|PR 1/ 2002 VOLUME LXIX NUMBER 1|
Steven J. Zipperstein
Isaac Rosenfelds Dybbuk and Rethinking Literary Biography
Elegiac in tone, the passage is meant, as I see it, to consign Isaac Rosenfeld to the dustbin. In Alfred Kazins contentious, competitive literary milieu, to write ones "signature on the air" was, in effect, to disappear. And Rosenfeld, who succumbed to a fatal heart attack at the age of thirty-eight, in 1956, has had his death depicted oftenand often by some of his closest friendsas all-but-inevitable, as the severe, but also curiously just price for failing to live up to ones potential. Death, in short, as the ultimate price for writers block.
Isaac Rosenfelds death fascinated, even obsessed his contemporaries in the circle that came to be known as the New York intellectuals. The film, "Bye, Bye Braverman" was built around the tragedy. It was inspired, in turn, by a novel about the day of Rosenfelds death written by Wallace Markfield, To an Early Grave. Saul Bellow would later capture Rosenfeldas King Dahfu, a tragic hero who diesin Henderson and the Rain King where the monarch was modeled, as Bellow has admitted, after his lifelong friend. Early drafts of Bellows Humboldts Gift were inspired as much by Rosenfeld as by Delmore Schwartz; the novels title recalls the expansive neighborhood park where Rosenfeld and Bellow spent so much time together as teenagers. Humboldts Gift is, too, of course, a tale of promise, of intellectual waste, dissipation, and premature death.
Rosenfeld, a writer of great promise and stature in the 1940s and early 50s, was the author of the novel, Passage From Home (1946), and many essays and short stories. At his height, he was seenas Irving Howe wrote in his memoir, A Margin of Hopeas the "golden boy" of New Yorks fiercely ambitious literary intelligentsia. Eager to launch the next great American novelist, leading figures in this circle predicted it might well be Rosenfeld. According to Partisan Review editor Philip Rahv, Rosenfeld in his prime was a more expansive writer than Delmore Schwartz, and more erudite than Bellow. "There was," writes Howe, "an air of yeshiva purity about Isaac that made one hope wildly for his future." Rosenfeld, not Bellow, won a Partisan Review literary contest. ("We were all entering" it, admitted one of his competitors.) He was selected as an assistant literary editor of The New Republic, and, almost immediately after arriving in New York as a philosophy graduate student at NYU, in 1941, he started publishing in the best national intellectual magazines. Bellow, still in Chicago at the time, remembers thinking that Rosenfeld had left him behind in the dust. After his death, five (still) unpublished novels were found among his papers.
In retrospect, it is the distance between promise and execution that tends to be remembered about him. James Atlas writes in his recent biography of Bellow that Rosenfeld "had always represented [for him] the obverse of Bellows startling rise to fame. The obscurity that was Rosenfelds reward seemed a far more plausible outcome of literary aspiration than winning the Nobel Prize and just as dramatically compelling."
So much was expected of Rosenfeld. When he was only fourteen, Bellow informed friends at Chicagos Tuley high school that Rosenfeld was the only boy in the city to have read all of Immanuel Kant. Bellow later captured this amazement with the young Rosenfeld: "In short pants, he was a junior Immanuel Kant. Musical (like Frederick the Great or the Ezterhazys), witty (like Voltaire), a sentimental radical (like Rousseau), bereft of gods (like Nietzsche). . .Not only did he study Hume. . . .but he discovered Dada and Surrealism as his voice was changing."
Why, then, in his late twenties, did he write a book about the most predictable of themes in American Jewish literaturethe uneasy relations between a Jewish son and his father? He seemed to wander about too much, all-too-visibly, vocally, openlybetween married and single life, between jobs, between many, sometimes patently unsuccessful, forms of writing. And he wondered at times, in his copious journals, at least, whether what seemed to be his obsessive womanizing might have been prompted by an inclinationone which he found terrifyingto wander beyond heterosexuality, too.
So, in the memoirs of Alfred Kazin, Irving Howe, William Phillips, and others, Rosenfeld was made into (at best) a poignant, (at worst) a ridiculous failure. Kazin, once again in his memoir New York Jew: "As even the [Greenwich] Village desperados noticed, Isaac was a failure. Precocious in everything and understandably worn out, he died at thirty-eight. Even his dying would be a kind of failure."
