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Wallace Markfield, Contender

The novelist and film critic was the most gifted also-ran of the 1960s Jewish-American literary renaissance

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(Collage Tablet Magazine; original photos University of South Carolina Library and Shutterstock)
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Had he lived, Wallace Markfield would have celebrated his 86th birthday this week. But it’s been 10 years since this word-slinging tummler left the stage, and you have to wonder if he didn’t write his own epitaph decades earlier. In the most famous line of his first and best-remembered novel, To an Early Grave—a book that treated New York Jewish intellectuals as though they were Catskill comedians—Markfield described its deceased prime mover as “a second-rate talent of the highest order.”

Put another way, Markfield was the most gifted also-ran associated with the so-called Jewish-American literary renaissance of 1950s and ’60s: His three Jew-obsessed comic novels were eclipsed by the titanic oeuvre of Philip Roth, his ideas regarding Jews and popular culture were massively elaborated by professor turned new journalist Albert Goldman, and his promising bid to establish himself as a wise-guy, street-smart luftmensh-intellectual Jewish film critic was upended by Manny Farber and trumped by Pauline Kael.

Markfield enjoyed maximum visibility between the 1964 triumph of To an Early Grave (the basis, four years later, for Sidney Lumet’s seminal Jew Wave movie Bye Bye Braverman) and the friendly, if more ambivalent, reception given his ambitious second novel, Teitelbaum’s Window, in 1970. (The mixed notice in the New York Times Book Review was by no less an eminence than Alfred Kazin.) Markfield was a recognized pop-culture maven, writing for the Times Magazine on the persistence of burlesque, the significance of Walter Winchell, and the greatness of King Kong. In describing the “mad rushin’ to mama-lushen,” his Esquire essay “The Yiddishization of American Humor” not only anticipated Goldman’s “Boy-Man Schlemiel: The Jewish Element in American Humor,” but provided a road map for Goldman’s career.

Philip Roth appropriated a Markfield joke and name-checked him in Portnoy’s Complaint: “The novelist, what’s his name, Markfield, has written in a story somewhere that until he was fourteen he believed ‘aggravation’ to be a Jewish word.” (The story “Country of the Crazy Horse” was set in Markfield’s childhood Brooklyn and published in the March 1958 issue of Commentary.) A 1967 book review in the New York Times described Gershon Legman, the avant-garde Kinsey who wrote The Rationale of the Dirty Joke, as “a character in a Wallace Markfield novel,” which is pretty much what Markfield was himself.

Born in Brighton Beach and educated at Brooklyn College, he broke into print with stories in the Partisan, Kenyon, and Hudson reviews and book reviews in Commentary, achieving his first notoriety with an anti-High Noon diatribe, “The Inauthentic Western: Problems on the Prairie,” published by the American Mercury in 1952, a full two years before Robert Warshow would make many of the same points in his canonical Partisan Review essay, “The Westerner.”

To rehearse Markfield’s career—to even write that last sentence!—is to describe the world he would parody in To an Early Grave: A little-magazine critic named Holly Levine brags to an academic poet, one Barnet Weiner, about “the strong likelihood” that he will be teaching a popular-culture course called “From ‘Little Nemo’ to ‘Li’l Abner,’ ” and, when his frenemy jealously wonders if the subject is “like they say in the quarterlies, your métier?,” Levine angrily responds, “My piece on John Ford has been twice anthologized. Twice!”

Although this exchange escalates into a ’30s trivia competition that would prove Markfield’s defining literary trope, it was on the basis of “The Inauthentic Western” that he secured a regular gig writing about movies in every other issue of The New Leader (a “rightwing” socialist weekly of the David Dubinsky persuasion), where he had since 1949 been pondering serious works of literature and criticism, from Sholem Asch’s Tales of My People and Hemingway’s Across the River and Into the Trees to Irving Howe on Sherwood Anderson and a revaluation of Nathaniel West’s The Day of the Locust. (West, Markfield wrote prophetically, was a novelist who “never quite managed to produce a perfect work nor completely integrate his gifts, but one who was capable, nevertheless, of profoundly disturbing the reader.”)

So, the job only lasted six months—from late November 1952 into May 1953—Markfield got to publish 13 columns, among them a Stanley Kramer take-down worthy of inclusion in the Library of America Anthology of American Film Criticism. Devoting a full column to praising Anthony Mann’s unheralded “routine” Western The Naked Spur and the follow-up to trashing George Stevens’ overblown Shane, opining on Danny Kaye and Sergei Eisenstein, taking note of the 3D craze-igniter Bwana Devil, the Jazz Singer remake, and Stanley Kubrick’s debut Fear and Desire, Markfield showed excellent range and natural talent. His takes were knowledgeable, his language punchy, and his leads lively. Ironically characterizing himself as a “condescending cineaste” who would “choose the bleakest Randolph Scott Western over High Noon,” Markfield had an attitude that was a promising work in progress.

