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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.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.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?
-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: Gangsterâ€™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)
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