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Surveying American Late Modernism: Partisan Review and the Cultural Politics of the Questionnaire

From 1920 to 1932, the Literary Digest—a weekly American magazine—accurately predicted the winner of each presidential election in the United States by conducting massive straw polls. In 1936, however, the magazine fell into irreparable ignominy when, after distributing over ten million questionnaires, the editors predicted a landslide victory for Republican candidate Alf Landon, only to have Franklin Roosevelt win handily, securing sixty-one percent of the popular vote. George Gallup’s American Institute of Public Opinion, founded just the year before, gained widespread notoriety for not only correctly predicting the election’s outcome using only 50,000 respondents, but also estimating the Digest poll’s error in advance of their publication, with a sample of just 3,000.[1] Gallup took the technique of the questionnaire, made politically potent by mass print culture, yet still employed as a blunt instrument, and infused it with a newfound statistical rigor.[2] Gallup’s confrontation with the Digest at once exemplified and accelerated the growing influence that questionnaires had in American culture in the 1930s, and particularly highlighted how modern periodicals might thrive—or wither—by using this technique to actively engage national political debates.[3] The Literary Digest, founded in 1890, endured its shame only briefly, being sold in 1938 and shortly thereafter dissolved into Henry Luce’s Time.[4] Gallup’s Institute, meanwhile, became a leading authority in evaluating public opinion, his name soon treated as metonymic for the use of modern, quantitative polling.

Not all questionnaires from this transformative era in America culture, however, sought out quantitative consensus. Partisan Review, generally considered the most influential modernist “little magazine” in the United States from the 1930s through the 1950s, consistently employed questionnaires as a means to prompt its impressive network of authors and intellectuals into debating philosophical ideals, artistic movements, and political struggles. These questionnaires, or “symposia” as they were interchangeably called by Partisan Review’s editors, evince the magazine’s evolving commitments across its decades of cultural influence, from its early years as an organ of the Communist Party, signaled by “What is Americanism? A Symposium on Marxism and the American Tradition” in 1936, to its gradual turn towards a postwar liberal anticommunism, signaled by “Our Country and Our Culture” in 1952. For many critics, Partisan Review’s shift from the radicalism of the 1930s to the liberalism of the 1950s has served as an index for the growing aesthetic orthodoxy, and thus dwindling cultural vitality, of literary modernism, for which Partisan Review served as a leading institutional champion in the United States during these years. Even the preeminent, multivolume Oxford Critical and Cultural History of Modernist Magazines (2012) neatly recapitulates this tragic narrative, proposing that “something had been lost or forgotten” as the “bohemian left intellectual environment of the 1910s and Masses had morphed through a period of Marxist position-taking into the emerging hegemony of the New York intellectuals, accompanied by a stable, conservative literary modernism.”[5]

This article reopens critical space within such lapsarian narratives about mid-century American modernism by examining Partisan Review’s engagement with the dynamic medium of the questionnaire. Reading the magazine’s most famous survey, “The Situation in American Writing” (1939), I show how this archive illustrates a set of intellectual conditions within which modernist cultural production in the United States had to find new social purchase from the 1930s through the 1950s: a growing cultural nationalism; heightened friction among American intellectuals between promoting a radical social consciousness and defending an alienated liberal autonomy; and an increasingly professional literary marketplace, with universities replacing little magazines as modernism’s preeminent institutions. This essay maps the divergent responses to these conditions, symptomatically expressed in Partisan Review’s questionnaire, as organizing coordinates for an American late modernism.

While periodizing narratives about modernism have long emphasized the seismic years of its genesis, such as 1913 and 1922, recent scholarship has shown sustained interest in tracing modernist cultures forward through subsequent decades, and “late modernism” has emerged as a privileged handle for organizing this work. As I have suggested elsewhere, however, there remains a striking asymmetry between the parameters of scholarship on British and American late modernisms.[6] With A Shrinking Island: Modernism and National Culture in England (2004), Jed Esty established a foundational framework for British late modernism, grounding this period within a consistent temporal and geographic domain. Facing the stark reality of imperial decline during the interwar period, explains Esty, modernists such as T. S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf began to reintegrate their art within political life through organic notions of culture, community, and nation, in what he dubs an “anthropological turn.”[7] From the 1930s onwards, modernists old and new began a concerted effort to reconcile art and politics, working alongside, and even within, formerly shunned institutions and discourses of the state. This response to a growing cultural nationalism in England does not, crucially, constitute a simple withdrawal or reduction from an earlier cosmopolitanism, but rather modernism’s continued engagement with transnational circuits of war, commerce, and intellectual debate. Critics like Marina MacKay, Allison Carruth, David James, Leo Mellor, and Ashley Maher have all built upon Esty’s work, together employing “late modernism” as a consistent yet flexible handle for mapping modernist responses to English national culture from the 1930s through the 1950s.[8]

Americanist scholars have also shown recent interest in mid-century modernisms, but this work has not yet consolidated a stable period term to organize the enterprise, an “American late modernism” anchored to a comparable sense of the changing relationship between politics and culture in the United States during these decades. The most frequently cited work making claims about “late” American modernists, such as Tyrus Miller’s Late Modernism: Politics, Fiction, and the Arts Between the World Wars and Fredric Jameson’s A Singular Modernity, instead define the period via claims about a few writers’ shared stylistic and ideological commitments. Miller traces “seven major” thematics, which range from “generalized mimetism” to “a predominance of grotesque bodies,” linking otherwise disparate “late modern” authors such as Djuna Barnes and Samuel Beckett; Jameson proposes, rather tendentiously, that “aesthetic autonomy” only emerges as a “supreme value” for modernism in mid-century writing by figures from Clement Greenberg to Vladimir Nabokov.[9] Even where these claims about voluntary investments among authors and critics are locally descriptive, they have not provided organizing coordinates for a field of study. Our existing claims about the stylistic and ideological contours of an American late modernism have ultimately focused more to date upon distancing a few privileged texts and authors from the aesthetic and political values of a perpetually vilified straw-man “high modernism” than upon consolidating a portable framework for tracking modernist cultural production in the United States forward through the 1930s and 1940s.[10] Lacking a flexible and adaptable critical schema, Americanist scholarship on late modernism has remained demonstrably centrifugal, adding ever more disparate texts and commitments for the period, in a pattern that risks leading to the same overdetermination that eventually befell “postmodernism.”[11] As the robust cluster of scholarship on British late modernist studies demonstrates, however, grounding a period term around a nation’s temporal, geographic, and cultural parameters—far from constraining our critical perspective—can clarify the shaping influence of mid-century geopolitics on the broader development of Anglophone modernism, while also reciprocally directing attention to marginalized authors and texts.

This article contributes to the consolidation of an American late modernist studies, built on the model provided by Esty, by demonstrating how Partisan Review’s 1939 survey expresses a growing need to identify modernist literature’s relationship to cultural politics, to a growing literary nationalism and to the heightened emphasis upon a distinctly American culture emerging in the 1930s. Importantly, I do not offer Partisan Review, its editors, or its respondents as standard-bearers for American late modernism, but rather propose that this magazine’s distinctive position within the literary field in 1939—and the questionnaire’s distinctive affordances as a genre—make this archive a uniquely sensitive instrument for capturing defining points of debate about the politics of aesthetics in the United States at this time. Serving at once as a medium for and as a subject of mid-century intellectual debates about national self-representation and the relationship between collective mass and individual voice, questionnaires embodied the conflicting values that made aesthetic and political discourse necessarily intertwined in the 1930s. Historicizing the relationship between modern print culture and the questionnaire reveals a form with a singular capacity for mediating between restricted literary production and mass cultural consumption, which can help crystallize the contours of an American late modernism. “The Situation in American Writing” exposes a set of cultural tensions that I offer as organizing terms for an American late modernist studies, such as commitment against dissidence, collective program against individual autonomy, nationalism against internationalism. In highlighting such aesthetic and political dyads, I do not reductively associate modernism with either side, but rather emphasize how American intellectuals had to situate the purchase of modernist literary production from 1930s through the 1950s within a set of salient debates about national culture, debates often built around sharply, and indeed reductively, antithetical values. An American late modernism must for this reason be approached dialectically, acknowledging the contemporary import of such reductive cultural binaries while suspending their dichotomous logic.