Like revered Nation critic James Agee, Markfield mourned the death of movie comedy (although his idols were not Chaplin and Keaton but the Marx Brothers and W.C. Fields). Like the two-fisted slang-meister Manny Farber, Agee’s New Republic rival and successor at The Nation, Markfield presented himself as a discerning populist, tweaking the “overly-cultish audiences” who patronized “cushy avant-garde theaters” for revivals of old Marcel Pagnol films and complaining that “a genuine love and deep feeling for the movies” were increasingly “hard to come by.”

Markfield championed apparent junk like The Magnetic Monster (“paced like a supercharged engine by director and co-author Curt Siodmak, this story of an unmanageable radioactive element—driven by an omnivorous appetite for the planet’s supply of electrical voltage—emerges almost as technological choreography”) and debunked pretentious tripe: Advising his readers that even the worst films may contain “an oddly haunting strain of excellence,” he pointed out that John Huston’s Moulin Rouge was not one of them.

And then, perhaps sensing Markfield muscling in on his turf, Farber called him out. Five years before Farber’s “Underground Film” would appear in Commentary, Markfield’s “Notes on the Great Audience” was an appreciation of Times Square grind-houses that glorified the instincts of their lumpen patrons in terms at once sentimental and condescending. It was “a classic case of what happens when a critic turns sociologist,” Farber wrote, chiding Markfield by name as he pointed out that the critic’s duty was “to encourage moviegoers to look at the screen instead of trying to find a freak show in the audience.” (Later that year Farber would write his toughest appraisal of the movie-going public—a blast at the mediocrity of current Hollywood product titled “Blame the Audience.”)

Coincidence or not, “Notes on the Great Audience” was the last movie piece Markfield would write for The New Leader (although, ironically, it was Farber’s put-down that prompted me to search out Markfield’s film criticism). It was a shonde to be sure that when The New Republic found itself casting around for a film critic four years later they hired not Markfield but a 24-year-old University of Chicago instructor named Philip Roth—yes, What’s His Name’s future rival, wrote movie reviews too, albeit less the subject for a doctoral dissertation than a footnote.

Beginning with a Funny Face blow-off in June 1957, Roth published 13 movie and television reviews in TNR. He got off some good one-liners (ending a review of Raintree Country with the observation that Eva Marie Saint “does the best she can with a role that could hardly have been individualized unless, perhaps, it had been played by Peter Lorre”) and used Henry King’s lumbering prestige adaptation of The Sun Also Rises as the pretext for an amusing Hemingway parody. Still, the TV pieces, including an analysis of Sid Caesar and an account of the 1957 Miss America pageant, are far better than the movie reviews, which, despite an amused appreciation of Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, are largely oblivious to cinematic qualities and mainly discussions of plots or performances. Roth’s last review, published in February 1958, was another Hemingway adaptation (A Farewell to Arms) and one of the few in which he bothered to identify the movie’s director or even its screenwriter.

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Mark_Shechner says:

Wonderful to see Markfield brought back. He was a funny and gifted writer. One of my favorite moments from “You Could Live If They’d Let You” involved a movie scene where the comic Jules Farber goes to see a western with his Uncle Shermie.

I went one time to the movies with him‑‑a western. With a scene‑‑you know the scene? Morning, first thing in the morning. The gunslinger gets up. The gunslinger rubs his beard. The gunslinger takes out his razor. and he strops his razor, he gives himself a
lovely shave and again he rubs his beard.
He rubs his beard and he wipes his face and he wipes his razor. He finishes wiping the razor, he takes his
coffee pot, he goes to the stream, he fills the coffee pot with water from the
stream, he collects twigs, with the twigs he makes a fire, on the fire he makes
coffee, he drinks a cup of coffee, he sloshes out the grinds, he finished
sloshing out the grinds and he pours himself a second cup, he drinks the second
cup‑‑

And my Uncle Shermie yells out, “Nu,
und pishn darft m’nisht?”
(Nu? And he doesn’t have to
piss?)
Wonderful. The old Yiddish-based comedy seldom got better than that.
–Mark Shechner

thank you Tablet! for not only reviving one of my favorite writers, but for not giving the assignment to Liel Liebovitz. You Could Live if they Let You is a great book, and don’t forget they made a movie out of To An Early Grave (By By Braverman). My mother went to Brooklyn college with Markfield and talked about him lots when I was young. A wonderful writer, way more fun than Philip Roth.

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Wallace Markfield, Contender

The novelist and film critic was the most gifted also-ran of the 1960s Jewish-American literary renaissance