"Everyone knows the great Dr. Johnson," writes British biographer Richard Holmes at the opening of his splendid biography of a biography, Dr. Johnson and Mr. Savage,
Isaac Rosenfeld, unlike Richard Savage, was never notorious; still what Ive learned of his life reveals something comparable, at least in terms of the awful risks and, of course, the occasional, lavish prizes of a life spent with literature. It, too, is a tale replete with reminders of lifes many contingencies. An examination of his life highlights the unpredictable vagaries of literary reputation, the fluid, critical intersections between an individual life and the various settings in which it is lived. It examines the vagaries of influence, of literary isolation, and also those intrusions so crucialand also, at times, so devastatingto ones work as an intellectual.
Since discovering Rosenfeld, Ive asked myself often that question raised by so many about the nature of biographical work, but put so well in Julian Barness Flauberts Parrot:
I return later to this question, but a few words about it now. Recently, when thenPoet Laureate Robert Pinsky announced his project to record (in anticipation of the new millennium) the favorite poems written in the last hundred years of hundreds, if not thousands, of Americans, he declared, in an interview in the New York Times, that his own personal favorite was Saul Bellows Yiddish translation of T. S. Eliots "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." This loose, ironic translationmore, in truth, an exercise in cultural transmutationis truly wonderful. The text of it has never been published in full, but here is a sample in both Yiddish and English translation. First, Eliots poem in its original form:
"A startling x ray of [Eliots] hallowed bones, which brings Anglo-Saxons and Jews together in a surrealistic Yiddish unity, a masterpiece of irreverence." These last words are, indeed, Bellow commenting, as it happens, on the Prufrock translation produced not by him, as Bellow has always acknowledged, but by his dear friend Isaac Rosenfeld. So, the poem designated, albeit tentatively, by the former U.S. Poet Laureate as the finest written by an American in this century is the work of a writer who is so distant from canonized memory that Pinsky himself cant manage to identify him as the author of his own work. "Thereby," as Holmes writes, "hangs a small but haunting mystery of biography."
Most useful biographies are shaped, in some fashion, by metaphorseveryday life is simply too messy, too full, too unmediated by actuality, if you will, to be stuffed into a book. It just doesnt fit. And so many biographies since Boswell have been built, at least in their initial moments, around the unsettling of older, supposedly tired, over-used, at least less-than-useful metaphors.
Here is an example of posthumous mystification of Rosenfeld in terms of the critical reactions to his novel Passage From Home. The books apparent lack of success, its tepid reception later was said to have foreshadowed the remainder of his life. A perusal of its reviews, however, reveals that, on the whole, it was vigorously celebrated at the time of its releaseby many of the same critics who would later disparage it as a minor work.
Praise came from rather surprising quarters. The Nations normally acerbic reviewer, Diana Trilling, was especially suspicious of Jewish literature when written by an American Jew with ample opportunity, as she saw it, to embrace a larger, more interesting world. True, Diana Trillings suspicions on this score were showcased in her review of Rosenfelds Passage From Home, where she proposed that despite the books "start as a Jewish genre novel," it "develops into a novel of profound universal meanings." (Note the comparison between the small, cloistered world of the Jews, and the large, expansive world beyond it.) Yet Trilling compares Rosenfelds sensibility to that of Henry Jamesa sure sign of literary transcendence: "Its high estimation of the young mind and spirit is. . .not the only regard in which Passage From Home proposes a comparison with James. In its preoccupation with the moral nature of the early educative process, Mr. Rosenfelds novel recalls Henry Jamess What Maisie Knew and The Pupil." The novel achieves, as Trilling puts it, a full, persuasive exploration of what it meant to take "life at so high a moral pitch."
Rosenfelds book so overwhelmed the then-very-young Irving Howe that, on his first reading, he was inspired to write both a fulsome review and an autobiographical essay. The latter piece was, at one and the same time, an extended reflection on the novel and a candid, painful analysis of his own relationship with his father. He published both in Commentaryhis first articles in a national magazine. Howe then insisted that the novels portrait of relations between a father and a son were built around a "helpless, tragic conflict . . .a true and acute perception, the very stuff of which literature is made." Yet, in his memoir A Margin of Hope written some forty years later, he sums up his impressions of the book quite differently: "Little remains of his flawed, noble spirit. A minor first novel, some fine critical miniatures, and a legend of charm and waste." "At thirty-eight," he adds, Rosenfeld "died in lonely sloth."
