By now, most educated Americans know something of the New York intellectuals and their achievement. When William Phillips and Philip Rahv (born William Litvinsky and Ivan Greenbaum) revived the defunct Partisan Review (born Communist) in December 1937 as an independent Marxist periodical, they attracted a distinguished circle of contributors who turned the magazine into an exciting intellectual forum. Sidney Hook, Lionel Trilling, Diana Trilling, F.W. Dupee, Mary McCarthy, Meyer Schapiro, Harold Rosenberg, Dwight Macdonald, Clement Greenberg, Lionel Abel, and James T. Farrell were among its original featured writers. Younger by some ten to fifteen years, Saul Bellow, Isaac Rosenfeld, William Barrett, Irving Howe, Elizabeth Hardwick, Delmore Schwartz, Alfred Kazin, Leslie Fiedler, Richard Chase, and Robert Warshow broke into its pages soon after. A “third generation” included Hilton Kramer, Steven Marcus, Susan Sontag, and Norman Podhoretz, the last named of whom was later to characterize the movement as a “Family” of founding fathers and competitive offspring. Unlike the Bloomsbury social set in England that finally narrowed around Virginia Woolf, or the court that Jean-Paul Sartre gathered in Paris around Les Temps Modernes, this large, fluid American circle had no dominant personality or even, finally, one single magazine at its center, but kept expanding outward, regenerating itself time and again through newer journals like COMMENTARY (which was founded in 1945 and featured such writers as Irving Kristol, Nathan Glazer, Daniel Bell, and Paul Goodman) and, much later, in the 60’s, the New York Review of Books (whose American contributors were mainly drawn from the Partisan Review and COMMENTARY stables). It became perhaps the largest community of intellectuals in modern times.
This community of the New York intellectuals, most of whom were the children of Jewish immigrant families, changed for all time the atmosphere of American letters. Coming of age between the 1920’s and 1940’s, they still, as individuals, faced active discrimination in the formal institutions of American higher learning and in the attitudes of the intellectual elite. If, in the 1890’s, William Dean Howells had shown a rare hospitality to immigrants when he promoted the translation of Morris Rosenfeld’s Yiddish poetry into English and later encouraged the English fiction of Abraham Cahan, much more typical of American men of letters was the fear, expressed most memorably by Henry James, that Anglo-American culture would be fatally contaminated by the incursion of “foreign” elements.
Up until the 1930’s Jewish intellectual life in New York had flourished in Yiddish, in a half-dozen daily newspapers, tens of journals and miscellanies, a network of theaters and cafés. Three generations of American Yiddish writers and poets had turned New York into a world center of Jewish creativity. But the same intellectual pressure that had fueled this rise of Yiddish culture in the immigrant community also determined the children’s rapid accommodation to English. Parents who wished the best for their children encouraged their passage from home. The public schools, however insensitive some may have been to the feelings of the Yiddish-speaking child, quickly taught him English and thereby held out to him possibilities of advancement and education that he could never duplicate in his immigrant world.
It was to be expected that the young immigrant intellectuals, suspended at first between a home to which they no longer belonged and a society in which they did not yet feel themselves at home, should have expressed a sense of estrangement and alienation. Characterizing the “Family” as a whole in the period that he came to know it, Norman Podhoretz wrote in Making It (1967) that “They did not feel they belonged to America or that America belonged to them.” Consider, however, the Americanness of this emotion. One can hardly imagine Franz Kafka, Max Brod, Hugo Bergmann, or any other member of that precocious circle of Jewish intellectuals in Prague earlier in the century complaining that he did not feel he “belonged” to Czechoslovakia, or Czechoslovakia to him. The force of Podhoretz’s observation derives from the very American expectation that these intellectuals should have felt at home in their country, that some anticipated attachment was missing. And in fact by the time Making It appeared, the mutual attachment had formed. The New York intellectuals were the first “immigrant” group to be fully absorbed into American literary culture, enlarging the idea of America as it encompassed them.
Although its most famous figure is a novelist, Saul Bellow, not even his fiction, rooted as it is in ideas, challenges the dominant image of the group as a community of thinkers. Delmore Schwartz aspired most of all to be a great poet and also came to be well-known for his short stories, yet the philosopher William Barrett has reminded us that Schwartz too was trained in philosophy and “retained from his immersion in it an amazing intuition about ideas.” Thus while the phrase New York intellectuals may require some geographic qualification, since some prominent members (including Bellow) hailed from the Midwestern metropolis of Chicago, the choice of the term intellectuals is entirely accurate. These were not, primarily, academic scholars, applying disciplined method to the investigation of a given body of material; nor, though many at least at first were Marxists, were they orthodox Marxists, answerable to historically determined laws. They were a literate street gang, using whatever tactics they had at hand in defense of their shifting territory. Ideas were animate—at least as real as the people who held them, to judge from the emphasis in most of their memoirs on intellectual debate rather than on the usual kinds of personal gossip. Ideas were their sport, profession, passion. A tribute to their achievement could well be entitled The Opening of the American Mind.
It therefore comes as something of a shock to discover that a major tendency of the books that have lately appeared about the New York intellectuals is to downplay their ideas in favor of other factors. The New York intellectuals believed that their ideas could affect the course of human events. The academics who now write about them with varying degrees of detachment treat them as a curious sociological episode, or as failed revolutionaries, or at any rate as something other than the cultural and political vanguard they set out to be. To be sure, the authors of these books are scholars, and an inevitable prissiness sets in when academics go about analyzing living subjects. In the case of such brilliant subjects, there is also a predictable falling-off in intellectual quality and style. But I am referring to something more insidious—a revisionism that exploits the opportunity afforded by scholarship to reduce its subject, to render it harmless, or to falsify its nature.
