The Incomplete Rosenfeld


Fame, Oblivion, and the Furies of Writing
By Steven J. Zipperstein
277 pages. Yale University Press. $27.50.

“Jewish to his bones” was how Irving Howe described Isaac Rosenfeld in 1962, reviewing Rosenfeld’s posthumous collection of essays, An Age of Enormity. In our own time Rosenfeld remains a relatively obscure figure, his name linked with his childhood friend and, later, literary rival, Saul Bellow. Precocious immigrant sons from the gritty streets of Chicago, nourished by the radical politics of the 1930s and crazy with ambition, they each sought, starting out in the 40s, literary fame in New York.

Bellow, of course, would achieve early greatness, beginning with Dangling Man, published in 1944, at the age of 29. Yet Rosenfeld achieved substantial early success as well. In the 1940s and 50s he emerged as one of the most important literary voices of the age—a golden age of criticism, in the eyes of most literary historians—and a major figure within the group that Howe dubbed the New York Intellectuals. Alas, Rosenfeld didn’t live long enough to fulfill the enormous promise his friends (along with Bellow, Irving Howe, and Alfred Kazin) anticipated for him. Rosenfeld died of a heart attack in July, 1956, in his beloved Chicago, at the age of 38.

In his deeply felt, richly imagined Rosenfeld’s Lives, Steven J. Zipperstein retrieves Rosenfeld from obscurity. Zipperstein seeks to recover Rosenfeld as a major (if neglected) voice, indeed an abiding presence in the history of Jewish letters. Incorporating a cache of archival material (letters, journals, drafts of unpublished novels—many newly discovered), Zipperstein thickens our sense of Rosenfeld’s brief-but-incandescent career, fleshing out its various strands, which lead out from immigrant Jewish Chicago of the 1920s to the heady (and wacky) Greenwich Village 1940s intellectual scene, over which Rosenfeld and his beautiful exotic wife Vasiliki famously presided.

In Zipperstein’s account, Rosenfeld looms as the darling of this vibrant colony of bohemian intellectuals, their golden boy, a beloved Yiddish-soaked favorite son: a “luftmensch of the mind, roamer among theories,” in Howe’s insider portrait of the New York Intellectuals. Among the theories “Isaac” (as everyone, including Zipperstein, calls Rosenfeld) tried out was the cultural radicalism of Freudian acolyte Wilhelm Reich, theorist of the pseudoscience of orgonomy (a therapeutic vogue in the 40s among Village intellectuals, including Bellow and the educational reformer Paul Goodman and a young Norman Mailer) and inventor of the orgone box, a cardboard contraption fashioned into a telephone booth-like structure lined with layered rock and steel wool. Devout Reichians would meditate in the orgone box, soaking up an imagined self-generating charge of latent psychic energy. According to Reich, this mode of therapy would release the culturally-blocked instincts, enabling its practitioners to gain access to the repressed libido, leading to what Mark Shechner, in an essay on the relation between Reich and Jewish writers in the 40s calls “the ideology of the redemptive orgasm.”

Looking back we can recognize in Rosenfeld’s Reichian antics his desire for spiritual wholeness, along with a “craving for expansion” (Bellow’s phrase, in reference to his and Isaac’s youthful dreams) and, above all, the quest for a way of living that might salve the alienated (Jewish) soul. He would never achieve such a clarifying vision. In Howe’s warm account, Rosenfeld “held one’s admiration through his devotion to the principle of restlessness.”  Zipperstein explores the emotional and intellectual sources of Rosenfeld’s “restlessness,” vividly capturing what he calls the “messiness that weighed down on Rosenfeld often and until the end of his life.” Heroic in his quest, Zipperstein’s Rosenfeld “wrestl[ed] with how to live fully with one’s mind and heart without losing oneself to either.”

The furies that haunted Rosenfeld were marked by an “emotional hunger incapable of being sated.” It’s not surprising that Rosenfeld identified with figures like Kafka’s hunger artist and Abraham Cahan’s David Levinsky (for Rosenfeld, the “Diaspora Man”). Each, to borrow from Rosenfeld’s 1944 contribution to a symposium on “The Situation of the Jewish Writer,” is a “specialist in alienation.”

The hunger and alienation began early, in Jewish Chicago. Rosenfeld’s mother died at 21, when he was two years old. The loss proved indelible. “I was left in a state of suspended animation, the result of shock,” Rosenfeld confided in his journal, in his 20s; “my predominant state all through my life—under a clamp, fearful, deeply hidden in feeling.” What saved him was his friendship with Saul Bellow, older by two years, a member of the Jewish gang of self-styled “European” intellectuals at Chicago’s Tuley High School. In Zipperstein’s account: “They were nervy and urban; steeped in street talk and T.S. Eliot; informed by Russian, but also English, French, and German literature—all inflected in Yiddish.” (Irving Howe would later style this high-level diction mixed with urban slang the Jewish-American voice, a distinctive tone elevated to verbal art by Bellow himself. Its most famous incarnation is Rosenfeld and Bellow’s much-cited parody of T.S. Eliot “translated” into a rhyming Yiddish.)

After an early marriage, which proved tempestuous, to Vasiliki Sarant and the move to New York in 1941, Rosenfeld began writing his one published novel, Passage from Home (1946), about an immigrant son’s coming-of-age in 30s Chicago. He supported his family through steady work as a literary critic for the New Republic, the New Leader (where Rosenfeld served for a time as literary editor), Commentary, Partisan Review, and other leading journals, writing brilliant reviews on a range of figures and subjects (a generous selection of these writings, along with Rosenfeld’s short fiction and some journal entries, is collected in Preserving the Hunger: An Isaac Rosenfeld Reader).