"Lonely sloth" is the most frequently utilized description for Rosenfeld; the term recurs, in various guises. Rosenfeld died, it is said often, alone and in a dreadful roomthe most palpable signs of a misspent life. Rosenfeld himself spoke often of his various, rented rooms. He described the isolation of his last few years, in particularan isolation all the more jarring because for so much of his life he was surrounded by lively, adoring friends, by family, by lovers, by worshipful students, by a small, but eager coterie of disciples. "Its awful being alone in Chicago," he writes to his friends Oscar and Ruth Tarcov, half a year before his death, "Ive had enough of living in exile in rooming houses, I want to be back where my life is."
Much of the work he produced even in his best, most fertile years was built around lonely men living in rooming houses. The last short story he wrote before his death described a King Solomon contemplating his demise in a place that looked, smelled, and sounded much like a boarding house. The king here is disarmingly sloppy, sexually indifferent, and he lives in a city that is something of an unlikely cross between Jerusalem and the Lower East Side. He is unmoved by the Queen of Sheba, herself portrayed as resembling a middle-aged widow in the Catskills. Here is the storys end:
That dreadful room and his isolation are given prominence in the most widely cited text about Rosenfelds deathSaul Bellows obituary in the October 1956 issue of Partisan Review. It appeared in the pages of the magazine where the twodubbed the "Chicago Dostoevskyians"vied most visibly for primacy. Their longstanding, intense friendship, their vitality, their lavish talent, their penchant for literature, not politicsall this made them stand out. It also rendered their competition all the more intriguing. Here, in his obituary, Bellow had the last word.
Bellow admits elsewhere that theirs was a sometimes uneasy relationship: "I loved him, but we were rivals, and I was peculiarly touchy, vulnerable, hard to deal withat times, as I can now see, insufferable." The obituary is touching, and vivid. Its chilling conclusion is what is most often cited:
The term "alone" possessed distinctly dreaded connotations in the Yiddish-dominated culture in which Bellow, Kazin, Rosenfeld, and so many of the other New York intellectuals were reared. Little was deemed worse than being left alonewith no one to care for you, beyond the buzz of talk, beyond the care of family, of loved ones, beyond all that made life bearable. It was in such a state, or so it was said, that Isaac died. His estranged wife, Vasiliki, and his two children, Eleni and George, were in New York, where the boisterousness of their Barrow Street apartment had given way to the isolation and anonymity of a grim rooming house. This was how Rosenfelds last days would be recalled. When James Atlas published one of his first poems in the journal Poetry, he titled it, "Isaac Rosenfeld Thinks About His Life." It begins with Rosenfeld contemplating life, alone, in a dismal room:
Similarly, the distinguished poet John Berryman, who taught with both Bellow and Rosenfeld at the University of Minnesota in the early fifties, wrote the following poem for Rosenfelds son, George, soon after Rosenfelds death:
Morgan Blum, a colleague of Rosenfelds at the University of Minnesota published a poem in The New Republic on September 3, 1956, entitled, "Isaac Rosenfeld: for a Friend Who Died Alone":
I have met two womenboth vibrant and smart, and at least one who was at the time desperately in love with Rosenfeldwho had plans to see him on the day of his death. There may well have been a third. This, it seems, is hardly the routine of a hermit.
But the identification of Rosenfeld with a sordid, anonymous room has proven so resilient that in Brian Mortons remarkable recent novel of New York literary life, Starting Out in the Evening, mention of Rosenfelds name immediately inspires reference to such a room. The books protagonist, an erudite, out-of-print novelist named Schiller, explains to his young, eager would-be biographer his ambivalent relationship in the 1940s and 50s with the work of D. H. Lawrence. He tells her that what particularly upset him about Lawrence at the time was his impact on the likes of Norman Mailer and Isaac RosenfeldJewish intellectuals like himself, he adds, whose attraction to the "wisdom of the blood" he deplored:
So, on the one hand, there is Forsters room, a place of grand achievement, even immortality; many floors belowquite literally, in the cellarthere is Rosenfelds room, a grim place, a mid-century metaphor for Grub Street, where the unread (like Rosenfeld), or the overrated (like Mailer) go to die.
