The Unpossessed: A Novel of the Thirties BY Tess Slesinger. New York Review Books Classics. Paperback, 328 pages. $17.

The cover of The Unpossessed: A Novel of the Thirties

In his 1940 essay, “The Cult of Experience in American Writing,” Philip Rahv remarks that “the intellectual is the only character missing in the American novel, He may appear in it in his professional capacity—as artist, teacher, or scientist—but very rarely as a person who thinks with his entire being, that is to say, as a person who transforms ideas into actual dramatic motives. . . . Everything is contained in the American novel except ideas.”

If this is true, it appears paradoxical. As a product of the Enlightenment, the United States was founded by a remarkable group of secular thinkers. Its defining texts—the Declaration of Independence, the Federalist Papers, the Constitution, even the correspondence of the founding fathers—make up an immense symposium on liberty, governance, and political representation. But perhaps because later American thinkers hardly ever exercised real power or influence, the drama of ideas rarely fired the imagination of American writers.

The opposite was true in continental Europe. Especially after the Dreyfus case, the intellectual hero was a staple of French fiction, in much the way radical sects, life-and-death debates, and spiritual conversions had long been the meat and drink of the Russian novel. In these books, conflicting systems of thought were as fraught with high drama as with love and death. In the more pragmatic climate of the United States, public moralists and social reformers carried some weight and even wrote novels propagating their causes (such as temperance), but ideas themselves seemed suspect, even alien. Hawthorne gently mocked the utopians of Brook Farm in The Blithedale Romance. A writer of metaphysical bent like Melville and a political animal like Henry Adams could grow eloquent on the subject of their own marginal position. But periods of social crisis, such as the years leading up to the Civil War or the time of Great Depression, set off a ferment of ideas reminiscent of the early years of the Republic.

The crash of 1929 and the worsening conditions of the Hoover years threatened to undermine the whole American system. They propelled intellectuals to the center of the national debate, both in the Roosevelt administration, with its vaunted Brain Trust, and in small circles of newly radicalized left-wing writers. One such circle was made up of gifted young men such as Lionel Trilling, Clifton Fadiman, Meyer Schapiro, Whittaker Chambers, and Herbert Solow, who knew one another as students at Columbia in the early ’20s. Some of them gravitated into the orbit of the Menorah Journal, which focused on issues of Jewish culture and identity, and they became protégés of its charismatic managing editor, Elliot Cohen, who later founded Commentary. After the crash, they moved left well before their contemporaries but soon broke with the Communist Party. The group came briefly under the influence of Trotsky and eventually became part of the nucleus of New York intellectuals around Partisan Review, the celebrated journal created with Communist support in 1934 and reorganized as an anti-Stalinist publication in 1937. More than their opponents in the cultural orbit of the party, where women were encouraged to become writers and activists, these dissidents made up a heavily male group. When Philip Rahv used the masculine pronoun to refer to intellectuals, he was following the usage of the time but also assuming that an authentic intellectual was likely to be a man, that women played a subsidiary role. Yet many of these men had assertive wives with serious political commitments, and some of them, like Diana Trilling, eventually became well-known writers. The first to break through, well before any of the men, was Tess Slesinger, who married Herbert Solow in 1928. Born in 1905, she had gone to the progressive Ethical Culture School in New York, then to Swarthmore College and the Columbia University School of Journalism. Starting in 1930, she attracted attention with her stories, especially “Missis Flinders,” a bitterly cheerful but unforgiving account of the aftermath of an abortion, published in Story magazine in 1932. Based on her own experience, it became the final chapter of her first and only novel, The Unpossessed: A Novel of the Thirties, which received a warm critical reception when it came out in 1934. It was soon followed by an ambitious collection of well-crafted stories, Time: The Present, in 1935. These mostly Depression tales were often too bright and showy, almost musical in their reliance on repeated phrases and images, but they proved to be unusually fresh in developing a woman’s point of view. (They included a self-mocking account of a writer enjoying minor fame for her first novel, The Undecided.)

