BOOKS MARCH 26, 2008
Alfred Kazin: A Biography
By Richard M. Cook
(Yale University Press, 452 pp., $35)
Alfred Kazin had one great, abiding subject. He wanted to tell the world what it felt like to become a writer in mid-century America. In three autobiographical volumes published over a period of a quartercentury, he dug so deep into his own life story, which had begun in hardscrabble Brooklyn and climaxed in the glamorous Manhattan of the 1960s, that he managed to tell the story of an entire generation. Kazin, who died a decade ago, was the memoirist, the chronicler, the troubadour of the New York intellectuals. "We were all there, that summer of 1940 in Provincetown," he wrote in Starting Out in the Thirties, and he gave to the exhilarating egotism of that "we" a precise value, for the pronoun was the fulfillment of a dream--not just Kazin's dream, but the dream of his friends and competitors as well. In A Walker in the City, Starting Out in the Thirties, and New York Jew, Kazin invoked with febrile lyricism his own generation's wild hopes and battle-weary realities, their impassioned engagement with art and ideas, their love affair with the hurly-burly of American success. To return to these books, which first appeared decades ago, is to discover that the years have given their lush poetry an added mellowness, a deeper chiaroscuro.
The New York intellectuals, never more than a loose-knit group, are by now mostly figures in history. And Kazin's memoirs have much to tell us about the habits of thought and ways of relating to the world that marked these men and women. Their predecessors in the 1920s had been emboldened by the great currents of modern European artistic and literary and philosophic thought. Their descendants, the intellectuals of our own day, take American cosmopolitanism for granted. It was the generation in between, the generation of which Kazin was a part--Clement Greenberg, Lionel Trilling, Meyer Schapiro, Elizabeth Hardwick, Sidney Hook, Irving Howe, Dwight Macdonald, Mary McCarthy, Saul Bellow, Ralph Ellison, Philip Rahv, Harold Rosenberg, Delmore Schwartz--that brought New York to the very center of things.
They expressed their own pleasure in this newfound centrality through the fever pitch of their variegated, crisscrossing, clashing, forever aligning and realigning opinions. Kazin, in his memoirs, is the bard who sings of their ambitions and beliefs. There is the tragic Delmore Schwartz, who arrived at the offices of The New Republic in search of books to review and "conversed in a style of great bitterness that nevertheless tried to be classical and impersonal in its reasoning." And there is Saul Bellow in the 1940s, who had not yet published a novel but as he walked the Brooklyn streets with Kazin "seemed to be measuring the hidden strength of all things in the universe. ... He expected the world to come to him. He had pledged himself to a great destiny. He was going to take on more than the rest of us were." Nearly every figure in Kazin's memoirs has a larger-than-life, do-or-die personality.
Richard M. Cook has taken on the daunting task of writing a biography of a master autobiographer, and the result is a lucid, fair-minded piece of work. There is a certain amount of shadowboxing involved in Cook's account, and it is a testament to his subject's literary powers that the Alfred Kazin of A Walker in the City, Starting Out in the Thirties, and New York Jew is a larger and more interesting figure than his biographer can muster. While Kazin made something mythic of his life, Cook is left to account for days that were mostly spent at the writer's desk, or in the classroom or the editorial office. In places there is little that Cook can do but revisit a story already quite familiar from Kazin's own writing. So he begins with the bleak childhood in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, where Kazin was born in 1915 and where he felt that he lived, as he wrote in A Walker in the City, "at the end of the world. It was the eternity of the subway ride into the city that first gave me this idea."
Kazin's father was a housepainter, his mother a seamstress who labored day and night at the Singer sewing machine in the kitchen. His parents "had settled on each other in disbelief that anyone else would love them," and all their hopes focused on their two children, Alfred and his sister Pearl, who also became a writer. Through public school and City College the world of books and art and ideas opened wider and wider. There was the first visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where Kazin "was flung spinning in a bewilderment of delight from the Greek discus-throwers to the Egyptians to the long rows of medieval knights to the breasts of Venus." And there were the adolescent friendships sustained by politics and literature, the boy who had a "hallowed copy of The Waste Land that he carried around with him wherever he went," the "summer evenings arguing Keats and Shelley, Blake and Coleridge, Trotsky and Stalin. It was the second summer of the depression: my father had not worked for nine months."
