by Perry Meisel
View: Parade of the Avant-Garde. An Anthology of View Magazine (1940 - 1947). Edited by Charles Henri Ford. Compiled by Catrina Neiman and Paul Nathan. Illustrated. 287 pp. New York: Thunder's Mouth Press. $35.
After the Germans occupied Paris in 1940, much of the Parisian avant-garde relocated to New York. Charles Henri Ford, an American writer who in 1929 had founded an experimental literary magazine called Blues and who had then gone on to live in Paris, North Africa and other venues, decided to start View, a magazine designed to reflect New York's new international status. Whole issues were devoted to Max Ernst and Marcel Duchamp; André Breton became a regular contributor. View published and assessed a polymorphous assortment of writers and artists. It had competition from the magazine VVV, which Breton founded in New York in 1942, but it was View that was most manifestly the Surrealist organ in America.
Ecumenical by virtue of its sheer open-mindedness, View paraded nearly everybody; it published Wallace Stevens' "Materia Poetica," a series of apothegms and prose meditations; portions of William Carlos Williams' "Paterson"; criticism by Kenneth Burke, Harold Rosenberg, and Meyer Shapiro; and fiction by Albert Camus, Jorge Luis Borges, and Henry Miller.
View lasted until 1947 and published 36 issues, beginning as a six-page tabloid in 1940 and, by 1943, becoming an elegant commercial magazine notable for spectacular color covers by artists like Ernst, Duchamp, René Magritte, Man Ray, and Georgia O'Keeffe. Mr. Ford has now edited an anthology of its articles, generously illustrated with a selection of cover reproductions, plates of paintings, drawings and photographs, and facsimile pages and period advertisements for jazz concerts and new books. "View: Parade of the Avant-Garde" provides a vivid and dramatic history of the movement from prewar Surrealism to postwar existentialism and, more obliquely, of the electric play between estheticism and political engagement that structured the history of criticism during these transitional years.
The magazine's contributors fall into two main groups: Mr. Ford and his circle, particularly his associate editor and designer, the critic and poet Parker Tyler; and the émigré celebrities whom Mr. Ford befriended and purveyed. While these major figures are well known, the work of Mr. Ford and his followers adds a fresh chapter to the history of American bohemia in the years before the Beats established the protocol. As critics, Charles Henri Ford, Parker Tyler, and their younger contributors shared a kind of house style that ranged from woozy to astute; they tried to balance cultivation and hipness.
A muted romance with Hollywood also runs like a thread through the volume's American contributions, and it is often at conscious odds with suspicions about commercial film's integrity as a mythology. This tension can be productive, however, especially in the case of Tyler's enormously prescient essay on The Maltese Falcon, "Every Man His Own Private Detective." Tyler, who wrote a book about Hollywood in 1944, exposes the allegorical resonance of Bogart's detective-hero, Sam Spade, by reference to Dostoyevsky.
It was, however, on the European superstars that View staked its claim to fame. Among the most impressive documents in the entire volume is Breton's superb, and unlikely, essay on Duchamp, "Lighthouse of the Bride." Like Stevens' "Materia Poetica," it gives intellectual muscle to artistic states of mind normally assumed to be spontaneous and transcendent. Breton is technical, secular, and hard-nosed, explaining Duchamp as a sieve of influences, a powerful processing machine who, like Ernst, is a "meeting place" of historical forces, a "crosspoint of . . . tendencies" organized by "negation." "Originality," writes Breton, "is in no way, as many seem to believe, a matter of instinct and intuition; to find it, one must generally seek it laboriously." Even "automatic writing," one of Surrealism's most abused legacies, becomes necromantic as a result of the specific mechanisms it unlocks, rather than despite them.
Once the war ended, View's contributors, and the issues they dealt with, began to change. Surrealism gave way to existentialism. In 1946, View published Camus and Jean Genet in English for the first time. Mr. Ford also published "The Nationalization of Literature" in English, in which Jean-Paul Sartre sets out to re-imagine the nature and role of literature after the war, trying to sort out the political from the esthetic and realizing how difficult it is to do that. Now, almost 50 years later, criticism is once again caught between the presumable antinomies of formalism and advocacy. This anthology shows just how little things have changed.
Originally published in The New York Times Book Review, March 1, 1992