Slesinger and Solow were divorced in 1933, and this rupture is reflected in the novel. The Unpossessed chronicles the disintegration of a marriage alongside the more farcical collapse of a project on the part of three friends, all political activists, to start a radical magazine. With a bow to Dostoyevsky’s great political novel about young Russian radicals in the 1860s, The Unpossessed is the Big Chill of the Menorah Journal circle, though etched in satire and sardonic affection rather than in nostalgia. In 1935, Slesinger left for Hollywood, where she had two children and wrote screenplays, at times with her second husband, Frank Davis, including such well-received movies as The Good Earth and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (the first feature film directed by Elia Kazan). She also worked on two films for one of Hollywood’s few woman directors, Dorothy Arzner. Slesinger died of cancer in 1945 at the age of thirty-nine.

Since there are so few good novels about American intellectuals, it’s ironic that The Unpossessed should be so corrosively sharp toward its cast of characters that it looks utterly dismissive. With pardonable exaggeration, Murray Kempton recalled that its characters were “quite possibly the most unattractive specimens in American literature prior to the works of Mary McCarthy.” Yet the book offers a rich canvas of failed relationships between three men and their three women, along with a host of minor figures who fill in different patches of the political landscape. These bit players include the wealthy patron Merle Middleton, who funds the magazine and sleeps with one of the future editors; the “Black Sheep,” students of one of the protagonists, Bruno Leonard, whose “turbulent indignation” presages the more militant activism of the next generation; and Comrade Fisher, a hard-boiled Trotskyist though girlish at heart, who sleeps under a portrait of Lenin and has also slept her way through the revolutionary movement. An abundance of sharply observed detail keeps these minor figures from becoming caricatures, respectively, of the insecure rich, the hotheaded young, and the promiscuous radical girl.

Slesinger could be as hard on her characters as McCarthy, but at times it seems that she condemns them simply for being intellectuals. The author and her surrogate, Margaret Flinders, recoil from the very qualities—ambivalence, reflectiveness, and self-consciousness—that make intellectuals what they are. Slesinger sympathizes with the new student generation precisely for putting these deliberate habits of mind behind them. At a lavish party to raise money for some Hunger Marchers, their leader claims sweepingly that “intellectuals . . . as a class are dying out, their function’s dead—nobody’s left to support them.” Disgusted with mere talk and money concerns, they leave the party to bum their way to Washington to join the march itself. With these students nipping at their heels, their elders, now in their thirties, wonder about the kids who seem determined to act rather than to think: “Were they the vanguard of the newest intellectuals who, not remaining aloof with their books and their ideas, had the strength to mingle with the living and bring their gifts among them?” Empathizing with their impatient activism, Slesinger became a fellow traveler in her last decade in Hollywood, perhaps simply adapting to the social milieu. She even signed a notorious letter attacking the Dewey Commission—organized by her ex-husband, Solow—which, after extensive hearings in Mexico, exonerated Trotsky from the heinous charges the Soviets had leveled against him.

The three main male characters in The Unpossessed—Miles Flinders, a journalist, loosely based on Solow; Bruno Leonard, a professor at their old college, obviously modeled on Elliot Cohen; and Jeffrey Blake, a facile novelist and womanizer, perhaps based on Max Eastman—all come through as deeply inadequate. They are failures in love, because they resist the intimacy of real relationships, and failures in politics, because, unlike the young radicals, they prefer the idea of revolution, even the idea of simply starting a magazine, to the risk of doing anything. And they are failures even as intellectuals, since they’re so paralyzed by scruples and misgivings they can never take an unambiguous position. As college friends a dozen years earlier, they first dreamed radical dreams and took up the cause of the downtrodden, but with little connection to the people in whose names they hoped to speak. Now they are haunted by disappointment. Each of them has compromised: the puritan Miles by falling in love, opening himself to softening personal influences, as represented by his wife, Margaret; Bruno, the self-hating academic, by keeping his young cousin, Elizabeth, at arm’s length, though she adores him, and by becoming the flattered mentor and pied piper to the younger generation; and Jeffrey, a creature of radical fashion, by writing glib novels and pursuing a hyperactive love life, which always leads him back to his agreeably docile wife, who understands and forgives all. But the Depression demands something more from these men; they must do something to better the world. They gain the support of Mrs. Middleton, whom Jeffrey has enlisted for the revolutionary cause between the sheets, and even win the amused tolerance of her down-to-earth husband, who enjoys the spectacle of his bored wife’s flirtation with high-minded characters and projects. The three friends set out to launch a magazine, for what else can intellectuals do?

