Rosenfeld’s Lives: Fame, Oblivion, and the Furies of Writing

When he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1976, Saul Bellow reportedly said, “It should have been Isaac.” His friend Isaac Rosenfeld’s one novel, Passage from Home, had been published 30 years earlier, when both men were known in New York literary circles as “the Chicago Dostoevskians.” But when he died of a heart attack in 1956, at the age of 38, Rosenfeld was eking out a marginal existence, writing more in his journal than for publication — his intelligence and sensitivity undiminished but now at war with the world. In an unfinished story from this period, Rosenfeld has the narrator declare: “I hold the conviction — it amounts to something of a theory — that embarrassment represents the true state of affairs, and the sooner we strike shame, the sooner we draw blood.”

Thanks in part to Bellow’s advocacy, we have one collection of Rosenfeld’s essays, An Age of Enormity (1962), and another of his short fiction, Alpha and Omega (1966). In death, then, as in life, Rosenfeld remained in his friend’s shadow. But clearly Bellow himself felt that this was getting things backward, that it was actually Rosenfeld who loomed, despite his obscurity, or indeed through it. Rosenfeld was, in the comic and sentimental Yiddish expression, a luftmensch — a “man of air,” so completely absorbed in the higher reaches of thought that nobody quite understands how he survives.

Far less forgiving is the American idiom usually applied to such cases: loser. But there was something willful about Rosenfeld’s failure. He had been the golden boy of his circle — the most promising, the first to taste success, the one who would one day get the Nobel. He was, in effect, a missing link between the Partisan Review writers and the Beat generation. Friends took his death in a seedy apartment as a repudiation of their compromises, and they were right to do so. Literary historians have never known what to make of Rosenfeld, when noticing him at all. (I suspect he may provoke anxiety in them.) Only now, more than half a century after his death, do we have a biography, Rosenfeld’s Lives: Fame, Oblivion, and the Furies of Writing by Steven J. Zipperstein. The author has not only interviewed people who knew Rosenfeld but has also tracked down a large body of unpublished manuscript that had ended up in “a neighborhood favored by low-level mafia types.” Rosenfeld’s Lives is the product of deep commitment, and it fills a gap, in spite of some rather serious flaws.

It is a strangely confessional book. Zipperstein originally “wrote several hundred pages” of what would have been “a rather more standard biography — more densely detailed and structured in a more chronological way than it is now.” But while working on the project, it seems to have become a kind of memoir-by-proxy — “an extended reflection on a writer’s sense of what it meant to be immersed in, and also deeply suspicious of, a life given over to books.”

Rosenfeld scrutinized his life unrelentingly in his notebooks and his fiction, and his critical essays practiced a kind of psychoanalysis upon modern culture. “He mused about cutting corners, about selling out,” writes Zipperstein, “but he shunted these seductions aside and stayed true, much as he had been since his adolescence, to the belief that no real connection existed between artistic and worldly success.” That attitude was common enough among serious writers coming out of the Depression. And so were other details of Rosenfeld’s early life: the prodigy, born to immigrant parents, reading his way voraciously through the public library, who then struggles to impose himself on the literary world by dint of brilliance and moxie — much of his biography will feel familiar to anyone who has read the memoirs of Irving Howe and Alfred Kazin, or the novels of Saul Bellow.

This “herd of independent minds” (as one member of their circle called it) moved from radicalism and bohemia up to the heights of cultural authority. But in Rosenfeld’s case, profound distrust of ambition took over halfway along the path. The nightmares of Nazi and Stalinist totalitarianism haunted him. Modernity was turning out to be a disaster, and assimilation to postwar American affluence was no guarantee against more horror to come.

His early fiction had blended classic Russian influences with a little Chicago naturalism, à la James T. Farrell. Friends hoped he would write a Gogol-like comic novel about life in Greenwich Village. Instead, he turned out unintentional parodies of Kafka (most of which Zipperstein quietly ignores) while publishing dozens of exceptionally insightful book reviews (though not “hundreds,” as his biographer claims).

Rosenfeld kept struggling to find a literary style that would give expression to his own sense of the world, no simple task when language itself was corrupted by bureaucrats and hustlers. And meanwhile his friends were doing all right for themselves. He was not happy for them.

The question hanging over every account of Rosenfeld is whether his time in the wilderness would have soon reached its end, whether death overtook him as he stood on the verge of a creative breakthrough. Zipperstein’s final pages try to imagine the range of possibilities had Rosenfeld not died so young. Perhaps he would have turned into a guru of the counterculture, like his friend (and fellow luftmensch) Paul Goodman. Then again, Rosenfeld could have turned out like his old cronies. By the time his biographer interviewed them, they were “aging badly, seeking to hide their envy without success, remaining ever aware of the better fortunes of others” — a remark that fingers the jagged edge of one’s doubts about second chances.

The whole book has the feel of a meditation on unwelcome realizations about life. Unfortunately, it seldom analyzes Rosenfeld’s own writing in much depth. The biography of an intellectual, to be definitive, has to include some intellectual biography. But Zipperstein attempts this infrequently, and never with care. The discussion of Rosenfeld’s involvement with Trotskyism consists largely of factual errors. The renegade psychoanalytic theorist Wilhelm Reich had a profound influence on Rosenfeld’s literary criticism, but the biographer treats it as nothing more than a peculiar enthusiasm.

These are not small problems, but Rosenfeld’s Lives is still a fascinating book — one that I found myself reading cover to cover twice. It is good finally to have a biography. Yet now that we do, another lack is obvious. Twenty years after Mark Schechner edited the excellent anthology Preserving the Hunger, not a single volume by Rosenfeld is currently in print. Next month, Alpha and Omega will be reissued by Barnes & Noble. But it is time for a complete edition, including the best work only ever “published” in the pages of his notebook.