Max Eastman: A Life, by Christopher Irmscher (Yale University Press, 448 pp., $40)
Long before the Most Interesting Man in the World appeared in Dos Equis commercials, his precursor appeared in Reader’s Digest and National Review. Max Eastman (1883-1969) trekked to Russia as an ideological tourist, bowled over by the idea of a heaven on earth. Years later, he wrote one of the most effective anti-Communist books of the 1930s, Artists in Uniform, the title of which refers to the surreal phenomenon of creative people seeking to don team costumes to show fealty to the Soviet Union. The son of two ministers naturally became an atheist. A committed feminist, he occasionally sponged off women and often juggled girlfriends with wives. A man whose fervent pacifism led to the suppression of his magazine by the post office, a ban of his presence behind the podium by local police, and the label of draft dodger during World War I became an early advocate for America’s entry into World War II.
Even a flawed biography of the writer-poet-activist-gameshow host-Lothario can’t help but prove compelling, nearly 50 years after Eastman’s death. Eastman’s life traveled interesting roads in every direction, but Christopher Irmscher’s Max Eastman: A Life confines itself mainly to two roads. “It doesn’t cheapen the biography or the ambitions of its subject to describe what follows as a story largely about sex and communism,” Irmscher maintains. But at times, it does.
Regarding Communism, the author seeks to cheapen Eastman—at least Eastman 2.0, the virulent anti-Communist—but succeeds only in cheapening his biography by briefly turning it into a past-its-sell-date political tract. While Irmscher depicts Eastman’s early infatuation with Lenin, Trotsky, and the Russian Revolution in romantic terms, he harshly judges Eastman’s condemnation of Stalin. He characterizes Eastman as “not above repeating the old canard that communists are unmanly cowards who will dissemble and deceive when possible.” He neither explains why such a characterization represents a “canard” nor why speaking ill of the executioners and wardens of millions of innocents discredits the speaker. When Eastman wrote about Stalinism, Irmscher laments, “all his humor was gone.” Stalinism tends to have such an effect on a man.
Irmscher’s musings about whether the relationship between Eastman and his famous feminist sister Crystal included a sexual element—a speculation based on nothing concrete and already explored in depth by another biographer—cheapens things further. Eastman’s documented sex life proves enough of a page-turner without resorting to gossip.
Irmscher’s biography veers from nasally academic tome to heavy-breathing Xaviera Hollander Penthouse column, and back again. In its defense, the book’s subject similarly wandered all over the place. Eastman’s literary boasts, particularly in the realm of autobiography, surely rival his bedroom boasts. But how Eastman looked captivated as much as what he wrote. The bisexual African-American Communist Claude McKay, for instance, kept a nude picture of Eastman in his wallet. The sight of an octogenarian Eastman at a party caused an awed, teenage Carly Simon to call him the most beautiful man she had ever seen. For those unconvinced by such passages, Irmscher’s biography contains several pictures of Eastman at various stages of life and undress. Many readers may prefer the picture of second wife Yvette sunbathing.
“The irony of Max’s life,” Irmscher writes, “was that he would continue to stumble into the very arrangements he professed to despise: marriage, fatherhood, writing for money.” Stumble he did. He nudged lovers into aborting his children, and essentially abandoned the resilient one who survived the treacherous journey through the birth canal to the care of his mother, whom Eastman divorced for not accepting his affairs. His second wife’s dalliances bothered Eastman terribly, despite their open arrangement. The actress Florence Deshon, whose attention Eastman competed for with Charlie Chaplin, died suddenly after their breakup, perhaps by suicide. Both classy and a cad, Eastman generally received a favorable response from his several-decades-younger girlfriends. He liked women, and women liked him.
His interactions with famous men proved arresting, too. He completed his work for a philosophy degree under John Dewey at Columbia but refused to accept it, never filing his approved dissertation. Sigmund Freud hosted Eastman in Vienna, insisting that he did not despise America—he merely regretted it. Stalin dubbed Eastman a “gangster of the pen.” Eastman’s translation work for Leon Trotsky reinforced the warning that we should never meet our heroes. A lover, not a fighter, Eastman nevertheless added to his legend by brawling with Ernest Hemingway.
Eastman longed to do his own thing without the constraint of jobs that required him to do another’s thing. Though he craved great pay and great freedom, two desires often in conflict, he happily edited The Masses for gratis during the waning days of the Progressive era and eventually regarded his well-compensated work for Reader’s Digest from 1941 onward as a form of slavery. In both cases, the pay mattered not; the job mattered all. He liked to do what he liked to do.
Briefly in 1938, Eastman hosted a radio show, Word Game, which bestowed Webster’s dictionaries on winners and losers alike—and a weekly ego boost for its master of ceremonies. One of the final stops on his long, strange trip was National Review, about as far ideologically from The Masses and The Liberator as it gets—and, in Irmscher’s view, a regression. For Eastman, it represented a Little Magazine receptive to the thoughts of a senior citizen increasingly ignored in other quarters. “Add to Max’s atheism his continuing—if now severely qualified—admiration for Lenin,” Irmscher writes, “and one understands how difficult it would be simply to put Max in the National Review camp.” Indeed, he broke from the Right’s flagship magazine in the early 1960s, soon opposing the Vietnam War and Communism, a perfectly Eastman thing to do. And maybe that’s the story of Max Eastman: an individual, ill-suited for any camp.
Irmscher relies heavily on Eastman’s correspondence, which gives a glimpse of the man behind all those books. But the books themselves, not an insignificant part of Eastman’s life, receive little attention. For readability, Eastman’s autobiography, Love and Revolution: My Journey Through an Epoch, tops Irmscher’s biography; for information—good, bad, and ugly—Irmscher’s book is the place to go. Perhaps the three-word title of Eastman’s most famous book, Enjoyment of Living, sums him up better than both.
Photo: Library of Congress