Years ago, while reading Irving Howe’s autobiography, The Margin of Hope, I came across a humorous but insightful observation made by Lionel Abel about New York during the 1930s: “It became the most interesting part of the Soviet Union…that one part of the country in which the struggle between Stalin and Trotsky could be openly expressed.”
That, of course, was common knowledge for those immersed in the politics of the time. For the most part, Abel’s radical politics and his defense of the cultural underdogs are best expressed in numerous essays which he had contributed to the early years of Partisan Review, New Politics, and later, in his impassioned critical view of Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem in 1963, which was also linked to Abel’s memorable attack on Irving Kristol and Alfred Kazin.
Born Lionel Abelson in 1910, in Brooklyn, he was the son of a maverick rabbi. After attending St. John’s University and University of North Carolina, Abel soon began his career as a playwright, critic, and translator in New York City. It was through his brother-in-law, Albert Goldman, that Abel came to be close to the Socialist Party, or Trotskyist circles, in Greenwich Village, which included Irving Howe, Harold Rosenberg, Meyer Schapiro, Saul Bellows, Daniel Bell, and several other New York intellectuals.
As a playwright, Absalom, one of his four off-Broadway plays, was probably the best known of Abel’s work. His 1984 memoir The Intellectual Follies is quite similar to Irving Howe’s The Margin of Hope, published two years earlier—both are highly recommended for those who haven’t read them. Abel’s work is his personal account, from the end of the 1920s through the post-World War II years, of all the intellectual activities as well as radical awareness of art and politics during the period.
After teaching English at the State University of New York in Buffalo for nearly twenty years, in 1987, Abel’s collection of essays, mostly about European writers like Dostoevsky, Bertrand Russell, Jean Genet, Edmund Wilson, Arthur Koestler, and Jean Paul Sartre, were published in the book, Important Nonsense. It is a notable read and revelatory regarding Abel’s own affection and personal commentary on these figures’ works. Lionel Abel was Sartre’s authorized translator, and his translation of Rimbaud is also worthy of merit. The Brooklyn Rail salutes one of Brooklyn’s native sons.