At first sight, Thomas Bender’s New York Intellect1 does not appear to suffer from any such agenda. A finely written and well-researched history of intellectual life in New York City from 1750 to the beginnings of our own time, it shows how the intellectual concerns and ambitions of small groups of New Yorkers shaped the city’s institutions and were modified by its constant growth. Bender describes himself as an engaged New Yorker, and his ideal of an urban intellectual is one whose commitment to excellence in both principle and practice similarly enlarges the metropolitan culture of which he is a part.
As it approaches our own time, however, the book loses its balance almost to the point of eccentricity. In his eagerness to provide a corrective to what he considers (perhaps with some justification) an exaggerated emphasis on the New York intellectuals as the center of the city’s cultural life, Bender suggests that the best of their ideas were already anticipated by other American critics, that their politics and poetics were only an elaboration of continental models, and that their attentiveness to the “word” rather than to the eye and the ear severely handicapped their own creative development and the ascendancy of New York as an international metropolis. Whatever claim New York has had since the 1930’s to be a world cultural capital rests, according to Bender, not on its literary culture but on its achievement in the fine and performing arts, and in particular on the work of the New York City Ballet, “the best ballet company in the world.”
Yet this critique of the Partisan Review circle as “a consumer of European political ideology” and a “provincial importer of European modernism” is not only off the mark historically, it also misses the New York intellectuals’ peculiar qualities of engagement, qualities of the kind Bender professes to admire in others. In arguing the fine points of Marxism, the New York intellectuals, most of whom had fed on ideological argument along with their mother’s milk, were hardly acting as consumers of alien goods. In general, from the 1880’s onward, socialist and Marxist ideas could no more have been kept out of America than out of Russia, a country to which they were at least equally alien. By establishing and continuing to control the intellectual terms of the debate over Marxism in America, the New York circle made its most enduring contribution to the nation and the world, a contribution more controversial but at least as influential as that of the New York City Ballet.
Something similar can be said, moreover, about the relation of the New York intellectuals to cultural modernism—and indeed, even in Bender’s own terms, the contribution to art appreciation and criticism of Meyer Schapiro, Clement Greenberg, Harold Rosenberg, Lionel Abel, William Barrett, and Hilton Kramer should have won them at least honorable mention in his recounting.
One neuters a cat when one no longer wishes it to mate or to scrap. Progidal Sons,2 Alexander Bloom’s thick study of the New York intellectuals and their world, is in no small way dedicated to that end. It is not merely that Bloom concludes his book with the observation that “the New York intellectuals have gone—passed on to new attachments or passed away all together [sic],” but that throughout he describes their ideas and the conflicts in which they engaged in such a manner as to rob them of their authenticity.
The pedestrian quality of Bloom’s thinking and his poor ability to express it may have something to do with the deadening results of his effort. Admittedly Prodigal Sons undertakes a difficult task—the coherent analysis of a group characterized by one of its sharpest wits as a “herd of independent minds.” Yet Bloom’s introduction of this phrase also shows how little he is up to handling the writer who formulated it and those it was meant to describe:
Harold Rosenberg once labeled his fellow intellectuals as a “herd of independent minds.” He went on to describe his personal distinctions from the “herd.” The others could have equally well set themselves apart from the rest. All of them, however, including Rosenberg, belonged for a long time. They resisted inclusion because they worked so hard to make themselves something and, in so doing, often lost sight of the common ties. And they were not always friendly in person or courteous in print with one another. Still, they all ran with the herd.
Thus does a man set out to carve a diamond with hammer and chisel.
Drawing heavily from the memoirs of group members, Bloom offers a composite picture of their childhoods in Brooklyn and the Bronx, their initiation into radical politics, the social dynamic that brought them together. He summarizes the evolution of their political ideas from revolutionary Marxism to liberal anti-Communism. His narrative, which extends into the mid-1970’s, also traces divisions within the group, from Dwight Macdonald’s break with Partisan Review (he opposed America’s entry into World War II) to the widening gulf today between unreconstructed socialists and neoconservatives. In all this the book provides a kind of standard Left version of the complete story, in which the author affects not to show a preference, at least overtly, for some over others. The glaring exception is Bloom’s treatment of Sidney Hook, who emerges (and not from this book alone) as a favorite antagonist.
The turning point in Prodigal Sons occurs with the 1952 Partisan Review symposium, “Our Country and Our Culture,” which confirmed a somewhat changed attitude to America and its institutions on the part of many of the New York intellectuals. Through a process of intellectual ferment that had begun with the Moscow Trials of 1936 and continued through the postwar years, most of the contributors to this symposium, with varying degrees of regret or guilt for the positions they had once espoused, acknowledged that the ongoing Communist threat to their society required of them a new kind of engagement in the life of ideas. Bloom qualifies the nature of that engagement as follows:
They wanted to function as intellectuals and still contribute in a regular and intimate way to the workings of the society. They wanted to be not commissars but consultants, not the spearhead of a vanguard party leading the society toward a new utopia but a ready resource to which contemporary society turned for periodic guidance. No longer enrolling in the causes of others, they created their own movement. Although this movement aimed to improve the society in which they lived, it would also substantially improve the standing of the intellectuals who signed on.
The last sentence is characteristic of Bloom’s approach in the ensuing 200 pages. He implies (because innuendo does not have to be substantiated) that after World War II the real commitment of the New York intellectuals was to their own advancement. The fight in the 1950’s against Communist influence in American society, the recoil from the anti-intellectualism of the Beats, the resistance (at least by some) to the anarchism of the 1960’s—this was all part of the group’s consolidation of power. Their ideas were merely the convenient means to an end.