Surveys, “Normalcy,” and Modern Periodical Culture

In the nineteenth century, argues Sarah Igo, social research overwhelmingly emphasized marginal populations and pathologized behaviors, such as criminality, prostitution, drunkenness, and madness; only with the twentieth century did researchers begin inquiring into “the typicality of everyday practices and opinions” (The Averaged American, 11). In her book, The Averaged American: Surveys, Citizens, and the Making of a Mass Public, Igo demonstrates how surveys played a vital role in cataloguing the “everyday practices and opinions” of Americans in the 1920s and 1930s and, generating influential representations of a shared, distinctly American culture. But if surveys served as a preeminent technique for distilling a “mass culture” from individual data, the collective self-representations established by this empirical research were continually marked by ideological erasures.[12] Robert and Helen Lynd’s Middletown studies in 1929 and 1937, for instance, became a talking point across the United States by turning Muncie, Indiana into a “‘representative’ community meant to stand in for the nation” (Igo, The Averaged American, 29). Yet the Lynds’ “impulse toward cultural wholeness,” Igo explains, “allowed African Americans, immigrants, Catholics, and Jews to be written out of their ‘representative’ community, and permitted a quite atypical city to serve as the norm” (67). Survey-based studies such as Middletown reveal the “early-twentieth-century emergence of the ideal of the “normal” American,” through which, Julian Carter argues, “a particular kind of person came to be perceived as uniquely modern, uniquely qualified for citizenship, uniquely natural and healthy.”[13] In 1945, the Cleveland Health Museum put this “particular kind of person” on display, introducing two nude white figures, “Norma” and “Normman,” purportedly representing the “average” American man and woman.[14] Statistics and eugenics had of course walked hand in hand since Francis Galton employed his foundational work in the former to define the population-molding, biopolitical ends of the latter; Norma and Normman represent culminating models of this partnership, visually rendering an idealized national couple as statistical normalcy. More than just aggregates of data, these American figures depict the national body as able, white, and heterosexual.

Even surveys articulating “normal” majority values, however, could create unexpected discourses of difference. Alfred Kinsey’s infamous reports on sexual behavior, for example, revealed “startling findings about the high rates of homosexual, premarital, and extramarital sex among ‘ordinary’ Americans,” provoking unprecedented debate about the methods and domain of social scientific research (Igo, Averaged American, 192). Recognizing the questionnaire’s capacity to articulate difference and dissent even as it records dominant values proves vital to understanding the appropriation of this technique by modernist periodicals in the early twentieth century. In Questionnaire (2015), his contribution to the elegant Bloomsbury “Object Lessons” series, Evan Kindley describes how the arrival of mass print culture in the second half of the nineteenth century introduced not only the broad, sociological possibilities of the questionnaire but also an antithetical set of uses, in which surveys focused on subjective values allowed respondents to perform personal confession and readers to consume the private lives of others. Following Francis Galton’s precedent, Kindley explains, French psychologists employed surveys en masse in the 1870s to gather data on physical and moral behavior; yet in the same years, men and women in Victorian salons delighted in playfully responding to survey cards inquiring about their hidden idols and favorite poems.[15] Many iconic figures of this age took up these dichotomous uses of the questionnaire. Charles Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872) notably began as a set of “printed queries” distributed to his researchers, asking them to examine the locals and answer questions such as “Do the children when sulky, pout or greatly protrude the lips?”[16] In 1886, a fourteen-year-old Marcel Proust joined in on the contemporary amusement of parlor game questionnaires. (His “idea of misery”? Being “separated from Maman.”) When rediscovered and printed in 1924, this posthumous celebrity confessional set off a newfound craze for the practice—Vanity Fair still publishes entries of “The Proust Questionnaire” (Kindley, Questionnaire, 19). Close and distant looks at the term “questionnaire” confirm its cultural ascendance in the Anglophone world arriving in the same years as literary modernism, in a rapid acceleration from the 1890s to the 1930s. The Oxford English Dictionary lists its first usage for “questionnaire” with the London Times in 1890, and an entry from Experimental Psychology in 1901 shows the word still being used interchangeably with “questionary.”[17] Although now consigned to the lexical dustbin, “questionary” was actually the predominant term in English until the mid to late 1880s, when it was quickly and decisively overtaken by “questionnaire,” whose dramatically escalating presence in early twentieth century Anglophone print appears in the n-gram below:

Printed Frequency of Questionnaire vs. Questionary, 1700–1910.
Fig. 1. Printed Frequency of Questionnaire vs. Questionary, 1700–1910.

Modernist Magazines and the Questionnaire

In the years leading up to this saturation point, modernist and radical magazines such as The New Age, Camera Work, The Crisis, New Masses, transition, and The Little Review all employed the fashionable technique of the questionnaire in order to help promote their artistic and social agendas.[18] Though these documents remain largely underresearched, recent interest in modernist periodical studies, catalyzed by the ongoing digitization of the little magazines, promises to open up new avenues for scholars to engage with these documents.[19] Lori Cole, who has done more than any other critic to document the historical influence of questionnaires in modernist culture, has argued that the form’s contemporary prominence matched that of the manifesto, a genre far more familiar today. Questionnaires could notably serve different functions, depending on whether editors chose to privilege the technique’s objective-quantitative or subjective-qualitative affordances. First, as Cole has emphasized, questionnaires offered a powerful means for consensus-building, drawing intellectual and artistic figures together around a periodical’s unifying program.[20] More than the monovocal manifesto, Cole argues, questionnaires could articulate a “community comprised of multiple voices,” a constellation of literary stars assembled around their magazine’s common artistic or political enterprise.[21] As editor of The Crisis, for example, W. E. B. Du Bois ran a survey series entitled “The Negro in Art: How Shall He Be Portrayed?” from 1926 into 1927. Its responses consistently protest the caricatured, condescending portrayals of African-Americans in contemporary fiction, uniting around a call for representations of black identity that affirmed the project of social equality through uplift that Du Bois studiously maintained for the NAACP’s flagship periodical.[22]

But in other cases, questionnaires could also offer a means for artists in a modernist magazine’s circle to display their private thoughts and idiosyncratic values, allowing readers to consume individual personalities rather than collective program. As editor of transition, a heterogeneous, multilingual avant-garde magazine predominantly based in Paris, Eugene Jolas circulated a series of questions about the dream life of modern artists and intellectuals. “Inquiry into the Spirit and Language of the Night” prompted some respondents into gruff refusals, but many indulged in the chance to help fashion an authorial persona by offering voluntary revelations about the workings of their unconscious mind.[23] Hemingway, as one might guess, reported fears of “run[ning] into grizzly with wrong caliber shells for rifle” as well as “lovely experiences with Miss Dietrich, Miss Garbo and others” (Jolas, “Inquiry into the Spirit,” 237). T. S. Eliot, meanwhile, seemed uncomfortable offering a glimpse into any unmediated sensibility, apologetically insisting that these are “matters I prefer to keep to myself” (236). Few respondents took the notion of shared “myths and symbols” governing unconscious life as seriously as did Jolas, and his questionnaire finally provides a set of individual anecdotes as varied in their information and purpose as those in Du Bois’s Crisis were collectively aligned. Modernist magazines, in other words, exhibit the competing centrifugal and centripetal ends to which questionnaires were being put at far grander scales by research bodies and government agencies in the first third of the twentieth century. Adopting a concept from Georg Lukács, we might say that these questionnaires reify a periodical’s literary network, turning human relations into an object for consumption. This technique for recording a field of relations, however, also necessarily intervenes in that field, reflecting its composition and values. Questionnaires always act at once as instruments and as actors, just as they continually reflect a tension between individual datum and collective representation, quantitative aggregation and qualitative selection.

By the mid-1930s, this technique’s innate tension between establishing collective consensus and recording individual difference took on heightened intellectual import in the United States. In these years, surveys began arriving at American homes and workplaces in droves, posing queries about politics, transportation, medicine, sports, and more, and the viral growth of this inquisitive medium provoked widespread anxiety. Ella A. Taylor, writing for The American Journal of Nursing in 1935, confessed that she felt “a little appalled when I think of all the questions which are bombarding the nursing profession; a little terrified when I think of all the improperly and partially answered forms that are being returned; and the many that will never be returned; and the countless answers which it will be impossible to tabulate.”[24] Taylor here describes a problem in economies of scale interposed between quantity and quality, an imbalance between the mass distribution of questionnaires and their possible completion by individual nurses with suitable efficiency and integrity. For others, the ubiquity of mass surveys posed still more injurious possibilities, a shift in the media landscape that threatened to wholly dissolve private life into public metrics. In “A Question of Questionnaires,” published in the North American Review in 1934, P. W. Wilson decries what he calls a modern “epidemic.”[25] “No school or college,” he complains, “no newspaper, manufacturer of a specialty or announcer over the air considers that he has fulfilled the whole duty of man unless he has prepared a series of interrogatories and asked everybody within reach to fill in the answers to them” (Wilson, “A Question of Questionnaires,” 326). As authoritarianism spread across the globe in the early 1930s, and the New Deal expanded the powers of the federal government at home, the survey’s pattern of interrogation and response seemed to instantiate a broader and more troubling impingement by abstract, bureaucratic collectives upon the autonomy of individual Americans. “It is not only that the community runs our trains, installs our telephones, supplies our water and adds other amenities for which we are not always as grateful as we might be,” Wilson asserts. “The community is trying also to manage our minds for us” (325).

