Frank Rosengarten, Through Partisan Eyes: My Friendships, Literary Education, and Encounters in Italy, 1956-2013

(Florence: Florence University Press, 2014)

Frank Rosengarten was a truly remarkable man—an intellectual in the broadest sense of the word. A specialist in Italian studies, he not only had a distinguished academic career, but also made important contributions to the cultural and political Left. I first met him in 2004 when I joined the editorial board of Socialism and Democracy. In the ensuing ten years, I was able to get to know him and to appreciate his many talents and qualities—his intellectual acumen and immense knowledge of world politics and cultures, his profound respect for diversity and debate, and, perhaps most importantly, his extraordinary kindness and humanity.

His memoir, Through Partisan Eyes, issued just months before his death, is a testament to his many accomplishments. The book is, first and foremost, the culmination of a long publishing career in the realms of literary criticism and political theory. In addition to critical studies on Italian antifascism and Marxism, Frank Rosengarten published books on various Italian and non-Italian intellectual figures—the Florentine novelist Vasco Pratolini, the communist theorist Antonio Gramsci (whose prison letters he also translated), the poet Giacomo Leopardi, the French writer Marcel Proust, and the Trinidadian socialist theorist C.L.R. James.1 The wide range of topics and fields he explored, along with his enormous productivity, speaks highly of his intellectual sophistication and deep love for learning.

Through Partisan Eyes is divided into four parts. Part One, covering the years 1956-1962, explores Rosengarten’s apprenticeship in Italian studies through his research on Pratolini, the subject of his doctoral dissertation and first book. Proceeding to the late 1970s, Part Two focuses mainly on his studies of Italian antifascism and Silvio Trentin, a law professor who played a central role in the French and Italian resistance movement. Moving into the 1980s, Part Three takes the reader closer to Rosengarten’s political activism as “a non-sectarian man of the left” and, in particular, his role in establishing the Research Group on Socialism and Democracy (RGSD) and its journal, Socialism and Democracy. Finally, Part Four traces the last phase of Frank’s intellectual life: his immersion in French studies which culminated in an award-winning dissertation on Proust; his six years researching and writing on C.L.R. James; and finally his return to Italian studies with Leopardi.

The memoirs capture the wide scope of Frank’s work and offer a comprehensive look into his research interests, approach and methodology. As Frank makes clear, all his books are informed by one basic tenet: the belief that “literature and history are intimately connected to each other by bonds of ‘necessary reciprocity,’ as Gramsci phrases it, innumerable threads of continuity and interdependence.” In stark contrast to the dominant New Criticism of the 1950s which stressed the primacy of aesthetic questions in the study of literature, Frank throughout his career valued literary texts especially for their political and social subtexts – an approach for which he credits especially the Italian Renaissance scholar Eugenio Garin.

Whereas other Italianists of his generation focused generally on Italy’s glorious past, Frank was instinctively attracted to the “real” Italy of everyday life and ordinary people. “Early on,” he writes, “I found myself moving away from the aesthetic side of things toward an encounter with a country and a people whose destiny has been marked indelibly by political questions of vast import, one of which was the struggle between Fascism and anti-Fascism.”

But there is another central theme that shines throughout his memoir and that largely defined Frank’s life, and that is his struggle to reconcile two apparently different aspects of his personality and worldview: one, deeply influenced by the classical liberal principles that he absorbed from his upbringing in an affluent American-Jewish family and his undergraduate liberal arts studies; the other, shaped by a fascination with “the Soviet experiment” and other varieties of the socialist experience.

“Are liberalism and socialism mutually exclusive or can they be reconciled with each other in such a way as to win the approval of people who identify themselves with both schools of thought?” This question is indeed at the core of Frank’s intellectual quest.  He began thinking about this and related issues during his undergraduate years at Adelphi University, which he attended on the G.I. Bill from 1946 to 1950 after fourteen months in the U.S. Navy. The college’s liberal imprint and his professors’ emphasis on openness of mind strengthened his belief that “freedom of thought and expression together with freedom of association, are the bedrocks of a modern democracy worthy of that name” and that “appreciating diversity is the key to the life of the mind.”

At the same time, he developed an interest in socialism which was strengthened in the 1960s by the movements for civil rights and against the Viet Nam war. While teaching at Western Reserve University in Cleveland, from 1962 to 1967, Frank became involved in the antiwar movement participating in rallies and demonstrations, organizing lectures and teach-ins, and appearing on the radio. His frequent trips to Italy, where a host of revolutionary groups were simultaneously challenging the status quo, pushed him further to the left.

In 1975 he joined the Socialist Workers Party, but after five years he resigned, noting that he was “never meant to be a doctrinaire socialist or communist.” While he never formally belonged to any other party, he remained very close, “emotionally and politically” to the left. Perhaps more importantly, despite his criticism of the anti-democratic aspects of Soviet-style socialism, he refused “to dump the entire Soviet experiment into the dustbin of history.” Unlike those leftists who dismissed “really existing socialism” as incompatible with true democracy, Frank recognized that no country and no political system is perfect or free of profound historical contradictions. “Was one bound by moral coherence to condemn the entire American experiment in democracy”—asks Frank—“because the United States had countenanced on its soil, and even constitutionally legitimized, the existence of slavery for almost a century? How should we look at the failures of Reconstruction in the United States? Was it proof of an irredeemably corrupt and racist society, in both North and South?” Then, should we erase the “immortal principles” of the French Revolution because of its horrible excesses? “I did not think so”— he concluded, insisting that the same should be done in assessing Soviet accomplishments and failures.