It cannot be easy to write a biography when memories are still fresh. Kazin was married four times, and especially the long, intense, explosive, and eventually bitter years with Ann Birstein, a novelist who has published her own account of their life together, pose a challenge. While Cook refuses to pass judgment on Kazin's behavior, he does not exactly indulge him either: the reader closes the book with the strong impression that Kazin could be a difficult, and even a very unpleasant, man. As for Cook's grasp of the cultural and political crosscurrents of the mid-century years, it is impressively nuanced and assured. Still in his twenties, Kazin published On Native Grounds: An Interpretation of Modern American Prose Literature, a pioneering exploration of American literature. Almost simultaneously he became the literary editor of this magazine. And so the story unwound, through the 1950s and 1960s, with the widening circle of friends, the trips to Europe, the gathering reputation as a cultural arbiter with a name known well beyond Manhattan. In his later years, Kazin at last found marital happiness with Judith Dunford. Cook manages to keep things somewhat engaging to the end, livening up the inevitable calendar of academic appointments and literary assignments with sketches of new friendships and canny quotations from the vast journals, only a small selection of which Kazin published in 1996 as A Lifetime Burning in Every Moment.
Cook is very much attuned to the artistry of Kazin's memoirs. He gives a sensitive account of the genesis of A Walker in the City, which was initially conceived "as a meditation based on walks through various neighborhoods of New York." What Kazin finally wrote was far more personal, a book about his own childhood in which his growth mirrors the burgeoning possibilities of the metropolis. Kazin discovers himself by slipping into the city's spirit, by embodying the toughness and swagger of Manhattan's mercantile rough-and-tumble, the gleeful vehemence, the eagerness to loudly proclaim "Yes!"--and even more loudly "No!"--that comes straight out of the competitive ethos of the melting- pot city. Kazin tends to anthropomorphize the city, regarding New York as a protagonist with a personality that we already know through the writings of Melville, Whitman, Dreiser, Crane, and Fitzgerald. For Kazin, the Brooklyn Bridge is not only a masterwork of mid-nineteenthcentury engineering, it is also the link between the Brownsville boy's hopes and the Manhattan grown-up's achievements, a link celebrated in the poetry of Whitman and Crane. "I could never walk across Roebling's bridge," he writes toward the end of A Walker in the City, "or pass the hotel on University Place named Albert, in Ryder's honor, or stop in front of the garbage cans at Fulton and Cranberry Streets in Brooklyn at the place where Whitman had himself printed Leaves of Grass, without thinking that I had at last opened the great trunk of forgotten time in New York in which I, too, I thought, would someday find the source of my unrest. "
New York Jew, the ringing, confrontational title of Kazin's final autobiographical volume, served to remind readers how much Jewish experience had to do with the New York of the intellectuals. In many if not most cases, the parents of these intellectuals-to-be had already been loosening their connections with religious traditions, at least in their Orthodox form, and so Judaism signified a highly varied cultural experience, colored by the forces of Enlightenment and assimilation that had been at work in Europe for a hundred years. While the Sabbath, and particularly Friday-night dinner, was at the core of Kazin's Brownsville family, there was also the tug of socialist politics, and his trips with his father to "some meeting in the Jewish Daily Forward building on the East Side" were part of the opening into a larger world. Irving Howe, writing about the New York intellectuals in 1968, observed that "the Jewish immigrant world branded upon its sons and daughters marks of separateness even while encouraging them to dreams of universalism." This tension--the sense that one's apartness offered a particularly powerful position from which to interpret the world--had much to do with the swaggering excitement of New York intellectual life in the mid-century years. Kazin and his contemporaries prided themselves on always being at once outsiders and insiders.
The New York intellectuals were "freelance" in the largest sense, or so they liked to regard themselves. Kazin--and Greenberg and Howe and Rosenberg and Rahv--exalted in that independence, in what Rosenberg, skewering their self- importance, called "the herd of independent minds." Their vantage point had a good deal to do with the nature of cultural power in Manhattan, which (as Howe pointed out) was to a highly unusual degree divorced from various established forms of power. They were living in a city that, unlike London or Paris, was not a nation's capital, so they were distant from the center of political life. And the premier American educational institutions, Harvard and Yale especially, had far less hold on New York's intellectuals than Oxbridge ever had on London's. While it was true that in the 1930s left-wing politics was a force with which writers believed they needed to align themselves, by the time that Kazin was taking the stage in the 1940s a fresh sense of self-direction was emerging from the breakup of Soviet and Marxist ideals. In the pages of Partisan Review, which both reflected and helped to define this new openness, you could discuss high modernism, popular culture, existentialism, Marxism, and psychoanalysis side by side. Communism, Kazin wrote in New York Jew, "had become another theology to be sloughed off like Judaism."