Bloom’s reductionism has a second, more serious, feature. By taking the history out of intellectual history, he makes it appear that the men and women in his story were not independent thinkers but just exaggeratedly opinionated people who were stuck with their ideas the way a salesman is stuck with a line of merchandise. In his text there is no Soviet conquest of Eastern Europe in the wake of World War II, no revelations of a successful Soviet espionage network in North America, no invasion of South Korea by the Communist North, no Berlin Wall—though there are occasional allusions to such events by his subjects. The only reality the author credits is the “hysteria of postwar anti-Communism.” When it comes to evidence of Communist influence in America, Bloom simply feigns agnosticism by citing the ongoing argument between the “staunch defenders” of the Rosenbergs and Alger Hiss and those who have “consistently thought them guilty.”
In this way Bloom’s study really becomes the vendetta of a leftist academic against a generation some of whose members came to take democratic politics so seriously that they would even consider the merits of going to war to preserve the country’s freedoms, or of going to court to preserve academic integrity. It is in this latter connection especially that Bloom tries to score against Sidney Hook.
Describing Hook’s reaction to the disruptive tactics of the New Left on campuses in the late 1960’s, Bloom mocks this defender of an open university—” ‘What is of first importance is to preserve, of course, the absolute intellectual integrity of our classrooms’”—with the reminder that fifteen years earlier Hook had been willing “to drive individuals out of academe. . . .” He is referring to an old argument between Hook and those (like Henry Steele Commager) who had maintained in the 1950’s that a Communist should not be fired from the university because of his political beliefs. Hook, taking the contrary view, had asked whether to deny a fervent apostle of euthanasia the directorship of a home for the aged and infirm was necessarily to deny him his rights. Bloom either pretends not to see or, worse, really does not see that in each case Hook was upholding precisely the same position.
But then Bloom, too, remains consistent in his fashion. Just as he does not know whether there was ever a Communist threat in the 1950’s, so too “there is considerable debate as to whether the student movement limited or expanded openness on America’s campuses” in the 1960’s.
Yet as a Yiddish expression has it, there is nothing so bad that it cannot get worse. The patina of scholarly civility that Bloom somehow manages to maintain is altogether absent from Alan Wald’s The New York Intellectuals: The Rise and Decline of the Anti-Stalinist Left From the 1930’s to the 1980’s.3 Indeed, what one concludes from this book is that the battle Sidney Hook waged in the 1950’s against the entry of Communists into the classroom has been decisively lost. For Wald, a professor of English literature and American culture at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, is also a bona-fide Trotskyist, and one of his stated purposes in this work of supposedly disinterested scholarship is to “help allay the process of deradicalization that eventually overtakes almost all whose lives are based in institutions of teaching, scholarship, and publishing during conservative periods.”
In other words, the real subject of this book is not the New York intellectuals at all but the Communism of Leon Trotsky as a still-viable political system. The New York intellectuals are useful to this end insofar as some of them were admirers of Trotsky in the 1930’s, and therefore a carefully pointed COMMENTARY on their activities and their ideas might serve to revive Trotsky’s reputation. Unfortunately, this approach has its pitfalls: first, all the former radicals repudiated their Communism, and second, the group was originally united by many other complicating intellectual strands apart from Trotskyism.
Wald handles the second of these problems simply by asserting the centrality of Trotskyite influence: “Despite their small size, such groups [as the Trotskyites] were often the aquifer of currents of political thought among the intellectuals. . . .” As for the first problem, Wald turns it to his advantage by turning it inside-out: the fact that some New York intellectuals became disenchanted with Trotskyism or were never Trotskyites in the first place reflects not on Trotskyism but on them, and particularly on their instinct for treachery and falsification.
Still, before they betrayed the faith, these intellectuals did try to distinguish usefully between Trotsky’s “good” and Stalin’s “bad” Communism, to marshal evidence in Trotsky’s defense, and to develop powerful arguments against the capitalism of the West. Wald treats most tenderly those former radicals like the art historian Meyer Schapiro who “continued his allegiance to revolutionary Marxism throughout the 1940’s and into the early 1950’s, when he quietly shifted to left-wing social democracy.” Much harsher treatment is accorded once-powerful Marxists like Max Eastman (not a member of the Partisan Review circle) whose anti-Communism “soon mushroomed into virtual paranoia” and (again) Sidney Hook, whose defense of U.S. policy in World War II is represented as a “repudiation of the very values by which he had lived his own life since World War I.” As the genuine Marxists grow rarer and rarer among the New York intellectuals, Wald tries to salvage what residual Trotskyite sympathies he can from socialists like Irving Howe and the “cul-de-sac of social democracy.” Finally, abandoning all semblance of scholarship, he rants against “The Great Retreat” of leading neoconservative intellectuals “who had long sought ideological acceptance by government.”
Despite the great mass of evidence that Wald accumulates in his prosecution of the former radicals, this book ultimately shows itself as lacking in any kind of integrity. For today’s reader it is still a bracing experience to go back to some of the old issues of the New Leader, Partisan Review, and the Contemporary Jewish Record (the precursor of COMMENTARY), because the quality of intellectual engagement often remains impressive even when the ideas themselves are weak or false. The best fights in politics as in sport are between equals, when antagonists respect one another’s work enough to read it. Wald demonstrates no such struggle with his ideological enemies among the neoconservatives, trusting instead that a few accusations of currying favor with Washington, or of alignment with the haves against the have-nots, are enough to clinch and hold the moral high ground. But this sort of thing may be all that is needed these days to win tenure.
Contrasting sharply with Alan Wald’s yearning for the Old Left is Mark Shechner’s defense of the artist’s inner life in After the Revolution: Studies in the Contemporary Jewish-American Imagination.4 All the more remarkable, then, that academic contemporaries of such different temperament and orientation should arrive at such similar conclusions.
Shechner proposes that the creative period of the New York intellectuals was not the earlier stage of their radicalism (à la Wald), but the period of “crisis and conversion” that followed in the 1940’s and 1950’s. The turning point in the lives of these moderns who had grown up in the revolutionary movements was not toward a political faith but away from one. But how does a creative person, reared on alienation, adjust to the change?
