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Interpreting the cover of The Secular Rabbi

Proximity to water is an appropriate way to view Philip Rahv, an immigrant who crossed the Atlantic at age 14 to reach US soil; then several years later was brought to Palestine by his mother, returning alone to resettle permanently as an American at age 16.

Yet he was uncomfortable in the water, never having been taught to swim like his more acculturated second-generation Jewish colleagues. William Phillips wrote, unsympathetically, of his partner, “He could not throw or catch a ball, ride a bike, play any game, or swim. One summer when we had a house in Peekskill, Rahv came to visit and we went to swim in a nearby pool. Rahv flopped in, came up, gurgled and went down again. He would have drowned if I had not jumped in and pulled him out.” Mary McCarthy zeroed in on his unwillingness to go into the water as symbolic of Rahv’s cautiousness and awkwardness; and Mark Krupnick, an associate editor who worked with Rahv near the end of his life, entitled his article about him “He Never Learned to Swim.” 

In the picture I’ve chosen for the cover, we see Rahv near but not about to enter the water, as is evident from his attire. He’s enjoying the kind of outing that is common in the socially prominent circle in which he moved once he achieved literary prominence as editor of Partisan Review. As his associate Mark Krupnick wrote, “Rahv took an immense pleasure in beautiful and expensive things—women, paintings, wines—which disposed him to enjoy the company of the wealthy and well born. A Revolutionist he may have been, but his taste in friends and wives ran to blue blood; he was a terrific snob who used to advise his wife about what ‘people of our class’ did and didn’t do. In his cultural style, Rahv was a nineteenth-century Russian intellectual; but his social aspirations were as American as a Dreiser’s hero.” He never reconciled his elitist tastes with his anti-bourgeois political positions.  

The picture reveals physical features that those who knew him considered marks of his Jewish identity. They commented on his “swarthy complexion” and “the duskiness of his skin.” Dorothea Straus said he was “large and dark, like Othello.” Rahv’s niece has confirmed that members of the family were indeed dark complected, which she attributed to their possibly Sephardic origins. Diana Trilling wrote, “The swarthy, blunt-featured Rahv had grown up in Russia . . . there was something primitive, even animal-like in his appearance—my mother would have called him a mujik, by which she would have meant that he had the stolidity and guile of a Russian peasant.” William Phillips saw him as strange and different: “In his person, Rahv always struck me as having the physical traits and the psychology of an immigrant. He reminded me of my father in his awkwardness and his detachment from his body.

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