The national enthusiasm for self-surveying, and the corollary anxiety it occasioned, must be understood as twin responses situated within what Susan Hegeman calls the broader “domestication of culture” in the United States during the 1930s.[26] Building on work by Warren Susman, Hegeman has chronicled how the 1930s mark a profound shift in the definition of “culture” from a more traditional Arnoldian sense to a marker for the common values and beliefs among any group of people, their shared ways of thinking and feeling.[27] The 1930s witnessed “the most overwhelming effort ever attempted to document in art, reportage, social science, and history the life and values of the American people” (Susman, “Culture of the Thirties,” 158). Bestselling volumes from the emerging social sciences, such as Ruth Benedict’s landmark Patterns of Culture (1934), helped create popular and professional interest in notions like the “American Dream” or an “American Way of Life” (154). Media from FDR’s radio addresses to Hollywood talkies began to search out and identify “Americanism,” a topic which prompted Partisan Review’s first symposium in 1936, an attempt to remediate anxiety about collective national representation through a carefully curated survey of individual voices. This growing cultural nationalism was supported not only by unprecedented federal programs such as the Works Progress Administration, but also by the rapidly expanding mass surveys conducted by Gallup and his peers, and by those research projects, such as the Lynds’ Middletown studies, which became iconic talking points among the American media and its publics. As efforts to reconcile individual citizen and collective state, such questionnaires not only record but embody a set of live tensions governing mid-century American cultural politics.

Desire for unified representations of American life was further spurred on by the Popular Front’s call for international solidarity against fascism. First proposed by the Communist International in 1935, the Popular Front succeeded in unifying diverse subgroups of the American left, from labor unions, anti-lynching activists, and film and theater workers, to disillusioned modernists, professional radicals, and the New Deal’s managerial class. As Michael Denning details in The Cultural Front, this broad coalition belies the longstanding, reductive divisions between social realism and modernism often used to compartmentalize the 1930s and reveals modernism’s inevitable entanglement in efforts to consolidate a national culture in the United States.[28] Taking Kenneth Burke’s speech at the 1935 American Writers’ Congress, “Revolutionary Symbolism in America,” as a touchstone, Denning emphasizes how more socially conscious forms of cultural production in the 1930s do not represent some lamentable “interregnum between modernism and postmodernism,” but rather a “project to transcend and rebuild modernism,” to mobilize, as Burke’s title implies, its symbolic energies in imagining new political ends (The Cultural Front, 120, 122). If not the first to propose a reconciliation of Marxism and modernism, Burke’s speech exemplifies how a transformative understanding of cultural politics in the United States during the mid-1930s compelled American intellectuals toward a widespread reconsideration of the politics of modern literary aesthetics.[29]

Partisan Review and American Late Modernism

American modernism enters a late phase as its aesthetic vitality and political function are reevaluated within debates about national culture in the 1930s. By focusing on Partisan Review as a site for recording this shift, I do not aim to privilege the magazine’s circle above the remarkable accomplishments of those modernists, for instance, who were supported by the Works Progress Administration, nor to imply that Partisan Review’s pages directly spawned a new literary movement.[30] As Hegeman has shown in Patterns for America: Modernism and the Concept of Culture, an earlier generation of intellectuals, such as Randolph Bourne, Waldo Frank, Van Wyck Brooks, Paul Rosenfeld, and Constance Rourke, had sought to establish an American arts movement bridging aesthetic modernism and the contemporary insights of anthropological work by Franz Boas, Ruth Benedict, and Margaret Mead—an “anthropological turn” suggestively proximate to Esty’s account of British late modernism (Hegeman, Patterns for America, 7). By focusing on Partisan Review’s 1939 questionnaire, I pick up this narrative at a later moment, one at which organizing values and problems had gained heightened clarity. Because of Partisan Review’s investment in self-critical inquiry about the politics of aesthetics, and its ongoing commitment to the medium of the questionnaire, I argue that this little magazine offers an acute diagnosis of the organizing intellectual tensions imparted into the modern American literary field by this atmosphere of cultural nationalism, a signal archive for mapping the turn into an American “late modernism.”

Partisan Review was born into a world of intellectual debate.[31] Launched in 1934 as a “Bi-Monthly of Revolutionary Literature,” Partisan Review was published by the John Reed Club, a network of local organizations founded by members of the New Masses to support Marxist artists and intellectuals.[32] And, at first, Partisan Review appeared “substantially similar” to peers such as Dynamo, Left Front, Left Review, Leftward, and Partisan (Gilbert, Writers and Partisans, 118).[33] In their opening “Editorial Statement,” founding editors Philip Rahv and William Phillips promise to “maintain a definite viewpoint—that of the revolutionary working class” and outline a political program neatly aligned with the Communist Party, including “defense of the Soviet Union.”[34] Over time, however, Rahv and Phillips began deviating from Party leadership, and soon fell into series of programmatic and personal quarrels with the New Masses. When the Party shifted to a Popular Front strategy in 1935, the John Reed Clubs were suddenly dissolved, leaving magazines such as Partisan Review without direct organizational support. In a last-ditch attempt at alignment, Partisan Review was temporarily fused with Jack Conroy’s proletarian magazine The Anvil.[35] This synthesis soon failed, and in November 1936, the magazine entered a yearlong hiatus. In a coup at once financial, political, and aesthetic, Partisan Review reappeared in December 1937, thanks to the support of a “well-heeled abstract painter named George L. K. Morris.”[36] The reborn magazine, however, now eschewed “commitments to any political party” and claimed “to represent a new and dissident generation in American letters.” Partisan Review, Rahv and Phillips proclaim, would be “unequivocally independent.”[37] Expressing a newfound enthusiasm for the “aesthetic revolt” of avant-garde art, this renascent issue opened with Delmore Schwartz’s minor modernist masterpiece, “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” a poem by Wallace Stevens, and an essay on “Flaubert’s Politics” by Edmund Wilson (“Editorial Statement,” 3). In the coming years, observes Harvey Teres, Partisan Review would see its mission as nothing less than a “radical appropriation of modernism for the purpose of renewing the culture and politics of the American left” (Renewing the Left, 16).

Yet Barbara Foley has demonstrated that the Partisan Review circle appropriated nearly all its arguments about reconciling Marxism and modernism from pre-existing debates among the radical left. Long before Partisan Review helped rebrand modernism as a dissident culture, juxtaposed against the “didacticism, abstraction, and schematism” of social realism, these same aesthetic and political complaints were being made about proletarian fiction by radical critics.[38] By 1936, James T. Farrell’s A Note on Literary Criticism could already catalog a series of artificial dyads increasingly dividing literary discourse: individual vs. class, humanism vs. “leftism,” literature vs. propaganda.[39] This tendency towards dichotomous thinking has endured, for decades, as a way of schematically divorcing modern art from politically committed writing in the 1930s and, in its later years, Partisan Review would play no small role in rewriting the history of the American literary left along these reductive lines, requiring later scholarship considerable effort to repair. Engaging an American late modernism means, among other things, recognizing how aesthetic debates about the radical possibilities for modern art in the 1930s were often implicitly, if not explicitly, framed within a Marxist conceptual vocabulary, and grappling with a more complex intermingling of modernism and Marxism than many mid-century observers—retreating from the horrors of Stalinism—would later acknowledge. 

The Situation in American Writing

Partisan Review’s 1939 questionnaire marks an instructive intermediary point between its earlier radical affiliations and its later status as a CIA-backed vehicle for defending the nation’s consensus liberal anticommunism.[40] This transitional moment, I propose, appears formally instantiated in the peculiarly equivocal results of the 1939 questionnaire, which neither trumpets collective consensus nor promotes dissenting voices. “The Situation in American Writing” rather offers a set of questions built around increasingly intractable cultural binaries in intellectual and artistic discourse: innovation against tradition, individual autonomy against collective commitment, cosmopolitanism against nationalism. In attempting to force a choice through divisive questions, Partisan Review produced not only opposed authorial statements, but also a consistent chorus of protest against the questions themselves. Though surveys were being employed overwhelmingly at this time to coalesce individual responses into a unified aggregate, “The Situation” reveals an uncertainty about the contemporary impulse towards cultural self-representation epitomized by its own technique, a heightened sense of friction between unified collectivity and autonomous expression, and, in so doing, foregrounds a set of constitutive disputes emerging within “American Writing.” Regardless of the intent of its editors, through dichotomous questions and self-critical responses, Partisan Review’s questionnaire generates a map of the structuring oppositions in the literary field of the United States, exposing the way social consciousness and individual autonomy, for instance, were being increasingly juxtaposed as antithetical terms artistic and political praxis. In this way, Partisan Review’s survey offers a keen diagnostic tool for mapping the core conceptual tensions within which modernism had to be located by the late 1930s.