How did you go on smashing idols after you’d put down the Marxist club? It was in the effort to solve that dilemma that a remarkable history of conversions took place, conversions that shaped the careers of a generation of writers and left a profound mark on our literature and our thought.
In Shechner’s telling, the conversions were to a “politics of self-renewal,” first through an immersion in the psychoanalytic theories of Sigmund Freud and Wilhelm Reich, then through an attempt to realize the “self” so revealed. In particular, Reich’s “sex-pol doctrine,” according to which the gratification of frequent orgasm releases not only individual energy but the democratic and libertarian spirit in general, Shechner considers to have been a major force in the liberation of a creative “Jewish” potential. Unfortunately he does not set out to test this notion by seeing whether or not it applies to American Jewish writers, or by examining whether their Jewishness had anything to do with the alleged process; instead, he selects those—Lionel Trilling, Isaac Rosenfeld, Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, Allen Ginsberg, and Philip Roth—who will take the argument where he wants it to go.
As for the transition itself from Marx to Freud, Shechner, unlike presumably Wald, seems to regard it as at least in part a defensible thing: if it can be charged against some writers that “their regrouping of energies around the embattled self signaled a retreat from political struggle in favor of purely private gestures of revolt, it needs also to be added that it expressed the seriousness of their inquiries into the terms of human politics and the eradication of social evils by purely social measures.” But this is as far as Shechner is prepared to go. Political certainties having crumbled, the new intellectual hero was one who struggled with self-doubt—yet only if the struggle led straight back to a politics of liberation, now to be achieved not through class warfare but through inner release. Thus Shechner distinguishes between the Lionel Trilling who made keen use as a literary critic of psychoanalytic theory to unmask the facile optimism of the “liberal imagination” and the Trilling whose misguided emphasis on maturity and judiciousness resulted in a politics of containment and a conservative impulse toward culture.
For Shechner, the climax of the movement of the intellectual psyche toward self-liberation and liberated politics is Norman Mailer’s 1957 essay, “The White Negro,” a prooftext of the unmediated id:
[W]ith his hair-trigger sexuality and ready violence he had something about him of the alienated intellectual returned from the tents of exile as a warrior. Sired by Hegel out of the streets of New York, he was as much the anti-worker as he was the anti-bourgeois, the anti-Jew, anti-intellectual, and anti-liberal. He was the new Adam, the wrath and scourge of the libido come to cleanse the earth of the accumulated grime of repression, his body his only scripture, his penis his only sword.
Although the literary allusiveness of this manic passage hints at some ironic detachment from its subject, Shechner leaves no doubt of his own identification with Mailer’s advertised agon. And indeed, as if to dramatize his theme of self-liberation, Shechner himself finally breaks through the scholarly mask and leaps naked into the text as a true child of the 60’s, standing as if it were today at the Berkeley demonstration against the Vietnam war on November 20, 1965:
Among the recollections I continue to treasure of those times this one stands out: that of Allen Ginsberg as the impresario of that moment when 100,000 people marched through the Bay Area guided by his spirit of play and his rules of peaceable conduct. At that moment, no one else in the Bay Area, maybe not in America, politician or priest, commanded the moral authority of this balding, bearded, libertine, homosexual, Jewish poet.
To be sure, Shechner does draw certain limits. He regrets Mailer’s sponsorship of the murderer, Jack Henry Abbott, and in the end his revulsion at the sado-masochistic politics that Ginsberg endorsed leads him to reject the Reichian doctrine from which he believes it emerged. But not for a moment is he prepared to investigate the connection between the unfettered id and the violence it breeds, or between the “spirit of play” of the 60’s and the evil to which it contributed.
The final chapter on Philip Roth predictably rehearses, as Roth himself has done so often, the abuse to which he has been subject at the hands of Jewish parents and critics; thus does Shechner keep alive the romance of the artist as archetypal sufferer and victim of the bourgeoisie, and thus, in his identification of a common enemy, does he implicitly draw a link between his own brand of cultural politics and the more obvious kinds of leftism preached by the likes of Alexander Bloom and Alan Wald.
The most recent book on our subject is cast in the form of a dirge. In The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe,5 Russell Jacoby proposes that the absence of any prominent younger intellectuals to challenge and usurp the place of their elders is proof of the disappearance of the intellectual as a viable type. Following his subtitle, Jacoby argues that the New Left, whose members he regards as the obvious heirs apparent of the American intellectual tradition, succumbed to the professionalism of university life and no longer address themselves effectively to public issues. In a sharp falling off from the bohemian élan and accessible style of their forebears, qualities that were themselves the outgrowth of a rich urban life that is no longer available, the new Marxist intellectuals “have campus offices and assigned parking spaces” and write only for one another.
Of the giants of the past, Jacoby is by no means impressed with the New York intellectuals, or rather with the Jews among them, who may have only “visited radicalism while more non-Jewish intellectuals stayed the winter.” Matching Lionel Trilling against Dwight Macdonald, Daniel Bell against C. Wright Mills, and Norman Podhoretz against Michael Harrington, he finds that the Jew’s estrangement from Christian civilization, far from encouraging a hardy radicalism, made him overidentify with the dominant culture, overeager to win its blessing. Of this supposed sellout he asks, “Did the radicalism steeped in anxiety slide into conservatism, while the Texan, Puritan, or Scottish identities of [C. Wright] Mills or [Edmund] Wilson or [Gore] Vidal or [John Kenneth] Galbraith gave rise to a bony radicalism more resistant to economic and social blandishments?” For Jacoby, as for Wald and Bloom, an intellectual who reconsiders his position in anything but a leftward direction is by definition acting out his meaner ambitions or, in this case, his fatter anxieties.
