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.
Markfield meanwhile was at work on the short story that would implant itself in Alex Portnoy’s mind. His last major piece on movies, “By the Light of the Silvery Screen,” was a position paper also published in Commentary in March 1961, a year before Film Quarterly ran Kael’s not dissimilar, “Is There a Cure for Film Criticism?” Markfield began with the observation that, given the absence of a canon or even an accepted notion that movies deserved serious attention, “the intellectual who turns film critic is letting himself in for a rough time.” Then, with a nod to Agee, Farber, and Kael, he proceeded to give Siegfried Kracauer and Parker Tyler, the twin pillars of American intellectual film analysis, a very rough time indeed—pillorying the former, the Weimar émigré who had more or less invented sociological film criticism with From Caligari to Hitler, for writing an aesthetic treatise on cinema; and the latter, a surrealist poet and author of Magic and Myth of the Movies, for daring to analyze Hollywood products as cultural dreams.
But if Markfield retired ingloriously from the fray, movies figure significantly in his three subsequent novels. In To an Early Grave, as the author would later describe it, “a pair of New York intellectuals test each other’s ability to call back, among other things, 17 movies wherein Bogart was featured but not starred: 9 actors who have played Tarzan; the last line spoken by Victor McLaglen in The Informer; and the name of the Ritz Brothers.” The father of the youthful hero of Teitlebaum’s Window is employed by a Brighton Beach movie-house, and the 10 years between 1932 and 1942 are individuated largely in terms of the era’s popular culture; in the wonderfully titled You Could Live If They Let You (1974), Markfield, having been compared (by Kazin, among others, and like Philip Roth) to a stand-up comedian, took a Lenny Bruce-like comic, interestingly named “Jules Farber,” as his protagonist.
Although dismissed by some as a plotless rant, the novel is actually Markfield’s most avant-garde, with Farber’s compulsive shtick hilariously filtered through the consciousness of the WASP academic who is studying him. The book’s first 44 pages are a comic shpritz unparalleled in the Markfield oeuvre: “My destiny was in the hands of—not Moses Maimonides, but Louis B. Mayer,” Farber raves, riffing on the representation of Jewish mothers in MGM’s biblical spectacles.
Once, only once show them watching a scale, yelling from a window, grating a little horseradish. You want to make Quo Vadis and Ben Hur? Go ahead, you’re entitled. Give a little boost, though to your own. It’s costing you anyway for a nativity scene, so punch up the Virgin Mary part. “Cheapskates, lice, pascudnyakim! You see my presents? Frankincense, myrrh. … I need it badly? I still got in my closet a jar garlic powder, it’s not even touched because by me spices are poison. Not even a box bridge mix, in Galilee they’re selling the best bridge mix fifty-nine shekels a pound. Do I care? I’m only embarrassed for the innkeeper.”
And so on.
Although Markfield must have known that, published a few months ahead of You Could Live If They Let You, Albert Goldman’s massive biography Ladies and Gentlemen, Lenny Bruce! would upstage his novel. Still, he gave the Goldman book a wonderfully generous New York Times review. You Could Live If They Let You was, on the other hand, slammed in the Times by Robert Alter, a long-standing foe of the Jewish American literary renaissance who used his review to knock Roth, Markfield’s fellow ethnic “mimic,” as well. “Farber intimates that reality itself may have become a hopeless mishmash of vulgar inanities,” Alter observed.
That apocalypse of kitsch has fortunately not yet arrived, but Markfield writes as though it were fully upon us, excluding all possibility of coherent narrative design, limiting fiction to a mocking imitation of trivia, an ambiguously ironic exploitation of nostalgic recall.
Perhaps. But not even so unsympathetic a critic could resist quoting some of Farber’s one-liners as when he gratuitously, if verbally, attacks some women in his audience: “Never never never be ashamed you’re Jewish … Because it’s enough if I’m ashamed you’re Jewish.”
At the same time as he inhabited the character of Jules Farber, Markfield was, for several years, the New York Times Book Review’s remarkably unenthusiastic go-to guy for books on movies. In a 1972 review of Robert Henderson’s scholarly press biography of D.W. Griffith, he asked for a “10-year moratorium declared by pundits and publishers on books in any way dealing with the motion picture.” And in a round-up of such books, published some 20 months later, Markfield made a distinction between the film historian and the “nostalgia addict” and declared himself firmly among the latter, citing a willingness to go his own “wild way” in responding to movies “without meditation or mediation!”
Moving over to the Times “Arts and Leisure” section, Markfield published a trio of pieces, over a six-month stretch of the mid-1970s, that mined his knowledge of Hollywood detritus. “Remembrances of ‘B’ Movies Past” is a creditable, annotated list of 10 outré classics from the ’40s and ’50s that quoted Farber and included both The Leopard Man and The Incredible Shrinking one. Ruefully citing the 5-page trivial pursuit passage in To an Early Grave as the defining accomplishment of his career (“camp turned compulsion for me”), Markfield next provided Times readers with a movie quiz: “In What Movie Did Marlene Dietrich Wear an Ape Suit? And Other Weightless Questions.”
“I’m now what critics and commentators nagged me into becoming these last 11 years: a ‘king of kitsch,’ a ‘seer of shlock,’ a ‘titan of trivia,’ ” Markfield complained á la Farber in a brief introduction to his quiz. Although To an Early Grave “had a thing or two to say about modern literature and literary men, one 5-page sequence drew a special kind of lopsided attention from reviewers [and] pretty soon those 5 pages were on the required reading lists of several sociology courses and anthologized in texts bearing such snappy titles as The Popular Arts: Aspects and Attitudes.”
Markfield claimed that he thought of passing this exercise off as either a new approach to “the problem of cinematic perception” or a secret chronicle of Hollywood movies. Indeed, a subsequent fun piece, “Hollywood’s Greatest Absurd Moments,” published in the “Arts and Leisure” section in January 1976, identifies him as working on just such a secret history. (It would be Markfield’s luck that he envisioned something along the lines of Robert Coover’s 1987 A Night at the Movies or, You Must Remember This, with its fabulously pornographic gloss on Casablanca, and that Coover beat him to it.) Perhaps Markfield abandoned his secret history; perhaps it was buried with him. In an alternate universe, it coulda been his masterpiece.
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J. Hoberman, the former longtime Village Voice film critic, is a monthly film columnist for Tablet Magazine. He is the author, co-author or editor of 12 books, including Bridge of Light: Yiddish Film Between Two Worlds and, with Jeffrey Shandler, Entertaining America: Jews, Movies, and Broadcasting.
J. Hoberman, the former, longtime Village Voice film critic, is a monthly film columnist for Tablet magazine. He is the author, co-author or editor of 12 books, including Bridge of Light: Yiddish Film Between Two Worlds and, with Jeffrey Shandler, Entertaining America: Jews, Movies, and Broadcasting.