“The Situation in American Writing” questions, Partisan Review 6, no. 5 (1939).
Fig. 2. “The Situation in American Writing” questions, Partisan Review 6, no. 5 (1939).

Rahv and Phillips sent their seven questions to some of the nation’s most prominent modernist authors and critics—from Gertrude Stein, Wallace Stevens, John Dos Passos, William Carlos Williams, Katherine Anne Porter, Sherwood Anderson, and Henry Miller, to Lionel Trilling, R. P. Blackmur, Robert Penn Warren, and Allen Tate. From the outset, their questions appear loaded: the first prompt asks respondents whether they have any sense of a “usable past,” whether or not this literary inheritance is “mostly American,” and whether Henry James or Walt Whitman serves as a “more relevant” figure.[41] Critics familiar with the New York Intellectuals might see this as a transparent attempt to solicit a fixed set of answers: yes, no, and James.[42] Whitman had served as the cardinal figure for American literary nationalism since his veneration by Brooks, Frank, and Seven Arts in the 1910s.[43] As one respondent in 1939 quips, “Whitman has already been retroactively admitted to the Communist Party, and the People’s Front” (“The Situation in American Writing,” Partisan Review 6, no. 4, 31). James, meanwhile, required a posthumous revival for critics to recognize his inquiries into psychological interiority as a precedent for modernist experiment. Amid ongoing debates about the competing influence of these figures, Phillips and Rahv had each written essays extolling the need to “Europeanize” American literature, to replace its provincial, populist, materialist cult of experience with a more cosmopolitan, intellectual sensibility. Such a program seems neatly embodied in displacing Whitman’s barbaric yawp with James’s transatlantic talent.

Yet this program is not what appears from a reading of the 1939 questionnaire. Just as many of the magazine’s respondents defend Whitman as do James. While Louise Bogan affirms that “James’ work is certainly more relevant to American writing,” Anderson insists “There is more of the earth in Whitman’s [work].”[44] Warren complains that Whitman has wrought “a very destructive influence” upon poetic technique, while Kenneth Fearing insists that Whitman “is more important to the present and future of American writing” (“The Situation in American Writing,” Partisan Review 6, no. 5, 112; “The Situation in American Writing,” Partisan Review 6, no. 4, 34). Miller suffers no qualification: “For me Henry James is nil; Whitman I believe is more alive than any American ever was and will, in my opinion, live forever” (50). Just as often as respondents take such polarized positions, however, they protest the nature of the question, which, as Horace Gregory complains, “excites prejudices and makes hash of critical values” (“The Situation in American Writing,” Partisan Review 6, no. 5, 121). Porter quips that “artists are not political candidates; and art is not an arena for gladiatorial contests” (“The Situation in American Writing,” Partisan Review 6, no. 4, 36). Tate calls the question “ambiguous,” and Farrell insists that “the question concerning James and Whitman seems to me to pose false alternatives” (28, 30). Robert Fitzgerald expresses this recurring grievance most forcefully: “I’m damn well tired of hearing the two of them built up into Antithetical Forces in American literature” (“The Situation in American Writing,” Partisan Review 6, no. 5, 115).

While Partisan Review’s questionnaire appears sincerely to offer James and Whitman as opposed choices, reproducing these “Antithetical Forces” clearly triggered a critical reflexivity about the constitutive tensions these authors represented in the American literary imagination.[45] Interestingly enough, Phillip Rahv’s own contemporary writing clarifies the import of this dialectical project. In a revealing essay, published in the Kenyon Review nearly concurrently with Partisan Review’s questionnaire, Rahv argues that “James and Whitman form a kind of fatal antipodes” in American literature.[46] In this article, crudely titled “Paleface and Redskin,” Rahv turns “the immense contrast between the drawing-room fictions of Henry James and the open air poems of Walt Whitman” into a model for the growing polarization in American writing between “patrician” and “plebeian” ideals (251). The “mutual repulsion” between these figures and their champions, Rahv proposes, signals not just a division in class consciousness or aesthetic ideals, but a rupture in the nation’s cultural identity. Repairing this literary divide would mean nothing less than healing the “split personality” of the United States (253), a breach “between experience and consciousness . . . between energy and sensibility, between conduct and theories of conduct, between life conceived as an opportunity and life conceived as a discipline” (251). By allowing respondents of the 1939 questionnaire to express fidelity towards Whitman or James, while at the same time provoking others to call attention to the inadequacy of the question’s presumed antagonism, Partisan Review’s question effectively dramatizes an operative schism in American intellectual discourse, directing attention toward the challenge of forging a “usable past” from the nation’s divided literary traditions.[47] 

This pattern, in which respondents assume opposed positions while also calling attention to the operative intellectual categories that produce these divided judgments, recurs throughout Partisan Review’s questionnaire. Question five, for instance, asks writers whether their work shows “allegiance to any group, class, organization, region, religion, or system of thought” or whether it is “mainly the expression of yourself as an individual.” Porter, Warren, and Miller all insist that their writing stems from and concerns only the individual, “the thumb print” as Porter finely puts it (“The Situation in American Writing,” Partisan Review 6, no. 4, 38). Bogan, Williams, and Tate, in turn, all describe the influence (if not quite allegiance) asserted by religion, region, and class. Yet again, many writers protest this flagrantly dichotomous question. “In Question 5,” Trilling inveighs, “the disjunction is obviously not a valid one” (“The Situation in American Writing,” Partisan Review 6, no. 5, 110). While insisting that writers should “cultivate” their individuality, Trilling refuses the idea of some autonomous identity prior to or free from any social embeddedness. Given the growing intellectual retreat from Communism in the late 1930s, the notion of an absolute individual autonomy was increasingly being inflated into a politically and artistically robust position. Trilling, however, insists upon the dialectical constitution of such terms: “in a certain limited sense,” he proposes, “there is no such thing as an individual—that a mind or a talent, almost by definition, is a social thing” (110, emphasis in original). Others agreed. “The equipment belongs to the society you were brought up by,” explains Dos Passos; “The individuality lies in how you use it” (“The Situation in American Writing,” Partisan Review 6, no. 4, 27). “Even were my writing a chemically pure expression of myself as an individual,” elaborates Fitzgerald, “it yet must yield out the elements of those allegiances: my family (a group); my occupations of baby, child, student, etc. (classes); my university (an organization); my regions, religions and systems of thought. The question poses false alternatives” (“The Situation in American Writing,” Partisan Review 6, no. 5, 116). As an archive, I am proposing, Partisan Review’s questionnaire does not simply reproduce a crude set of “false alternatives,” but, even in invoking these salient cultural binaries, exposes the necessity of dialectically engaging such categories. For all its equivocation, this questionnaire highlights the competing cultural uses of its own method, doing so through questions that respondents routinely identify not only as “difficult” or “fuzzy,” but indeed “framed as to arouse the suspicion you may be attempting to extend” (“The Situation in American Writing,” Partisan Review 6, no. 5, 104, 113; (“The Situation in American Writing,” Partisan Review 6, no. 4, 33).