At the heart of The Unpossessed is Slesinger’s crosshatching of the personal and the political. In real life, Solow and Cohen were tormented men, though both were also effective at what they did, especially organizing and editing. Trilling describes Solow as “a man of quite remarkable intelligence, very witty in a saturnine way, deeply skeptical, tortured by bouts of extreme depression. His was the first political mind I ever encountered.” Trilling’s relation to Cohen was even deeper, for he published Trilling’s first story, “Impediments,” in the Menorah Journal in 1925, when the author was still a Columbia undergraduate, and many more stories, essays, and reviews over the next seven years. Himself largely blocked as a writer, Cohen became an exceptionally gifted but sometimes intrusive editor who, according to Diana Trilling, “looked to other writers to act as his literary surrogates.” As a result, she says, “one had constantly to battle the imposition of his mind and will: it was like extricating oneself from under a suffocating encumbrance.” After 1945, with Commentary, he created one of the best intellectual journals of the postwar years, but he took his own life in the course of a nervous breakdown in 1959. In her memoir, Diana Trilling describes her husband shaking violently and gripping the lectern with white knuckles as he tried to eulogize his old friend.

As a roman à clef, The Unpossessed has touches of personal revenge. But the troubles of Solow and Cohen were quite different from the psychological problems that Slesinger projects onto Miles Flinders and Bruno Leonard, which allow her, often rather formulaically, to give meaning to their individual failures. Though Solow was as Jewish as Cohen and Slesinger, in the novel she depicts Miles Flinders as a severe Puritan, emotionally crippled by his flinty New England heritage. He fears that his wife’s womanliness, her invitation to pleasure and a sheltering intimacy, will unman him, engulf him, and “swallow him whole.” Where Miles is drawn to the world of struggle, of ideals, Margaret, like Slesinger herself, clings to a narrower sphere in which individuals have a right to be happy. Miles resists this siren song of happiness as a drug. “The nearness of her female flesh, her female awareness, surrounding him with warmth he did not want, was stifling.” We see his wife through Miles’s eyes, full of qualms the author projects on him, often heavy handedly, to explain why he withholds himself. Slesinger was a careful reader of many modern writers, especially Virginia Woolf, and her narrative unfolds in the ebb and flow of her characters’ minds. We observe this marriage through the eyes of a woman looking at a man as he is looking at a woman. But Miles’s hang-ups—his suspicion of women, his recoil from intimacy, his denial of the feminine side of his own nature—come straight out of D. H. Lawrence.

To Slesinger, Miles’s failure in the world is an extension of his failure as a person, a projection of his neuroses onto a larger screen. She approaches the radical movement in the spirit of the ’20s, with its antinomian reading of Lawrence and Freud, which insisted that you had to change yourself before you could change the world——that is, the revolution in human relations had to be sexual and personal before it could be political. Her satire on the utopian aims of intellectuals is based on her sense of a woman’s down-to-earth experience and a novelist’s affinity for storytelling rather than for abstract ideas. Jeffrey remarks that his books are about men and women, not about classes, and another character observes that they all sound like figures in a Russian novel. When Miles describes his bitter memories of his own childhood, his wife breathes life into his stories, giving back to him the happy moments he forgot he had. The novel begins with her shopping for vegetables at the local grocer and ends with the fruit basket she brings back from the hospital after her abortion. Between fruit and vegetables, between sexual intimacy and the warmth of stories, she lives in the concrete, a realm he shuns as a contraction of his worldly goals. Miles rationalizes his behavior in the name of personal freedom, which would be compromised if they had to raise a family. He presses his wife to have an abortion, which sinks their marriage like a torpedo. In a genuine union of two people, says Slesinger, as in a political movement, an entity is created that is greater than the individual. For Miles and Margaret, this would be love: the domestic happiness they fail to find, the baby that expresses their union, whom they keep from coming into being. For Bruno and his friends, this new entity would be the magazine, which he aborts just as effectively.