In the canon of Jewish American literature, Passage from Home falls chronologically between Henry Roth’s harrowing Call It Sleep (1934) and the arrival of Philip Roth in the late 50s. Rosenfeld’s novel exemplifies what Howe calls “the fiction of urban malaise, second-generation complaint... [and] woeful alienation.” In Zipperstein’s reading, Passage from Home evokes “the most psychologically probing fictional analysis in English of the making of a Jewish intellectual.”

Passage from Home follows the progress of young Bernard and his journey out, away from oppressive fathers and his provincial Chicago home and towards his free-spirited Aunt Minna, a figure whom Bernard invests with the promise of a more authentic, bohemian life. Taking in the exotic Minna’s apartment, Rosenfeld brilliantly captures—conjures—Bernard’s awakened sensibility:

Minna’s apartment was the only one I knew which had a fireplace.... Since Jews did not bring fire into their homes, I thought it forbidden. Fire was the image of that raging, destructive spirit, found also in drunkenness, bloody meat not salted or soaked, life without prayer, the freedom of the world without God....The pictures on the wall, their wild broken colors and unrecognizable forms, took on meaning and welcomed me. Here dwelt that spirit which we barred from our lives, and in its freedom it was friendly, not raging, and not destructive, but liberal.

In 1946 Rosenfeld’s novel resonated for Jewish critics, producing a shock of recognition in Howe and Kazin and Daniel Bell. In a personal letter Kazin told Rosenfeld that reading Passage from Home evoked “So much of the life, so many of the experiences, so rich and inflowing is the Jewish home flavor.”

In the end, Bernard learns various family secrets, and the existential discovery of “a certain homelessness in the world.” Above all he gains a complicated consciousness about Jewish fathers and sons, achieving an uneasy peace with his own father, who remains bewildered by Bernard’s flight, baffled by the son’s bookcase, overflowing with the symbols of their filial chasm, their mutual alienation: “He always seemed to regard them as strange and remote objects, symbols of myself, and thus related to him... and yet as alien and hostile as I myself had become.”

Re-reading Passage from Home after 50 years of Philip Roth, we can now recognize Rosenfeld’s early achievement (he was 28 when the novel appeared); in addition, Rosenfeld is in uncanny dialogue with Roth’s core theme: the pathos, and the comedy, of Jewish patrimony. “Fathers believe their sons to live under a constant danger,” reflects Bernard. His observation anticipates Marcus Messner’s father’s cosmic anxiety in Roth’s Indignation (2008). Was there an outbreak of Jewish generational terror in post-War America? “Sons were forever preparing to enact, and regret, an unchanging transgression,” Bernard senses at the end, empathically imagining his own connection with his father, who had once been a son too. Bernard’s insight might serve as an epigraph to Roth’s literary corpus.

In the view of most scholars, including Zipperstein, Rosenfeld was a better literary critic than fiction writer. Why couldn’t he complete his various aborted novels (on Stalinist Russia, on Gandhi and Nehru, on Greenwich Village life)? “Reich’s ideas,” Zipperstein speculates, “cramped his fiction, providing it with too much of an excuse for abstract depiction.” Also, Rosenfeld tended to pour himself more passionately into the journals.

Taken together, the range and originality and sheer verbal energy of Rosenfeld’s literary criticism continues to astonish. Between 1942 and 1956, Rosenfeld wrote scores of reviews; cultural criticism on Jewish American themes (especially “Adam and Eve on Delancey Street,” a provocative essay on Jewish dietary prohibitions that caused a stir in the pages of Commentary in 1949); and key essays on anthologies of Yiddish writing just beginning to appear in various English translations.

Compared to a young Kazin or Howe, Rosenfeld’s reviews are deeper, by far the more intellectually daring. Whether writing about Kafka, or the terror of modernity in the wake of Hitler, or the radiance he felt in reading Hasidic tales (a rapturous feeling captured briefly in the figure of Bernard’s Orthodox grandfather in Passage from Home), or the “core of permanent dissatisfaction” and “yearning for fulfillment” he understood about his own alter ego, the figure of David Levinsky, uneasily transplanted from Russia to the new world, Rosenfeld brought to his criticism a remarkable openness and empathy and learning. The poet Delmore Schwartz—who, like Rosenfeld, also died young, in the early 60s, a figure of unfulfilled promise—in his review of An Age of Enormity captures Rosenfeld’s expansive vision: “The power and ease with which Rosenfeld wrote about so many different kinds of writing was based upon an overwhelming consciousness of modern emotional, spiritual, and political disorder and his equally overwhelming sense of the necessity of finding a way of life that would free modern man and bring him genuine health.”

Rosenfeld’s Lives reveals how its hero’s chronic state of disorder (“messiness,” “restlessness”) both thwarted and inspired his imagination. Up to now we only have had glimpses of Rosenfeld’s inner demons, rendered in loving recollection by Kazin (New York Jew) and Howe (A Margin of Hope). And of course we have Bellow’s memorial tributes and fictional translations of Rosenfeld: the messy and emotional and meaning-seeking Tommy Wilhelm of Seize the Day (1956) (Zipperstein tells us that Bellow changed the ending to this key novel just after hearing Isaac had died); the Reichian-inspired African tribal leader Dahfu in Henderson the Rain King (1959); and, most directly, in “Zetland: By a Character Witness, ” collected in Him With His Foot in His Mouth (1985).

“Isaac was out for the essential qualities,” Bellow recalled in loving memory of his boyhood friend in the preface to An Age of Enormity. “The real business of his life was with comprehensive vision,” the hagiographic narrator of “Zetland” recalls. With Rosenfeld’s Lives Steven Zipperstein gives us the richest account of the charismatic golden boy of modern Jewish letters we are likely to have. By capturing his essential qualities, Zipperstein makes Rosenfeld available—present—for a new generation.