Thursday, April 02, 2009

Isaac Rosenfeld

Steven J. Zipperstein, Rosenfeld’s Lives: Fame, Oblivion, and the Furies of Writing (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009). 240 pp. $27.50.

By one of those coincidences that lead me to suspect that God has a bizarre sense of humor, a new biography of Isaac Rosenfeld arrived on April Fool’s Day, while I was assembling a literary hoax around one of his detractors. Wallace Markfield shamelessly exploited Rosenfeld’s life, making his funeral the comic subject of his first novel. To the end he remained bitter that Rosenfeld, who died with only one book to his name, was better known and more highly regarded than he. Shortly before his own death, Markfield told Heeb, “As a writer, [Rosenfeld] became a gas bag.”

If so it was not the worst thing he could have become. Rosenfeld was afforded only thirty-eight years on earth to finish what he started. In this sympathetic but unsparing biography, Steven Zipperstein—a literary historian whose last book was a biography of the cranky secular Zionist Ahad Ha-Am—reveals that, in addition to Passage from Home (1946), Rosenfeld chipped away at five more novels that remain in manuscript. His friends expected a “Gogol-like masterpiece” from him about Greenwich Village, where his apartment “acquired the standing of a legendary bohemian enclave.” Rosenfeld confided to a friend:

Some day soon I hope to start a story about the village which should say everything I’ve been thinking and feeling about the village, life in general, people, friends, love, sex. . . . I think I’ve come to understand the matter somewhat better now, and if I can clean out the insides of my own head it may do me some good.It was a promising theme. Despite serving as the basis for Paul Mazursky’s delightful film Next Stop, Greenwich Village (1976) and Anatole Broyard’s posthumous memoir Kafka Was the Rage (1993), the postwar bohemian life of Greenwich Village has never inspired an even minimally good novel. Rosenfeld was the writer to do it, but though “[h]e completed a small mountain of work on the theme,” as Zipperstein reports, he was never able to finish his Village novel. Nor was he able to complete the expansion of his award-winning novella “The Colony,” about Gandhi and Nehru, for which he received a Guggenheim Fellowship and time at Yaddo, the writers’ retreat in Saratoga Springs. Mother Russia, a novel about the Soviet Union under Stalin, added up to three hundred pages in manuscript before Rosenfeld abandoned it. What he compiled were “incomplete manuscripts that he knew to contain nuggets of brilliance for which he was reaching,” Zipperstein says, “but that he couldn’t sustain.”

The problem was that Rosenfeld was a born critic in an age that valued the novel almost to the exclusion of any other literary form. Worse yet, his native genre was the book review—a kind of writing that, no matter how well it wears, does not collect well. “ ‘Taking a good look’ is how he described reading,” Zipperstein writes in his book’s opening sentence. And this is a fitting place to begin, because reading was Rosenfeld’s method for ordering his mind and taming his demons. At the same time, he saw the life of reading as a life of limitation. As Zipperstein writes a little later, “[H]e refused to see books as the only way life might be understood,” while he never denied “his undying reliance upon them.”

An Age of Enormity (1962), a posthumous volume of his reviews, contains some of the best critical prose from the forties and fifties. The tight compass of the book review obliged Rosenfeld to concentrate his immense intelligence, and not to waste any words. Early in the history of this blog I quoted my favorite passage from his criticism. Here is Rosenfeld on the British novelist Henry Green, who was “overevaluated,” in his opinion:Perhaps Green’s advance reputation had something to do with this; he was known, for a period of several years before his publication here, to only a few in this country, who regarded his work as though it held the last light of truth in the modern novel. This is a disadvantage to all but the truly great. Of Green it must now be said, what there would otherwise have been no need to say, that he is not a major novelist, that he does not have a major sensibility, and that his work, granting its excellence, is nevertheless quite small. He is another English writer in the tradition which has become dominant since the death of D. H. Lawrence—the tradition of sensibility, manners, and the brilliant image, at the expense of everything else in the novel.The quick dispatch of Green to the right tradition, the aphoristic unbelabored distinction between major novelists and minor (who seek effects “at the expense of everything else in the novel”), the sure touch that enables him to whisk together literary history and literary criticism without the sauce’s starting to separate—this is superb writing, no matter what your own opinion of Henry Green. But the other problem was that, as a critic, Rosenfeld was the creature of his editors’ assignments. An Age of Enormity reprints essays from the Partisan Review, Commentary, the New Republic, the Nation, the Kenyon Review, and Jewish journals on Kafka, Orwell, Henry Miller, Hemingway, Faulkner, and Richard Wright, but also on Nancy Hale, Jerre Mangione, Anaïs Nin, Kenneth Patchen, E. B. White, and Jo Sinclair. Not a word about Ralph Ellison, Flannery O’Connor, Bernard Malamud, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, or Kingsley Amis, and only passing remarks about Eudora Welty and John Cheever. Because his criticism was merely occasional, Rosenfeld was never encouraged to develop a comprehensive or coherent view of postwar English-language fiction.

