic Edmund Wilson, poet Robert Lowell, Lowell again, and ÇmigrÇ political activist Heinrich Bluechner. With the exception of the Arendt-Bluechner tie, all the marriages were stormy, characterized by drinking, furious fighting (and sometimes physical violence), breakdowns, and ultimately divorce. If Laskin’s group profile at times is light on intellectual analysis, it is rich in anecdotal material, reflecting his extensive research and interviewing. For example, he deftly portrays Hardwick, Lowell’s wife during a period when he suffered repeated hospitalizations for manic episodes, as his “jailer, target, nurse, the betrayed and the betrayer, the wounded, the furious, the fury, and always in the end the fount of forgiveness, solace, security.— Unfortunately, at other times, Laskin focuses too narrowly on the pathologies of his often deeply flawed, but still remarkably productive, protagonists and indulges in naive judgments. Noting, for example, that during the last six years of their marriage, Stafford and Lowell went “without sex and without love affairs,” he maintains that “for two people in their twenties [this] doesn’t seem possible.” Yet despite these stylistic lapses, Laskin’s work focuses an entertaining, absorbing, and informative lens on a singular moment in American cultural history, one shaped largely by a small, close-knit, often backbiting, yet remarkably creative group, one whose women were always influential and sometimes brilliant. (8 pages b&w photos)

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 2000
ISBN: 0-684-81565-6
Page count: 320pp
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1st, 1999


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