Edith Kurzweil

National Humanities Medal


From 1937 until it closed in spring 2003, the Partisan Review published the writing of authors such as André Gide, Leon Trotsky, Norman Mailer, Hannah Arendt, Lionel Trilling, Irving Howe, and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. "The magazine's intent was to publish the best writing, to feature what now tends to be denigrated as high culture, and not to succumb to the extremes of capitalism, nor to cant and communism," writes Edith Kurzweil, who edited the journal during the last decade.

Kurzweil arrived in the United States as a fourteen-year-old refugee, fleeing the Nazis as war engulfed Europe. A native of Vienna, she arrived in New York speaking not a word of English. Today she looks back on a record of scholarship spanning thirty years.

She regretfully turned down a scholarship to Radcliffe--"my father disapproved"--and embarked on an early marriage that ended in divorce.

Kurzweil studied at Queens College and City College of New York before receiving her PhD in Sociology from the New School for Social Research in 1973. "I knew that I had to catch up," she says. "But I wasn't a kid who had to find herself."

She questioned the single-subject focus common in American academic circles at the time. "Why do Americans talk only in their disciplines?" she asks. "Why don't we branch out and learn from others?" This interdisciplinary approach led to books such as The Age of Structuralism (1983), Freudians and Feminists (1995), and Freudians: A Comparative Perspective (1998).

Kurzweil first began at the Partisan Review as a volunteer. "Partisan Review interested me, played back my own questions," she says. "I wanted to know everything, and the magazine gave me a very good overview of the culture." Partisan Review held on to its anticommunism, and it allowed her to examine issues from many perspectives. "Unfortunately, every subject quickly tends to get polarized too quickly, and at Partisan Review I didn't have to reach foregone conclusions," she says. "It was an intellectual and literary magazine, where you probed the issues. It wasn't politics, where you have to see that you win."

Founded and edited for decades by her late husband, William Phillips, Partisan Review assembled in its pages the writings of some of the most prominent authors in the West, often presenting them to the American public for the first time. Partisan Review kept abreast of new developments in politics and culture, and was one of the earliest English-language journals to publish Nobel prize-winner Czeslaw Milosz.

In the spring 2003 Partisan Review, the final issue, Kurtzweil writes about Phillips's founding of the journal shortly after he met Philip Rahv. "They came to realize that the American Communist Party was directly controlled by Moscow, and then managed to break away. In 1937, Phillips and Rahv restarted the magazine, resolving to stay independent of all factional politics, while holding on to Marxism and publishing the best of modernism. With the wisdom of hindsight, I would maintain that most of the subsequent literary and political disagreements were caused by the contradictions inherent in these two -isms, along with clashes of the strong personalities, and the egos and ambitions, of the bright individuals who joined them."

In its last three decades the journal was instrumental in keeping the intellectual and cultural life of the U.S. open to developments in Eastern Europe, and was an important source for literary work emerging from the former Soviet bloc. Kurzweil has hosted frequent symposia, which were often published in Partisan Review, and has edited numerous anthologies of work from the magazine, such as Our Country, Our Culture: The Politics of Political Correctness (1995) and A Partisan Century (1996).

Kurzweil encourages rigorous thinking in the students in her sociology courses at Rutgers University and Delphi College, and at numerous conferences and panels she organizes on the humanities. "What students don't know about history is appalling," she says. "You really have to spark people, and it's very hard. Consumer culture is overwhelming them. However, I do see pockets that are different. And the humanities aren't something we can give up on."


About the National Humanities Medal

The National Humanities Medal, inaugurated in 1997, honors individuals or groups whose work has deepened the nation's understanding of the humanities and broadened our citizens' engagement with history, literature, languages, philosophy, and other humanities subjects. Up to 12 medals can be awarded each year.