If Miles is the protagonist of the marriage plot of The Unpossessed, Bruno Leonard is the mover of the equally disastrous political plot. Bruno is as much a basket case as his friend is. In her psychological take on the intellectuals’ evasions, Slesinger allows Miles an epiphany that provides one of the keys to her work: “He saw them suddenly, coming together less from their belief in revolution (did any of them really believe a revolution would take place?) than from some terrible inner need in each of them to lay out his own personal conflicts in terms of something higher, to solve his private ends camouflaged as world-problems, secretively in public.” Such an all-too-explicit moment of recognition exposes the discursive side of the novel, which also tilts the dialogue, made up less of what people actually say than of the underlying logic of their positions. The Unpossessed attempts a reckoning with the intellectual radicalism of the 1930s but is too sweeping and argumentative to be really convincing. Though it offers us a grim anatomy of those who live too much for ideas, it is nothing if not a novel of ideas, including the notion of intimacy, of innate differences of gender, of the importance of biology, and of the irresistible claims of everyday life. Yet Slesinger puts these concepts forward as tart rebuttals to the abstractions of intellectuals.

If Miles’s problem comes from his harsh conscience, his radical ambitions, his disconnection from his body, Bruno’s weakness lies in his egotism—much like the egotism Diana Trilling attributed to Elliot Cohen—and in his Jewish ambivalence, based on Slesinger’s identification of intellectuals with Jews. For Bruno, “it was unfortunate that all sides held truth, that sanity to him consisted in a constant balancing. For he agreed with Miles, he agreed with Jeffrey, agreed with the Black Sheep; and weighing their opinions, he agreed with none of them.” His ambivalence extends to his sexuality, precariously balanced between his attraction to the Middletons’ stuttering son, Emmett, who worships him, and his cousin Elizabeth, whom he has sent off to Paris to live the free life of an Artist. Through the whole first section of the novel, he longs for her from afar, as he longs for the magazine as an Idea, but when she arrives home, he uses both Emmett and the magazine to keep her at bay. He cannot commit and cannot act. Once she does return, we see him more and more through her eyes, until he sinks both the magazine and the movement in a Dostoyevskian speech of self-loathing and self-humiliation.

In line with the liberation theology of the ’20s, Bruno has encouraged Elizabeth to go abroad: “Don’t be obsessed by inhibitions,” he tells her, “don’t be possessed by superstitions; you’ve got to be free, my dear, free, as free as a man, you must play the man’s game and beat him at it.” But Elizabeth’s freedom turns into a round-robin of relationships that yield constant excitement without any real satisfaction. To mimic the hectic pace of her expatriate life, Slesinger adapts a Joycean technique of breathless run-on wordplay, around the metaphor of “the fast express”: “all aboard ladies and gay modern gents, try an art colony first, all aboard, no stops no halts no brooding there, all aboard the twentieth century unlimited, hell-bent for nowhere . . . the rollicking jittery cocktail express, nothing can matter so wear down, you nerves, no brakes, no goal, no love, on we go glittering jittering twittering, try and get off it kid once you’re on board, it’ll rattle you shatter you. . . .” This barely punctuated style imitates the perpetual high jinks of the life she leads as an artist in Paris. This is a typical ’30s view of the ’20s—a moral revulsion from its devil-may-care excesses, as in Malcolm Cowley’s classic Exile’s Return: A Narrative of Ideas, published the same year.

