William Phillips, 94; Editor, Co-Founder of Partisan Review
William Phillips, co-founding editor of the cultural journal Partisan Review, which showcased many of the mid-20th century’s finest writers and critics, including Saul Bellow, William Faulkner, Irving Howe and Lionel Trilling, died of pneumonia at a New York hospital Friday. He was 94.
Founded in 1934 with the critic Philip Rahv, Partisan Review began as an organ of the Communist Party, but soon broke ranks to pursue a more independent path.
A lonely but feisty voice of anti-Stalinism in the 1930s, it went on to publish literature and political and cultural criticism from an anti-Communist liberal perspective. Though never large in circulation (5,000 to 7,000 copies in its glory years), it heavily influenced intellectual discourse in America and abroad for several decades through the 1960s.
Among the remarkable array of writers it featured over the years were Gertrude Stein, Franz Kafka, Albert Camus, George Orwell, Tillie Olsen, Mary McCarthy, James Agee, Elizabeth Hardwick, Bernard Malamud, Ralph Ellison, Doris Lessing and Norman Mailer.
“He was a key part of a really great and influential kind of conversation that went on for 30 or 40 years that some of the best American and foreign writers took part in,” said Susan Sontag, whose career as a cultural critic began with Phillips at Partisan Review in the 1960s.
A Leading Intellectual
Known as an astute editor for whom argument was almost a way of life, Phillips was one of the leading members of an early group of New York intellectuals whose Jewishness placed them outside the mainstream--a group that included Trilling, Rahv, Marxist philosopher Sidney Hook and writer Dwight Macdonald.
Partisan Review became “the original cultural organ” of the group, said Neil Jumonville, an intellectual historian at Florida State University, and inspired other influential journals such as Dissent and Commentary.
Its pages are a treasury of American leftist thought on such topics as whether to support Britain and the West in the battle against the Axis powers in the early 1940s or stake out a third camp. In the postwar 1950s it opened debate over whether it was possible to be an intellectual in a conformist society.
Phillips, Jumonville said, played the role of intellectual gatekeeper, one who was “very acutely perceptive about what needed to be talked about at any one time.”
“He was a brilliant editor,” said Harvard sociologist Daniel Bell, “in the sense of trying to identify major problems in intellectual and cultural life and getting people to [tackle] them.”
Phillips was born in Manhattan and grew up in the Bronx. His Russian-Jewish immigrant parents separated when he was 1, and his mother took him to live with her family in Kiev for a few years.
They returned to New York when he was 4 and reunited with his father, Edward, who had traded his family name of Litvinsky for Phillips.
Despite the name switch, neither of his parents fit well into the American mainstream. Edward Phillips was, in his son’s words, “a totally unsuccessful lawyer” who spent most of his time reading philosophy and drifting from one obsession to another, including yoga and Christian Science. His mother, Marie, was a hypochondriac constantly in pursuit of a cure.
Phillips went to City College of New York, where he was exposed to the works of T.S. Eliot and became interested in literary criticism. He went to graduate school at New York University and steeped himself in modernist writers and artists such as Ezra Pound and Piet Mondrian. He wrote his first published piece of criticism while he was a graduate student in the late 1920s.
At NYU, he met Edna Greenblatt, an English and philosophy major who would become his first wife. She died in 1985. He also joined intellectual circles in Greenwich Village, associating with “high-minded, idealistic, educated aesthetes,” most of whom became Communists.
In 1934 he joined the John Reed Club, a left-wing group of writers and painters associated with the Communist Party, and soon assumed its top post of secretary.
He quickly became disillusioned with the group’s literary crudity and political rigidity, however, and began to dream of starting a magazine that would reflect his views.
He met Rahv, who shared his vision. They launched Partisan Review with $800, enough to run the magazine for a year in the Depression economy.
“We were outsiders beginning something new and had no idea how long it would last or how important it would be,” Phillips said in a New York Times interview in 1997.
To keep it going, he and Rahv gave dance parties, charging for admission and drinks. They earned a few nights in jail for selling liquor without a license but were acquitted at trial.
The magazine lasted as an organ of the John Reed Club for about two years, during which Phillips and Rahv grew increasingly disgusted with Communist pressure to promote its favorite writers.
In 1937 the editors severed its ties with the party and reorganized with a staff that included Macdonald and Mary McCarthy.
“As Communists, they discovered, they were expected to subordinate their literary and intellectual values to the party line.... Confronted with a choice between loyalty to the party and loyalty to literature, they chose literature,” Norman Podhoretz, who wrote for Partisan Review before his neoconservative conversion, said in his 1979 memoir, “Breaking Ranks.”
The first issue of the revamped Partisan Review contained Delmore Schwartz’s famous story “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” poems by Wallace Stevens and Agee, essays by Edmund Wilson and Lionel Abel, and reviews by Hook and Trilling.
Over the years Partisan Review attracted an amazing galaxy of voices and was notable for reaching out to disaffected Europeans such as Kafka, Camus and Orwell.
“We didn’t start out to print great fiction,” Phillips said several years ago. “We started out as opponents of the left-wing socialist realism of the day, in its extreme called proletarian literature. We wanted to print the good modernist writers, and it turns out the good modernist writers were the great modernist writers.”
Phillips wrote some literary criticism but was far from prolific. He wrote one book, a 1983 memoir titled “A Partisan View: Five Decades of the Literary Life.”
Partisan Review writer William Barrett, in his 1982 memoir called “The Truants,” wrote that although Phillips’ conversation “flowed like a radiant and sparkling stream,” he suffered from chronic writer’s block. “Many nights, when we were walking away from his house,” Barrett wrote, “Delmore [Schwartz] would observe with affectionate sadness, ‘If only William could get all that into writing.’ ”
Phillips’ book drew mixed reviews, criticized by some for mean-spirited portraits of his colleagues.
He painted Trilling, for instance, as an orderly, graceful, flexible and modulated person who nonetheless once almost hit Alfred Kazin during an argument over politics. Schwartz, whose “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities” became an underground classic, was, in Phillips’ view, “probably psychotic.”
Other writers remember his kindness.
Sontag was a teenager growing up in Southern California in the 1940s when she stumbled upon a copy of Partisan Review at a Hollywood newsstand. “It was magic for me,” she recalled Friday. “I said, ‘One day I’ll grow up and move to New York and write for Partisan Review.’ ”
That day came in the 1960s, when she met Phillips at a party and boldly suggested that she write for him.
He invited her to write a book review and promised to publish it if it was any good.
When she arrived at his office, he pointed to a closet full of books that obviously would never be reviewed. “They were all terrible books,” Sontag said.
Nonetheless she chose one titled “something like ‘The Failure of the Intellectuals.’ It looked like garbage. I turned to him and said, ‘This doesn’t look any good but I could review the title.’ Then he looked at me and said, ‘Oh, you’re smart.’ He took a book from his desk by Isaac Bashevis Singer. I worked like a dog for two months on the review, and they printed it. That was the beginning. His casual kindness was my first baby step in the literary world.”
“He is the last of a breed,” said Edith Kurzweil, current Partisan Review editor and Phillips’ wife of 12 years. “He helped a lot of writers find the guts to go against the grain.”
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