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THE NEW YORK INTELLECTUALS: Some Personal History

By Morris Dickstein, film consultant

The early New York intellectuals wrote so much about themselves, and so many others have written about them, that it seems superfluous to sketch out who they were, where they came from, and which issues most engaged them. It is well understood that they came of age between the wars, that nearly all of them, if not Communists, were drawn during the Depression to some form of Marxism or radical socialism, that most but not all were Jewish and came from working-class backgrounds, that few of them imagined they would ever hold university positions, and that they came together as a group only in their break with Stalinism--first as independent radicals at Partisan Review in the late 30s, then as anti-Communists at both PR and Commentary in the decade after the war, and finally, in assorted political guises, at Dissent, the New York Review of Books, and various neoconservative journals, where they fell into sharp political and cultural disagreements and ceased to have a single coherent identity. To summarize their itinerary in this way suggests we are dealing with a purely historical phenomenon, an affair of perhaps two generations with little relevance today except as the background of some influential conservative intellectuals.

I would like to take a different tack here by describing what first drew me to the New York intellectuals when I was a college student in the late 50s and early 60s. I want to demonstrate why there are still New York intellectuals, not necessarily in New York, not necessarily resembling their predecessors, and to explain why the journey of those earlier figures remains meaningful, if occasionally troublesome, to much younger writers and critics. This will be an autobiographical tale in three parts, with an epilogue assessing the current impact of the work of the New York intellectuals.

The story begins for me with my discovery of Partisan Review as an undergraduate at Columbia in 1959 and 1960. The magazine, though limited in circulation, was already a byword of rarefied intellectuality, familiar enough to get a laugh for a stand-up comic, and all my friends with any pretense to serious interest in literature or politics began reading it. But this cultural encounter was a special rite de passage for the children of immigrants, the first in our families to go to college, just as it had been for the original group that shaped the magazine more than two decades earlier. As someone who had come to Columbia from an orthodox yeshiva, I was going through an even more drastic process of acculturation than the secular socialist intellectuals of the 20s and 30s. Perhaps I heard some Jewish rhythm in the intensity of their dialectic but I was also put off by their lack of Jewish information, their igorance of a tradition they casually rejected for its provinciality. For me the intellectual life was a substitute for a severe religious training; for them it had been a way out of the constricted world of the Jewish working class and the Jewish family.

Columbia was then virtually an annex of the New York intellectual milieu, as Gore Vidal remarked in his recent memoir. Its faculty included men like Lionel Trilling, F.W. Dupee, Richard Chase, Richard Hofstadter, Daniel Bell, Meyer Schapiro, and C. Wright Mills who were not simply scholars and teachers but had played a key role in the political and cultural debates of the previous decades. Their former students made up a significant part of the junior faculty. Way back in the second grade, in what was probably my first intimation of becoming a New York intellectual, I had gotten a D in Conduct for talking too much in class; now I was rewarded for talking back to my teachers, for arguing and being obstreperous. Civility was less important than intellectual intensity. Abandoning vague hopes for a career in law or journalism, I gradually envisioned a world in which I could live for ideas. Was it possible that someone would actually pay me to go on reading, writing, and talking, as I had been doing as a student all my life?

Traditional scholarship--the genteel life of the academic, the minute labors of research--this was not what I had in mind, for it seemed far too remote and passionless. I wanted to be empowered by ideas, not simply to reconstruct them. I was no more eager to be a Renaissance scholar or a medieval historian than to become an accountant or biochemist. The New York intellectuals, on the other hand, were generalists who saw everything in relation to the drama of modernity--apocalyptic politics, Freudian psychology, existential philosophy, crisis theology, experimental art and literature. The Western tradition existed for them not as a stately pantheon of books and ideas but as a set of urgent and living options.

If they did not know their Bible half as well as many Christians did, they brought to the classic and modern writers a biblical zeal for interpretation and an almost religious sense of moral immediacy. I had discovered the modern writers myself in my freshman year, not in courses but because a dorm-mate insinuated Conrad and Joyce on me. Savoring Conrad's short novels and Joyce's Dubliners and Portrait of the Artist, I felt I had never encountered sentences sculpted so exquisitely around meanings so elliptical. This was 'sensitive' writing as only a late adolescent could appreciate it, as only a subtle critic could begin to unpack it. I soon saw that talking about books and ideas might be a calling as well as a pastime, and the New York writers seemed like engaging models of how that vocation could be pursued. When I first read The Liberal Imagination the following year the deal was clinched, for Trilling's play of mind and his supple, sinuous prose matched the modern writers on their own ground. This finely honed dialectical writing read like urbane conversation, yet it showed me that criticism could become a branch of literature.

