Biography forgotten genius / The hunger artist
Mocked by friends and peers in his lifetime, Isaac Rosenfeld is remembered in death - to the extent he is remembered at all - mainly for his unfulfilled literary promise. A new biography offers a remarkable meditation on what it means to succeed, and fail, in intellectual life.
Rosenfeld's LivesFame, Oblivion, and the Furies of Writing by Steven J. ZippersteinYale University Press, 288 pages, $27.50
On July 14, 1956, Isaac Rosenfeld died of a heart attack. He was found slumped over his cluttered writing desk in a shabby one-room apartment in Chicago. Though only 38 years old, the garrulous, charismatic and undeniably brilliant novelist and critic had made a lasting impression on the New York literary world of the 1940s and 1950s. Rosenfeld figures prominently - and is often rendered quite cruelly - in the memoirs of his better-known peers.
"Wunderkind grown into tubby sage ... he died of lonely sloth," wrote Irving Howe. "Precocious in everything, and understandably worn out ... even his dying would be a kind of failure," sneered writer and literary critic Alfred Kazin.
"He peed in sinks. He would go to the movies in the afternoon. ... He held on to no jobs. He farted away golden opportunities. He met no deadlines." That is how Wallace Markfield describes Leslie Braverman, the likable but reckless protagonist of his 1964 novel, "To an Early Grave," who was based on Rosenfeld. (Markfield's novel was adapted into the 1968 Sidney Lumet-directed film "Bye Bye Braverman.")
But Rosenfeld is probably best remembered - if at all - as a minor footnote to Saul Bellow's major career. Friends since childhood, the two were inseparable competitors throughout their lives. "I loved him, but we were rivals," Bellow wrote in an essay eulogizing Rosenfeld. When Bellow won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1976, he is reported to have said, "It should have been Isaac." And after Rosenfeld died, Bellow told friends, "I have to write for the both of us now." The two are often placed side by side, writes Steven J. Zipperstein in his extraordinary new book, "Rosenfeld's Lives" - "one with the biggest prize of all, the other buried young and little known, a ready, all too obvious metaphor for the cruelties and unpredictability of a writer's life."
Rosenfeld's literary legacy is meager - one novel and two posthumous collections of essays and short stories - but his achievements endure. As the literary scholar Mark Shechner has argued, Rosenfeld helped fashion a uniquely American voice by marrying the incisiveness of Mark Twain to the Russian melancholy of Dostoevsky, producing a "tautness of style" that defined a generation of Jewish American intellectuals. In at least that sense, "Rosenfeld's Lives" is a long overdue corrective to the way Rosenfeld has been depicted. He deserves to be remembered as an artist who, Zipperstein writes, "pondered harder and more courageously than anyone... what it meant to live with ideas."
Rosenfeld's short life played out in the space between ambition and achievement, hedonism and deprivation, intellection and instinct, self-discovery and self-destruction. Addicted to thinking, Rosenfeld became paralyzed by self-analysis. He struggled mightily to arrive at some peace about how to live. Zipperstein, a professor of Jewish culture and history at Stanford University and author of an acclaimed biography of Ahad Ha'am, "Elusive Prophet" (1993), teases out meaning from Rosenfeld's destructive relationship with his own mind, and delivers a remarkable meditation on what it means to succeed, and fail, in intellectual life.
Isaac Rosenfeld was born in 1918 into a culture-crazed family of Russian-Jewish immigrants in Chicago. His mother died when he was an infant, and his father - a suspicious, unpleasant man who made a good living as a buyer for a high-end grocery store - married two more times. Isaac's two aunts, his father's sisters, lived in the same apartment building. Devotees of Russian literature and Yiddish poetry, they were an overbearing presence in their nephew's life. Rosenfeld's first published story, written in Yiddish, tells of a young boy forced to live with his aunts for the summer while his parents are away in South America.
"The hotter he got," Rosenfeld writes of his protagonist, "the cooler his aunts became, cooler, colder, stranger. And it seemed to him that they were becoming larger, larger, and they began to sprout horns! Their devilish smiles pierced him like (sharp) horns! They are now altogether devils." As Zipperstein dryly notes, "Rosenfeld's was a miserable childhood."