While questionnaires were widely employed in the 1930s as an instrument for consolidating mass culture or national normalcy through empirical study, for a modernist little magazine like Partisan Review this technique could also be employed to interrogate cultural values, suspending totalizing judgments through a performance of conflict, ambiguity, and uncertainty that calls attention this era’s presiding tension between mass quantity and individual quality. For the Partisan Review circle, explains Will Norman, promoting a “modernist aesthetic protocol that rejected . . . efforts to establish a democratic consensus on taste” ultimately became a weapon for combatting a “perceived complicity between the aesthetics of the popular front and the cultural forms being instituted from above in Soviet culture.”[48] One need not accept Rahv and Phillips’s reductive view of the Popular Front, however, to recognize how Partisan Review’s anxious relation to cultural nationalism compelled Rahv and Phillips to crystallize for prominent American modernists the defining questions introduced by this transformative era. Prompt six, for example, asks respondents to evaluate “the political tendency of American writing as a whole since 1930,” a phrase performing the very totalizing impulse about which it inquires. Only a few authors affirm outright the idea of aligning under a shared American “literary nationalism.” Far more respondents, however, express anxiety about the way nationalist sentiment might be mobilized to establish a fixed aesthetic and political program from which dissidence would not be tolerated. While literary nationalism had “opened the eyes of writers . . . to conditions which had surrounded them from childhood,” proposes Bogan, “its value dwindled” as it “took a fixed form” (“The Situation in American Writing,” Partisan Review 6, no. 5, 107). Anticipating his later defense of modernism as a necessary antagonist for liberal culture, Trilling echoes this demand for critical energy against sedimented form, suggesting that the Popular Front’s demand for social realism and direct protest had “stimulated a kind of moral sensitivity” by “arousing pity and anger,” yet its apparent need “to prove that there is an intrinsic and nearly exclusive rightness in one’s land, literature and language,” allows “the progressive middle-class reader” to be “cockered up with a sense of his own virtue and made to feel that he lives in a world of perfect certainties in which critical thought or self-critical feeling are the only dangers” (109). “I would not admit sympathy,” proclaims Fitzgerald, “for uncritical emphasis on anything” (117).

In excising critical dissent—which for New York Intellectuals like Trilling constituted the signal aesthetic and political value of literary modernism—the contemporary urge to survey and define a national culture risked leading Americans towards a dangerously volkish rhetoric. “Believing that national myths gave rise to “racial doctrines” and repressive action,” writes Terry Cooney, the Partisan Review circle feared the growing desire to venerate “Americanism” (Rise, 168). “Literary nationalism,” warns Blackmur in 1939, “is no help any more than German nationalism” (“The Situation in American Writing,” Partisan Review 6, no. 5, 120). These anxieties reappear with Partisan Review’s final question on American entry into an already-presumed World War II. At a moment when the Popular Front was, in the words of one respondent, “whooping it up for war,” ready to prove the nation’s mettle and heighten her international power, Partisan Review’s respondents foreground the long-term consequences that would accompany American entry into a global military conflict (“The Situation in American Writing,” Partisan Review 6, no. 4, 29). The proposed responses vary wildly: writers must “go on writing,” or express “active opposition” (“The Situation in American Writing,” Partisan Review 6, no. 5, 123, 108). Though it might surprise readers familiar only with his commitment to poetic abstraction, Stevens finally offers the most uncannily prescient warning: the United States. must only enter the war “with the idea of dominating the world that comes out of it, or unless it is required to enter it in self-defense” (“The Situation in American Writing,” Partisan Review 6, no. 4, 40).

Whereas British late modernists, per Esty’s Shrinking Island, had to respond to a cultural nationalism occasioned by imperial decline, the same mid-century decades saw American modernists forced to come to terms with a rising cultural nationalism bound up in the growing geopolitical, economic, and military power of the United States. Establishing “American late modernism” as a shared period term would help promote research sustaining a sense of the complexity of modernist engagements with American mass culture and global geopolitics during these years, a complexity I have found exemplified by Partisan Review’s appropriation of the questionnaire. The binaries symptomatically expressed in “The Situation in American Writing”—individual autonomy and collective allegiance, intellectual alienation and political commitment, literary nationalism and cosmopolitan internationalism, Marxism and modernism—might serve as coordinates for future scholarship in American late modernist studies: not as stable antitheses, but rather as structuring tensions, through which mid-century authors and critics increasingly had to position the cultural purchase of modernist aesthetic practice in the United States. American late modernism, like its British counterpart, demands a dialectical reading practice, constantly aware of the emerging authority of reified cultural schemas produced by this transformative era, and yet not mistaking these for descriptive fact. Partisan Review, for instance, would be preeminently responsible for disseminating the spatial categories that came to compartmentalize American cultural production in the 1940s and 1950s: highbrow, lowbrow, and middlebrow; masscult and midcult; avant-garde and kitsch.[49] But if Partisan Review bears considerable blame for promoting a supposed antithesis between modernism and mass culture—from which it would take modernist studies decades to recover—the magazine’s volumes from these years belie such a regimented division. Even as Rahv and Phillips returned to the wellspring of literary modernism, publishing new criticism on Joyce, Eliot, and Proust, observes James Gilbert, Dwight Macdonald took to penning essays dissecting popular American film and fiction.[50] Because modernist studies and American studies “rarely speak to each other,” laments Norman, these operative tensions in the mid-century cultural field are often lost (Transatlantic Aliens, 15). Establishing an “American late modernism” would begin to draw together the attention of these fields, spurring further engagement with the conceptual tensions constitutive of this complex era in American cultural history.

From Little Magazines to Academic Professionals

The critical reflexivity among Partisan Review’s respondents in 1939 eventually extended to the medium of the questionnaire itself. Partisan Review’s prompt concerning audience produced the usual discordant replies: several writers consider it “fatal” to write for a definite audience, while others identify an idealized or “composite reader,” or even admit their work’s inevitable restriction to the “intellectual class” (“The Situation in American Writing,” Partisan Review 6, no. 4, 31, 37; “The Situation in American Writing,” Partisan Review 6, no. 5, 111). Yet one sub-question, asking respondents whether the “the audience for serious American writing has grown or contracted in the last ten years,” also produced a striking refusal of terms. Any individual speculations about the literary field, insists Fitzgerald, could not possibly amount to a quantitatively meaningful response; measuring changes in the national literary market “is a question to which nothing that anyone would say could provide an answer, failing purely statistical research” (115). Gregory similarly dismisses another question as one that “should be answered by Mr. Gallup and his corps of investigators” (123). By 1939, modern authors appear familiar enough with the quantitative and qualitative uses of America’s ubiquitous questionnaires to express self-consciousness about the nature of Partisan Review’s queries, an anxiety about conflating consumption of their subjective values with objective claims about any wholesale changes to the literary field. While Partisan Review’s equivocal questions allow some respondents to imagine themselves as unencumbered by the marketplace, by readers or critics, two years later Rahv and Phillips would distribute a more traditional survey precisely aimed at establishing the demographics of their audience. Sent to the magazine’s “800-odd individual subscribers,” recounts Teres, this questionnaire yielded “250 responses, which represented less than a tenth of the total circulation, put at 3,500 for the recent May-June number” (Renewing the Left, 75). From this sample size, however, clear patterns emerged: readers of Partisan Review were young (eighty-three percent under forty), lived in large cities (especially New York City), and were overwhelmingly intellectuals or professionals rather than working class laborers.[51] Despite Partisan Review entertaining ideas of literary production indifferent to readership with their 1939 questionnaire, this internal audit presumes and quantifies what sociologists of literature from Pierre Bourdieu to Lawrence Rainey would later reaffirm: the inevitable social embeddedness of modernist material culture.[52] Little magazines not only had definite audiences, but actively sought to identify and attract those subsections of readers engaged with their corner of the cultural field, who shared their artistic and political concerns.

That such a literary network connects Partisan Review’s authors, editors, and readers appears clearly with the 1939 survey’s question about professional criticism. Although many respondents insist that their creative process remains independent of any critical oversight, Fearing takes the opportunity to chastise Partisan Review for printing a “rather isolated attack” on his recent book of poetry, Dead Reckoning (1938). Given the consolidation of the “book industry,” Fearing argues, the era of feuds among small presses and little magazines is over; the “basic purpose” of literary criticism must now be directing the desires of a shared market, or what he simply calls “Promotion” (“The Situation in American Writing,” Partisan Review 6, no. 4, 34). Though Fearing has “no great complaint” with this new arrangement, he notes the irony in Partisan Review asking about literary critics suffering from isolation and “political pressures” given their “attack” on his volume. Ending his response with an abrupt address to the magazine’s editors, Fearing suggests that his hostile write-up “gives you a lovely opportunity to answer this one all by yourself” (34). Phillips and Rahv did not balk at the chance. In a footnote appended below, they identify Fearing’s review as having been written by Blackmur—a fellow respondent to the current questionnaire. “Those who have followed Mr. Blackmur’s critical writing,” insist Phillips and Rahv, “will realize that it is absurd to charge him with playing the kind of political game Mr. Fearing has in mind” (34). This moment exemplifies what George Bornstein calls the “bibliographic code”: the “semantic features” of a text’s “material instantiations,” from cover design, spacing, type font, to contextual variables like audience and editorial influence.[53] By adding a footnote to Fearing’s deliberately curt response, Rahv and Phillips materially instantiate the critical authority—interposed between authors and readers—about which their survey inquires. Though questionnaires have long been marginalized as peripheral texts, such a moment illustrates the need to treat little magazines as complex material archives, which, as modernist periodical studies has emphasized, contain a bibliographic context of excisions, footnotes, and editorial investments as well as direct textual statements.[54] The bibliographic context of Partisan Review’s organizing social network can be traced between the direct textual volleys exchanged over Fearing’s review.