But The Liberal Imagination also had a strong political viewpoint, personal to Trilling yet representative of all the New York intellectuals. This could be described as a warning of the effects of strong political commitment on culture, the very issue on which the New York writers had broken with the Communists in the mid-30s. The liberal imagination, in Trilling's view, was no imagination, and no competitor to the imagination. It lacked the sense of variousness, complexity, and difficulty of the best modern writers. In its reformist zeal it took little account of the intransigence and human density of the real world. Its cultural outlook was like its political program--simplified, well-meaning, utopian, and abstract. It took me some time to realize that this critique of the politics and culture of the left was really the founding vision of the early New York intellectuals. This brings me to the second part of my fable, which is about everything in their work that began to disturb me.

Trilling himself was an ironist, cool and detached in tone, but when it came to the issue of Communism, or to the literary culture of liberals and fellow travelers, there was no mistaking his passion. It appealed to me deeply that the New York intellectuals brought the same moral urgency to certain political issues that they brought to literature. I myself had been drawn to politics ever since I followed Truman campaign as a boy in 1948. Though no Red Diaper baby, I was shocked out of my boots by the death of Stalin, who seemed as enduring as the sun and moon, and I mourned the execution of the Rosenbergs as a piece of Cold War hysteria, perhaps even the beginning of a pogrom against the Jews. My parents did not yet have a TV set, but at friends' houses I followed the Army-McCarthy hearings as a great public morality play, with the junior Senator from Wisconsin as the Devil Incarnate, Cohn and Schine as the sorcerer's apprentices, and counselor Welch as the witty paragon of Wasp decency and rectitude.

It seemed self-evident that literature produced out of a political agenda, even from the best motives, could fall into crude propaganda. I could even see that most of the New York intellectuals remained men of the left who were trying to rescue it from a totalitarian abyss. But coming of age in the 1950s had made me sensitive to the devastating effects of the Cold War on American life--the narrow spectrum of opinion in the two major parties, the fear of blacklisting and reprisal for speaking out or having a political past, the timidity and conformity of most political reporting, the complacency of the mass media. My friends and I were bored to death by the public discourse of the 1950s, so we idealized the thirties as a visionary period of smoldering political passions. We had no love for Communism, but we hated what anti-Communism had done to America. A power-mad Soviet autocrat had drowned the revolution in blood; but the New York intellectuals, by making the battle against Stalinism the litmus test of their lives, and persisting long after it ceased to be a threat, had betrayed their own earlier vision of combating injustice and shaping a better world. Fighting the Communists for their subservience to Stalin, they lost sight of the goals they had once shared.

The cold war was more than just a single issue that alienated me from the New York intellectuals. For them the struggle against Communism was a core experience, but it made less sense to someone in college around 1960, when we could feel the world shifting under our feet. The cold war was beginning to break up and new issues like racial equality seemed more pressing than anti-Communism. In that year we were energized by the freedom riders seeking integration in the South, by the student protests against the HUAC hearings in the Bay area, and above all by the Kennedy campaign, which promised to end the drift and stagnation of the Eisenhower years. Most New York intellectuals had little to say about these matters, but a few like Paul Goodman, Harold Rosenberg, Norman Mailer, and the writers around Dissent felt a resurgence of their old radicalism, while others, veering to the right, saw every student demonstration as an imminent revival of Stalinism. Already in the 1950s, dissenters like Irving Howe and Mailer had attacked the new spirit of accommodation among intellectuals navigating the mainstream, including timidity in the face of McCarthyism. But now, the sixties were splintering American culture, and the New York intellectuals were parting company along lines much deeper than anything that had divided them before.

Culturally, American life was changing as well, and this brought out another issue on which the New York intellectuals had little to say to me. If there was one matter that united them as much as their hatred of Stalinism it was their hatred of mass culture. Beginning with Clement Greenberg's essay on "Avant-Garde and Kitsch" in Partisan Review in 1939 and continuing with a number of pieces by Dwight Macdonald, the New York intellectuals, influenced by the emigre Marxists of the Frankfurt school, had turned the analysis of popular culture into a cottage industry. They saw it as mechanical, stereotyped, spurious, and impersonal--in every way the opposite of art, especially the difficult and demanding modern art they loved. They described it sarcastically as 'democratic' art, a self-evident oxymoron, the cultural equivalent of the Popular Front.

But by 1959 and 1960, when Dwight Macdonald's longest pieces on mass culture appeared in PR, their arguments already seemed snobbish and irrelevant. A new movie culture and soon a new music would affect American life as drastically as the civil rights movement or the New Frontier. In the hands of a new generation of film critics, Hollywood's commercial heyday began to look like the cinema's golden age. The great European directors of the early sixties and the great new rock performers soon showed that popular culture could be as personal, as expressive, and as vigorously original as any modernist writing. Eventually even Partisan Review would publish an essay on the Beatles and Commentary would print one on Bob Dylan, but we had a sense that they were led kicking and screaming to the altar, from which they soon fled, like the young couple at the end of The Graduate.