Slesinger highlights Bruno’s repression and sexual ambivalence by making her third male protagonist, Jeffrey Blake, so priapic and shallow. He exists only for each new conquest, cosseted by the unshakable tolerance of passive Norah, his adoring wife. Unlike his friends, he has a capacity for “uncritical enjoyment,” but little else. Bruno, without spontaneity himself, envies him for “a purity of desire that he knew could never be his own. The dumb virility of the extrovert.” But Jeffrey’s compulsions reflect his own watery sense of self. His wanton lovemaking becomes another form of the inability to love: “When he was with one woman he would think of another.” He always needs “something new, someone to look at him through fresh eyes, someone through whose eyes he could see himself,” and this draws him finally to Elizabeth just when she sees Bruno slipping away from her. “She felt a wan kinship with [Jeffrey], knowing him to be the same thing as herself, a weary Don Juan whose impulses having lost their freshness were the more compelling therefor.” Without Bruno, she feels condemned to return to the same bright, empty promiscuity she had left behind in Paris, where she grew tired of “this endless contact without benefit of soul, without benefit of love.”

In Bruno, Slesinger portrays the mind that always stands back, too self-conscious for real commitment, whether to an individual or to a larger cause. The writer’s virtuosity comes through in two long chapters, “The Inquest” and “The Party,” each with a large cast of characters and multiple points of view. In the first, Bruno and his friends meet to plan their magazine; in the second, they converge again at the Middletons’ to raise funds for the magazine and the Hunger Marchers. As if to show that salvation can come only through personal relationships, not through political action, Slesinger orchestrates these scenes as collective moments of high comedy that go nowhere, blowing up in a way that mocks the exalted aspirations of everyone present. At each event, Bruno remains apart, conscious of the empty farce he’s set in motion. The meeting breaks up when Cornelia, one of the Black Sheep, faints from hunger right after they have all been talking abstractly about starvation and empty bellies. For Slesinger, the obvious point, which she underscores, is that the intellectuals cannot accommodate anything immediate. They are blind to human facts right under their noses. “The uncomplicated physical had no reality for them,” she says. “Their busy abstract minds worked to reconcile it with some preaccepted doctrine, some maxim of their own.” But to Bruno, it shows that “the whole thing . . . the Magazine, this roomful of ghosts, his own whole life,” is little more than a farce, a charade of dead souls. At the party for the Hunger Marchers, overflowing with expensive food, this hollow feeling of failure takes over his speech. Bruno morphs into the mouthpiece for Slesinger’s message: that the intellectuals, with their cult of alienation, their hatred of their own middle-class origins, are as sterile politically as they are sexually. “We have no parents, and we can have no offspring,” he says. “We have no sex: we are mules—in short we are bastards, foundlings, phonys, the unpossessed and unpossessing of the world, the real minority.” Turning Freudian like the author, Bruno argues ponderously that “the lie in our private lives is important, it makes our public lives unreal and fraudulent—a man can’t do good work with an undernourished psychic system.” Their political activities reflect this illness: “Our meetings are masterpieces of postponement, our ideologies brilliant rationalizations to prevent our ever taking action.” In short, “my friends and myself are sick men—if we are not already dead.” Slesinger’s accommodation to Stalinism in Hollywood, as well as her good work on domestic and sentimental dramas like A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, can be seen as her farewell to the nice intellectual scruples, the constitutional ambivalence, of her friends in New York. Mocking the anti-Stalinists for their intellectuality, she throws in her lot with popular culture and the Popular Front, trading in novel writing for screenwriting, an abortive marriage of minds for motherhood.

The concluding chapter, on Margaret’s abortion, drives home the same argument; it makes Slesinger’s case against the vaunted freedom of the intellectual life and in favor of family, love, and domestic happiness. For Slesinger, as for Malcolm Cowley, the bohemian radicalism of the ’20s had run into a dead end. Feminists have usually argued for abortion as a way of liberating women from the burden of unwanted children. But Slesinger’s essentialist feminism, which pits “womb” against “world,” takes her down another track. She portrays Margaret’s almost-involuntary abortion as yet another way the women in the novel mold themselves to men’s wants and needs. Lionel Trilling has testified that the intellectuals of the ’30s, especially the men, recoiled from having children as “biological traps,” since children inevitably required “compromise with, or capitulation to, the forces of convention.” For Slesinger, nothing could have been better evidence of the intellectuals’ sterility and detachment from nature.