Such an appraisal came for Frank in 1983 when he briefly visited the USSR as part of a guided tour of geriatric facilities—an interest that he had developed through his third wife Lucy, who remained his loving companion for over thirty years until her death of cancer in 2011. Frank admits that he was adversely affected by the controls and restrictions imposed on them as well as on Soviet citizens, feeling often a “sense almost of suffocation.” But he also recognized the many accomplishments of the Soviet Union in science, education, the arts, and world peace. He felt particularly uncomfortable with the widespread tendency (which he criticized in C.L.R. James) to equate Communism with Nazism. He pointed out that communists made enormous contributions to the antifascist resistance, to anti-colonial and antiracist movements, and to women’s liberation struggles. Frank also believed in the ability of the Soviet Communist Party to correct its worst tendencies and move the country in a democratic direction. He enthusiastically supported Gorbachev’s reforms and, in 1984, joined the Association for American-Soviet Friendship, writing editorials for its local Newsletter, promoting books and events on the USSR, and working hard to counter stereotypes of the “evil empire.”

But Frank’s greatest contribution to socialism was the founding, shortly after his return from the Soviet Union, of the RGSD. Perplexed by his ambivalent impressions of “real socialism,” Frank approached his friend and colleague Michael Brown and suggested that they establish a study group to explore the historical and theoretical basis for the creation of an effective socialism. It took about a year to overcome administrative obstacles and assemble the group, which included a wide range of scholars – Peter Roman, Stanley Aronowitz, Rosalyn Baxandall, John Cammett, Juan Flores, William Kornblum, and Alan Rosenberg – as well as three students of Mike Brown (Randy Martin, Felipe Pimentel, and George Snedeker). The group examined important works on socialism and invited guests to lecture about it. More importantly, it began publishing Socialism and Democracy, which has become a respected voice of the academic and political Left. Frank co-edited the journal for several years and remained an active member of its editorial board until his death.

Rosengarten’s political and literary reflections are intertwined with broader philosophical questions about academia and occasional accounts of his personal life. He speaks candidly of his problems with alcoholism, for example, noting that for two decades until he joined Alcoholics Anonymous in 1971 he “lived in two realms: one of a hard-working professor and researcher, the other that of a hard-drinking alcoholic who, when under the influence, said and did things that violated his own code of decent behavior.” His addiction contributed to destroying his first two marriages, and Frank seems to be apologizing in his memoir for the pain he caused those who loved him, and above all for the death of his son Philip, from heroin addiction, at 37—for which Frank felt to some extent responsible.

Sometimes I found myself wishing for more details of Frank’s life—his upbringing, his relationship with his three children, or his outlook on marriage and love—while occasionally I got lost in the sea of names of all the people he met and befriended. As a scholar with research interests similar to Frank’s, I particularly appreciated his reflections on the ethics of academic research, such as how and why one approaches a subject and where our loyalties rest. “Do we cling stubbornly to premises and assumptions we bring to our work”—he wrote— “or do we leave ourselves open to the impact of new material, new slants and perspectives, even if they contradict our previous views?” As the book’s title suggests, Frank is not ashamed to admit that his ideological preconceptions largely defined his academic research. Explaining why he focused on Vasco Pratolini for his doctoral dissertation he writes: “my choice had not been casual, or merely perfunctory…. No, my choice was personal and close to my heart.” His attraction to the then little known Italian novelist stemmed in large part from Pratolini’s affiliation with the Italian Communist Party. Perhaps more importantly Pratolini spoke of a world that was very close to Frank: “his sense of community, of friendship and human solidarity, his compassion for the poor and oppressed masses, his touching realism and sensitivity; above all his desire to give a voice to people who had not yet spoken for themselves.”

Frank’s fascination with the antifascist Silvio Trentin, to whom he devoted many years of study, derived similarly from a strong identification with Trentin’s life and ideas. Like Frank, Trentin came from a prosperous family, but despite his privileged status and liberal upbringing he moved away from the existing order toward a revolutionary form of socialist democracy. This strong personal identification characterizes also Frank’s later studies of Gramsci, James, and Leopardi. Indeed, Frank’s choices always stemmed from a longing for human connection and community and a desire to understand the socioeconomic and political conditions that define human existence.

Above all, he sought to come to grips with the main issues of his time, particularly the appeals of totalitarianism, the struggle between Fascism and Communism, and the various forms of liberalism and democracy. The study of the Italian antifascist resistance seems to have had a particularly lasting effect on his worldview. The fruit of many years of archival research, its history provided him with a precious legacy to rethink the relationship between socialism and democracy and envisage a new order that would meld “the best traditions of liberal democracy with the radical and equalitarian ideals of socialism.”

Frank found parallels between the Italian antifascist resistance and the oppositional strands that emerged in the US during the 1960s and ‘70s. Despite the obvious differences in historical contexts, “both hinged on the need to build opposition to an existing power structure” and “save their country from ruin, if not physically, then morally and politically.” Frank’s profound commitment to create a better social order, to extend the notion of democracy “to the realms of social and economic life,” fired his imagination and shaped his life. We owe him an enormous debt for his dedication.

Reviewed by Marcella Bencivenni
Hostos Community College, CUNY
mbencivenni70@yahoo.com

Notes

1. His other books are, in chronological order: Vasco Pratolini: The Development of a Social Novelist (1965), The Italian Anti-Fascist Press, 1919-1945 (1968), Silvio Trentin dall’interventismo alla Resistenza (1980), The Writings of the Young Marcel Proust: An Ideological Critique (2001),  Urbane Revolutionary: C.L.R. James and the Struggle for a New Society (2010), Giacomo Leopardi’s Search for a Common Life Through Poetry: A Different Nobility, A Different Love (2012), The Revolutionary Marxism of Antonio Gramsci (2015). He also edited Gramsci’s Letters from Prison (1993).

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