In concentrating attention on the room where Rosenfeld died, Im reminded of John Updikes challenge in a recent essay in The New York Review of Books, "One Cheer for Literary Biography": "The main question concerning literary biography is, surely, why do we need it at all?" Updike explains how such books arent, as he sees it, utterly dispensable, but theyre not altogether essential either. He tends to tuck away most of them in his barn, not on the more accessible shelves of his house.
I offer Updike the following reply, which supports the argument that biographical knowledge is revealing not only in terms of what it tells us about the making of literature, but also in terms of the making of cultural memory, in the broadest terms. It can tell us much about how one builds out of such artifacts our sense of the pastwhen we rub the often all-too-smooth surfaces of collective memory against the confounding messiness of everyday life as captured in the best of biographical writing.
Isaac Rosenfeld did not die in the room described by Bellow. Nor did he die on Walton Place. His new, airy, two-room apartment, to which he moved a few months before his death, was on Huron, near Chicagos Loop, where he then was teaching at an evening school branch of the University of Chicago. Bellow had last seen him at the Walton flat. Without access to the primary sources used by biographersletters, journals, interviews, etc.this could not have been known. Still, this constitutes more than a mere, passing errata.
This information was culled from interviews, as well as letters Rosenfeld wrote at the time. In one letter written a few months before his death, Rosenfeld tells Freda Davis, the friend who discovered his dead body, about the apartment, and he relates a conversation he had with his son, still living with his ex-wife in New York: "[George] knew I was sad. I assured him my life was much better now. Im no longer in that basement. I have a nice room, new clothes, a car. I have lots of friends."
Davis, a high-school sweetheart whom he met again near the end of his life, spent much time there. As she described it, the flat had a bright kitchen, a desk in the living room piled high with manuscripts; the bathroom was in the hall, the bedroom was tiny and somewhat dingy, but the main room was large and filled with books. Isaac had bought himself a convertible. Interestingly, none of the descriptions of his sudden, sordid death ever mention this sporty car. In this same place, according to Daviss account, Rosenfeld enjoyed cooking for her, an apron tied around his waist, a flashy car waiting for them outside the window. In letters to friends, and in his journal, he speculated that he might soon break off their relationship. He also suggested that he might well marry her.
Rosenfeld completed several of his best essays and stories in the last months of his life. At the time he was at work on a book on the Chicago fire, and a literary study of Tolstoy. He was writing sketches for Chicagos Compass Playersthe precursor to the comedy group, Second Cityand one of the sketches, "The Liars," was performed in Chicago by Mike Nichols, Elaine May, and Shelly Berman. Mike Nichols later optioned it for television. "King Solomon" appeared in Harpers soon after his death. A lengthy essay about Chicago, published posthumously in Commentary, is often considered his finest piece of nonfiction. Among his unpublished novels were expansive explorations of many different worlds: Ghandis India, Soviet Russia, a Reichian sex colony, and, in probably his strongest work of fiction, Greenwich Village. He was still working on this manuscript at the time of his death.
Perhaps, on the verge of a breakthrough? Isaac himself recorded just this in his journals. Nothing of the sort appears in the writings of his friends. "Wunderkind grown to tubby sage," Irving Howe summed him up at the time of his death.
A passage in Richard Holmess biography of Coleridge may help us understand better his friends reactions. With reference to Coleridges turbulent, sometimes dreadful, final decades, Holmes discusses the responses of friends when the now-puffy, opium-addicted, but still brilliant writer returned to England after his extended stay in the Mediterranean. Significantly, Coleridge still had many superb books ahead of him:
Rosenfeld, too, seemed to have lavishly, and all-too-visibly squandered an extraordinary opportunity. Years went by without a new novel; his first bookwritten at a time when he was lauded as a new Kafkacame to be seen as little more than a slim, predictable tale of a Jewish adolescents struggle with his father. Rosenfelds marriage fell apart for reasons that remained obscure to Rosenfeld himself. He wandered between New York, Minnesota, and Chicago; he gave up a job at The New Republic to work on a barge; he experimented, often with mixed results, with many different forms of writing; he threw himself into Reichism, and he devoted himself, somberly, to free love. He benefited little from his Reichian work, and, judging from his journals, he gained little palpable pleasure from his sexual experimentation.
