Trotsky Robert Service Harvard University Press, $35 When Leon Trotsky was assassinated in Mexico City by an agent of Stalin, in 1940, the American novelist James T. Farrell took to the pages of Partisan Review to memorialize him. “The life of Leon Trotsky is one of the great tragic dramas of modern history,” Farrell’s obituary began, and it only gets more idolatrous from there. “Pitting his brain and will against the despotic rulers of a great empire, fully conscious of the power, the resources, the cunning and cruelty of his enemy, Trotsky had one weapon at his command--his ideas.
In our collective memory of the Holocaust, Kristallnacht occupies a central but ambiguous place. If you look simply at the statistics, there is little reason why the events of November 9-10, 1938, should loom so large.
For years, I have been reading Michael Greenberg's remarkable column in the Times Literary Supplement and wondering what the English make of it. The New York Jewish quality of Greenberg's take on the writer's life, under the rubric "Freelance," is emphasized by the way he takes turns writing the column with an English poet, Hugo Williams, who is a writer of a wholly different species.
Arthur Miller By Christopher Bigsby (Harvard University Press, 739 pp., $35) I. Arthur Miller could hardly have hoped for a more sympathetic biographer than Christopher Bigsby. He is the director of the Arthur Miller Centre for American Studies at the University of East Anglia, and the author of a long commentary on Miller’s work and a book-length interview with the playwright.
Jewish history in the 20th century is full of might-have-beens, most of them too sorrowful to bear thinking about. The brief cultural moment that Kenneth B. Moss resurrects in Jewish Renaissance in the Russian Revolution (Harvard University Press) is one of the least known and most fascinating of those aborted futures: a two-year period when writers, artists, and activists in Russia and Ukraine believed they were midwiving the birth of a new Jewish culture.
In 1943, the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz, who was living in Nazi-occupied Warsaw, wrote “Campo dei Fiori,” his great poem about the coexistence of normality and atrocity. The Campo dei Fiori is the plaza in Rome where, in the year 1600, the heretical philosopher Giordano Bruno was burned alive by the Catholic Church; “before the flames had died,” Milosz writes, “the taverns were full again.” The same willed blindness could be noted in Warsaw, the poem declares.
In 1949, a year after the state of Israel was created, its Chief Rabbi visited President Harry Truman in Washington. Isaac Halevi Herzog told Truman that his role in helping the Jewish state achieve its independence was not just a matter of politics and diplomacy; it was a divine mission.
It would be hard to overstate the importance of the Frankfurt School in recent American thought. Philosophers, psychologists, and sociologists like Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Herbert Marcuse, Erich Fromm, and Max Horkheimer—to name just the best-known members of the group—helped to develop a subtle and powerful way of thinking about the problems of modern society.
It's a rare musician who requires a biography devoted solely to his or her political activities. But as Barry Seldes shows in Leonard Bernstein: The Political Life of an American Musician, Bernstein is one of those exceptional cases. For his entire adult life, Bernstein was perhaps the most famous composer and conductor in America--which is not the same thing as being the best--and he had no qualms about using his artistic fame to advance his political beliefs.
“For two thousand years,” wrote Harold Rosenberg, “the main energies of Jewish communities have gone into the mass production of intellectuals.” For Rosenberg, the art critic who belonged to the receding constellation of writers known as the New York Intellectuals, such a claim was something between a boast and a self-justification. The New York Intellectuals were mainly second-generation Americans, whose self-sacrificing immigrant parents won them the opportunities America offered to newcomers, including Jews.