Around the age of 16, Rosenfeld met Saul Bellow (then known as Sol), who was three years older and ran with the literary crowd that gravitated around their high school newspaper. Bellow described Rosenfeld as a plump teenager with "a round, intellectual Jewish face, froggy lips, big goggles," who seemed to be in "disagreement with his own flesh." The school newspaper portrayed Rosenfeld as a "short barber pole with glasses." Though physically unimpressive, it was Rosenfeld - not Bellow - whose intellectual star shined most brightly. "Isaac was the outstanding kid," a classmate told Bellow's biographer James Atlas. "He led Saul by the nose." Rosenfeld, who kept a bust of Beethoven in his bedroom, was, writes Atlas, "a Chicago version of John Stuart Mill."
In 1941, Rosenfeld accepted a graduate fellowship in the philosophy department at New York University. Bellow soon followed him to the city. "Bless new life, bless novelty & difference oh ye light while plunge underground, content now to roar home on the subway," Rosenfeld recorded in his journal shortly after his arrival. "We came armored in provincial self-confidence, and came to conquer," Bellow recalled. Gertrude Himmelfarb, the historian and wife of Irving Kristol, considered the New York intellectuals parochial in comparison to the two Dostoevskians from Chicago, who were, in her estimation, "more cultivated: more literary, more musical, more philosophical."
After about a year at NYU, Rosenfeld abandoned philosophy to focus on fiction. At that time, he was living in a small, bug-infested, ground-floor apartment with his wife, Vasiliki Sarantakis, a woman vividly sketched by Bellow as "a pagan beauty with hibiscus in her teeth." Vasiliki worked as Alfred Kazin's secretary at The New Republic, where he was the literary editor. Rosenfeld rapidly established himself on the New York literary scene, contributing essays, reviews and poems to the house organs of the intelligentsia: Commentary, The New Leader, Partisan Review and The New Republic. In 1944, he won a Partisan Review-sponsored fiction contest for a Kafka-inspired work, "The Colony." His reputation skyrocketed. Some of New York's leading critics, Zipperstein writes, embraced Rosenfeld as "the most likely candidate for the mantle of the next great American writer, someone who would produce a European-style American literature, philosophical and self-reflective, and redeem American culture now that Europe was in decline."
Rosenfeld's first novel, "Passage From Home," was published in 1946 to massive expectations. The story revolves around the interior life of a precocious and angst-filled adolescent intellectual, Bernard Miller, who is, as he describes himself, "as sensitive as a burn." Zipperstein celebrates the book as a trailblazing triumph. "Before Philip Roth's stories and novels, this was the most psychologically probing fictional analysis in English of the making of a Jewish intellectual."
For a generation of Jewish American writers, Rosenfeld's account of the relationship between an immigrant father and his hyper-cerebral son struck a chord of deep recognition. "Here is true and acute perception," wrote Irving Howe, who, like Rosenfeld and his protagonist, was born to an immigrant family. Years later, in his timeless memoir, "A Margin of Hope," Howe remembered Rosenfeld as "our golden boy, more so than Bellow, for there was an air of yeshiva purity about Isaac that made one hope wildly for his future." But "Passage From Home" was greeted with warm but muted reviews. Sales were disappointing.
The year after the novel's publication, Rosenfeld received a prestigious Guggenheim fellowship to expand his prize-winning short story "The Colony" into a novel. He never finished. His life became filled with incomplete manuscripts, and he descended into a bohemian abyss. Rosenfeld's smoke-filled apartment attracted an endless parade of hipsters and intellectuals - poets, would-be poets, writers, would-be writers, drunkards and refugees from Chicago. (Bellow dubbed Rosenfeld's flat the Ellis Island for Chicagoans.) He cultivated chaos. Devoted to the disorderly margins of mainstream life, Rosenfeld was a self-fashioned Kafkaesque hunger artist. In a letter home to his aunts, Rosenfeld argued that taking Jewishness seriously meant facing alienation head-on - "the one international banking system the Jews actually control," he joked.When university teaching positions and publishing opportunities began opening up for Jewish intellectuals in the 1950s, Rosenfeld stubbornly clung to deprivation and material abstinence as tokens of authenticity. When he accepted short-term teaching positions he did so grudgingly, a pained acquiescence to the financial burdens of parenthood. (He had two children.) When the era of alienation ended - a moment that can be more or less dated to Partisan Review's famous 1952 symposium "Our Country, Our Culture" - Rosenfeld decried the shifting zeitgeist. He recoiled from complacency. After a visit with Irving Kristol and Nathan Glazer, who were then both editors at Commentary, Rosenfeld lamented how his friends had "gone Orthodox" and were now "growing quietly, desperately ill."
