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The Jewish Encyclopedia

In the postwar era, no magazine has matched the breadth of ‘Commentary.’

Jul 5, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 40 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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Much of my education, such as it is, is owing to intellectual journalism. I first discovered the intellectual journals—Partisan Review, Kenyon Review, Sewanee Review, Dissent, Encounter, and others—in my wanderings in the periodical room of William Rainey Harper Library in my junior year at the University of Chicago. These magazines functioned for me as a continuation of the Great Books education served up, with vastly uneven allure, in the school’s dour classrooms.

The Jewish Encyclopedia

Norman Podhoretz, 1959

Credit: Corbis

They also allowed me to link the past with the contemporary. Among their contributors were Dwight Macdonald who in his comic devastations of middlebrow culture—he wrote strong takedowns of the Great Books of the Western World, the New English Bible, and Webster’s Third New International Dictionary—seemed a successor to H. L. Mencken; Edmund Wilson who in his biographical and encyclopedic interest in literature seemed a successor to Sainte-Beuve; and Sidney Hook who in his logic and rationality, a successor to the thinkers of the Enlightenment. (“Voltaire with a mustache,” is what my friend Edward Shils once called Sidney.) Reading these and other contributors to the intellectual journals provided its own little lesson in how intellectual influence and tradition work.

As it happened, I came upon the intellectual magazines in 1957, one of the high points in their history. Among their contributors, along with those I’ve already mentioned, were Lionel Trilling, Allen Tate, Clement Greenberg, John Crowe Ransom, Saul Bellow, Hannah Arendt, Randall Jarrell, Leslie Fiedler, Ralph Ellison, Mary McCarthy, Delmore Schwartz, James Baldwin, Robert Lowell, Alfred Kazin, and Irving Howe; contributors from abroad included André Gide, Jean-Paul Sartre, Ignazio Silone, Bertrand Russell, George Lichtheim, Nicola Chiaromonte, Arthur Koestler, Raymond Aron, F. R. Leavis, and Gershom Scholem. The outlook of the intellectual journals of that time was international, the reigning feeling fraternal: The contributors were a fraternity, if a highly disputatious one, of intellectuals.

None of these magazines had a large circulation. Fees paid to contributors were almost derisory, sometimes not reaching the high two figures, often sent out in handwritten checks. All the editors could promise contributors was a serious audience and the opportunity to have their work appear in excellent company. Good writers did not have all that many other places to go, at least if they were serious intellectuals not willing to lower their sights. By this time the war of the brows was underway in earnest, with the intellectual journals being strictly highbrow, or high culture, and the notion of “selling out” was very much in play. Selling out, among the intellectuals who wrote for these magazines, included appearing in the New Yorker, about which Robert Warshow, an editor at Commentary, wrote a devastating piece whose main point was that the New Yorker wasn’t about understanding the subjects it took up but about inculcating the proper attitude to take on those subjects.

Of all the intellectual magazines, Commentary was the one of most importance to me. Discovering it was a great intellectual event in my life. Alongside publishing many of the leading intellectual figures of the day, Commentary offered a serious and critical perspective on Judaism and Jewish life in America unavailable anywhere else. The magazine ran contributions from such Jewish theologians as Martin Buber, Abraham Joshua Heschel, and Emil Fackenheim and historians such as Salo Baron and Lucy Dawidowicz. Bernard Malamud, Saul Bellow, and Philip Roth—the Hart Schaffner & Marx of American literature, as Bellow bitterly jibed—published some of their early stories in its pages; so, too, did such old world Jewish writers as Isaac Bashevis Singer and Chaim Grade.

One of the magazine’s regular features was called “From the American Scene,” which included accounts of American Jewish institutions, stories of the assimilation of immigrants, and odd and interesting aspects of the lives of Jews throughout the country. One such piece I recall, written by a woman named Grace Goldin, was about her father, an immigrant and a grocer in Tulsa who loaned money to an oil wildcatter. When the latter’s well came in, the grocer, whose loan made him part-owner of the well, found himself a wealthy man. With his newfound fortune, he built a house, one wing of which he used as a private synagogue behind which he planted a large rose garden, because on Saturdays, the Jewish sabbath, he wished, he said, “to see nothing but Jews and roses.”

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