THE INTELLECTUAL IN AMERICA
number of books have been written about the New York Intellectual group and yet no one can say for sure what defines a person as a New York Intellectual. In the film we have chosen to define the group loosely as those intellectuals clustered initially around the journal Partisan Review.
Most were born and grew up in the Jewish immigrant neighborhoods of New York City. Other non-Jewish members came to the city as young men and women. The documentary focuses on four of the most influential members of the second generation who came together at the City College of New York: Irving Howe, Irving Kristol, Daniel Bell and Nathan Glazer. This website features a genealogy of the group, created by Daniel Bell for his essay The Intelligentsia in America.
hat is an intellectual and what is his or her place in society? Literary critic Morris Dickstein defines an intellectual as "someone concerned with general principles, devoted to thinking things through, beyond the confines of a single field."
Daniel Bell differentiates the scholar who adds "to the accumulated, tested knowledge of the past" from the intellectual who "begins with his experience, his individual perceptions of the world, his privileges and deprivations, and judges the world by these sensibilities."
Bell perfectly captured the essence of what it meant to be a New York Intellectual more lightheartedly when a professor in graduate school asked him what he specialized in. "I specialize in generalizations!" he quickly replied.
he idea of the intellectual has come to connote more than simply a cultural generalist. The scholar lays claim to being not only a specialist, a person working in a tradition, but also an observer and critic of his or her chosen field. The intellectual prides himself or herself on just the opposite, cherishing his or her commitment, or engagement.
Cultural and intellectual historian Richard Hofstadter in his Pulitzer Prize-winning Anti-Intellectualism in American Life saw this commitment as stemming from the "belief that in some measure the world would be made responsive to [the intellectual's] capacity for rationality, his passion for justice and order: out of this conviction arise much of his value to mankind and, equally, much of his ability to do mischief."
n their efforts to make a difference the New York Intellectuals are akin to the Russian intelligentsia of the mid-nineteenth century and the French intellectuals of the late nineteenth century. Intelligentsia, originally a Russian word, referred to the generation of novelists and critics such as Chernyshevski, Turgenev, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy who were both social and political critics of their country.
The term intellectual, as we use it, originated with the French group of thinkers and writers such as Emil Zola, Anatole France and Marcel Proust who wrote vociferously in defense of their countryman Alfred Dreyfus, wrongly accused and convicted of being a German spy. Originally a term of derision it came to be accepted as denoting those thinkers involved in a "war of ideas" as Daniel Bell has written.
s the New Yorkers matured many did become distinguished scholars with chosen fields such as sociology or literary criticism, but they stubbornly remained cultural generalists and critics as well and it is here that their contribution has remained unique.
Intellectual historian Russell Jacoby writes in The Last Intellectuals, a controversial book about the fate of intellectualism in American life, that in an age of increasing academic specialization, the New Yorkers may be our last great generalist critics both in their attempt to write about all facets of culture and their desire to reach a large public. But many have since disputed his provocative theory arguing that new circles of intellectuals, among them African-Americans, feminists, and conservatives have arisen. What distinguishes these from earlier generations is the landscape in which they work. With American intellectual culture more diffuse and the country more ethnically diverse, no one group can dominate as the New York Intellectuals once seemed to. In his study of the New York Intellectuals, Critical Crossings, Neil Jumonville describes the New York Intellectuals’ field as "cultural criticism" because they sought to "synthesize and generalize cultural trends."
hile the New York Intellectuals remain a distinct phenomenon in American history they are also the legatees of a long and varied tradition of intellectualism in American life. Though different historians and critics offer various genealogies of American intellectual life, it is still possible to trace a rough outline of thought.
Puritan Jonathan Edwards, founder of Princeton University, would be considered by many among the first American intellectuals. America's intellectual founding fathers, such as Madison, Jefferson and Hamilton whose lives also encompassed dissent, were distinctly public thinkers.
uring the early-mid nineteenth century a group of critics and writers arose around The Dial magazine including crucial thinkers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman and Margaret Fuller. As reviewers, essayists and poets they addressed the social and political issues of their day, attempting to develop a distinctively American critical tradition.
Later the century produced The Genteel Tradition including writers such as Charles Eliot Norton and Richard Henry Stoddard. Primarily poets and novelists they were not as deeply involved in cultural debate as their forbears. During this period writer Henry Adams, editor of the North American Review practiced cultural criticism.
y the twentieth century intellectualism had begun to firmly plant itself in New York City and especially in Greenwich Village. During the teens the Young Intellectuals, such as Van Wyck Brooks, Walter Lippman and Edmund Wilson, rebelled against their provincial and middle class origins. They championed the cosmopolitan ethic of city life and sexual and political radicalism as well as artistic modernism against traditional mores. This literary left-wing wrote for The Masses and Liberator.
uring the 1920s a host of groups enriched American intellectual life from the lost generation intellectuals of Malcolm Cowley and Kenneth Burke to the men and women of the Harlem Renaissance like Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston and Jean Toomer to the Algonquin group of Dorothy Parker and Alexander Woolcot.
And there were the Southern Agrarians who became known as the New Critics centered around Vanderbilt University. Poets, novelists and critics such as Robert Penn Warren, John Crowe Ransom and Allan Tate, they extolled an anti-urban politically conservative ethic.
y the 1930s the Depression acted to make intellectuals a highly political group. Those such as Waldo Frank, Michael Gold and V.F. Calverton wrote for left wing magazines such as the communist The New Masses and the Marxist journal Modern Monthly.
It was during this decade that the New York Intellectuals themselves arose. Though working class Jewish immigrants they were the rich inheritors of the radical political and cultural traditions of Greenwich Village.
Cultural and social critics, they were primarily essayists as opposed to novelists or poets. They would carry on the American and Western intellectual debate within the political and social confines of their era: the rise of communism and the Cold War in the second half of the twentieth century, and the triumph of the modernist esthetic.