Friends watched perplexed and, perhaps, at times fearful that they, too, might similarly stumblethat the various messy details of their everyday lives might also come crashing in. Many of them did fail, as they themselves saw it, in one way or another. William Phillips, Partisan Review editor, insisted late in life that he had "pissed his time away in talk." Rahv, Phillips co-editor, fell into terrible, prolonged depressions, and he never managed, despite his much-lauded brilliance, to complete a single, full-length work. William Barrett recalls running into Rahv, in the late fifties, and while walking around Gramercy Park, Rahv "began ticking off one by one some of the people we had known and their initial hopes, ending always with the refrain, It wasnt in the cards." Even Kazin never produced a book of comparable stature to On Native Grounds, which he published in his twenties. He would revisit this singular moment time and time again, in memoir after memoir, throughout the remainder of his life.
These were, on the whole, self-made men, essentially self-taught, with their learning picked up in prodigious fits of reading at the local library, or during long, dull stints in the army. (Howe claims to have started reading seriously only as a soldier.) They had little to fall back upon, except for their willfulness, and their ambition. Mary McCarthy describes Rahv in her 1949 novel, The Oasis:
"I now feel. . .that our little world was deficient in friendship and loyalty and that objectivity often has been a mask for competitiveness, malice, and polemical zealfor banal evils," writes Phillips in his memoirs. Rosenfelds posthumous reputation may well have been a victim of this. He was the first of this circle to die; he had many, visible meanderings about which he talked far more openly than most of the others in this milieu; and his faltering steps as a writer were all-too well known. Many near him may well have lived with the fear that they, too, might fall prey to similar demons. No one has captured just such demons better than Bellow. Near the beginning of his second novel, The Victim, published in 1947, his narrator muses:
This is uncannily similar to how Rosenfeld came to be seen. Attached to him were many of the more discordant, embarrassing moments of the collective life of the writers best equipped to remember him. Bellow, as well, had been a devotee of Wilhelm Reich, the wildly controversial, once influential disciple of Freud. Bellow writes extensively about Reichs influence on him in Seize the Day and in Henderson and the Rain King. Still, in the memoirs of their mutual friends, such as Kazin and Howe, one is left with the impression that this, too, was a singularly mad enthusiasm of Rosenfeld. Kazin even asserts that Rosenfelds Reichianism contributed somehow to his early demise: "And everything came back to the Isaac the prisoner in his cell the orgone box. He never broke out." Whether the symbols are a grim, awful room, or that small, silly box, Isaac in such accounts locks himself in, he suffocates his talent, his potential, his own life.
It seems germane to add that Rosenfeld abandoned his orgone box, too, a few years before his death, and not long after Bellow did. Both had their orgone boxes built for themby childhood friends from the Humboldt Park neighborhood. Rosenfeld brought his box along with him to the apartment where he died. It was folded up in a comer of the room. By then, he poked fun at the Reichian movement; one of his unpublished novels is a grim, anti-utopia set in a Reichian sex colony, a place that rivals in its totalitarianism another unpublished novel based in Soviet Russia.
In the end, Rosenfeld was madeand, arguably, also rather undoneby much the same intellectual circle in which he lived much of his life: left-wing, post-Trotskyist, Jewish, and competitive in almost epic terms. Bellow remained fiercely loyal to him and his memory. But for most, Rosenfeld was an errant genius whom they nurtured, advertised, mythologized and, eventually, helped marginalize. He would be used as both clown and object lesson, as an unsettling, but also reassuring example of what they had managed to avoid, or so they hoped.
The room, then, in which Rosenfeld did not die, like the orgone box that almost certainly did not trap himthese images, and the excessive reliance on them in the texts produced about him after his death, teach us something essential about his milieu. It shaped him, it helped launch him, and eventually, it also played its role in consolidating his eventual oblivion.
