Journal of the History of Sexuality 11.4 (2002) 687-689
[Access article in PDF]
Partisans: Marriage, Politics, and Betrayal among the New York Intellectuals. By David Laskin. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000. Pp. 319. $16.00 (paper).
As the subtitle implies, David Laskin's book is a collective biography of the writers loosely knit together by their affiliation with the Partisan Review. Stretching in time from the 1930s through the 1970s, the book treats the personal and, to a more limited extent, the professional lives of the group that revolved around Mary McCarthy, Robert Lowell, and Philip Rahv. Laskin takes as his problem the interrelationship between personal and intellectual lives of the women in this group: "their interconnected lives and careers; their marriages, love affairs, and friendships; their engagement with the culture, with one another, and with the leading male writers and thinkers of their day; their place in American intellectual history; their sense of themselves as women, wives, and writers" (17). This is an ambitious project, one that Laskin certainly fulfills in the more personal dimension. Although it is less successful in fulfilling its contextualizing project, the book in sum is well written, engaging, and thought-provoking.
The group treated here is an illustrious one, with diverse politics and writing interests. It includes novelist and critic Mary McCarthy; essayist, critic, and historian Edmund Wilson; political theorist and historian Hannah Arendt; Philip Rahv, critic and editor of the Partisan Review; poets Robert [End Page 687] Lowell and Allen Tate; novelists Jean Stafford, Elizabeth Hardwick, and Caroline Gordon; and critic and memoirist Diana Trilling. Though the Partisan Review is the ostensible thread that connects these writers, it is a tenuous one, in all honesty. In reality, the Partisan Review is the point of origin for the group, many of whom seem, from Laskin's report, never to have had much to do with the journal itself. Tate and Gordon, for instance, were at the center of the Southern Agrarians, a literary movement that included Robert Penn Warren and that was much more politically conservative than the Partisan Review crowd. The group itself was connected less by professional interests than by a web of personal relationships. These relationships are the real subject of this book.
Laskin announces early on that his concern is the way that women intellectuals of the prefeminist (second-wave feminist, that is) generation understood and managed their roles as public thinkers, writers, wives, and mothers. With this subject clearly in his sights he details the way the three marriages that are the true focus of the book operated: those of McCarthy and Wilson, Stafford and Lowell, and Hardwick and Lowell. In all three cases these were fractious marriages that ended in divorce, bringing little happiness to any of the participants. Laskin does a very thoughtful job of exploring the way that creative work affected these marriages: the competition inherent in the McCarthy/Wilson marriage, the different ways that Stafford and Hardwick responded to Lowell's fame and madness. The longest among the marriages was that of New York Review of Books founder and editor Elizabeth Hardwick and poet Robert Lowell, which lasted more than twenty years; despite its longevity, however, it was disturbed repeatedly by Lowell's struggles with manic depression. In all three cases the women took as their primary responsibility the maintenance of home and hearth; even McCarthy, the most successful writer among the women, enunciated little conflict between her role as writer and that of homemaker and mother.
Some of Laskin's most engaging and thought-provoking discussions center around the differences between women who were perceived by the male writers of the Partisan Review to be "one of them" and other women. McCarthy and Hardwick as well as their friend Hannah Arendt merited this status. In contrast, Diana Trilling, a well-known critic who was publishing frequently in the Nation while they were writing for the Partisan Review, was scorned as a "wife," referring to the fact that she wrote using her married name, thereby capitalizing on the reputation of...