How the times they have a-changed! In the '40s, bringing James and the movies into this kind of proximity was a bold initiative; by the mid-'80s, when cultural and media studies were securely institutionalized, confessing to this kind of audacity (to reading Henry James, I mean) could seriously jeopardize one's academic credibility. Any debate as to whether Trilling's notion of the "moral obligation to be intelligent'' was compatible with the political obligation to offer courses in dreadlock studies had meanwhile become intellectually deadlocked. Seen in this light, Warshow's pioneering investigations into popular culture seem prophetic and quaint in equal measure.
Warshow's intimation of how "the whole system of mass culture as creator and purveyor of ideas, sentiments, attitudes, and styles of behavior . . . gives our life its form and its meaning" nicely complements the more extended analyses of Frankfurt School heavyweights like Adorno and Horkheimer. "Mass culture is the screen through which we see reality and the mirror in which we see ourselves," he announced in 1947. "Its ultimate tendency is even to supersede reality." Whether Warshow would have gone on to undertake the kind of totalizing examination of culture and society pursued with unflagging commitment by Raymond Williams is impossible to say. A writer in the sense endorsed by the young Sontag ("someone interested in 'everything'"), he was at the mercy of his scattered enthusiasmsˇand they were sufficiently numerous to have taken him in many directions. Not surprisingly, then, his legacy is felt not in a recognizable school of influence so much as in examples of sharply individualized voices (Greil Marcus, say, or David Thomson). Warshow's work is the product of a distinctive literary sensibility rather than that of an academic researcher, and he brings to the task of commentary the subtle empathy and understanding of the novelist. While watching Aleksandr Dovzhenko's 1930 film, Earth, he senses the fascination the peasantry held for the Russian intelligentsia. But he does not stop there. "I thought I could understand also, for the first time, what it must have meant to the Jews to live among these peasants in continual expectation of their rage."
This is not the only occasion on which Warshow becomes a tacit participant in the art he describes. In his two greatest essays he conveyed the essence of what he was seeing so tellingly that they have become a creative part of the traditions that were their subjects. It seems possible that Heaven's Gate (1980) flopped because Michael Cimino disdained the template described by Warshow in "The Westerner." By the same token, Martin Scorsese succeeds, in part, because he subjects Warshow's conception of the gangster to close imaginative and critical scrutiny. Warshow's best essays are scripts, and they are still being madeˇand remadeˇinto movies.Geoff Dyer is the author of Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D.H. Lawrence (North Point Press, 1998).