This brief exchange, moreover, also highlights a shift in interpretive protocols—from political position-taking to austere, even apolitical formalism—that portends a more dramatic transformation in the institutions responsible for modernism’s production and consumption in the United States. Although Partisan Review set out in the late 1930s to reconcile Marxism and modernism by defending the political import of avant-garde art, Rahv and Phillips here invoke Blackmur’s aestheticism to shield themselves from Fearing’s accusations, which resound like echoes from the magazine’s polemical past. Fearing was a longtime ally of Partisan Review, with his proletarian poetry appearing in its original run from 1934. When Partisan Review was reborn, however, Rahv and Phillip increasingly courted outside critics like Blackmur to contribute less politically charged literary reviews.[55] By 1939, Rahv and Phillips could presume their audience’s familiarity with “Mr. Blackmur’s” status as a strict formalist critic to defend against the claim that Partisan Review has slighted Fearing’s poetry because of a “political game.” This repositioning, away from Fearing and towards Blackmur, might stand in for a generational shift from Partisan Review’s early days amid a crowded, competitive field of radical magazines toward its later status as a vehicle for centralizing the authority of literary professionals such as Blackmur, Warren, and Tate—all respondents in 1939. These three figures, frequently if not always accurately bundled with John Crowe Ransom and Cleanth Brooks as New Critics, were of course preeminently responsible for canonizing literary modernism. Through landmark volumes such as Brooks and Warren’s Understanding Poetry (1938) and Understanding Fiction (1943), the New Criticism standardized protocols for the undergraduate teaching of literature in the United States, with an emphasis on formal tension and ambiguity that privileged many modernist writers. By “the late 1930s,” argues Mark Morrisson, “the academic institution—professors, the college English classroom, the textbook market—had begun to play a crucial part in canonization.”[56] Universities gradually replaced the little magazine as modernism’s most influential institution, as the preeminent site for arbitrating over “debates about modernist poetry and American literary nationalism” (Morrisson, “Nationalism,” 28).

Blackmur would play an ongoing role in this epochal change in the institutional location of American late modernism.  In a report for the Rockefeller Foundation’s Humanities Division, later reprinted in the Sewanee Review as “The Economy of the American Writer: Preliminary Notes,” Blackmur argues that little magazines, despite their limited audience, played a key role in preserving cultural values against the corrosive influence of American mass culture. As Lawrence Schwartz relates, this report was supported by a foundational work in periodical studies, Charles Allen and Carolyn Ulrich’s The Little Magazine: A History and a Bibliography, published by Princeton in 1946.[57] Periodicals, in other words, had become historical artifacts legitimated for serious—i.e. academic—study, while university-affiliated organizations such as the Rockefeller Foundation now played a major role in supporting little magazines. In 1946, the Foundation (branches of which had funded the Middletown study and Kinsey’s Reports) appointed Blackmur to a panel with Trilling and Malcolm Cowley, intended to survey major authors in the United States on the most culturally influential literary magazines. This survey’s results—Partisan Review, Kenyon Review, and Sewanee Review—might have been surmised in advance given those polled. Predominantly New York Intellectuals, the list overlapped considerably with Partisan Review’s 1939 questionnaire, with Bogan, Stevens, Tate, Warren, Williams, Edmund Wilson, Brooks, Granville Hicks, Alfred Kazin, Marianne Moore, and Yvor Winters among those polled. Despite playing to a home crowd, however, Partisan Review was twice rejected for funding due to its ongoing involvement in “political” disputes.[58] As scholars such as Schwartz, Serge Guilbaut, and Thomas Schaub have all argued, reconciling a modernist avant-garde with American institutional and commercial culture first required reframing modernism as apolitical, an abstracted expression of individual autonomy and personal style; this aesthetic position could then be supported on surreptitiously political grounds, as manifesting the vitality of a consensus liberal individualism in the postwar United States.[59] While Partisan Review often serves as a literary-historical locus for identifying this emerging liberal political aesthetic, the Rockefeller Foundation’s refusal to support Partisan Review until 1955 serves as an important reminder that modernism’s canonization and reconciliation with mainline, liberal American culture did not happen overnight: it took years for the fractious and divisive questions Partisan Review posed to its peers in 1939 to gain self-certain answers. Too often, the complex and reciprocal influence between modernist literary production and a consolidating national culture in the United States from the 1930s to the 1950s disappears in the gap between modernist studies and American studies. “American late modernism” provides this gap with a name in the service of seeing it filled.

At the same time, consolidating such a period can help clarify what was excluded by the institutions responsible for canonizing modernism at mid-century. As so many questionnaires from this era make clear, a technique for building “representative” consensus also served as a tool for occluding minority voices. Exceptional though it may otherwise seem, Partisan Review’s 1939 questionnaire here proves the rule: Phillips’s and Rahv’s effort to represent “American Writing” surveys a group composed overwhelmingly of white men. Though Phillips did not preserve archival records from these early years, when the magazine’s future was still dubious, a checklist of candidates for the 1952 symposium, “Our Country and Our Culture,” captures the magazine’s consistently homogenous literary network. Black authorship finds no place within Partisan Review’s vision of “American Writing” in 1939, and in 1952, only Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin appear as candidates. While many in Partisan Review’s circle had complex Jewish identities, and while the role of women writers—from Gertrude Stein to Margaret Mead—in these surveys ought not be overlooked, Partisan Review’s lasting cultural influence has made its selection bias unduly representative in defining the contours of a late American modernism. In his jarring 2013 article on the racial formation of modernist studies, Michael Bibby shows how an erasure of blackness has been constitutive of the field, with the historical canonization and growing orthodoxy of literary modernism continually shaped by an implicit whiteness. The “dehistoricized” and “raceless” conception of poetry articulated by the New Critics and their followers in academe,” Bibby explains, “inherently privileges the poetry of whites, who, by virtue of the hegemony of whiteness in the United States, are presumed to be raceless.”[60] Brooks’s and Warren’s famous anthology, Understanding Poetry, for instance, featured “no poets of color” until its fourth edition in 1976 (Bibby, “The Disinterested and Fine,” 487). An American late modernist studies, as I have emphasized, must approach its period dialectically; by learning to recognize the political and institutional forces responsible for such enduring misprisions of mid-century literary culture, future scholarship can also write against them, creating new and more inclusive narratives about the expansive range of modernist production in the Americas.[61]

Participant list for “Our Country and Our Culture” Symposium, 1952. Courtesy of the Howard Gottlieb Archival Research Center, Boston University.
Fig. 3. Participant list for “Our Country and Our Culture” Symposium, 1952. Courtesy of the Howard Gottlieb Archival Research Center, Boston University.


The Afterlives of “American Writing”

As American intellectuals embraced a consensus, postwar liberal culture, Partisan Review gradually lost the dialectical tension of its major run from the late 1930s to the early 1950s, slipping into an unshakable defense of individual freedom and Cold War anticommunism by the 1960s. Instructive markers for this change appear in the magazine’s continued use of questionnaires. In “Our Country and Our Culture” in 1952, William Phillips could still insist on the modern artist as sustaining “a balance of opposing forces, which gives him the appearance of a suspended man. He seems suspended between tradition and revolt, nationalism and internationalism, the aesthetic and the civic, and between belonging and alienation.”[62] By 1962, however, the scales seem to have tipped decisively. Arthur Schlesinger Jr. describes Communism as a “‘disease’ . . . of the modernization process,” and even Sidney Hook insists that intellectuals must defend the West’s “human freedom” against the “tyranny” of the East.[63]  But while the Partisan Review circle, along with so many others, retrenched from radicalism into a liberal anticommunism during the Cold War, this narrative too frequently forecloses attention to the intermediary years when Partisan Review still exercised a dynamic role in the intellectual and artistic life of the United States. Modernist scholarship has yet to fully explore the dialectical tensions of an American late modernism from the 1930s through the 1950s, including growing anxieties over cultural nationalism, global war and commerce, professional authorship, a shifting literary market, and a seismic intellectual shift from a radical social consciousness to an alienated, liberal autonomy.