Well, if I found the New York intellectuals so unpalatable on both politics and culture, if I found them insufficiently Jewish, obtuse to much of what happened in the 60s, and caught in the time warp of the cold war, why have I continued to identify with them, despite serious political differences, and why have I kept up a connection to Partisan Review since the first piece I published there at the age of 22? This brings me to the third part of my Hegelian triad, the synthesis or rapprochement. To put it simply, much of what has happened to American culture since the sixties has confirmed some of the original positions of the New York intellectuals, has made them, if not prophets, then critics whose work retains a surprising relevance. First the New Left, frustrated by Nixon's failure to end the Vietnam war, disintegrated into the kind of violent Marxist sects that antagonists like Irving Howe had warned against--prematurely, I think--five years earlier. Then the genius of American capitalism found innumerable ways of twisting the fresh spirit of the counterculture to commercial uses. Finally, some radical currents of the sixties, thwarted by the resistance of American society, retreated into ponderous academic theory, combining the worst features of politically correct thinking with the worst features of arcane scholarship, the very tendencies from which the New York intellectuals had once delivered us.

Certainly it was no accident that the late seventies saw the first of a slew of memoirs and historical accounts of the New York intellectuals, just when they should have been passing obscurely into history. It was not simply that they themselves, once notably private about their lives, were reaching the age of reminiscence, or that other people, who had ignored them in their prime, were suddenly gossiping about the foibles of intellectuals. In fact they attracted attention because their work seemed pertinent to the new cultural situation, and I found myself more sympathetic to it than I had been in a decade. For the neoconservatives, expanding their power and influence, the New Yorkers were vindicated solely by their long opposition to Communism, which the new right would emulate in its own campaign against the legacy of the sixties. But the rest of us, surrounded by academic orthodoxy, appalled by the jargon of a recondite, self-indulgent, and highly politicized scholarship, grew nostalgic for the old but unforgotten days of the public intellectual. The original New Yorkers had not had a wide influence in their own time, and sometimes they had written only to amuse, assault, or impress each other, but their work seemed a model of how to connect intelligence with politics, how to see a work of art in its social framework while respecting its autonomy and complexity.

I relished their intellectual style, their colloquial ease and wit in developing ideas, but this did not mean that I suddenly agreed with them on every issue. Their sharp division of highbrow, middlebrow, and lowbrow culture still made little sense except as an ideological formation of the 1950s and a reflex of modernism. But the tentacular growth of the electronic media, with Japanese hardware and Hollywood software colonizing the world, had created just the kind of mechanized, impersonal mass culture the New York intellectuals had once feared. This was also the dawning of the age of postmodernism, with its indiscriminate appetite for the whole media circus, with its mixture of fashion and vision, advertising and art, low and high culture. The New Yorkers were no help in understanding what was vital about popular culture, or what was liberating about the politics and art of the early and mid-60s, but they looked much better once their worst nightmares had come to pass.

So I conclude this story with two cheers for the New York intellectuals, not as a guide to the present but as a vibrant example of how to think and write about it. The model is misappropriated by neoconservatives, who have simply replaced one political orthodoxy with another, worshiping at the shrine of the free market, defending the status quo, flailing at the remains of the Left while gradually dissolving into the larger conservative movement. The legacy is best embodied by younger critics, journalists, and intellectuals who have seriously reexamined their own political passions from the 60s just as the New York intellectuals reassessed their role in the radical movements of the 1930s. This includes black public intellectuals rethinking the premises of black nationalism, feminists who have turned away from the excesses of feminism while affirming its original goals, academic critics who emerged on the far side of theory with a new feeling for art and a pressing need to address a general audience, and political writers who have come to understand that melioristic passions must be bolstered by democratic methods and realistic goals. If the New Yorkers bear some responsibility for a generation of entrenched neoconservatives, they also helped produce a generation of hard-headed liberals and social democrats, who, like their predecessors, have carved out their own positions from the ruins and remnants of their earlier beliefs.

For younger critics, the New Yorkers have served as antidotes to academic specialization and journalistic superficiality. I would guess that there are as many would-be New York intellectuals today as there were in the 40s and 50s, and probably more than you could find fifteen years ago, when academic orthodoxy went unchallenged and the nostalgia for the public intellectual was just beginning to be felt. Whether these younger writers will some day become the stuff of gossip and legend, and whether their work will serve as future models of public discourse, still remains to be seen.

Morris Dickstein's most recent book, Double Agent: The Critic and Society, has just been reissued in paperback by Oxford. He is Distinguished Professor of English at Queens College and director of the Center for the Humanities at the CUNY Graduate School. This piece, which appeared in the Spring 1997 issue of Dissent, was adapted from a talk at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association in August 1996.

 

 
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