Helen Frankenthaler

A CRITIC IN THE MAKING

A concise and pointed review by a major artist and long time friend of Greenberg. The Harold Letters reads like a novel and among other things reveals how much Greenberg knew and respected the limits of art from the beginning. Recommended reading.
-- TF

THE HAROLD LETTERS, 1928-1943: THE MAKING OF AN AMERICAN INTELLECTUAL. By Clement Greenberg. Edited by Janice Van Horne. Counterpoint. $27.50.

WHAT MAKES CLEM'S letters so good? It's because he doesn't try to look good. He writes it as he feels it: embarrassingly honest, at times shameless. Tail between his legs, he lets us in on his restlessness, torpor, depression, his guilt and enlightenment. The weather, his mood, his feel-ings dominate. These letters cover his formative years, taking us into his major stride as critic-documented in letters, yet at times unfolding as in a novel. Early on, we catch the real Clem: questioning, judgmental, advice-giving, funny, and ready to be surprised. Harold Lazarus was a college mate, Clem's confidant and sidekick. Part of the time Harold appears as a victim of the correspondence; Clem gives him what for or advice, or prods him, telling him how to write, how to free himself. He urges him to share certain books, recordings, and films. He even asks Harold to find him a lawyer of the right kind who can handle things vis-à-vis his former wife Toady, for the sake of his son, Danny. The letters provide a necessary diary for Clem; Harold gives some kind of echo, or leash-or silence-on which Clem can bounce back on himself. These are youthful years and very touching. Clem reveals his loneliness, often his confusion, his terrible self-depreciation as well as ambition and self-confidence. Someplace he feels and knows he is the best.

His appetites never dwindle. He reads everything (in any of several languages), and searches out concerts, exhibitions, theater, films. Harold was the recipient of Clem's considered opinions--Marianne Moore, W. H. Auden, Edmund Wilson, Mary McCarthy, Margaret Marshall (of The Nation, for which Clem wrote reviews regularly), all get a going-over. Yet from the beginning, he strives to be a poet. One can see him flowering into the prewar/wartime intellectual world. Along the way, we are occasionally given a look at many of his sketches, and eventually learn of his discovery of the joy of painting. He really listened to music, really stared at paintings and knew when he was deeply moved. Once moved, he was confident enough to pontificate! As he searched for the truth around him he openly gives us, through Harold, the truth about himself.

Clem's curiosity stretches all over--he engages people, sizes them up and then; often disappointed, discards or exposes them (follow his relations with Harold Rosenberg, Lionel Abel, etc.). As for his love life, it was pretty messy. His marriage to Toady dissolves before Danny's birth. (The boy is soon, in turn, abandoned by his mother who left him to be fostered by her own disturbed mother.) While he writes a good line about his desperate longing to see the child, it hardly ever comes to fruition. He counts on occasional photographs and then moans to Harold his hopes and verdicts for Danny. Over the years we follow Clem's descriptions of Danny's plight and doomed future. This is no moral scene.

Clem describes his yearning for glamour and society. Jeanie Connolly fills the bill, almost the apotheosis of international high life in the intellectual world. Before she leaves London for New York, her husband, Cyril Connolly (editor of Horizon), suggests that she contact Clem, the result of which is a long, hot love affair. When Jeanie and Clem are not in bed they are part of an active social life that includes some of the kingpins (and their satellites) of the international literary and art worlds. The nucleus included the ever-forming Partisan Review crowd, with all its side-taking intramural webs.

For postwar babies, the picture of Clem's intellectual, political, and financial life (what a dollar could buy!) during the I930s and I940s is fascinating. He rejected Stalinism, embraced socialism, and reported on how sides were taken, arranged, and rearranged among the intellectuals.

Clem is drawn to and yet often seems to despise "wasps," "gentiles," "yids," and "fairies." He appraises them and knows that all good things in the end are Jewish, Yiddish. He occasionally delivers his asides on sex in general and homosexuality, making blanket statements on the nature of the beast--in this case the beast is often Clem. Despite their disagreements, Clem was "true" to his own family--to Pa, his brothers Sol and Marty, and even his nubile stepsister, Natalie. There's both a certain respect and loathing for the whole bunch which comes through lovingly

Janice Van Horne, Clem's widow, has created a little treasure in these letters. Her notes make the connections that really glue the book together. Her appendix is thorough and to the point; even including some of Clem's poems and letters from Harold. A difficult book to bring off; original in every way.

What makes The Harold Letters so appealing is how fresh the letters are--the starkness of Clem trying to look at himself honestly. He lays out his life signature in these fifteen years. The letters are vividly personal, yet often universal. Good letters can turn secrets and privacy inside out. Censorless, he calls it as he sees it, Clem--style. Feeling is all.

-- Partisan Review, Fall 2000