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Robert Warshow was a much-anthologized critic of the '40s and '50s, a member of the New York Intellectual scene that spawned neoconservatism and anti-anti-communism, who died young and has become something of a cult figure. Indeed, it was a glowing review by Terry Teachout that led me to the book and it is both prefaced and concludes with adulatory essays by Lionel Trilling, David Denby and Stanley Cavell. Something of the feverish regard in which Warshow fans hold him can be conveyed by Mr. Teachout's first paragraph:
Among my prized possessions is a battered copy of Robert Warshow's "The Immediate Experience: Movies, Comics, Theatre and Other Aspects of Popular Culture," an obscure collection of critical essays published in 1962 to no special acclaim. I doubt it sold more than a couple of hundred copies, and I know it didn't go over big in Kansas City, because mine is a discarded library copy, and the faded date-due stamps on the first page indicate that between 1962 and 1979, the year I acquired it, "The Immediate Experience" was checked out just fifteen times, the last in 1972.
One almost feels that buying a copy of the book is the equivalent of obtaining samizdata in the Soviet Union. I confess then that I was somewhat disappointed in Mr. Warshow's work, but, to mhis credit, I think he offered the most compelling reason this should be so himself.

Robert Warshow was, as Mr. Teachout describes him, a left-wing anti-Communist, and to some extent all of his criticism was an attempt to recapture the critical reading of American culture from the ideological corruption that Communism had imposed on most of his peers. The problem arises because he was aswim in that same pollution himself. Here's how he describes the situation in his essay, The Legacy of the 30s:
For most American intellectuals, the Communist movement of the 1930's was a crucial experience. In Europe, where the movement was at once more serious and more popular, it was still only one current in intellectual life; the Communists could never completely set the tone of thinking in Europe, and Communist intellectuals themselves were able to draw a part of their nourishment from outside the movement. But in this country there was a time when virtually all intellectual vitality was derived in one way or another from the Communist party. If you were not somewhere within the party's wide orbit, then you were likely to be in the opposition, which meant that much of your thought and energy had to be devoted to maintaining yourself in opposition.

In either case, it was the Communist party that ultimately determined what you were to think about and in what terms.

There resulted a disastrous vulgarization of intellectual life, in which the character of American liberalism and radicalism was decisively- and perhaps permanently - corrupted. As a measure of the damage, one need only compare the atmosphere that surrounded the Sacco and Vanzetti case in 1927 with the atmosphere during the period of the Moscow Trials and the Spanish Civil War ten years later. Indeed, the special poignancy with which we remember Sacco and Vanzetti is connected with a sense of regret for our own lost virtue; the excitement that grew up around their case was the last strong expression of uncorrupted radicalism: in 1927, nobody really wanted anything except that justice should win. But in the 30's radicalism entered upon an age of organized mass disingenuousness, when every act and every idea had behind it some "larger consideration" which destroyed its honesty and its meaning. Everyone became a professional politician, acting within a framework of "realism" that tended to make political activity an end in itself. The half-truth was elevated to the position of a principle, and in the end the half-truth, in itself, became more desirable than the whole-truth. It was fashionable at the time to speak of a "new maturity" in American intellectual life, and in a sense the phrase was accurate, but it was the kind of maturity that is really a willing acceptance of failure. [...]

It is not necessary to claim that the Communist movement was in any real sense the cause of this development. In fact that movement, in the character it assumed in the 30's, was itself a part of the development; the real causes lay far back in the history of American culture and the social and psychological effects of industrial capitalism. Moreover, the cultural atmosphere of the 30's embraced a great many areas of American life that had no direct connection with the Communists at all; for most Americans, certainly, that atmosphere was expressed most clearly in the personality of President Roosevelt and the social-intellectual-political climate of the New Deal. For the intellectual, however, the Communist movement was the fact of central importance; the New Deal remained an external phenomenon, part of that "larger" world of American public life from which he had long separated himself-he might "support" the New Deal (as later on, perhaps, he "supported" the war), but he never identified himself with it. One way or another, he did identify himself with the Communist movement.