Kazin's many memoirs are a celebration of New York's free market of ideas. In New York, you embraced the philosophies and the masterpieces that you believed in and you ran with them--as fast and as far as you knew how. At its best the result was an open-ended intellectual seriousness. But there were dangers. In a city where there were no established intellectual arbiters, no academy with quasi-official sanction, the most quick-witted idea could sometimes trump the slower but wiser idea. While Kazin enjoyed being famous, he also recognized that his fame, such as it was, had everything to do with the pull of the Zeitgeist. If Kazin's autobiographies, and particularly New York Jew, can suggest the trumpet blasts of a mid-century Song of Myself, he also knew that the intellectual who was always looking out for number one was a compromised figure. In 1960, in an article called "Writing for Magazines," he was clear-eyed about the dangers of literary power: "The trouble with magazine writers just now is that we are put so quickly in touch with a large public, we have so obviously the brief but undeniable power to influence, to arouse, to change the thinking of people ... that, often against our better selves, we become pompous, see ourselves as having to dislodge something with each article, to make a point or to contradict one."
By 1960 being an intellectual had become, or so Kazin reported, "the latest style in American success." He meant this declaration, made at the close of an essay about the Kennedy administration and the intellectuals, as a stern warning about the seductions of media-world glamour. And looking back now on the world described in New York Jew, which was published in 1978, it can seem that the drive to be heard that pushed Kazin and his cohort to speak so clearly and so independently could also shrink to a narcissistic pleasure in being heard. When Dwight Macdonald, who had made a name for himself as a thinker who marched to his own drummer with his short-lived magazine Politics, ended up writing for Esquire and The New Yorker, it seemed to some that the man who had coined the term Midcult was himself becoming a little too close to the middlebrows. The strange thing was that nobody could have described such a transformation better than Macdonald. In his own defense Macdonald might have said that you did not want to be the independent conscience of an America that had no idea of your existence. But this left the question of what you were willing to do to get America's attention. The New York intellectuals were aware of the paradoxical nature of their situation, though their self-awareness was rarely wrapped in the self-aggrandizing irony that in more recent years has turned so many would-be intellectuals into mere pundits.
Kazin produced a large and varied body of work. In addition to the autobiographical volumes, the major books include a collection of critical essays, Contemporaries, and three studies of American literature--On Native Grounds, Bright Book of Life: American Novelists and Storytellers from Hemingway to Mailer, and An American Procession, in which Kazin turned back to the nineteenth-century masters, beginning with Emerson. Kazin's literary output reflects a considerable range of qualities, from the fervent, hyperbolic character of the memoirs to the precise, judicious tone of the essays in Contemporaries, which was published in 1962.
There is still a remarkable freshness about much of Kazin's criticism. His evaluation of Mailer in Contemporaries, written when Advertisements for Myself first appeared, is astonishingly astute. Kazin may have had the last word on Mailer when he warned that "no one can calculate what so overintense a need to dominate, to succeed, to grasp, to win, may do to that side of talent which has its own rule of being and can never be forced." A long critique of Salinger, composed when his reputation was heading toward its zenith in the early 1960s, suggested that Salinger's appeal had something to do with his ability to massage the egos of his readers, to encourage them to feel "endlessly 'sensitive,' spiritually alone, gifted." And Kazin is good on the superiority of Baldwin's essays over his fiction, observing that in the nonfiction "the 'I, ' the 'James Baldwin' who is so sassy and despairing and bright, manages, without losing his authority as the central speaker, to show us all the different people hidden in him, all the voices for whom the 'I' alone can speak. "
Throughout these essays, Kazin balances a feeling for the free-standing power of literature with a sure sense of all the ways in which the writer relates to the reading public. And there is, in abundance, the burning love of fine prose. This is the enthusiasm that lights up the concluding lines of his discussion of Wilson's collection of reports from the 1920s and 1930s, The American Earthquake, when Kazin observes that "Nothing is held too long, for when the attention is fixed so sharply on cultural detail, it may easily tire, and in any event, the essential point has usually been made swiftly. But the assembling of details, the movement of ideas--these give us the orbit, the 'spread' of life in a particular time."