The failures (as he sees them) of Trilling, Bell, Podhoretz, and especially and yet again Sidney Hook, Jacoby attributes to them alone (and their Jewishness); the failures of his still-Marxist colleagues, who after twenty years in the universities have yet to make a worthy intellectual showing, he attributes to “academe,” which, by providing secure employment, has deprived the would-be intellectual of his independence and turned him into a professional, Jacoby’s term for a scholar. “The world is slithering toward nuclear disaster, global pollution, and starvation, but one Marxist critic writing on another brightly trades in Marxist academic futures.” But as with the neoconservatives, so with the Marxists, at no point in his lament does Jacoby address the content of their thought. Apparently it has not occurred to him that the incomprehensibility and internalism of contemporary Marxist writing may derive not from any unwillingness to go out into the public marketplace, but from having nothing to sell. His own self-indulgent book, which undertakes to chart the course of an intellectual community without subjecting to scrutiny a single one of the ideas over which it is divided, is itself an illustration of the failure he set out to describe but still does not understand. For he too is an academic, and the academy is a place where ideas can be taught without being tested.
After all this, one is left wondering: why, if they are not interested in the ideas of the New York intellectuals, and they seem no less eager to attack than to defend them, are today’s authors attracted to them in the first place?
The answer is to be sought, I think, in the central notion of the intellectual that was championed by the Partisan Review writers in the late 1930’s and that still beckons to the generation of scholars that came of age in the 1960’s. As formulated by the editors of the magazine in their opening statement, it was a notion of “unequivocal independence.” And here, rather than in any of the false or side issues discussed by their academic chroniclers and critics, lies the true problem raised by the New York intellectuals.
Independence from what? In the context of the time, independence from the Communist party, to which the magazine had originally been attached, and also from Stalinist dogmas that exerted an authority beyond the political organization Stalin had set in place. While continuing to acknowledge the importance of Marxism as a political standard, and as one of the two criteria—the other was modernism—informing its opposition to bourgeois society, Partisan Review was henceforth to place its editorial accent “chiefly on culture and its broader social determinants.”
The original editorial statement, reprinted last year without apology at the front of Partisan Review’s 50th anniversary issue, presented an embattled group of dissenters ranged against the totalitarian trend in the Communist movement that could “no longer be combatted from within.” The justification for their rhetoric of heroic resistance derived from the simple fact that by the 1930’s the Soviet Union had already established a worldwide apparatus to ensure an eventual global domination. But note: it was not to any political reality (such as a state) that the group mounted its active opposition, but rather to an ideology that had limited their freedom of expression and creativity. In real terms, their polity, the state in which they lived, allowed them to put out any magazine they liked, and even placed no restrictions on the development of modernism (except in the area of obscenity).
Thus, though it undoubtedly required courage to make a public disavowal of Stalinism in the intellectual climate of the time, the liberty the Partisan Review writers championed was a liberty they already enjoyed. To twist the famous phrase of Lionel Trilling, they stood at a bloodless crossroads of literature and politics, declaring their independence not only from a system to which they were not subject, but also and at the same time their disaffection from its political alternative, the system that granted them freedom.
Although Partisan Review’s declaration of independence did not mention Jews, for those of the New York intellectuals who were themselves Jewish (and they were the majority by far) it justified the same kind of disengagement from the idea (and, later, the reality) of a Jewish polity, and on the same “heroic” grounds. This might seem peculiar. As Jews, most of the New York intellectuals had been the targets of active discrimination, limiting their access to the best American universities and their prospects of employment. As Jews, too, they inherited the history of persecution that had brought their parents to America. The dramatic rise of anti-Semitism between the world wars should have sharpened their sense of injury and danger. To be a Jew was to be on the side of the persecuted.
But even less than opposition to Stalinism required (as it seemed to them) enlistment in the cause of democracy did opposition to anti-Semitism appear to require enlistment in the cause of the Jews. And as in the former case, so too in the latter, Marxism provided the most obvious grounds for keeping one’s distance. Marxists in pursuit of a classless international order expected the Jews to lead the process of national self-dissolution because they lacked a country of their own. Unlike, say, the Italians, whose socialism was an expression of their patriotism, the Jews, having delayed their risorgimento from the 19th to the 20th century, were to eliminate the phase of national consolidation by dissolving their national identity. The end-product of this divestiture was to be the “non-Jewish Jew,” the perfectly deracinated, perfectly cosmopolitan creature.
As for non-Marxist forms of cosmopolitanism (of the kind championed, for instance, by Thomas Bender’s hero Randolph Bourne), these also restricted the engagement by Jews in Jewish matters. Cosmopolitan Jews might sponsor magazines for the preservation of Jewish writing, or scholarship for a deeper understanding of Jewish history and culture, but not committees to save imperiled Jewish communities overseas.
In short, Zionism and other forms of Jewish political mobilization were opposed by both the hard and the soft American Left, even when they did not require an outright rejection of Jewish particularism altogether. Nathan Glazer has recently observed that among those Jews who were involved in the creation and sustaining of Partisan Review, Marxist affiliation did not seem to demand the sort of denial of their Jewishness that was common in Europe. Because social or political acceptance in America did not depend on conversion to Christianity, American Jewish intellectuals did not feel compelled to renounce their Jewishness—or, what may be more to the point, to affirm it strongly. Some of them even thought they were universalizing the best of Judaism by freeing its ethical kernel from the husk of the Law, much as the early Christians had sought to do—though this was not an analogy they applied to themselves. But whatever the motive and circumstance, the fact remains that even today, when, as Glazer notes, everywhere except in the universities “Marxism and all its variants are in ruins, if one views them in serious intellectual terms,” questions of Zionism and Judaism still seem out of place in the pages of Partisan Review.