Slesinger’s brief against the intellectuals was cast as a woman’s biological wisdom and as a break from the people of her husband’s circle, whom she would leave behind in New York. But it was also a novelist’s argument, the case that the storyteller, devoted to plumbing the mysteries of everyday life, the world as it is, makes against the abstract thinker or utopian who constructs alternate worlds. Because of the book’s title, it’s tempting to contrast The Unpossessed with Dostoyevsky’s great novel, to say that these characters are neither possessed by their cause nor self-possessed. But Dostoyevsky pillories his young radicals the same way Slesinger does, as people out of touch, living in a cocoon of their own making. Like the terrorists and revolutionaries in James’s The Princess Casamassima and Conrad’s The Secret Agent, they play at politics. They are as ineffectual as they are inauthentic, speaking for people they do not know and don’t truly care about. While the novel as a form may not be inherently conservative, there is plenty of evidence to show that it is anti-utopian and anti-intellectual, suspicious of ideas when they are not grounded in actual human situations. This is especially true of English and American novels, with their empirical traditions, and of satire in particular, going back to the fantastical scholars of Swift’s Academy of Lagado. Sidney Hook said of Slesinger that “she never understood a word about the political discussions that raged around her. . . . Her book shows that. . . . She was a political innocent until the day of her death.” But it would be more accurate to say that she was a writer until the day of her death, more interested in people than in ideas. Yet in a strange way she wrote a novel of ideas, since anti-intellectualism itself is an idea.

Slesinger’s work has been compared to Mary McCarthy’s, partly because of her wickedly sharp satirical eye, but also because she wrote about a similar coven of New York intellectuals. But no one would dream of calling McCarthy’s work anti-intellectual. It would even be a mistake to type her as a woman writer. With brilliance and brio, McCarthy freed herself of the biologism of Lawrence and Freud, with its notions of intrinsic gender differences. She lived by Bruno’s advice to Elizabeth—to play the men’s game and beat them at it. The pathos of the liberated woman, as embodied in Elizabeth, passed her by, except where she could turn it into comedy, which she did best in her famous story about a seduction on a train, “The Man in the Brooks Brothers Shirt.” When she is at her best, her characters can surprise us because, even as a satirist, she avoids reducing them to a formula or an idea. She expects the unexpected: “You are, after all, a human being, with a hundred tricks up your sleeve.”

McCarthy’s fiction most resembles The Unpossessed in her “Portrait of the Intellectual as a Yale Man,” the longest story in The Company She Keeps (1942). The protagonist, Jim Barnett, and his complaisant wife, Nancy, remind us strikingly of Jeffrey Blake and his Norah; both men are fashionable radicals with passive, accommodating wives. But McCarthy’s story sets them against her surrogate, the formidable Meg Sargent, who is as annoyingly intense in her anti-Stalinist radicalism as Jim is mild and commonsensical. For him, going left was simply the sensible thing to do. Jim is less a portrait of an intellectual than the facsimile of one. Unlike Meg, he gets on well with his Stalinist friends, and when he resigns on principle from a job at a liberal magazine and tries to write a book, he finds he has nothing to say. In the end, he takes a job with Destiny, a magazine like Fortune, and cares little about what happens to his copy once he submits it. Finally, he becomes a family man, keeping down his spiritual expenses, while Meg soldiers on. Now “a comfortable man,” he can’t forgive her for showing him “the cage of his own nature.” Her intransigence, her convictions, make her a genuine intellectual—and leave her unemployed. McCarthy brings Slesinger’s satirical take on the New York intellectuals to perfection but reverses its emphasis. She attacks men like Jim Barnett not for their misplaced passion for ideas but for having no passion at all, for not really caring. If fiction and satire tilt toward the anti-intellectual, McCarthy’s work, always bracing in its sheer intelligence, is surely one of the bright exceptions that prove the rule.

Morris Dickstein is Distinguished Professor of English and theater at the CUNY Graduate Center.