Paul Rosenfeld: Prompter of Fiction
Robert Penn Warren April 27, 2014 - 11:26am
On a night in November 1913, between 42nd and 43rd streets in New York, Paul Rosenfeld, then a young man recently out of Yale and waiting for a job to open up on the Times, was struck by a sudden thought which changed his life and probably has had a good deal of influence on the lives of some other people. The thought was that he didn't have to get a job if he didn't want one. He realized, "imbecile that I was that I didn't have to go on working on a newspaper if I didn't want to. I had a small income, and could write if it pleased me." This was a revelation! This thought changed his life, for as a result, he devoted himself for the next 33 years, with peculiar purity of purpose, devotion, and impersonality, to the arts of his time. The product of that long period of effort, of the fusion of "democratic mystique and "aesthetic mystique" which he once said was the object of his critical and creative writing, has been discussed and evaluated elsewhere. What I have been asked to comment on here, however, is the influence which he could exercise incidentally and informally in his personal contacts. I can do this only by recollecting some of the details of my own acquaintance with him, my share in the spirit of that "small income" which made it possible for him to devote himself to the arts.
I first met Paul Rosenfeld in the late summer or fall of 1927 when I came to New York as a student. Either Allen Tate or Kenneth Burke probably introduced me to him. I do not remember the occasion, but I do remember my first visit to his apartment and his conversation about E. E. Cummings and Sherwood Anderson, two writers whom I greatly admired but whom I was not to meet for many years to come. (In 1945, Rosenfeld introduced me to Cummings.) One anecdote about Anderson sticks in my mind. One night Rosenfeld and Anderson, walking down a street in New York, noticed a policeman ahead of them. Rosenfeld, who had always regarded a policeman at best as a sort of brute and at worst as a sort of enemy, made some remark. "Look how he's walking," Anderson replied, "you can tell his left foot hurts him." The anecdote was a good and right one for Anderson. The other anecdotes about Anderson, and the things he said about Cummings's poetry, have escaped me now, but it is easy to recapture some of the echo of the excitement of the occasion and to appreciate what I could not appreciate then, the simplicity and generosity which made Rosenfeld sit up half the night and, without any hint of boredom, answer the dozens of questions which a boy would put to him.
There was another aspect to that first visit which did not seem important at the time but which became more important later. Rosenfeld talked a little bit about modern painting and showed me some pictures. I was then completely ignorant of modern art. A college course in the history of art, a course which stopped somewhere back in the 19th century, had done nothing to remedy that defect. My literary friends in Nashville had had little interest in the subject or at least had failed to communicate it to me. I had seen a few pictures in San Francisco and once or twice had heard the aesthetician Stephen Pepper talk about modern painting, but I had not taken advantage of my acquaintance with Pepper to pursue the topic. It was Rosenfeld who really introduced me to modern painting, and whose talk about it stirred my first interest. In the year of 1927-28, when I came down from New Haven for week-ends, I saw Rosenfeld now and then, and at his instigation or in his company, saw a few exhibits. The first, I think, was a show by Georgia O'Keeffe. In subsequent years when I saw Rosenfeld, the visit would often involve a trip to a gallery. The last exhibit to which he took me was one of Monet's works, two or three years ago. The really important thing for me, however, was not the mere fact that Rosenfeld introduced me to modern painting. The important thing was that he managed to set it for me in relation to the impulse behind modern literature.
My first acquaintance with Rosenfeld was at the time when he, with Van Wyck Brooks, Lewis Mumford, and Alfred Kreymborg, was editing the American Caravan. At that time, I had already published poems in the Fugitive, the Double Dealer, the New Republic, and one or two other magazines, but that fact did not diminish my pleasure in Rosenfeld's interest in my writing and in his willingness to take some poetry for the Caravan. My most direct literary debt to him, however, did not involve poetry but fiction. Rosenfeld was responsible not only for publishing my first fiction hut for its very existence. I had written a few quite horrible short stories in my early undergraduate days, but I had realized how horrible they were and had given up fiction for life. My acquaintance with Katherine Anne Porter in 1927-1928 and the fact that Caroline Gordon was writing stories about a section of the country which was my own stirred some interest in fiction and led me to the quite obvious thought that fiction might he written about what I knew most about. But all of my reading in that period was in poetry and American history.
In the course of some conversation, probably in September of 1929, I told Rosenfeld something about the background of a possible story or novel. He said little about it at the time, but a month or two later he wrote me at Oxford to ask me to do a novelette for American Caravan IV. I agreed to try, and so in the winter of 1929-1930, between sessions at the Bodleian Library, where I was working on a thesis, I wrote a long story about rural Kentucky life in the early part of the century. I suppose that a certain amount of unconscious homesickness and nostalgia went into the effort. In any case, the story was for those months the central fact of my existence. I finished it in the spring, and mailed it off to Rosenfeld. I felt that I had an enormous stake in the story, and could scarcely wait for his reply. He apparently sensed my anxiety, for he did not write but cabled. He said that he liked the story very much and that it would appear in the Caravan. It was published under the title “Prime Leaf.”
For better or worse, Rosenfeld had committed me to writing fiction. In the next several years, I wrote two novels for which I did not find publishers. With the third novel I returned to the material of the novelette which I had originally written for Rosenfeld. I offered the material to Houghton Mifflin in applying for one of the Literary Fellowships, with Rosenfeld, I think, as one of the sponsors of the project. The book appeared, 10 years after Rosenfeld had made the original suggestion, as "Night Rider."
It was always easy to be grateful to Rosenfeld for tangible benefits, but, upon reflection, it is also easy to be grateful to him for certain intangible benefits. Quite effortlessly and naturally he could create an atmosphere of comfortable and dispassionate candor in which conversation throve. There was, however, a peculiar impersonality about that atmosphere. Rosenfeld was an artist at making a guest develop his own views and ideas, but he himself, though capable of firm opinions, never insisted upon them. Only once did I ever hear him make a violent utterance. At my last meeting with him, at a dinner in his apartment in 1945, I made some remark about Ezra Pound's arrest and imprisonment, and he burst out: "I don't want to talk about it! I can't talk about that man!" (In the case of Ezra Pound, the democratic mystique and the aesthetic mystique did not square.) But ordinarily Rosenfeld was extremely reserved. I knew him well for almost 20 years, but now I realize that in certain respects, I did not know him at all. An outlander like myself, coming to or through New York on hurried trips, saw him perhaps once a year, or even more infrequently. But when I did see him there was the atmosphere of warmth and candor which his breadth of taste, his generosity of nature, his inquiring bent of mind, and his refusal to impose himself always created. It was an atmosphere which you always left with the sense that your own work would be worth trying to do and that even if you failed at it the effort itself would have its value and its own rewards.
Paul Rosenfeld died in New York City a year ago this month. Several of the last things he wrote were published in this magazine shortly before his death. Mr. Warren’s appreciation is one of a series of similar pieces to be brought out in book form next fall. –THE EDITORS.
About the Author
Robert Penn Warren is the author of this year's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel All the King's Men.