Admissible, then, as an item of ethnic identification, Jewishness was forbidden any further claims. Orthodox Marxism denied the existence of a separate Jewish question; but resistance to orthodox Marxism did not imply political or communal allegiances of another order. Applying the model of heroic defiance to all forms of commitment, even to democratic and fraternal obligations that had been conceived as guarantors of freedom, the independent radicals held themselves aloof from political accountability. To this day some Jewish intellectuals cannot distinguish between the totalitarian conformism that was demanded by the Comintern and the voluntary submission to communal priorities of a functioning Jew.
If Anti-Communism was one axis of independence from both totalitarian dictates and democratic or fraternal responsibilities, modernism was the other. Modernism was the arena in which the anti-social instincts, the philosophic pessimism, the disintegrating forces that bourgeois democracy feared and tried to stave off could be admitted and given play. A serious student of modern art and culture had to be prepared to follow this vision wherever it might lead, and it certainly led beyond the bounds of his Jewish home. However distant he might otherwise feel from T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound and the other apostles of modernism, the American Jewish intellectual shared their contempt for the bourgeoisie, and for his own brand of it, the parochial Jewish community.
One such characteristic judgment can be found in the contribution by Lionel Trilling to the “Under Forty” symposium on “American Literature and the Younger Generation of American Jews” that appeared in the Contemporary Jewish Record in 1944. In response to a series of questions on the Jewish writer’s attitudes to his Jewishness, Trilling remarked that he could not discover anything in his professional intellectual life which could be specifically traced back to his Jewish birth and rearing—and that the Jewish community could give no sustenance to the American artist or intellectual who was born a Jew. These sentiments gained persuasiveness from the fact that their author described himself as a knowledgeable Jew, raised in an Orthodox home, familiar with “Jewish cultural movements,” and qualified to speak as an insider. Moreover, he declared it a point of honor not to deny or escape being Jewish, and he also acknowledged that in declaring this he was not saying very much: “Surely it is at once clear how minimal such a position is—how much it hangs upon only a resistance (and even only a passive one) to the stupidity and brutality which make the Jewish situation so bad as it is.”
Yet far from tendering this minimalist position apologetically, Trilling made it the springboard of an attack on what he took to be its opposite, the contrived literature of Jewish self-realization of which Ludwig Lewisohn was then the best-known exponent. Lewisohn, whose Jewishness (unlike Trilling’s) had remained an impediment to employment in a university, and who in the 1930’s became an outspoken Zionist and critic of assimilation, had written a novel suggesting that intermarriage was a sick response to the Jewish situation, and that a healthier alternative lay in Jewish self-acceptance. Trilling must have known that Lewisohn was but a mediocre writer even before he turned to Jewish themes, yet he used this poor book as the occasion for a wider offensive against affirmative Jewishness:
This was a literature which attacked the sin of “escaping” the Jewish heritage; its effect, it seems to me, was to make easier the sin of “adjustment” on a wholly neurotic basis. It fostered a willingness to accept exclusion and even to intensify it, a willingness to be provincial and parochial. It is in part accountable for the fact that the Jewish social group on its middle and wealthy levels—that is, where there is enough leisure to allow a conscious consideration of social and spiritual problems—is now one of the most self-indulgent and self-admiring groups it is possible to imagine.
One hears the echo of Karl Marx himself in Trilling’s identification of the Jew with the smug bourgeois—and perhaps one hears too the strains of Trilling’s analyst, for whom an “adjustment” to Judaism may have seemed more neurotic than separation from it.
Trilling’S was in any case only the most literate of a number of similar contributions to this symposium. Alfred Kazin, impatient with the dreary middle-class chauvinism he encountered in Zionist clubs, wrote: “I never found chauvinism any more attractive in Jews than in anyone else . . . or lack of imagination and sympathy, or foolish pride that Uzbeks have in those who are only Uzbeks.” Clement Greenberg spoke of the suffocating middle-class behavior of American Jews: “No people on earth are more correct, more staid, more provincial, more commonplace, more inexperienced. . . .” Delmore Schwartz and Isaac Rosenfeld did not dwell so heavily on the defects of the smug Jewish middle class but instead described their own alienation from it in terms that echoed the sentiments of many an American writer decrying native provincialism and the leveling influence of mass culture.
So great was the distance these Jews felt between themselves and their community that they voiced no sense of special responsibility toward the fate of their fellow Jews in Hitler’s Europe. In 1944—1944!—they expressed their sorrow at the massacre then going on, and nothing more. (Commenting on American Jewish writers a year later, the Yiddish critic Shmuel Niger bitterly observed, “We suffer not only from Jews who are too coarse, but also from Jews who are too sensitive.”)
Was there some other American model of Jewish self-realization Trilling could have found, aside from the writings of Ludwig Lewisohn with their supposed “willingness to be provincial and parochial”? The answer is yes. He could have troubled to inspect, for example, a magazine like the Jewish Frontier, sponsored by the League for Labor Palestine, whose writers balanced Trilling’s own brand of opposition to the “middle class” with a sense of Jewish urgency. “Parochial” may describe the concentration of these writers on the Jewish crisis, but not what such concentration demanded of them. Monitoring the news from London and Berlin, Warsaw and Moscow, Jerusalem and Washington, Jewish Frontier was the first American publication to report on the systematic murder of the Jews. The effort to rescue refugees and to establish a Jewish state in Palestine required of these Labor Zionists, and also of many middle-class Jews organized in B’nai B’rith and Hadassah, a fine attentiveness to complex geopolitical realities. In fact, an attachment to the Jewish fate, as those intellectuals knew who assumed it, was not overly limiting, but on the contrary much too taxing, too extending. The century’s history, after all, was being written on Jewish flesh.