THUS the problem that confronts the American intellectual when he seeks to deal with the mass culture that surrounds him is, in its deeper meaning, the problem of his own past. For we are living still in the intellectual climate that was first established by the Communist-liberal-New Deal movement of the 30's (by this time there are many people who have never known any other climate; that is what makes it so difficult to describe what has happened […]

Now it is precisely this-the experience of an alienation from reality-which is the characteristic experience of our age. The modem intellectual, and especially the creative writer, thus faces the necessity of describing and clarifying an experience which has itself deprived him of the vocabulary he requires to deal with it. The writer who attempts a true re-creation of life is forced to invent the meanings of experience all over again, creating out of his own mind and sensibility not only the literary object but also its significance and its justification-in a sense, he must invent his own audience.

This is the source of the problem of communication in modem literature-which is a problem not only of communicating the quality of experience to a reader, but also, and more deeply, of making it possible for the writer himself to have a meaningful experience in the first place. There is no paradox in this, for it is only through an effective vocabulary-that is, through "valid" emotional, moral, and intellectual responses expressible in language - that we can truly know what we do and what happens to us. And the writer is par excellence the man of conscious experience; the problem of experience and the problem of a language for experience are for him one problem.

In modem poetry, the problem has been solved most frequently by a persistent use of irony. By employing the vocabulary of mass culture in a more serious context, the poet expresses both his rejection of mass culture and the difficulty he faces in trying to transcend it, while at the same time this irony, by a kind of negative connotation, can also convey some of the quality of fresh and meaningful experience-or, more accurately, it can indicate what fresh and meaningful experience might be like if there existed a context and a vocabulary for it.

This is a possible solution as far as it goes, but its limitations are obvious: a whole literature cannot be built on irony. In addition, this ironic use of language is necessarily so indefinite that it easily slips over from the "negative" to the "affirmative," and the moment that happens it becomes a part of the mass culture from which it has tried to escape. The use of irony for purposes of "affirmation" is usually a device for stating banalities indirectly and tentatively and thus concealing their lack of real content; it is a technique of falsification. The clearest example of this is the style of "American" inarticulateness and diffidence affected by writers like Archibald MacLeish and Norman Corwin.

For the serious prose writer, at any rate, even this partial solution is not available: he must evolve some method of understanding and communicating experience directly-as it really is, as it really feels. And he finds at every turn that he is unable to realize and respond to his experience in any way that seems valid and fruitful to him. He lives within the mass culture, he meets experience through the mass culture, the words and ideas that come to him most easily, most "naturally," are the words and ideas of mass culture. The problem is inescapable; there is no comer of literature or experience where he does not face it. And it must be solved all over again every day.

To BE sure, the problem is not confined to the United States. But it exists here in its most developed form; the Europeans are only beginning to face it, and for the Russians it would hardly be accurate to call it a problem at all: for them, the discussion is ended. It is also true that the problem did not suddenly spring into being in the 30's; the poetry of T. S. Eliot is sufficient evidence to the contrary. But for American intellectuals of our time, as I have tried to show, the center of the problem is in the political-intellectual movement of the 30's. The problem developed over many years and through many historical factors, but it happened in the 30's. Thus it becomes our central intellectual task to evolve some method of assimilating the experience of those years, if only in order to perfect our understanding of our cultural failure.
Things were, of course, more dire than even he recognized, because as Richard Hofstadter would somewhat disgustedly note a few years later, American popular culture is and always has been rather vehemently anti-Intellectual.

The great mass of Americans weren't duped by Sacco and Vanzetti, Marx, Lenin, Stalin, the Spanish Civil War and all the rest--that dishonor belonged peculiarly to the intellectual class. And while some, like Mr. Warshow, did better than others at recognizing the error of their ways, it is nonetheless true, as he says, that even their views were inexorably shaped by the error. If the well of intellectualism was poisoned as thoroughly as he suggests--and it seems inarguable that it was--then even the best of the intellectuals have to have been contaminated to some degree. The result is, I think, that someone like Mr. Warshow is pretty good when writing about fellow intellectuals, because he has particular insight into their shortcomings, but not terribly good when discussing the popular culture which he admits to being estranged from. Thus, the two essays for which he is best remembered--The Gangster as Tragic Hero and Movie Chronicle: The Westerner--are really quite vapid. His argument that we identify with the gangsters in film makes it inexplicable that every movie then ends with the crook getting his just desserts. We anti-intellectuals can understand more clearly that the gangster film -- in fact, all film noir as well -- is a simple Puritan morality tale: no matter how much fun sinning looks like, in the end you pay too high a price for the pleasure. Likewise, he argues that the image of Western heroes is archaic, presumably because in the circles he moved it was no longer fashionable to think so starkly in terms of guys in white hats and guys in black ones, when, in reality, the notion of the good marshall riding in to clean out the bad guys still resonates as we see even in the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. The reader can't help but have his confidence in Mr. Warshow shaken when he biffs such basic memes of American popular culture.