Fall from grace
Rosenfeld's friends lost patience. "His eminence dimmed quickly," Zipperstein writes. The critics "ceased to think of him as a 'comer' and began to look elsewhere for the great American novelist." Reading Zipperstein's account of Rosenfeld's fall from literary grace, one can't help but think of Cyril Connolly's quip about early success: "Whom the gods wish to destroy, they first call promising."
By the late 1940s, Rosenfeld, who had an insatiable appetite for psychology literature, had become a zealous convert to the philosophy of Wilhelm Reich, the errant Freud disciple turned ideologue of the orgasm. Reich's master concept, "orgonomy," is as twisted and absurd as his life, which ended ignominiously in a federal prison cell in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, in 1957. Reich thought malevolent emotions prevented modern man from experiencing true orgastic experiences, and that orgasm, or "orgone energy," was the core, life-affirming force in the world. He invented and marketed the "orgone accumulator," a metal-lined box purportedly capable of trapping orgone energy. It may be hard to believe, but Reich was one of the most influential intellectual gurus in the years directly following World War II.
Though a number of prominent writers dabbled with Reichianism - including Bellow and Norman Mailer - Rosenfeld pursued Reich's pseudoscience with unrivaled energy and longevity, believing that it was the key to unlocking his literary imagination. He justified his allegiance, "insisting that Reich's ideas provided him with access to mysteries otherwise believed to be the sole province of faith," Zipperstein writes.
Rosenfeld's insistent quest to realize his full potential, to flout convention, to satiate what he called his "desire for strong sensations," is, in a way, admirable. Yet his penchant for abstraction and distraction circumscribed his imagination. None of it was an aid to composition. He ensnared himself in the sticky morass of his own brilliant mind.Sitting in his pathetic homemade orgone box, Rosenfeld looked "as if he were waiting in his telephone booth for a call that was not coming through," Kazin wrote in his memoir "New York Jew." "Isaac became too busy for writing. He became too busy trying his life out. He lived not like a writer but like a character in search of a plot. Every day, he woke up determined to be a new man, to recast everything, to try a new role, to be attractive, promiscuous, and wise." Rosenfeld lacked attentiveness, efficiency and discipline - qualities that Howe memorably described as "that cunning economy that enables writers to sustain lengthy careers."
The literary critic Edmund Wilson observed that "genius and disease, like strength and mutilation, may be inextricably bound up together." Rosenfeld has no claim on genius. And Zipperstein, to his credit, resists the temptation to mythologize his subject, to bury him beneath a pile of moist handkerchiefs. Rosenfeld's more ardent admirers, Zipperstein writes, "risk taking for granted that Rosenfeld's youthful promise would have blossomed into literary brilliance, when one knows too well how often promise, however stunning, rots, how easily one's self-assurance or elegance or even an initial moment or two of apparent genius can be mistaken in literary life for lasting talent."
During the last years of his life, Rosenfeld began shedding eccentricities. "His wit was clearer and sharper, purged of crankiness," Bellow observed. In mid-July, 1958, Rosenfeld turned to his journal:"This is what I have forgotten about the creative process, & am only now beginning to remember - that time spent is time fixed. One creates a work to outlive one - only art does this - & the source of creativity is the desire to reach over one's own death Maybe now, if I want to create again, I want once more to live; and before I wanted, I suppose, to die."Isaac Rosenfeld died a few days later.
Evan R. Goldstein is a writer in Washington, D.C.