The Magazine

The Experience of America

Robert Warshow, the who did pop culture right.

Mar 25, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 27 • By TERRY TEACHOUT
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The Immediate Experience
Movies, Comics, Theatre and Other Aspects of Popular Culture
by Robert Warshow
Harvard University Press, 302 pp., $18.95

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.

That "The Immediate Experience" was published at all is the unlikeliest of stories, for Warshow, though greatly admired by his colleagues, was anything but famous. A New York Jew and second-generation socialist, he made his living as an editor for Commentary and a writer for Commentary, the Nation, and Partisan Review, mostly about film. His essays did not go entirely unnoticed beyond the tiny circle of readers of those legendary little magazines, and in 1955, he was invited to write for the New Yorker. He died the next day of a heart attack, aged thirty-seven.

Seven years later, Warshow's friends assembled nineteen of his essays, virtually the whole of his slender output, and Doubleday published the resulting book with an introduction by Lionel Trilling; five years after that, Norman Podhoretz wrote vividly about Warshow in "Making It," his memoir of life among the New York literati. But lasting critical reputations are rarely based on a single volume of essays, however brilliant, and Warshow's star soon faded to near-black. For a long time, the only people likely to know his name were aging neoconservatives and abnormally well-read film buffs. Not that such folk are mutually exclusive, but they are rarely seen at the same cocktail parties, and it is a decided oddity that the man whom Podhoretz could call "one of the best essayists in the English language" would also figure prominently in the pages of Roger Ebert's "Book of Film" (an anthology whose other contributors include Rex Reed, Mario Puzo, and John Waters).

Ebert's collection was until recently the only volume in print containing any of Warshow's essays, and while that one, "The Gangster as Tragic Hero," ranked among Warshow's best, it conveyed only a limited sense of what the man was about. But now there has appeared an expanded edition of "The Immediate Experience," containing the complete text of the original book together with eight previously uncollected pieces and a pair of newly commissioned essays by David Denby, the film critic of the New Yorker, and Stanley Cavell, a philosopher who also writes about film. I can think of no essay collection of the past half-century more richly deserving of republication--and none more likely to be misunderstood.

TO THE EXTENT that Warshow is remembered today, it is for what he wrote about the movies. Two of his pieces, "The Gangster as Tragic Hero" and "The Westerner," continue to be cited in the scholarly literature on film, with good reason. ("The Westerner," for instance, is mentioned in "The Oxford History of World Cinema", although the passage in question is both misquoted and wrongly attributed to "The Gangster as Tragic Hero." In addition, Warshow's name is misspelled.) Warshow was one of the first American intellectuals to pay sustained attention to those over-familiar genres, and what he had to say about them has not yet lost its ability to command our attention:

"The gangster is lonely and melancholy, and can give the impression of a profound worldly wisdom. He appeals most to adolescents with their impatience and their feeling of being outsiders, but more generally he appeals to that side of all of us which refuses to believe in the 'normal' possibilities of happiness and achievement; the gangster is the 'no' to that great American 'yes' which is stamped so big over our official culture and yet has so little to do with the way we really feel about our lives. . . . The Western hero, by contrast, is a figure of repose. He resembles the gangster in being lonely and to some degree melancholy. But his melancholy comes from the 'simple' recognition that life is unavoidably serious, not from the disproportions of his own temperament. And his loneliness is organic, not imposed on him by his situation but belonging to him intimately and testifying to his completeness."