As a young man, Lionel Trilling had written in his notebook, “Being a Jew is like walking in the wind or swimming: you are touched at all points and conscious everywhere.” Such a Jew could easily be engulfed once the wind and water began to rise. Rather than exposing themselves to the storm, the New York intellectuals (including Trilling himself) spent the 1940’s as a Jewish arrière-garde, sheltered by the conviction that they were serving a higher purpose. Only decades later did some of them suddenly discover the Jewish state, which had meanwhile transformed world politics and culture.
“Unequivocal Independence” turns out to have been an ideal of unencumbered boyhood. The Jewish intellectuals prided themselves on being good sons—they did not deny their Jewish origins—and in their writings they accorded the world of their childhood at least as much warmth as it had offered them; but no reciprocal sustenance. One should keep in mind, in fairness, that their ambivalence toward Judaism was probably also inherited from parents who were prepared to wear out the old-country traditions until they became quite threadbare, while consecrating their children to something “better.” Discouraged in different ways by both their parents and the country that had not yet learned to trust them, they made a virtue of the filial role. It is just this mixture of forced and voluntary alienation that appeals to today’s new generation of university academics, eager for reasons of their own to keep alive the heroic image of the non-Jewish Jew and the anti-American American.
Sooner or later, however, youthful independence is expected to give way to maturity, sons are expected to become fathers in their turn. For the Jewish intellectuals this proved to be a very slow process.
In the sphere of culture and the arts, maturity came sooner than in the sphere of politics. The Jewish intellectuals joked about their use of the first-person plural pronoun when writing about America. But the query, our forests, Alfred?, intended to mock Kazin’s presumption of proprietorship in his interpretation of American literature in On Native Grounds, had a serious side to it as well. They all had to perform an audacious act of appropriation, to take a kind of responsibility for American culture, and to do so without necessarily relinquishing their identity as Jews. In scholarship, possession of American and English culture could be acquired through knowledge and authority. But in the creation of works of imaginative literature, a deeper self-disclosure was required, for without the release of the Jew in himself, a writer simply could not free his own voice.
Once again, Lionel Trilling’s contribution to the “Under Forty” symposium is an instructive historical source. “I know of writers who have used their Jewish experiences as the subject of excellent work,” he wrote, but “I know of no writer in English who has added a micromillimeter to his stature by ‘realizing his Jewishness,’ although I know of some who have curtailed their promise by trying to heighten their Jewish consciousness.”
Forcing the imagination is indisputably hard on literature, and few programmatic novels of any sort ever transcend the scaffolding of their intentions. But it was characteristic of Trilling, and of the 1940’s, that he should have seen only this side of the problem, while the fiction he himself wrote betrayed the opposite weakness: if no writer could add to his stature by artificially “realizing his Jewishness,” a writer could certainly diminish his stature by deliberately refusing to realize it.
Trilling’s only novel, The Middle of the Journey, is a nearly-great work of fiction. There is no better introduction to the moral and political crisis that overtook young progressive idealists in the late 1930’s than this resonant story of John Laskell, a young man who recuperates from the sudden death of his fiancée and his own near-fatal illness by convalescing at the rural home of friends. These friends, the Crooms, are ineducable fellow-travelers, unable to face human limitations whether these take the form of simple mortality or the fact of human wickedness. They cannot bear to hear about Laskell’s brush with death; they mistake their unprincipled, selfish handyman for a noble savage; they deny the testimony of Gifford Maxim, a character modeled on the real-life figure of Whittaker Chambers, who is trying to quit his career as a Communist agent without being killed. In the course of the narrative Trilling brilliantly exposes the intellectual, moral, and political failures of liberals like the Crooms who destroy the good they claim to uphold.
But there is something dead in Trilling’s rendering of his protagonist John Laskell that keeps the book this side of greatness. Laskell, identified by almost all critics with the author’s perspective, has no past, and none of the social substantiality that Trilling as a critic so appreciated in other writers. Yet it seems clear not only from Trilling’s biography but from the context of the book and the problem it addresses that Laskell should have been a Jew—“touched at all points and conscious everywhere.” Whatever Trilling’s artistic reasons for making Laskell a man without a culture, he did thereby “curtail the promise” of his book.
Indeed, something similar could be said of the early fiction of Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud. But both Bellow and Malamud later overcame this problem. The artistic distance between Bellow’s Dangling Man and his Herzog, and between Malamud’s The Natural and his The Magic Barrel, suggests in these cases too that “Jewish consciousness” had to be fully liberated from cosmopolitan parochialism (if that term be allowed) before the American Jewish writer could produce an American classic.
Trilling might more accurately have observed that the literary imagination could not be forced in either direction, and that Jewish writers would seize the cultural initiative only when Jews themselves began to feel at home in America: literature may be autonomous in setting its own goals, but it can never be independent of its social and cultural sources. And there is an irony here, for the very embourgeoisement that the young (as opposed to the older) Trilling and his fellows professed to find so repugnant was what made it possible for them to detach themselves without strain from the world of their parents and to join without guilt the literary chorus of anti-Babbittry and anti-Main Street. Their accelerating distaste for the Jewish community from which they had emerged was only the other side of that same process of acculturation, and every bit as parochial as the ethnocentricity they were attacking. As the Jewish bourgeoisie tried to keep up with the Joneses, so they were trying to keep up with the (T.S.) Eliots, and both began to succeed at exactly the same time.
In the political sphere, the assumption of mature responsibility was a more complicated undertaking, requiring as it did not only the cultivation of a voice of one’s own, but a felt concern for the larger political good. And here, too, “parochial” self-realization was required, first, because no one can be trusted to benefit mankind who is not prepared to protect his small part of it, and, second, because American democracy encouraged the practice of enlightened self-interest as a legitimate ground of public service. On this score, it must be said that perhaps the majority of the New York intellectuals have never completed the transformation from sons into fathers. The story of those who did may one day be counted the truly remarkable achievement of the New York intellectuals as a whole.