Let me be honest. Rosenfeld’s name remains alive for two reasons. First, because he impressed, with his personality and literary promise, the reputation makers of his generation—Philip Rahv, Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin, Eliot Cohen (the founding editor of Commentary). He was embraced as the “golden boy” of the New York intellectuals, and then died far too early to fulfill their dreams for him. As Theodore Solotaroff recalled, some of his friends spoke the name Isaac as if it were “a magic word for joy and wit,” others as if “it were the most poignant word in the language.” Second, he was Saul Bellow’s best friend. Three years younger, he and Bellow became friends at Tuley High School on Chicago’s west side, and their intense bookish conversations, stuffed with references—as Rosenfeld listed them at the time—to Dalí, André Breton, Matisse, Picasso, Mann, T. S. Eliot, Huxley, Trotsky, influenced both men’s styles for the rest of their lives. They collaborated on a celebrated Yiddish parody of Prufrock called “Der shir hashirm [Song of Songs] fun Mendl Pumshtok” when they were graduate students at the University of Chicago in the thirties. Zipperstein reprints the poem, first published in an essay by Ruth R. Wisse, in its entirety—in a transliterated Yiddish with English translation. A small sample:Ikh ver alt . . . ikh ver alt . . .
Es vert mir in pupik kalt.

I grow old . . . I grow old . . .
I feel my bellybutton getting cold.
Bellow wrote about Rosenfeld repeatedly, composing his obituary for the Partisan Review (“The sight of one of his rooms with Isaac hard at work, smoking, capably and firmly writing on his yellow second sheets, would have made Hogarth happy”), recreating him as King Dahfu in Henderson the Rain King, and studying him in his propria persona and at some length in “Zetland: By a Character Witness,” one of his best stories. (It is the only extant piece of a novel about their friendship that Bellow planned to call Charm and Death.)

Perhaps significantly, Wikipedia has no biographical entry for Rosenfeld. [Update: An article on him was finally created there on May 10, 2009.] He was born March 10, 1918, in Chicago, the son of a “buyer for a downtown fancy food store,” as Zipperstein says. His mother died of influenza at twenty-one; Rosenfeld was barely a year and a half old. At the University of Chicago, where he became a Trotskyist—that is, a member of the anti-Stalinist Left—he won an undergraduate literary prize, but when he moved on to graduate work, he wrote a masters thesis on “animal nature” in Santayana and Dewey. That same year he married Vasiliki Sarantakis, two years older (“She wears earrings, looks Jewish, acts crazy, and I think the world of her”), with whom he eventually had two children, a girl and a boy, before they divorced ten years later. Rosenfeld enrolled at NYU to work toward a doctorate in philosophy, but while sick in bed with pleurisy, reading Moby-Dick, he decided once for all to switch to literature. He quit school, began writing for the Partisan Review, and when he won the an award for “The Colony,” he seemed to be on his way. Indeed, Rosenfeld worried that he had left Bellow in the dust. They published their first novels about the same time—Bellow’s Dangling Man in 1944, Rosenfeld’s Passage from Home two years later—but then the older friend began to outpace the younger, publishing The Victim followed by The Adventures of Augie March, which established Bellow as the leading novelist of his generation.

Because he forever compared himself to Bellow, Rosenfeld judged himself a failure. And that has become “the posthumous theme,” according to Zipperstein, which has been “attached to his life. . . .” As close as anyone has ever approached to being a child prodigy in literature (he published his first story, in Yiddish, at fourteen), Rosenfeld died of a heart attack, on July 15, 1956, at the age at which Bellow published The Adventures of Augie March. To call him a failure is to fail to recognize that his life was cut tragically short. Even so, one reads his erratically brilliant prose, especially his criticism, with a sort of impatience to know how he would have developed his ideas if his editors had only given him more room to stretch, and God more time. His description of the writer’s “social role”—a notion that angered him—suggests that he might have developed into the best of his generation. The writer, he said, is selected by fate to bethe one left alone at three o’clock in the morning, when it’s always the dark night of the soul; to be the man whom one encounters when there is no longer any uniform to wear . . . the man who is naked, who is alone, and the man who pretty much of the time is afraid: the man who sees himself as he really is in this flesh and in these bones and in these feelings, in these impulses, in these emotions; the man who confronts himself in his dreams and in his reveries.Odd how Zipperstein’s loving biography of him can lead you to mourn, half a century after his death, a man whom every writer and intellectual has confronted at one time or another, wrestling with his fears of failure, unrealized promise, or untimely death at three in the morning.


Phillip said...

I believe that your Yiddish quotation in incorrect. The second line should read un mayn pupik vert mir kalt.

D. G. Myers said...

Not according to Ruth Wisse. In her essay “Language as Fate” in Ezra Mendelsohn’s volume Literary Strategies (Studies in Contemporary Jewry, 12 [1996]), the line is given as I have reproduced it here. Wisse explains: “I received the twenty-two lines that are in my possession from the historian Lucy S. Dawidowicz, who had it from the British writer Chaim Raphael, who had heard Daniel Bell recite it from memory.” Doubtless there are rival versions.