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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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I have been reading Commentary since 1957, and writing for it, as Benjamin Balint, in Running Commentary (PublicAffairs, 304 pp., $26.95), a critical history of the magazine, informs me, since 1964. I was also interviewed by Balint, and my name is mentioned in his book several times. Balint himself was a sub-editor at Commentary between 2001 and 2004. Running Commentary, though, is far from an in-house history where life has been, as Grace Goldin’s father wished it, all Jews and roses.

Balint has gone through Commentary’s archives with great care, and I shouldn’t be surprised to learn that he has read his way through the entire 65-year run of the magazine. His book contains a vast amount of useful information, some of the best of it about the magazine’s founding and its early days. But it suffers from the want of a clear point of view. In the end, one is not altogether sure where Benjamin Balint stands in regard to Commentary, itself one of the most continuously contentious magazines ever produced in America.

Running Commentary begins with the career of the magazine’s first editor, Elliot Cohen, who set the parameters and tone of the magazine. The editorial masthead of the early Commentary, which was founded in 1945, just after the war, included, along with Robert Warshow, a brilliant writer on popular culture, the writer Irving Kristol, the sociologist Nathan Glazer, and the art critic Clement Greenberg. A smart and witty woman named Sherry Abel was the managing editor, and a 23-year-old woman named Midge Decter worked as Elliot Cohen’s secretary. I should like to add that the janitor was Alexis de Tocqueville, but fear no one would believe me.

Elliot Cohen had been born in Mobile, Alabama, in 1899, and graduated, precociously, from Yale in 1917. He soon was hired as managing editor of a magazine called the Menorah Journal, to whose pages he brought luminaries of the day from the world of Jewish thought and belles-lettres. One of his contributors, whom he subsequently hired as an assistant editor, was Lionel Trilling. Six years younger than Cohen, Trilling would later say that Elliot Cohen, who he claimed was “the only great teacher I have ever had,” was “a man of genius.”

Cohen left the Menorah Journal in 1931 because he thought it insufficiently critical in spirit, especially about the complex situation of Jews in America. Commentary, his new magazine, was published under the auspices of the American Jewish Committee, which picked up the bill for its perennial losses. The AJC is an organization that was formed at the turn of the 20th century by a small group of wealthy American Jews of German descent to protect the rights of Jews round the world. In Elliot Cohen they found the right man, but also someone who, with his insistence on complete editorial freedom, would sometimes give the organization conniption fits.

One of the chief differences between Commentary and Partisan Review, though they shared many of the same contributors, is that the former had a direct stake in Jewish issues, questions, problems. “Commentary would be,” as Balint correctly puts it, “less avant-garde than Partisan Review: less enamored of Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, and Gertrude Stein; less European in orientation.” Yet the preponderance of contributors to both magazines were Jewish intellectuals born and living in New York, causing Edmund Wilson to call Partisan Review the Partisansky Review.

In his new magazine, Cohen published some of the sharpest things written about the then-recent near genocide of the Jews in Europe. This was at a time when people didn’t want to believe in the scale, which is to say the true horror, of the Holocaust. Balint notes that two excerpts from the diary of Anne Frank were published in Commentary, acquired from Doubleday for the piddling sum of $250 because, at the time, not all that many people were interested in it. One of the first copies of Commentary I happened to pick up had a gripping portion of The Notes of Emanuel Ringelblum about the last days of the Warsaw Ghetto.

As with so many intellectuals in New York in the thirties, Cohen was a leftist; for a period, according to Balint, he was a fellow-traveler. But by the time he founded
Commentary, at age 46, he was strongly anti-Communist and a liberal. Elliot Cohen’s anticommunism was of the take-no-prisoners kind. In the pages of Commentary, the execution of the Rosenbergs for treason was unequivocally approved. Balint reports that Cohen turned down a brilliant piece by Robert Warshow on Charlie Chaplin because he didn’t want any fellow-travelers praised in his magazine.

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