A feisty magazine where intellectuals have met to do battle; A Partisan View: Five Decades of the Literary Life, by William Phillips. New York: Stein & Day. 312 pp. $19.95.
THIS fascinating memoir chronicles half a century of intellectual warfare - or, rather, warfare among the intellectuals. From his vantage point as editor of the Partisan Review, William Phillips has observed at close range the complicated infighting of New York's literary circles. Yet his very centrality has also placed him on the periphery of other important areas of cultural discourse. In fact, the most intriguing aspect of Phillips's energetic attempt to chart the murky waters of literary politics is the sheer difficulty of determining what is central, what peripheral - what is cosmopolitan, what provincial. One man's backwater may be another man's high sea.
The Partisan Review has struggled to achieve centrality. Phillips, whose intellectual life was consumed by the Partisan Review, was instrumental in defining the style and substance of a journal whose outlook, ironically, served both to define and delimit him.
Founded by Philip Rahv and Phillips in the 1930s, the Partisan Review began as an organ of the John Reed Club, but soon broke with Communist orthodoxies to pursue a strikingly independent course (or spectrum of courses) in politics, literature, and cultural criticism.
Over the years, it featured such contributors as Mary McCarthy, Meyer Schapiro, Dwight Macdonald, Clement Greenberg, William Barrett, Delmore Schwartz , Irving Howe, Ralph Ellison, Saul Bellow, Elizabeth Hardwick, Flannery O'Connor , Diana and Lionel Trilling, Norman Mailer, and Norman Podhoretz.
To those who throughout the '30s and '40s continued to defend Stalin, Phillips and his group were ''Trotskyites'' (Marxists who did not adhere to the Soviet-dominated Party line). Yet, as Phillips points out, few who wrote for the Partisan Review were actually followers of Trotsky. For, as many disillusioned Marxists were beginning to realize, the persecuted Trotsky was almost as intolerant and unscrupulous as his nemesis, Stalin.
Some of the PR group - including Rahv - continued to think of themselves as Marxists - in theory, at least. But Phillips recounts Norman Podhoretz's story about Rahv and his wife, who was alarmed by her husband's dire predictions about the fate of Wall Street. ''Philip, maybe we should sell all our stock,'' she suggested. ''Don't be a fool,'' replied Rahv, ''this is just theory.''
Anti-communist liberalism soon became the prevailing outlook of the PR crowd, including Lionel Trilling and Phillips himself. Some, like Dwight Macdonald and Mary McCarthy, grew suspicious of centralized power and inclined toward the purer politics of anarchism. But others, such as Norman Podhortez and Hilton Kramer, would eventually shift further to the right and emerge as neo-conservatives - a trend which Phillips can neither admire nor fully explain. ''A Partisan View'' may be read as part of a continuing effort to avoid the extremisms of both the left and the right.
From its outset, the magazine also had to contend with the frequently conflicting claims of politics and literature. Marxism (or even democratic socialism) and Modernism (a movement sometimes as politically conservative as it was stylistically innovative) were strange bedfellows. From his own account, it seems that Phillips preferred his ''creative'' writers to be daringly experimental but his critics to be - like Trilling - centrist and traditional. This, perhaps, explains why he was never quite able to think of Saul Bellow - whom he certainly admired - as a major literary figure, and would also explain his wariness of unorthodox, deliberately creative critics like Geoffrey Hartman and Harold Bloom.
To Dwight Macdonald, literature of any sort was simply not as important as politics. He resigned in 1943 to start his own journal (''Politics''), and was eventually replaced at PR by the poet Delmore Schwartz and the philosopher William Barrett, who served as associate editors. Barrett's recollections of his ''adventures among the intellectuals,'' ''The Truants,'' appeared in 1982, prompting Phillips to write his version of events as a corrective to Barrett's partial (in both senses of the word) history. It is the partial, or partisan, quality of both books that makes them such interesting supplements to each other. ''The Truants'' offers more in the way of reflections and anecdotes, while ''A Partisan View'' provides a more focused account of the journal itself.
Although Phillips, as Barrett tells us, suffered a writer's block, the fluency displayed in this memoir is ample testimony to the intellectual abilities behind that block. Phillips's brief account of his childhood and youth , son of ne'er-do-well immigrants in the Bronx, is funny, unsentimental, and wryly touching. Phillips belonged to a generation of literary-minded Jews excluded from academe by departments of literature that maintained only WASPs were suited to teach English. But his generation's immersion in politics was not only due to the exclusion of Jews and other ''ethnics'' from the esoteric realms of Southern-dominated academic New Criticism: it was part of a wider response to the urgent questions posed by the Great Depression.
As editor of a serious and influential journal, Phillips recognized the importance of avoiding provinciality. He remains suspicious of American ''regionalists,'' whose espousal of grass-roots populism in literature may, he fears, be little more than a self-serving scheme for undermining cultural standards.
Yet, as he also admits, ''There was a striking contrast between our preoccupations with nothing less than the most global problems and our actual intellectual provinciality. New York acquired the qualities of a nation: it was not only the homeland; it took the place of the rest of the world.''
Phillips's first trip to London seems to have been as disconcerting as it was stimulating. There is a kind of pathos in his uneasiness at London-style ''smart'' talk: ''One has to remember,'' he remarks, ''that English intellectual life for centuries has been associated with the aristocracy and has taken on some of the manners of the upper classes.'' The voice that speaks here, and that pervades this absorbing book, belongs to an insider who all too often felt like an outsider.
Perhaps the most attractive quality of the so-called ''New York intellectuals'' was the sheer vitality of their mental lives. My favorite scene in ''A Partisan View'' is Phillips's account of an exchange between the critic Richard Blackmur, eminent but restrained and slow of speech, and Phillips's PR colleague, the erudite and voluble Meyer Schapiro. ''You intellectuals in New York use your minds too much,'' said Blackmur, to which Schapiro replied, without hesitation: ''You know, Dick, when you use your mind, you do not use it up.''