On the other hand, I heartily recommend the book for that essay on the 30s and for a series of others in which he just eviscerates liberal icons of the era, The "Idealism" of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg is an especially delicious savaging, made more powerful by the knowledge that even into the 80s the Left still insisted that they were innocent victims. Similarly, the several essays in which he pummels Arthur Miller and his astute vivisections of Charlie Chaplin are more impressive because they ran so much against the tide of his fellow intellectuals. To see him at his best, consider one of the pieces on Chaplin, where he explains the Tramp's "comedy" in a way that helped me understand why I'd always found him annoying rather than funny:
Beneath all the social meanings of Chaplin's art there is one insistent personal message that he is conveying to us all the time. It is the message of most entertainers, maybe, but his especially because he is so great an entertainer. "Love me"--he has asked this from the beginning, buttering us up with his sweet ways and his calculated graceful misadventures, with those exquisite manners so perfectly beside the point, with that honeyed glance he casts at us so often, lips pursed in an outrageous simper, eyebrows and mustache moving in frantic invitation. Love me. And we have, apparently, loved him, though with such undercurrents of revulsion as might be expected in response to so naked a demand.

Does he love us? This is a strange question to ask of an artist. But it is Chaplin himself who put it in our mouths, harping on love until we are forced almost in self-defense to say: what about you? He does not love us; and maybe he doesn't love anything. [...] No, the warmth that comes from his image on the screen is only our happy opportunity to love him. He has no love to spare, he is too busy pushing his own demand: love me, love me, poor Charlie, sweet Charlie. Probably he even despises us because we have responded so readily to his blandishments, and also because we can never respond enough.
That's awfully smart. And Mr. Warshow had a real way with a phrase, as in this example from David Denby's appreciation: "In a passing comment on the failure of the Bolshevik Revolution, and on the 'irony' of utopias souring into dictatorships, Warshow wrote:
'I would have given up all ironies and the sense of tragedy and the sense of history along with them, just to have stupid, handsome Nicholas grinding his heel once more into the face of unhappy Russia.'"
Given our druthers, wouldn't that make a pretty good epitaph for the 20th Century?


Grade: (A-)


Robert Warshow Links:

    -BOOK SITE: The Immediate Experience by Robert Warshow (Harvard University Press)
    -ESSAY: The Working Day at the Splendide (Robert Warshow, November 09, 1946, The Nation)
    -ESSAY: The Legacy of the 30's (Robert Warshow, December 1947, Commentary)
    -Robert Warshow (1917 - 1955) (JahSonic)
    -ESSAY: The Mind of Robert Warshow (Lionel Trilling, June 1961, Commentary)
-ESSAY: Remembering Robert Warshow (Midge Decter, April 2002, Commentary)
    -ESSAY: Gangster’s Paradise (Nathan Abrams, Rare Book Review)
    -Arguing the World: NY Intellectuals (PBS)
    -ARCHIVES: Robert Warshow (Commentary)
    -ARCHIVES: "Robert Warshow" (Find Articles)
    -REVIEW: of The Immediate Experience: Movies, Comics, Theatre and Other Aspects of Popular Culture by Robert Warshow (Terry Teachout, Weekly Standard)
    -REVIEW: of The Immediate Experience (Curtis Bowman, Other Voices)
    -REVIEW: of The Immediate Experience (Michael Barrier)
    -REVIEW: of The Immediate Experience (D.B. Jones, Screening the Past)
    -REVIEW: of The Immediate Experience (John Patterson, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of The Immediate Experience (Frank Halperin, Philadelphia City Paper)
    -REVIEW: of The Immediate Experience (Geoff Dyer, Book Forum)
    -REVIEW: of The Immediate Experience (JUDITH SHULEVITZ, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of The Immediate Experience (Martha Bayles, Reason)
    -REVIEW: of The Immediate Experience (Greil Marcus, Salon)
    -REVIEW: of The Immediate Experience (SirReadaLot)
    -REVIEW: of The Immediate Experience (Noel Murray, AV Club)

Book-related and General Links: