The Rittenhouse Review

A Philadelphia Journal of Politics, Finance, Ethics, and Culture

Wednesday, May 21, 2003  

It Was, Perhaps, Inevitable

Partisan Review, the venerable and once authoritative literary and cultural journal established in 1934, is to be no more.

When I first hear the news, I tried to write something about it, but I wasn't satisfied with my early endeavors and so I put it aside. Thankfully, Peter Brooks, Sterling Professor of Comparative Literature at Yale University, apparently had no such trouble. His essay, "Partisan Requiem," in the May 26 issue of The Nation (pp. 36-37; the piece is not, or has not yet been, posted on the magazine's web site), is thorough and precise in its dissection of the quarterly's seemingly inevitable demise.

Brooks begins:

The announcement a few weeks ago that Partisan Review was closing shop after a run of nearly seventy years brought sadness -- since PR at its best was a central site of American cultural life -- but also a sense of inevitability. No one expected the journal to go on much longer after the death last year of its longtime editor William Phillips, who helped found it in 1934. Sadly, PR had been without vital signs for many years, its existence more and more a matter of cryonics.

Reviewing the state of PR circa 1993 and beyond, Brooks adds:

One senses increasing rigor mortis in attitude and in the prose. The move of PR to Boston University, presided over by the ultraconservative John Silber, was itself a bad sign….

One can't then mourn for the demise of PR such as it had become in its long moribundity. But its disappearance is significant, sad[,] and troubling as a sign of our present cultural state….

Probably no quarterly publication could now perform the work of cultural median, bringing high art and smart commentary to a general audience….The more important question may be whether there is any print medium that is willing to take on the strenuous exercises in literature, culture[,] and politics that once animated PR. Laying PR to rest makes us realize how long we've missed what it once did, and how long it's been since anyone else made the attempt.

During graduate school, while researching the history of liberal anti-communism, I spent many hours going through bound copies of PR from the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, often finding myself pulled toward unrelated articles about art and music. At its peak, which includes the aforementioned three decades, PR was a truly remarkable journal, one by which all others were then -- and will in the future -- be judged. It was intelligent, relevant, uncompromising, often scathing in its criticism of literature, art, music, philosophy, and, of course, American politics.

But that was a long time ago -- both PR's peak decades and my graduate-school years -- and I share Brooks's observations about the journal's slide toward incoherence and irrelevance (though I don't think PR moved as much to the right as Brooks implies or states). Occasionally I would pick up a copy on a newsstand and more often than not would find disappointing the essays within its covers.

I doubt there ever again will be a literary journal like PR at its best, for as Brooks asks, does an audience for such a quarterly exist anymore?

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