What I find missing in Kazin's criticism is some more personal outlook, a sense that the critic, in the process of grappling with the unfolding life of an art form, is also shaping his own view. The surprise of Kazin's criticism is that so much of this acuity and elegance does not hold in the mind. Why this should be, I do not exactly know; but I suspect that in his criticism Kazin was determined to be the dispassionate moderator of metropolitan taste, an independent critic who was nevertheless always extremely attentive to the mainstream. In Bright Book of Life, Kazin discusses what he regards as the weaknesses of Nabokov's Ada with considerable deftness; he may well be right when he says that "the artist's perfect freedom in Ada is a fantasy too lovely-- and therefore imperfect." And yet the judgment feels a little wan, at least when compared with Mary McCarthy's unforgettable (and perhaps somewhat exaggerated) salute to Pale Fire in the essay "A Bolt from the Blue," or to Wilson's thrillingly gutsy takedown of Nabokov's translation of Eugene Onegin. The argument could be made that McCarthy and Wilson tell us more about themselves than they do about Nabokov. (Certainly one of the fascinations of McCarthy as a critic is in how much she admired precisely the kind of experimental prose, not only by Nabokov but also by Calvino, that was entirely outside her own range; and Wilson's critique of Nabokov's translation was delightful not least for the sheer chutzpah of the American taking on Nabokov's grasp of Russian prosody. That Wilson was right only makes it more delicious.) But then one of the tasks of criticism is precisely this exploration of the critic's own consciousness, though never at the expense of the subject at hand. The drama of the greatest essay collections lies in the revelation of the critic's personality, and I do not find this in Kazin's Contemporaries, despite its many virtues.
While it is difficult to generalize about a group of writers as rich and varied as the New York intellectuals, it is perhaps safe to say that eccentricity in contemporary thought or feeling was not something that they much admired. True, they spoke in many voices. There was Greenberg's strange mingling of plainspoken speech and aesthetic absolutism, a particularly American mode, with echoes of Stein and Pound, though Greenberg would not have cared for the comparison. And there was Trilling's impersonal lucidity, a mildness so finely crafted that it could cut straight through the most boldly pitched rhetoric. What united these distinctive voices was a desire to make a contribution to the vitality of American culture as a whole. And this brings us to an old complaint about the New York intellectuals, one that has been made about Kazin in at least one review of Cook's biography, namely that they were too little interested in what many would regard as the experimental or avant- garde achievements of their own day.
Of course they were great admirers of the early modernists, and Kazin would want to remind readers that he published one of the early reviews of Finnegans Wake in the United States, and that, as he recalled late in life, he "was astonished to read that mine was among the few reviews that Joyce could tolerate." By the end of the 1940s, however, there was a divide in American literary culture, and one cannot get around the fact that the New York intellectuals took little interest in experimental poetry and poetic prose, if by experimental one means the sort of thing that Charles Olson had encouraged at Black Mountain College and James Laughlin published at New Directions. The struggle to find a place in American culture that originally emboldened the New York intellectuals tended to leave them with a certain impatience with anybody who wholeheartedly embraced a bohemian view of art and experience. It is true that Greenberg, Rosenberg, and Schapiro were great supporters of the New York School painters, but Greenberg certainly presented Pollock and Newman as the least idiosyncratic of artists, as embodying some impersonal and therefore anti- bohemian idea of tradition. Only Schapiro took an unabashed interest in marginal figures, such as the painter Gandy Brodie.
I do not mean to suggest that the New York intellectuals did not have their differences with the mainstream of American life. Partisan Review had its offices downtown, on Astor Place, and there was hardly an intellectual who had not lived some version of the Greenwich Village life. But they had little or no interest in marginality as a value, and were inclined to see those who made too much of life on the periphery as defeatists. Paul Goodman, who had one foot in the Partisan Review universe and one foot in the wilds of bohemia, proved a particularly ambiguous figure. When Kazin, in a fine portrait of Goodman in New York Jew, recalls that he "attacked every writer not limited to small experimental presses in the Village," Goodman was perhaps not the only one who was passing judgment. The point is not that the New York intellectuals prized celebrity over quality, not at all; but that part of what they saw as the promise of America involved varieties of literary quality that could touch a relatively large audience. They were thrilled by the popular success of Ellison, Bellow, Roth, and Lowell, and they could be fairly certain that the same sort of fame would never come to Denise Levertov or even William Carlos Williams.