To conclude, I want to consider two afterlives to “The Situation in American Writing” that signal an instructive nostalgia for the intellectual community that made Partisan Review’s mid-century run possible, as well as the ongoing vitality of the questionnaire as a medium for building such a community. In 1999, American Literary History released a special issue entitled “The Situation of American Writing 1999.”[64] Though clearly meant to nod at its venerable predecessor, this title features a subtle but instructive change in preposition, from “in” to “of,” signaling a shift from a survey issued from within American Writing, to one that considers its “Situation” with a critical distance. And indeed, besides being hosted in an academic journal and explicitly focused on “issues that worry contemporary scholar-critics,” American Literary History’s survey features several author-critics, including Samuel R. Delany, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, William Gass, Gail Godwin, Annie Dillard, Anthony Hecht, W. D. Snodgrass, and Gary Soto (“The Situation of American Writing 1999,” 218). Gordon Hutner, American Literary History’s editor, poses these writers a set of eight questions closely resembling those of the 1939 Partisan Review survey, yet his editorial introduction explains the change in title by summarizing, with unmistakable lamentation, how profoundly the relationship between authors, readers, and critics of American literature has changed since mid-century, since the professional distance cultivated by universities replaced the organic communities of authors and critics hosted by little magazines. Challenging his presumed audience, Hutner inveighs against the professionalization of literary criticism, a trend which between 1939 and 1999, he argues, has eroded public interest in American literature. By abandoning the active communal engagement with contemporary authors that characterized “such vehicles of cultural authority as the Kenyon Review and the Partisan Review,” Hutner contends, literary critics have entered into a “mutual disregard” with the American reading public, who have in turn set aside scholarly interpretations of literature for “the reviews in” (215, 216–17). Despite this bleak “Situation,” however, Hutner returns to the questionnaire as a vehicle for building literary community, for reestablishing the networked influence of authors, editors, critics, and readers characteristic of the modernist “little magazines” (220). To “create a sentient, book-reading, book-buying public,” Hutner insists, scholars must not only pursue “cultural critique” but also embrace opportunities to broker between authors and readers, to influence “the dissemination of values for reading contemporary American writing” (220, 219).  

As a genre that mediates between qualitative judgment and quantitative reproduction, questionnaires offer a rare means to reach across mass and elite fields of cultural consumption, a form appealing at once to the speed-readers of online pop blogging and to the trained priorities of the literary critic, capable of linking a small class of professional authors to a broader public. In 2011, the online literary magazine Full Stop answered Hutner’s challenge to “circulate more knowledge about what contemporary writers do and why” (220). Again citing Partisan Review’s precedent, Full Stop’s editors sent a list of seven questions, entitled “The Situation in American Writing,” to a varied group of established dignitaries, best sellers, and new talents in contemporary literature, including Marilynne Robinson, George Saunders, T. C. Boyle, Danielle Evans, and Eileen Myles. Most questions were nearly identical to Partisan Review’s originals from 1939, yet Full Stop reshaped the first and last prompts around contemporary political concerns for an American audience in 2011: the sudden onset of the Arab Spring and other “popular upheavals,” arriving after a decade of the War on Terror, when the United States had been in “a state of constant war with a nebulous enemy.” Over some seventy years, Partisan Review’s questions have evidently remained live ones for bringing authors into dialogue with the concerns of a broader public, still spurring productive debate among consumers and producers of American literature. Amidst ongoing and likely irreversible changes to the literary field, questionnaires continue to offer an interactive, digestible, and provocative technique for periodicals to provoke critical debate, and in this way, remain as valuable an artistic and political resource as they were for Partisan Review in 1939.


[1] Statistics, ed. David Freedman, Robert Pisani, and Roger Purves (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1978), 303. Quoted in Peverill Squire, “Why the 1936 Literary Digest Poll Failed,” Public Opinion Quarterly 52, no. 1 (1988): 125–33, 126.

[2] Literary Digest drew its list of names from automobile and telephone registries, creating a substantial bias towards higher income respondents and a non-response bias among those of lower incomes. See Squire, “Why the 1936 Literary Digest Poll Failed,” 126–27.

[3] For a list of magazines with straw polls, see Sarah E. Igo, The Averaged American: Surveys, Citizens, and the Making of a Mass Public (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), 106.

[4] See the cleverly titled article, “Digest Digested,” Time 31, no. 21 (1938): 58.

[5] Peter Brooker and Andrew Thacker, “A Revolutionary Message,” in The Oxford Critical and Cultural History of Modernist Magazines: Volume II, North America 1894–1960, ed. Peter Brooker and Andrew Thacker (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 825–922, 830. This narrative trajectory appears clearly in titles such as Alan Wald’s The New York Intellectuals: The Rise and Decline of the Anti-Stalinist Left from the 1930s to the 1980s (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987), or Hugh Wilford’s The New York Intellectuals: From Vanguard to Institution (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1995).

[6] The ensuing review of late modernist studies draws upon my essay “Style, Autonomy, and Ideology: Making Room for Late Modernism in the American Scene,” Literature Compass 14, no. 10 (2017).

[7] Jed Esty, A Shrinking Island: Modernism and National Culture in England (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004), 2.

[8] Thomas S. Davis provides an excellent overview of this field in “Late Modernism: British Literature at Midcentury,” Literature Compass 9, no. 4 (2012): 326–37.

[9] Tyrus Miller, Late Modernism: Politics, Fiction, and the Arts Between the World Wars (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), 58; Fredric Jameson’s A Singular Modernity (London: Verso, 2002), 208. Miller catalyzed interest in late modernist studies by initiating a discussion of this period’s reconciliation between politics and aesthetics. In A Singular Modernity, perhaps the single most frequently cited work in this subfield, Jameson anchors the period to a supposed emergence of absolute aesthetic autonomy as a guiding ideal for modernism across the arts. Yet Jameson struggles to explain how this ideological program for modernism’s reception—advocated for by figures like Clement Greenberg—produced a change in the production of modernist art, literary or otherwise. When Jameson directly compares “late” modernist writers such as Nabokov to what he paradoxically calls the “classical” modernists, such as Joyce, his argument inadvertently reinstates aesthetic autonomy as the defining value of that first, unencumbered wave of modernist writers, who, Jameson proposes, “had to operate in a world in which no acknowledged or codified social role existed for them and in which the very form and concept of their own specific “works of art” were lacking” (199).

[10] As Joshua Kavaloski notes in High Modernism: Aestheticism and Performativity in Literature of the 1920s (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2014), “high modernism” was not a term recognized until the 1970s; it almost invariably conflates the earlier production of Pound, Eliot and Yeats with their later canonization, erasing the mid-century decades in which this “late” consolidation of ideas about modernism transpired. Miller leans heavily upon “high modernism” to differentiate his chosen authors, as does Anthony Mellors in Late Modernist Poetics: From Pound to Prynne (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2005). Like Miller, Mellors also identifies his eponymous period with a rather restricted set of thematic concerns: those poets interested in “mythic symbolism, esoteric doctrines and mystery cults” (1). Robert Genter’s Late Modernism: Art, Culture, and Politics in Cold War America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010), comes closest to the present essay in its broader engagement with mid-century American intellectual history, yet Genter’s tripartite division between “high,” “romantic,” and “late” modernisms foregrounds intergroup distinctions rather than a shared set of historical and cultural conditions. His study, too, ends up fixing late modernism to the values of one idiosyncratic critic: Kenneth Burke.

[11] The earliest accounts of “late modernism” sought to articulate an intermediary period between modernism and postmodernism. Alan Wilde argued for a transitional phase in Horizons of Assent: Modernism, Postmodernism, and the Ironic Imagination (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981), and Charles Jencks created a series of dramatic tripartite schemas for architectural history in Late-Modern Architecture and Other Essays (New York: Rizzoli, 1980).

[12] As Igo explains, surveys constitute a “catch-all category containing a multitude of modern information-gathering techniques: market research, academic surveys, opinion polls, community studies, and quantitative reporting” (Averaged American, 3–4).

[13] Julian B. Carter, The Heart of Whiteness: Normal Sexuality and Race in America, 1880–1940 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007), 2. On the relationship between normality discourse and statistics, see Theodore M. Porter, The Rise of Statistical Thinking 1820–1900 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1986).

[14] The measurements for Norma and Normman, explains Anna G. Creadick, had been drawn from insurance records, Army information, the Bureau of Home Economics, and sample measures volunteered by visitors to the World’s Fair in Chicago (Perfectly Average: The Pursuit of Normality in Postwar America [Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2010], 19–21).

[15] See Evan Kindley, Questionnaire (New York: Bloomsbury, 2016), 9–24.

[16] Charles Darwin, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998 (1872)), 22–3.

[17] OED Online, July 2018, s. v., “questionnaire, n.”