The book I am writing is built to a great extent on tissue lettersletters saved by friends, treasured by lovers, hoarded by competitors, savvy or optimistic literary investors, and others. Their discovery is among the few actual, lived adventures in an otherwise mostly sedentary scholarly life. For this book, I, too, have tracked down many, many hundreds of letters; I have sat with them in a good many strange, even somewhat unsafe living rooms, thinking about and, at times, also rather reenacting scenes out of Henry James. Such letters, as Janet Malcolm so perceptively writes in The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, "are the great fixative of experience. Time erodes feeling. Time creates indifference. Letters prove to us that we once cared. They are the fossils of feeling. . . .Everything else the biographer touches is stale, hashed over, told and retold, dubious, inauthentic, suspect." No less pertinent is a comment on this score in A. S. Byatts novel, Possession: A Romance, "Letters. . .are a form of narrative that envisages no outcome, no closure. Letters tell no story, because they do not know, from line to line, where they are going."
A biography must know, however, at least on some level, where it is going. I end with an experience that helped me decide something essential about my books trajectory: It is a story about Isaacs roomshis rooms on Greenwich Villages Barrow Street, the flat mentioned by Kazin in the citation at the beginning of this essay.
Sitting in an Upper West Side café a few years ago, I decided to try to see the interior of Rosenfelds apartment. I had visited the building, of course; I had peeked into its windows; I had read much about the placeits wild parties, Delmore Schwartz drunk on the floor, guests climbing in and out of its first story windows, its dirt, its pets (dogs, snakes, etc.), its smells, its eventual, unmistakable shoddiness. I took a taxi to 85 Barrow Street, in the Village, something like a (now gentrified) English working-class street with cobblestones running nearby, eastward, a few blocks toward the Hudson River. About eleven oclock on a Sunday morning I rang the bell for apartment 1k and a gruff male voice answered.
I had practiced my absurd little talk in the taxi, explaining that I was a Stanford professor writing a book about someone who had once lived in this apartment. An article of mine about Rosenfeld had, as it happens, appeared that weekend in a New York newspaper. I carried it with me, prepared to wave it as proof. I expected to be shouted at, to be chased away, or, at least, ignored. Instead, the voice told me that he had just emerged from the shower, and asked me to wait.
A few minutes later I was buzzed in. In the notes I took later that day, "His face appears from behind the apartment door, which is just to the right of the entrance to the narrow apartment building. He is about 58", he had light brown hair, somewhat curly, full lips, a wide smile, sympathetic eyes. He looks much like Isaac."
I was too unsettled at the time to write down his name, but I remember his telling me that he had just moved from Maine after finishing university. He had come to New York to be a writer. He was working at a small publishing house, and he explained, eerily and much as Rosenfeld himself would have said, that he desperately wanted to continue to trust people, and for this reason had opened his apartment to a stranger. I insisted that he must never do this again. I stayed there chatting with him for half an hour, talking about his love for New York, his work, about writing, its pleasures, and frustrations. I looked over the small apartment, took measure of its rooms, noted how close the childrens room would have been to the living room with its wild, loud parties. (Rosenfelds only remaining child, Eleni, is now a Buddhist nun in the south of France.) Its new resident promised to rush out later that day and buy a copy of my article on Isaac. He was healthy, he was unpublished, untested, still hopeful, and I felt extraordinarily pleased that it was he who now lived in Isaacs place.
What I recognized later, as I thought about this encounteran encounter with, perhaps, one of the worlds more benign, gentle dybbukswas that I wanted most for my book to capture something essential about a life spent with books. Isaac Rosenfeld confronted this with unusual honesty, both in terms of its limitations and joys. What derailed him was also what most inspired him: he was devoted to exploring what most mattered in life, and he was unwilling, or unable, to pour all his considerable ambition into his written work. Still, he was found dead beside a desk piled high with manuscripts, in a room surrounded by books.
"To read as if for life," says David Copperfield. This line now seemed to promise so many different, discordant things. In writing about Rosenfelds life I sought to clarify these, to nuance them, to say something essential about one singularly self-aware life spent in intimacy with books. I hoped this would provide a clue as to how such a life starts, how it is sustained (or not), how it comes to an end, how it is later recalled, forgotten, perhaps revived. Rosenfeld himself summed up well this quest in the last lines of his last essay on Chicago, seeking to define what he called the principle of all great cities: