Read an Excerpt from “Harold Rosenberg: A Critic’s Life” by Debra Bricker Balken
We’re pleased to share a short excerpt from Debra Bricker Balken’s landmark new book, Harold Rosenberg: A Critic’s Life, which just published this month. Thoroughly researched and captivatingly written, this book tells in full Rosenberg’s brilliant, fiercely independent life and the five decades in which he played a leading role in US cultural, intellectual, and political history. The first-ever complete biography of this great and eccentric man, it’s a momentous addition to our knowledge of American artistic and intellectual life.
Harold Rosenberg always resisted the in-crowd. From the moment he entered Erasmus Hall in 1919, an elite high school in Brooklyn, he felt ostracized by the rivaling cliques of students who dominated the social scene. Many came from rich families—Jewish and non-Jewish alike—but he found no common ground with even the few freshmen who lived in his own dreary neighborhood of Borough Park. His father, while intellectually inclined, was a lower middleclass tailor who had moved the family from Harlem when Harold was eight to settle in a Jewish community where the way of life was decidedly conformist. Religion became anathema to Rosenberg—he hated the long, ritualized Saturday services— along with his father’s bourgeois aspirations. By the time he attended Erasmus Hall, his anti- authoritarian streak was intact. The only place he felt at home was on the baseball field or when rowing on the lake in Prospect Park.
To compound his sense of difference, Rosenberg grew to be 6 feet, 4 inches tall. By the time he was an adolescent, he towered not only over his family but also over his teachers and fellow students. With his radiant dark eyes capped by black, bushy brows and a prominent forehead, he came across as a colossus, a sort of oddity. To add to his eccentricity, his high- pitched, nasal voice always seemed out of sync with his height. He lumbered through the corridors of Erasmus Hall, where he became more and more introverted and had little interaction with his classmates. As a result, studying became his primary outlet. In today’s terms, he was a nerd. But once Rosenberg graduated, his disdain for the in-crowd intensified, as did his requirement for independence. These traits defined him and later seeped into his intellectual life, where he became known as a loner. He may have encountered many like-minded, progressive thinkers in New York, but there were few occasions on which he became part of a community or cohesive social group, except when he was in the company of artists.
Although Rosenberg would become one of the foremost American intellectuals of the mid- century, he was constitutionally incapable of fitting in. His aversion to the status quo had been ingrained since childhood, but as his success as a writer grew, his self-confidence soared. He became not only assertive but also combative, undaunted by power. Many of his peers were put off by what they perceived as his arrogance. Others, however, viewed his willful opposition to conformist culture as a strength, particularly when he stood up to the bullying of the American Communist Party (CP), which attempted to infiltrate publishing circles during the Great Depression just as he came of age as a writer. But even his detractors knew that Rosenberg possessed a certain brilliance—particularly Clement Greenberg, the art critic for the Partisan Review and The Nation, who became one of his primary adversaries. As Greenberg admitted, Rosenberg’s erudition was astonishing. Even though he himself would never take to the philosophical thrust of Rosenberg’s essays, he came to feel undone by Rosenberg’s prominence and reputation.
Debra Bricker Balken is an independent scholar, writer and curator with a focus on American modernism and contemporary art. She is the author of Mark Tobey, Threading Light and Arthur Dove, A Catalogue Raisonné of Paintings and Things, forthcoming in 2021.