The ones I am speaking of did not relinquish the Marxist club in order to go on smashing idols, as Mark Shechner puts it in his revealing image, but in order to smash the Marxist club itself, and with it the idol of the intellectual as righteous avenger or haloed outcast. I do not have in mind Philip Rahv, who in the late 60’s came to believe that the old radicalism could live again in the New Left, or Rahv’s firm opponents in that belief, whose own brand of nostalgic socialism has nevertheless allowed them to maintain to this day their posture of marginality. Rather I refer to those who have come to be called neoconservatives, and are called that name for the simple reason that they offer no apology for their defense of their country’s freedoms and laws, or for their desire to conserve family, religion, and a predominantly market economy.
Irving Kristol says that the neoconservatives’ approach to the world is more “rabbinic” than “prophetic,” a distinction that explains a good deal about the antagonism they arouse. Any number of modern Jewish intellectuals had found it possible to identify with the biblical Prophets as fellow outsiders, individualists, poets, voices of conscience, and above all, scourges of the rotten rich. But Jewish civilization has survived through the ages thanks to the rabbis, who had, among their other distinctions, weeded out the few reliable Prophets from the many more false ones against whom they maintained a constant vigilance. Intellectuals themselves in their devotion to texts and ideas, the rabbis were also teachers, guides, indispensable links in a chain between past and future, servants of the community. In taking for his intellectual model the rabbi rather than the prophet, Kristol challenges the reign of the radical and the iconoclast, if not the entire “adversary culture” (Trilling’s phrase) that has dominated modern intellectual life.
Though opponents of neoconservatism accuse it of hard-heartedness, or selfish conceit, it seems rather to have been born of political penance. The discipline of much neoconservative thought is rooted in self-examination on the part of those who lived long enough to see the consequences of their youthful enthusiasms. The “two cheers” for capitalism offered by Kristol and other former radicals seems to correspond to two major failures of their erstwhile Marxism.
For one thing, as Sidney Hook writes in his recent autobiography, Out of Step, “We were so convinced that capitalism was doomed that we ignored its resources of recovery”; once the rhetoric was stripped away, capitalism showed itself better equipped than socialism to provide for the greatest economic good of the greatest number, because it responded more vigorously to the actual requirements of people, and because the resultant economic growth strengthened democratic institutions.
For another thing, the intellectuals had conveniently disregarded the will-to-power concealed in socialist prescription, as it is concealed in all systems that do not openly accredit competition. Socialist intellectuals do not often admit that one of their great incentives for supporting state control of the source of supply and the regulation of the market is the power that accrues to them when businessmen are bridled. If we were to look for mean motives, of the kind intellectuals are quick to find in others, we would put them under suspicion for their insistence that the realm of ideas alone remain beyond the control of government, while other forms of ambition are to be forever chained. Neoconservatives, having lost their faith in intellectual infallibility, tend to be correspondingly more respectful of other areas of initiative.
And what, finally, of the Jews? One of the greatest moral and intellectual failures of the New York intellectuals was their disregard of the Jewish fate, both before and during World War II and in the decades that followed. Curiously, though many other sectors of the American community—including the press, various levels of government, and Jewish organizations—have come under indictment in recent years for their apathy in the face of evil, if not for their passive complicity in it, no such accusations have been leveled against the group of whom the most might have been expected and from whom so little was forthcoming. The myth of “unequivocal independence,” or what amounts to the same thing, unequivocal irresponsibility, is apparently still so firmly attached to the intellectuals that no one sees fit to judge them by the same standards that are applied to their fellow citizens.
The intellectuals themselves have been uncharacteristically shy in reappraising this part of their past, but we need not take their silence completely at face value. Consider the strange case of Philip Rahv: although no one continued to insist so long or so stridently on his Marxism, or to demonstrate a greater lack of apparent interest in the disposition of the Jews, upon his death in 1973 Rahv left his money to the state of Israel. In trying to account for this strange leavetaking, William Barrett has recalled a glum conversation the two men had many years earlier about the lack of conviction of Americans. “I wish I were in Israel,” Barrett recalls Rahv saying with yearning, “at least people there believe in something.” Barrett sees the posthumous bequest as an expression both of Rahv’s pessimism over his own world and his dream of something better, elsewhere. Because by the time of his death no Communist land could be imagined as that better place, Israel was invoked as a lone last refuge of political idealism.
If Barrett is right, however, Rahv’s quixotic testament was no less a mistake than his old indifference to the fate of the Jews. There were indeed those who hoped, however belatedly, that a socialist Israel would somehow replace their lost ideal of a socialist Russia or a socialist America; they were bound to be disappointed once again. Israel is not that place; no place is. And anyway, they had misdiagnosed the problem: bourgeois society was never so flawed as was their dream of a new kind of human being who could transcend it.
Other Jewish intellectuals have seemed to draw sounder conclusions. Saul Bellow’s To Jerusalem and Back (1976) is not a romantic’s hankering for a higher Israel but an intellectual’s attempt to destroy the ideas that seek to destroy the Jewish state. Similarly, the neoconservatives’ passion for the defense of the free world, which they refer to without irony as the free world, and which emphatically includes the state of Israel, seeks to repair former sins of omission by themselves and others. Pitched now against their own youthful pieties, these former radicals introduce into the world of ideas a rare sense of political responsibility. No one reading the Partisan Review manifesto of 1937 could have foreseen so remarkable a transformation. No one reading the latest crop of books about the New York intellectuals would dream that the intellectual life could encompass so hopeful a possibility.
1 Knopf, 406 pp., $25.00.
2 Oxford University Press, 461 pp., $24.95.
3 University of North Carolina Press, 440 pp., $32.50.
4 Indiana University Press, 261 pp., $29.95.
5 Basic Books, 290 pp. $18.95.