Lecturing at Harvard, Kazin recalled a ride down Broadway with Robert Lowell, and how "some Columbia students on the bus recognized Lowell and gathered around to express admiration and ask questions. He was in heaven ... He expounded to the students his full faith and expertise in poetry exactly as the thundering old countryman Hardy might have done it." Kazin was in heaven, too. While Kazin and his comrades would have dismissed as jingoism any attempt to equate artistic success with the American dream, they may, at least unconsciously, have feared that the advocacy of marginal writers would call their own centrality into question. (The obscurity of Melville and Dickinson was another matter; they hadn't had Kazin and his contemporaries as advocates.) The New York intellectuals, many of whom overcame humble origins, could make too much of their pleasure in finally arriving at the center of things.
The subject of all Kazin's extended works--whether the criticism or the memoirs, whether On Native Grounds or Starting Out in the Thirties--is the writer's struggle to shape the forward flow of experience, to transform the pressures of the past into the achievements of the present. It has often been observed that Kazin's last long book, An American Procession, does not make a convincing whole of its portraits of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century writers, but the truth may be that it is A Walker in the City, Starting Out in the Thirties, and New York Jew, taken together, that constitute Kazin's American Procession. (These books should be published one day in a single volume.) It is a procession that winds through the shifting scenes of New York from the 1930s to the 1960s, with Kazin surrounded by his lovers and friends and colleagues. When New York Jew appeared, many found it less satisfying than the earlier memoirs, but if there are indeed passages about Kazin's personal life that feel hazy or cliched or perfunctory, the book strikes me now as a stronger, more coherent work than when I first read it thirty years ago.
The three memoirs form a triptych, with themes and even characters threaded through. The story of Sophie, the maiden cousin who lived with Kazin's family and "used the word love without embarrassment," begins in A Walker in the City and concludes deep in Starting Out in the Thirties. Passionate and angry, Sophie was the woman who never stopped yearning for the sublime love that she could not have. After turning down a long line of conventional suitors, Sophie, "our long wept-over and defended and protected old maid of a cousin, was suddenly called for one evening by a man of her own age who had been told of her situation." He was middle-aged, "tall, dark, with a glisteningly erotic black mustache," the hero of a cheap melodrama. But somehow Sophie decided that he was the one. And she went off with him, off to the Middle West, although what they were going to do was unclear, and he was not, at the moment, even going to marry her, as there was a wife somewhere whom he had not yet divorced. Then he abandoned Sophie. The great affair was over as quickly as it had begun. And she went out of her head. ("'Poor Sophie,' my mother often said. 'She never had any luck.'") In Starting Out in the Thirties, this harrowing tale of immigrant life is juxtaposed with the brilliantly energetic portraits of the writers Kazin is meeting in Manhattan, so that the dazzling masculine ambitions of Malcolm Cowley and Otis Ferguson and William Saroyan take on an added element of surprise, white light against the dark velvet of Sophie's tragedy.
In New York Jew, Kazin recalled that "Bellow said when I published a sketch of him over the years, 'I'm not used to other people running the picture gallery.'" Kazin is an extraordinary portraitist, with a way of building up a character, stroke by stroke, that at times rivals Bellow. The portrait of Edmund Wilson on the beach at Wellfleet is justifiably famous:
The sight of him in his Panama hat and well-filled Bermuda shorts, the cane propped up in the sand like a sword in declaration of war, instantly brought out in me the mingled anxiety and laughter that I used to feel watching Laurel and Hardy about to cross a precipice. There was so much mischief, disdain, and intellectual solemnity wrapped up behind that getup, that high painfully distinct voice, that lonely proud face.
