THE TRUANTS: Adventures Among the Intellectuals by William Barrett

THE TRUANTS: Adventures Among the Intellectuals

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Barrett (Irrational Man, The Illusion of Technique) served for a time in the 1940s as one of the editors of Partisan Review, crucible of the ""two M's"": Marxism and modernism. Thus, he was at the center of what's usually considered as the ""New York intellectual"" style (anti-Stalinist, Freudian, committed to fiction and poetry of a largely European model); the big names of that school--Mary McCarthy (awesomely smart, regal, so secure in her young looks and brains that she doesn't bother shaving her legs), Edmund Wilson, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Randall Jarrell, Lionel Trilling, Clement Greenberg--all float through this memoir. And for a while it seems as if the two chief Partisan Review editors--William Phillips and Philip Rahv--are to be the central focus here. But Barrett, while frequently insisting on the importance and coherence of the PR crowd's work, too often ends up rambling away from the intellectual and literary point. The tensions, for instance, between Phillips and Rahv are finally seen (probably rightly) to be more the effect of opposite natures than real ideological/cultural differences--not to mention the ""nastiness, bitchery, and backbiting"" that build up in the formation of any consciously conceived literary circle. And Barrett often wanders into side-streets of opinion, with comments that are largely grumpy and sometimes startlingly simplistic: ""Now that they have been given freedom of expression, writers have turned it into a dubious gift. Where invention fails, try to hold the reader by the titillations of sex."" Or, on Joe McCarthy: ""A seedy and unpleasant character, he was censured by his own legislative body, the Senate, and his influence was eclipsed; and presently he disappeared from the scene."" One portrait here stands out, however: an intimate sketch of Delmore Schwartz which, though brief, is emotionally committed, thus capturing Schwartz better than does the long James Atlas biography. And elsewhere, too, when dealing with the supporting cast (Jarrell, Greenberg, John Berryman, James Burnham), Barrett is engagingly informative. But the treatment of the major figures is iffy, the viewpoint is uncertain (sometimes too subjective yet generally too impersonal), and the result is an ultimately slight, loose-centered book--chiefly for those already quite familiar with the Partisan Review scene.

Pub Date: Feb. 26th, 1981
Publisher: Anchor/Doubleday