Book Summary

The Secular Rabbi is an intellectual biography of Philip Rahv, preeminent literary critic, cultural gatekeeper, and co-editor of Partisan Review, with which he became virtually synonymous. T.S. Eliot called it the best American literary periodical. The Secular Rabbi focuses on the ambivalent ties that Rahv, a Russian immigrant, retained to his Jewish cultural background. The book reveals the story he kept secret about his early life: what his education was, how his political views developed, what his Jewish and immigrant identity consisted of, why he held particular Zionist views, and what his aspirations as an author were. It presents an analysis of his writings, which have never received a full-length study. They show how he grappled with political and literary issues that that were rooted in his distinct ethnic and religious origins and were central to the Jewish intellectual and literary history of the 20th century. Drawing on letters Rahv wrote to her mother from 1928 to 1931, when he was still named Philip Greenberg, Doris Kadish delves into the complex and enigmatic character of a man admired by luminaries as diverse as George Orwell, Mary McCarthy, Saul Bellow, Elizabeth Hardwick, and William Styron. Textual analyses of Rahv’s works are woven together with historical accounts, genealogical records, memoirs by Rahv’s colleagues, friends, and associates, interviews with persons who knew him, and the abundant body of secondary scholarship devoted to the New York intellectuals, the history of Partisan Review, and Jewish studies. Kadish positions herself in relation to Rahv in attempting to understand her own Jewish identity. In tracing Rahv’s personal, political, and literary evolution, Kadish sheds light on such literary movements as modernism, proletarian literature, and Jewish writing as well as movements that defined American political history in the 20th century: immigration, socialism, Communism, fascism, the Cold War, feminism, and the New Left. 

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