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New Left Review
Introduction to Adorno
The largely posthumous publication of his later writings has made Walter Benjamin perhaps the most influential Marxist critic in the German-speaking world, after the Second World War. The major works of his mature period have recently become available in English for the first time, with the translation of a collection of his essays in Illuminations (Cape-Fontana), the record of his relationship to the greatest German writer of his day in Understanding Brecht (nlb), and now the completed portions of what would clearly have been his masterpiece, Charles Baudelaire—A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism (nlb). The widespread acclaim that Benjamin has received both in his own country and abroad, has, however, with some exceptions not been accompanied by critical appraisal of any great acuity. The Left has been in general concerned to defend his legacy from mystical appropriation of it, the right to establish its distance from any orthodox canon of historical materialism. It may thus be a surprise that probably the best critique of Benjamin’s development in his last phase remains that of his younger friend and colleague Adorno, addressed to him in a number of private letters at the time. The correspondence between the two represents, in fact, one of the most important aesthetic exchanges of the thirties anywhere in Europe. Four of the most significant of these letters are printed below—three from Adorno, with one reply from Benjamin.  They concern, respectively: 1. Benjamin’s draft outline for his Arcades project, written in 1935 (entitled ‘Paris—The Capital of the Nineteenth Century’, now in Charles Baudelaire, pp. 155–70); 2. his famous essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, published in 1936 (included in Illuminations, pp. 219–53); 3. and 4. his original study of Baudelaire, composed in 1938 (designated ‘The Paris of the Second Empire in Baudelaire’, in Charles Baudelaire, pp. 9–106).
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