Other life studies, less celebrated, are also remarkable, such as the quick sketch of Henri Cartier-Bresson, with whom Kazin was briefly thinking of collaborating on a book: "His elegantly agile figure skipped along the littered streets, the Leica suddenly winging into his hands. In his English tweeds, his pleasant air of having an expensive camera to play with, he looked like an innocent, with nothing to do but use up some film. It was easy, bantering agreeableness to work with him. Then you saw what he had come up with after a long day, and felt pressed by the social logic with which he had taken the measure of New York." And it is not only people who come through so clearly. There are also unforgettable evocations of the crowded Manhattan streets and the Greenwich Village parties where the rumpled radicals looked "all too human against the solid walls of bookshelves, the walls and walls of books whose severe intellectual front engloomed those long and violet-dark rooms."
Cook understands that the beauty of these books has everything to do with Kazin's way of shaping the material. He quotes Kazin as explaining that "the detail is disposable and movable," and he finds an example in the opening sentences of New York Jew. "One dreamlike week in 1942," Kazin writes, "I published my first book, On Native Grounds, became an editor of The New Republic and with my wife, Natasha, moved into a little apartment on Twenty- fourth and Lex. Its casement windows looked out on a shop that sold everything you could possibly need for your horse." Only an exceptional writer would know how to juxtapose the specificity of the view out the casement windows with the thunderclap of events taking place in "one dreamlike week." And the literary power of the passage is all the more remarkable when we know, as Cook explains, that these events in fact took place over a period of months.
There is much art to these memoirs. Kazin plays with the truth so that it will be true to his experience. When Starting Out in the Thirties appeared, some questioned the veracity of the book, with Sidney Hook and James Farrell denying that certain conversations and events were as Kazin described. Cook also cites a diary entry from 1934 in which Kazin's interest in communism appears to have been stronger than Kazin recalled when he was writing about himself, to use Cook's words, as "the hero of Starting Out in the Thirties." But if Kazin pulled a bit of gauze over the specifics--and perhaps, as Hook argued, imagined himself present at discussions that he only read about--the result is nonetheless a book that evokes, more convincingly than anything else in our literature, the atmosphere of the 1930s, thick with hopes and anxieties and ideas and imaginings.
Kazin's memoirs are extraordinarily sensuous, full of sights and sounds and smells and tastes. The Sabbath table heaped with food in Brownsville, the elegant women in their high heels on midtown streets, the white-hot political arguments in editorial offices--it all merges into a single intoxication, the intoxication of a city, of the city. The power of these memoirs has everything to do with Kazin's way of framing moments and people and incidents in a double perspective. He writes as the ever-yearning adolescent, dreaming of the experiences he may some day have, dreaming of becoming part of a great intellectual enterprise. At the same time he writes as the adult who discovers in certain experiences, in being friends with Edmund Wilson or Hannah Arendt, a satisfaction so profound that he can only understand it as the fulfillment of a childhood dream.
It is New York that holds all the dreams together, with past, present, and future joined on the city's vast, unfolding stage. We begin with the Rockaway Avenue subway station on the first page of A Walker In the City, where Kazin "smell[s] the leak out of the men's room, then the pickles from the stand just below the subway steps." And we conclude, in New York Jew, with Kazin at a party on the Upper West Side, "in the midst of a rumble with a psychoanalyst about the 'neurotic guilt of survivors,'" watching a great fire burning across the river on the Jersey piers. "The sky is maddened," he writes with Blakean fervor, "you can see the great fire raging, truly raging, on several Weehawken piers."
The lasting subject of Kazin's work is the importance of intellectual engagement itself, a delight in the volubility of his friends that transcends the particular ideas that they are advocating. For Kazin, the melting-pot city is the guiding metaphor in this drama, and the clash of viewpoints, when honestly and truly pursued, creates a truth that, if not greater than the sum of its parts, surely has its own kind of importance. Nobody, not even Bellow, has described the exhilaration of American intellectual life more beautifully than Kazin. Writing of the Partisan Review group, Kazin complained in Starting Out in the Thirties that "the ability to analyze a friend, a trend, a shift in the politico-personal balance of power, was for them the greatest possible sign of intellectual power. Creative imagination they unconsciously disdained as simple-minded." In his memoirs, Alfred Kazin brought his own formidable "creative imagination" to the analysis of "a friend, a trend, a shift in the politico-personal balance of power." The result is fairly astonishing. This man who loved American literature so fiercely created an American classic all his own.
Jed Perl is The New Republic's art critic. This article appeared in the March 26, 2008 issue of the magazine.