Philip Rahv, the storied editor of Partisan Review, belonged to “the world of our fathers,” to use the title of Irving Howe’s magisterial study of Eastern European Jews in America. From our current perspective, it’s more like the world of our grandfathers or great grandfathers.
Yet men like Rahv and Howe—the New York intellectuals who came of age in the 1930s—still have something urgent to tell readers today, as I argue in The Secular Rabbi: Philip Rahv and Partisan Review (Liverpool UP, 2021). Their writings are of general interest, addressing, as they do, the full range of literary, historical, political, social, and cultural issues of the 20th century. But more saliently, Rahv’s story dramatizes matters that are front and center in our lives today.
Rahv (born Fevel Greenberg) immigrated to the US in 1922. In one of the letters he wrote to my mother Ethel Richman—letters which formed the initial impetus for my writing this book—he said, “the mud and gravel of the crossing is still clinging to my boots, and a few stray straws can still be found in my hair.” By all accounts, he seemed like an immigrant. Speaking of his appearance, Diana Trilling spoke of a “swarthy, blunt-featured” man who had the “stolidity and guile of a Russian peasant.” His co-editor of Partisan Review, William Phillips saw him as strange and different, with the physical traits and the psychology of an immigrant. I trace that psychology, which he retained throughout his life, back to his childhood traumas (including pogroms), geographical displacements (Russia, Palestine, US), and the fractured relationships produced during his family’s complicated and protracted process of immigration.
Significantly, Rahv did not hide from or seek to erase his immigrant identity. Although he came to the United States at age 14 and attended American schools, his speech was markedly non-American sounding. He made no effort to “pass.” His Jewish-sounding, immigrant-inflected voice was part of what he was and wanted to be. He eschewed the path followed by his older brother, who graduated from Brown University. Although amazingly erudite, Rahv had only spotty formal education. It’s not clear whether he graduated from high school. As a writer, he chose a name—“rahv” means “rabbi” in Hebrew—that loudly proclaimed his Jewish origins.
Rahv can perhaps serve as a model of sorts for recent immigrants who do not look, speak, or feel like native-born Americans; who lack formal education; who’ve undergone traumatic experiences; whose family ties are problematic. His bold refusal to “pass” can be viewed as a salutary will to experience American life on his own terms. His story reminds us that historical circumstances at times propel individuals, even seemingly disempowered ones, into exceptional and influential positions. It illustrates the extent to which immigrants—not only those who rise to the top, but those in the middle and below as well—enrich their adopted countries culturally and intellectually. The content of that enrichment may have shifted away from the European literary tradition that Rahv belonged to, but the undeniable significance of immigrants’ contributions has not changed.
Philip Rahv’s story also matters for issues that preoccupy 21st-century Jews: anti-Semitism, Zionism, assimilation, and secularism. Like us, he grappled with those issues, painfully and confusedly in some cases, most notably the rise of fascism and the Holocaust. His responses, and those of his fellow New York intellectuals, may not offer solutions, since many of the problems they faced have proven to be intractable. But their ways of thinking and acting, which were grounded in depths of experience, reflection, and erudition, need to be remembered.
Jewishness and Zionism were inextricably linked for Philip Rahv, as they are for Jews today. He lived in Palestine as a boy. His passionately Zionist mother, Aviva Greenberg, left the US after the family’s migration in 1922. Aviva Greenberg and other socialists were Labor Zionists. Their focus was not on creating a Jewish nation state but fostering a Jewish working class. Jews could thus join the productive stratum of society rather than the non-productive merchant class to which they had been relegated in Europe. They would work side by side with Arabs, raising the economic and social conditions for everyone, not just Jews.
Rahv rejected his mother’s Zionism, returning alone to the US from Palestine at age 16. The reasons for his rejection of Zionism, which was commonplace at the time, allow us in some measure to put support for Israel in an historical context. Orthodox Jews considered it a sin to restore Jewish sovereignty in the Holy Land before the advent of the Messiah. Assimilated Jews feared that it would lead to dual loyalty. Reform Jews viewed it as a reversion to a primitive stage of tribalism
Along with Zionism, The Secular Rabbi attempts to contextualize and explain the complex nature of Jewishness and the meaning of secularism for Philip Rahv. To do so, I rely on other Jewish figures whom Rahv admired or promoted. They include thinkers such as Marx and Trotsky as well as such writers as Franz Kafka, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Bernard Malamud, Saul Bellow, and Delmore Schwartz. I argue that secularism did not mean a rejection of Jewishness for Rahv and those other notable Jewish figures. By coupling “secular” with “rabbi” in the title of the book, I signal the fact that Rahv remained tied to the culture of his Jewish upbringing, Ultimately, I conclude that Rahv was never able to resolve his internal conflict regarding Jewishness. Yet his story shows that over and above religious practice, cultural background, or descent, Jewishness is about the life of the mind and the life of the Book. Jews who live that life—who think, read, write, create, and talk seriously with others—keep vital Jewish traditions alive.
Like issues of immigration and Jewishness, the role of women was important—yet conflicted—in the milieu of progressive intellectuals to which Rahv belonged.
For decades, Partisan Review stood as America’s intellectual and cultural style setter. Its leadership was male and predominantly Jewish. As co-editor, Philip Rahv figured as one of the country’s most powerful literary gatekeepers, able to make or break the careers of aspiring writers, some of whom were women. By all accounts, he displayed the arrogance and argumentativeness that are taken to be hypermasculine characteristics. Yet women were far from absent from the pages of Partisan Review. Rahv promoted and took seriously the proletarian women writers whose works appeared in Partisan Review in the early 1930s as well as other notable female contributors to the magazine including Mary McCarthy, Hannah Arendt, Elizabeth Hardwick, and Diana Trilling.
That is not to say that he always recognized their talents fully. McCarthy left Rahv, her lover in 1937, to marry Edmund Wilson, who treated her badly but whose encouragement to write fiction she would never have gotten from Rahv. Nor is it to say that there may not have been bad conduct in relations with women at Partisan Review. I’m convinced, though, that even by today’s standards it was not as pronounced as what we’ve learned about the conduct of powerful men in the 20th and 21st centuries. Why?
For one thing, Partisan Review generated little money, only prestige. The stakes were not as high in the world of culture and media that he inhabited as they are today. For another thing, in an era before the proliferation of creative writing programs and women’s move into the workplace, the pool of aspiring women authors was far more limited and less competitive then. The talented women writers whose works appeared in Partisan Review achieved literary fame in a far less cluttered field than exists now. Too, they lived through the era of free love. The sexual favors that Rahv enjoyed with McCarthy and, earlier, with my mother in the late 1920s, were freely granted, not coerced.
I’ve spent the last ten years of my life thinking and writing about a man who could have been my father if he had married my mother, whom he loved. “Reading against the grain” by paying special attention to gaps, silences, and contradictions has helped furnish me a critical perspective on Rahv’s story. Yet despite my efforts to remain objective, a bias in his favor may exist which, in keeping with the feminist notion of positionality, I acknowledge. I’m not alone as a woman in feeling admiration and sympathy for him. Elizabeth Hardwick spoke at the memorial held at Brandeis University after his death. Mary McCarthy wrote the poignant memoir for the Times that stands as the best testament to him as a man and a writer. Hardwick wrote to McCarthy after their tributes appeared in print, “Several persons have remarked on Phillip’s good luck in his lady memorialists and noted the uniqueness of it.”