The Dangling Man

Isaac Rosenfeld, author and adjunct, defied the cult of success. Scott McLemee indulges in some hero worship.

July 15, 2009

The novelist and critic Isaac Rosenfeld died of a heart attack in 1956. He and Saul Bellow had been friends since childhood, and they had arrived on the literary and intellectual scene of the early 1940s as a team, “the Chicago Dostoevskians,” with Rosenfeld’s reviews and short stories making the larger initial impression on anyone paying attention to the world of little magazines.

In later years any lingering affection between them was cut with traces of bitterness, for Bellow went from triumph to triumph, while Rosenfeld drifted, turning out the occasional brilliant short piece while unpublished manuscripts piled up. I do not think the word “adjunct” was in wide use at the time, but Rosenfeld got by with dead-end positions at the University of Minnesota and the University of Chicago.

By the end of his friend’s life, wrote Bellow, his friend was living in “a hideous cellar room” from which any hint of bohemian glamor had long since fled. He had, Bellow wrote, “one of those ready, lively, clear minds that see the relevant thing immediately.” But Rosenfeld’s cutting lucidity left him filled with scorn for any motive involving the pursuit of success, let alone propriety. Bellow wrote that his friend “seemed occasionally to be trying to achieve by will, by fiat, the openness of heart and devotion to truth without which a human existence must be utterly senseless.”

He imposed a grim discipline on himself, a kind of squalid asceticism. To the naked eye it looked like failure. When he died in a shabby apartment, Rosenfeld was 38 years old.

As it happens, I was exactly half that age when, in the early 1980s, I discovered An Age of Enormity, the posthumous collection of his reviews and essays that, while long out of print, remains the single best introduction to his work and to his legend. To a teenager, of course, exiting the world in your late thirties hardly seems to qualify as a youthful death. But his example loomed in my imagination for many years as essentially heroic. Rosenfeld’s intransigence, his disdain for the gods of success, was somehow inspiring, albeit in ways that have not done me very much good over the long term. (In general it may be unwise for young people to accept career advice from the dead.)

The first book devoted to his life and work is Rosenfeld’s Lives: Fame, Oblivion, and the Furies of Writing (Yale University Press) by Samuel J. Zipperstein, a professor of Jewish history and culture at Stanford University. My review of the biography has appeared elsewhere, to which it bears adding something: Zipperstein makes very clear the resentments and resentiment of Rosenfeld’s final years, so that even a callow adolescent could not fail to understand their misery.

Point taken. Yet the legend of Rosenfeld, his aura as beautiful loser, still exercises a certain power over my imagination even after more than a quarter of a century.

It is no doubt understandable and fitting that Zipperstein should treat Rosenfeld’s life as a chapter in the story of Jewish-American ambivalence about assimilation. That does not seem to be the basis of any elective affinity in my case, however, unless growing up in a small Southern Baptist town is comparable to life in a shetl, which does seem like stretching it.

The grounds for this continuing fascination became clearer after looking, once again, at the title essay in George Scialabba’s new collection What Are Intellectuals Good For?

Scialabba does not simply repeat standard complaints about the decline of free-range public intellectuals and the rise of transgressive professorial jargonization. (That is a familiar story, even perhaps too familiar.) Scialabba points, rather, to the role played by a “new variety or mutation” of thinker in the “modern, efficient machinery of persuasion” necessary to hold highly developed societies together. Scialabba calls this type “the anti-public intellectual, whose function is not criticism, not defense of the public against private or state power, but the opposite.… As a result of the intellectuals’ incorporation en masse into the ‘power elite,’ it now requires far more training, leisure, and resources to penetrate the screen of corporate or government propaganda….”

And so the critic must redouble his efforts at challenging the arts of public manipulation, however Sisyphean those effort may be. The boulder will crash through the screen every so often, with enough luck and a good aim.

Such is the proper role of the intellectual, as Scialabba reminds us; and most of the time I would not argue otherwise. But it does not exhaust the options.

A different response can be found in a talk that Isaac Rosenfeld gave to the staff of The Chicago Review in the spring of 1956, a few months before his death. The talk was recorded, and a transcript appeared in the Review the following year under the title “On the Role of the Writer and the Little Magazine.” It was not reprinted in his collected essays, or anyplace else, it seems, which is strange because it counts as Rosenfeld’s final testament.

“I am used to thinking," he told his listeners, “because of my upbringing, of the writer standing at one extreme from society … over against the commercial culture, the business enterprise, the whole fantastic make-believe world which some people would like for us to believe is the real world. Of course it can’t be that for the writer.”

This condition of extremity had once been made tolerable by the solidarity of peers who were in the same condition. There was an avant garde – a culture apart, marginal but tough, its spirits fortified and even lifted by the experience of rejection. It was “a small but vigorous and very vital, active and conscious group,” said Rosenfeld, “which knew fairly well the sort of thing it stood for even if it had no specific program and whether or not it had any political allegiance.”

But now the vanguard was dead, or at least domesticated, and the writer was constantly solicited to assume a role in “the symbol manipulation industries,” whether in academe or government or the media. You had to go along to get along. After all, even bohemia was expensive. As psychic defense and compensation, there emerged a spirit of aloofness -- not just about your job, but towards life itself.

It led to “embarrassment with human subject matter,” said Rosenfeld, the desperate cultivation of a “flair for the abstract… for the ‘cool.’ ” This sensibility tolerated expression of “nothing too immediate, too direct or emotional, because that would be considered ‘square’ or ‘frantic.’ ”

(People now assume that prepackaged irony was invented sometime within, at most, the past couple of decades. Not so. The marketing has just improved.)

For Rosenfeld, this amounted to creative death, disguised as a lifestyle. No serious writer could indulge it. He had been a political radical in younger days -- and more recently a psychoanalytic radical, following Wilhelm Reich’s call for sexual revolution. But this, his final profession of faith, did not call on writers to play the role of intellectual activist, challenging the Empire’s mandarins on their own ground. The role of the writer, he said, was not to play a role at all. “Playing a role” was exactly the problem.

Writers had to earn an income, and working in academe was one option. (About teaching, the transcript shows that Rosenfeld twice said, simply, “It’s a living.”) But for any serious writer there was no escape from the need, if necessary, to go it alone -- to trust one’s sense of the important, even if no committee welcomes the effort. Intuition had to be developed, not ambition.

The writer "will have to play,” said Rosenfeld, “the role that is not a role; to be the living man, the one left alone at three o’clock in the morning, when it’s always the dark night of the soul; to be the man whom one encounters when there is no longer any uniform to wear… to be the man who is naked, who is alone, and the man who pretty much of the time is afraid: the man who sees himself as he really is in this flesh and in these bones and in these feelings, in these impulses, in these emotions; the man who confronts himself in his dreams and his reveries; the man who sees himself walking across the street, thinking there but for the grace of God go I, or in his envy: there but for God’s disdain of me I could have gone…. He has to see the light and the truth that can be seen even in our phony and artificial age.”

Saul Bellow recalled that his friend, who did graduate work in philosophy at New York University in the early 1940s, had abandoned that path when he discovered Herman Melville. After reading Moby Dick, logical positivism seemed too blinkered a take on the world. Rosenfeld turned into an intellectual equivalent of Bartleby the Scrivner, saying, “I would prefer not to,” over and over, as the years slipped past.

This was not a good way to live. But then what is? The question is not rhetorical but real -- the kind that is waiting at three o’clock in the morning.


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