[18] Lori Cole complied an index of modernist questionnaires in ‘Do You Believe in Angels?’ and Other Inquiries” Cabinet 53 (2014): 13–9, 18. See also her book, Surveying the Avant-Garde: Questions on Modernism, Art, and the Americas in Transatlantic Magazines (University Park: Penn State University Press, 2019).

[19] My research owes a debt of gratitude to the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University, which has uploaded its complete holdings of the Partisan Review.

[20] Cole extends her analysis to a hemispheric modernism in “‘How do you Imagine Latin America?’: Questioning Latin American Art and Identity in Print,” The Global South 7, no. 2 (2014): 110–33, 112.

[21] Lori Cole, “What is the avant-garde? The questionnaire as historiography,” Journal of Art Historiography 5 (2011): 1–13, 2.

[22] Jessie Fauset served as literary editor for The Crisis at the time, yet the survey’s results draw into relief Du Bois’s characteristic editorial agenda.

[23] Eugene Jolas, “Inquiry into the Spirit and Language of the Night,” transition 27 (1938): 233–45.

[24] Ella A. Taylor, “Questionnaire Making,” The American Journal of Nursing 35, no. 3 (1935): 238–242, 238.

[25] P. W. Wilson, “A Question of Questionnaires,” The North American Review 237, no. 4 (1934): 325–330, 326.

[26] Susan Hegeman, Patterns for America: Modernism and the Concept of Culture (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999), 14.

[27] See Hegeman’s Patterns for America and Warren I. Susman’s important essay, “The Culture of the Thirties,” in Culture as History: The Transformation of American Society in the Twentieth Century (Washington, DC: Smithsonian, 2003), 150–83.

[28] Michael Denning, The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century (London: Verso, 1997). The Popular Front strategy, argues Serge Guilbaut, dissolved “differences of opinion and sources of conflict among the various antifascist groups,” so as “to confront the enemy with a strong and credible image, the image of a united and dynamic front” (How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art: Abstract Expressionism, Freedom, and the Cold War, trans. Arthur Goldhammer [Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1983], 17).

[29] For iconic position statements on the “realism/modernism” debate, see essays by Georg Lukács and Theodor Adorno collected in Aesthetics and Politics (London: Verso, 2007).

[30]On the relationship between expansive governmental bodies and modernist cultural production, see Michael Szalay’s New Deal Modernism: American Literature and the Invention of the Welfare State (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000).

[31] Even excluding the mountain of personal memoirs and reminiscences produced by the New York Intellectuals in their later years, the critical bibliography for Partisan Review in this era is capacious. Most essential are Harvey Teres’s Renewing the Left; Terry A. Cooney’s The Rise of the New York Intellectuals: Partisan Review and Its Circle, 1934–1945 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1986); James Gilbert’s Writers and Partisans: A History of Literary Radicalism in America (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993); Wald’s The New York Intellectuals; and Daniel Aaron’s Writers on the Left: Episodes in American Literary Communism (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1961).

[32] Partisan Review 1, no. 1 (1934).

[33] On these early years, see also Cooney, Rise.

[34] Cooney notes that Rahv sounds like a Party ideologue in his essays from the early 1930s. In “An Open Letter to Young Writers,” Philip Rahv insists that modern art is “tangential to the concrete course of history” and that young talent should direct its attention instead to “world-important problems” (Rebel Poet 6 [1932]: 3–4. Quoted in Cooney, Rise, 41). Phillips showed a more divided mind, observes Teres, “producing cant for Party publications and quite sophisticated essays for the ‘bourgeois’ little magazines” (Renewing the Left, 23).

[35] Party officials also considered making Partisan Review the official organ of the League of American Writers. See Cooney, Rise, 82.

[36] David Laskin, Partisans: Marriage, Politics, and Betrayal Among the New York Intellectuals (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 34.

[37] “Editorial Statement,” Partisan Review 4, no. 1 (1937): 3–4, 3, 4, 3.

[38] Barbara Foley, Radical Representations: Politics and Form in U.S. Proletarian Fiction, 1929–1941 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1996), 141.

[39] James T. Farrell, A Note on Literary Criticism (New York: Vanguard Press, 1936).

[40] On the CIA funding of Partisan Review and other magazines, such as the Kenyon Review and Sewanee Review, see Hugh Wilford’s The Mighty Wurlitzer: How the CIA Played America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008) and Francis Stonor Saunders’s The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters (New York: New Press, 1999).

[41] “The Situation in American Writing,” Partisan Review 6, no. 4 (1939): 25–51, 25.

[42] Cooney observes that the 1939 questionnaire “fairly begged in a number of cases for agreement with editorial assumptions and applause for the magazine’s work” (Rise, 200).

[43] For an early version of America’s “literary divide,” see Van Wyck Brooks, “America’s Coming-of-Age,” in Van Wyck Brooks: The Early Years, ed. Claire Sprague (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1968).

[44] “The Situation in American Writing,” Partisan Review 6, no. 5 (1939): 103–23, 105, 104.

[45] Compare Foley scrutinizing Rahv on the “cult of experience” (Radical Representations, 143).

[46] Philip Rahv, “Paleface and Redskin,” Kenyon Review 1, no. 3 (1939): 251–56, 252.

[47] Although frequently misunderstood, Brooks’s notion of a “usable past” always carried a dialectical charge to forge “a compromise between a rigid past of inflexible dogmas and a rootless present of extreme rebellion” (Cooney, Rise, 22). Cf. Brooks, “On Creating a Usable Past,” The Dial, April 11, 1918, 337–41.

[48] Will Norman, Transatlantic Aliens: Modernism, Exile, and Culture in Mid-century America (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016), 153.

[49] For an excellent dialectical treatment of these categories, see Will Norman’s chapter on Saul Steinberg in Transatlantic Aliens, 157–96.

[50] See Gilbert, Writers and Partisans, 219–20.

[51] See Teres, Renewing the Left, 75–76.

[52] Rainey famously argues that modernism is, among other things, “a strategy whereby the work of art invites and solicits its commodification” (Institutions of Modernism: Literary Elites and Public Culture [New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998], 3).

[53] George Bornstein, “How to Read a Page: Modernism and Material Textuality,” Studies in the Literary Imagination 32, no. 1 (1999): 29–58, 30.

[54] One respondent to “The Situation in American Writing,” promised even as Partisan Review published the first half of their replies, was notably excluded at the last moment: James Agee. He later published his answers (along with the original questions) as an interlude in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941).

[55] See Cooney, Rise, 110–11.

[56] Mark Morrisson, “Nationalism and the Modern American Canon,” in The Cambridge Companion to American Modernism, ed. Walter Kalaidjian (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 12–35, 14. Among those names conventionally associated with the New Criticism, nearly all had strong university affiliations: John Crowe Ransom at Kenyon College; Austin Warren at Michigan; Robert Penn Warren at Minnesota and Yale; Allen Tate at Minnesota; Yvor Winters at Stanford; and R. P. Blackmur at Princeton. See Lawrence H. Schwartz, Creating Faulkner’s Reputation: The Politics of Modern Literary Criticism (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1988), 127.

[57] See Schwartz for a richer account of this survey and the Rockefeller Foundation’s efforts in Creating Faulkner’s Reputation, 133–41.

[58] See Schwartz, Creating, 121–22.

[59] Schwartz ties Faulkner’s “rediscovery” to this new political aesthetic, while Guilbaut identifies Jackson Pollock as perhaps its foremost representative across the arts. Thomas Schaub describes how this “liberal narrative” emerged from literary figures, such as Lionel Trilling, in American Fiction in the Cold War (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991), viii.

[60] Michael Bibby, “The Disinterested and Fine: New Negro Renaissance Poetry and the Racial Formation of Modernist Studies,” Modernism/modernity 20, no. 3 (2013): 485–501, 490.

[61] Leif Sorensen argues that extending late modernism to “peripheral” American scenes can help clarify the hybrid identities and textual forms produced by authors such as Américo Paredes, Zora Neale Hurston, Younghill Kang, and D’Arcy McNickle. (Ethnic Modernism and the Making of US Literary Multiculturalism [London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016], 6. See also Cole, Surveying the Avant-Garde; Gayle Rogers, Incomparable Empires: Modernism and the Translation of Spanish and American Literature (New York: Columbia University Press, 2018), and Harris Feinsod, The Poetry of the Americas: From Good Neighbors to Countercultures (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017).

[62] William Phillips, “Our Country and Our Culture: A Symposium (III),” Partisan Review 19, no. 5 (1952): 562–98, 589.

[63] “The Cold War and the West,” Partisan Review 29, no. 1 (1962): 77–89, 79, 20.

[64] See “The Situation of American Writing 1999,” American Literary History 11, no. 2 (1999): 215–353.