Falling in love with the New York intellectuals

It took a fierce group of 1930s journalists to show the world a new standard for truth, and how much truth should matter in personal and public life. The New York intellectuals insisted, in their ideas and their business, on both the continuing quest for truth, and the importance of living in the light of that truth. Whether or not their beliefs—tinged by Marxism and Modernism—were right, it's the ferocity of the intellectuals that makes them significant—and charming.

Appears in Spring 2006 Issue: City & country
March 1st, 2006

It took a fierce group of 1930s journalists to show the world a new standard for truth, and how much truth should matter in personal and public life. The New York intellectuals insisted, in their ideas and their business, on both the continuing quest for truth, and the importance of living in the light of that truth. Whether or not their beliefs—tinged by Marxism and Modernism—were right, it's the ferocity of the intellectuals that makes them significant—and charming.

I think I can trace my crush on the New York intellectuals accurately to March 1990.

I had been abruptly informed at the very end of February of that year that my six years of community service as a conscientious objector to military conscription by the apartheid regime in South Africa had been cut in half. Given that I had already served more than three years, I was given 24 hours notice—as I recall it—to clear my desk at the offices of the then Department of Manpower (now Labour) in Cape Town.

My beloved Angela had a job as a teacher in the suburbs of Cape Town, so I shifted gears to working fulltime rather than part-time on my M.A. dissertation, and started spending long days in the closest academic library, that of the University of Cape Town (not my alma mater). Being a fulltime student again after many years of night school, I luxuriated in the opportunity and voraciously read my way through bound back issues of journals of public opinion. The most exciting of my discoveries: Commentary magazine, the Jewish magazine billed as "America's premier monthly magazine of ideas."

As I was excavating Commentary, an article reached out and grabbed my attention: Ruth Wisse's November 1987 "The New York (Jewish) Intellectuals."

I don't believe I had been aware, until that moment, of the existence of that intellectual community, its convoluted history, or its subtle but decisive influence during the "short twentieth century" from the global emergence of the totalitarian states until the fall of the Berlin Wall. I was enchanted.

The literary street gang

As Ruth Wisse told the story, the birth of the movement now called the New York intellectuals can be dated to December 1937, when William Phillips and Philip Rahv, with the help of F.W. Dupee, Dwight Macdonald, Mary McCarthy and a few others, relaunched the journal of public opinion Partisan Review. The journal had been previously published for a couple of years under the auspices, indirectly but decisively, of the American Communist Party. In its new incarnation it was to be staunchly independent of communist control and resolutely anti-Stalinist in opinion. Its key purpose was to investigate what the critic Lionel Trilling was to call "the bloody crossroads" of politics and the arts—in particular, literature. The Partisan Review crowd started out with a political critique still inspired by Karl Marx—albeit now with an anti-doctrinaire openness to divergent opinions—and a high-cultural artistic agenda inspired by T.S. Eliot and the modernism he midwifed. With this they brought something unique to the American scene—not only in the content of their arguments, but also in their style. Wisse writes,

... while the phrase New York intellectuals may require some geographic qualifications, since some prominent members (including [Saul] 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.

The feistiness of the New York intellectuals—their fierce commitment to the quest for truth and their equally fierce commitment to lives lived coherently in the light of the truth, both personally and publicly—is a great part of their charm. My experience at first encountering Commentary is reflected in Wisse's portrayal of their earliest work:

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.

Weaving Beliefs into Lives

The New York intellectuals mattered because of their intellectual and moral stance—a fierce commitment to the quest for truth and coherence. They exhibited a willingness to question their own positions and change their minds, an unwillingness to submit to a binding of their consciences by a mere political authority, and a desire to weave the connections between what they most sincerely believed and how they lived their lives—especially their political lives.

Steven Garber in his book The Fabric of Faithfulness (1996) points to Jacques Ellul's reading of the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes. Ellul interprets the message of Ecclesiastes to be this: "You must take sides earlier—when you can actually make choices, when you have many paths opening up at your feet, before the weight of necessity overwhelms you." This, writes Garber, echoes Iris Murdoch's claim that "at crucial moments of choice most of the business of choosing is already over."

Garber asks how young adults in our time, under the impact of modern consciousness, can hear this admonition. Those young adults who do seem to hear this admonition, writes Garber, are characterized by two things: "their desire for coherence and their belief in the truth."

When I first encountered them in Ruth Wisse's article, the New York intellectuals appealed to me because of their ideas. I had spent my teens becoming a vigorous anti-totalitarian, on the one hand in resistance against the rightwing authoritarianism of the apartheid regime, on the other hand in intellectual and moral opposition against the communist alternative proposed by many in the anti-apartheid movement. The anti-Stalinist stance of the New York intellectuals immediately attracted me. I grew up in a family interested in the arts—in particular classical music and literature—and I was struggling to figure out the connections between arts and politics. The New York intellectuals lived at "the bloody crossroads" between arts and politics. But more than the content of their thought—much of which I have subsequently come to reject or question—it was their basic stance on truth and coherence that won my affections. Truth can and must be found! Truth can and must be lived! As an intellectually and morally serious young adult, I guess I would have been aptly described by Steven Garber. Nothing mattered to me as much as the belief that there was truth to be found, and the concomitant belief that live was only worth living in coherence with that truth, once found.

Models for Cultural Engagement

But the New York intellectuals mattered to me not only because of their intellectual and moral stance—a fierce commitment to truth and coherence, they also mattered because of their historical significance. As Ms. Wisse wrote, "This community of the New York intellectuals … changed for all time the atmosphere of American letters." Growing up in the midst of the struggle over apartheid in South Africa, I acquired a deep concern for historical significance—for making a difference, for changing the world. The New York intellectuals managed to change their world by means of their thinking, through their reading and writing and conversations—the very things I loved and could do. In this they provided a model for cultural engagement that has continued to affect me ever since.

The example of my own experience convinces me of the value of the kind of public opinion journalism practiced by the New York intellectuals, and also by us here in Comment magazine. The prospect of a young graduate student picking up this magazine in the dusty archives of a university library, some years in the future, and finding in it a way of struggling with the challenge of truth and coherence, being helped to make the choices to which Ecclesiastes points, excites me.

I am not a Marxist nor a modernist. In this I differ from the New York intellectuals in their heyday. Neither am I today a neoconservative, as many of them became later in life. While I continue to feel great affection for the several generations of New York intellectuals, and while they continue to serve for me as a model of intellectual and moral engagement with public life in many ways, I do not stand in their tradition (if such a tradition can be said to exist, which my friend Daniel Silliman denied in a Comment article of some time ago). In my teens and twenties the content of my intellectual life was more thoroughly shaped by Francis Schaeffer, my imagination and understanding of the arts by Hans Rookmaaker—both conveyors of the neocalvinist tradition in which I stand today and that informs my current take on the crossroads between politics and the arts, and much else besides.

In the end I think the New York intellectuals got much wrong about the content of truth. But I will always love them for their insistence that truth matters, and that life must be lived with honesty, both privately and publicly, in light of the truth.

Topics: Literature

Gideon Strauss was the editor of Comment from 2000 to 2010. He is currently Associate Professor of Worldview Studies at the Institute for Christian Studies, a graduate school of philosophy in Toronto, and a senior fellow with the Center for Public Justice in Washington DC. Gideon also facilitates vocational discipleship in churches in his native South Africa.


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