The Failure of the New York Intellectuals

The failure of the New York Intellectuals, finally—after a life in the American public as critics and theorists, pundits and intellectuals—was the failure to pass on a tradition. They became but a historical quirk when they failed to bequeath the tradition onto another generation and another age.

Appears in Fall 2005 Issue: The best of Comment
August 1 st 2005

In 1227, what was arguably the greatest military project ever failed when Genghis Khan died without an heir.

Under his leadership, the Mongols, a nomadic people, had conquered the medieval world. The confederacy of nomads had taken over the more civilized China, driven west, overcome the Turks and the Kara Khitans of central Asia, moved through barriers of desert and mountain, and had defeated the Muslims, Christians, and Slavs. The mobile army—terrible in its power and flexibility—was led by Khan across the known world, destroying advanced societies and reaping the technological and philosophical advances of civilization.

Fierce and relentless, Genghis Khan led by force of will; he led without defeat. And then, poised to run over Europe unopposed, he died—without an heir. He died without a way to pass his kingdom on, and thus, rather than being the greatest warrior of history, he became a historical oddity, a surprising incident in the books. His kingdom ceased, and in the ceasing, his genius faded to foolishness.

Monarchs and movements attempt to conquer all, and their brilliance is predicated on ever-expanding victory, but their final judgement is in the quiet and peaceful passing of an inheritance. Without heirs, the most successful ruler is but a play about a violent fool who did not plan. Without heirs, a monarch or a movement is but a curious incident of history.

The failure of the New York Intellectuals, finally—after a life in the American public as critics and theorists, pundits and intellectuals—was the failure to pass on a tradition. They became but a historical quirk when they failed to bequeath the tradition onto another generation and another age.

There are three parts to a tradition: the reception, the possession, and the passing. A tradition is something that has come to us, that we have made our own, and that we will deliver to those who follow us. Tradition is a happening, as Calvin Seerveld said. It is a handing, a having, and a handing on. A tradition is a contract between our ancestors, ourselves, and our posterity. As such, it passes through these three phases of reception as it makes the journey through the generations. Tradition functions to compile the past into the present, telling us what to do now, and to continue compiling through now into the future, letting the future be instructed by now. A tradition shrinks and grows, but it is an ever-moving thing, always already an inheritance.

The New York Intellectuals moved smoothly and successfully through the first two phrases of a tradition and, sputtering and floundering, completely missed the third. At the end of the day, the movement found itself without successors, and in this way the movement failed.

In a study of the New York Intellectuals, one comes upon this failure first in attempting a definition. Naturally expecting a straightforward outline of principles and goals marking New York intellectualism as a movement, one finds it increasingly problematic with scholars taking refuge in ill definition.

What is a New York Intellectual? The centre of the thing is not well-centred and is not, like many movements, dominated by an acting figurehead. The "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." The immediate response to a requested definition seems to be a narrative about post-Second World War young men in New York city, the sons of working class Jewish immigrants who were radicals forming the anti-Stalinist left and were publishers of some magazines, PartisanReview, Commentary, The Public Interest, and Dissent, among others. (With the New York Intellectuals always starting new magazines, making a small list like this one is difficult. These were their most significant publications.) The definitions seem to be historical, strictly definitions by the contexts of time, class, and geography.

Once we move outside the definitions of the historic context, if we attempt to become a little more abstract than the narrative about Jewish immigrants' sons at alcove one in City College, we lose most of our grasp on them. To be a New York Intellectual is to be of a certain time, age, generation, and place. As New York Intellectual Irving Howe said, "the fact of Jewishness counted." It was their identity and not in some tangential "oh yeah, and we're Jewish" way but as the core of what made them the New York Intellectuals.

There were those among them who weren't Jewish, but it was never forgotten and the histories refer to them as "the Gentiles" and "the cousins." To not be Jewish was to be outside of this movement for Jewishness was integral to the definition of who they were.

The movement, then, was identified not by action or by theory but by race, class, and geography. The turn to the contextual narrative of their common background appears to be the most succinct definition of the New York Intellectual movement. Some scholars, such as Ruth Wisse, recognizing this, have even referred to the movement as the New York Jewish Intellectuals.

This contextual definition begins to fail even in defining the New York Intellectuals. Toward the end, they grow increasingly fractured, with different individuals among the New York Intellectuals moving across the political spectrum separately. The fall-out from the horror of the acts of the Soviet Union continued from their original anti-Stalinism to an anticommunism meant to strike a middle between McCarthyism and, eventually, with some of the New York Intellectuals progressing all the way to the right, reconciling with capitalism and becoming neoconservatives. (New York Intellectual Irving Kristol is noted for being one of the founding members of neoconservatism and is more often defined as a neoconservative than a New York Intellectual, the former serving more fully to define a political theory.) At the same time, others maintained their liberalism and fought the right as well as the communists on the left. (This is the position of Daniel Bell.)

The end of the New York Intellectuals saw them scattered from left to right across the political spectrum, with no political vision binding them together again, sending them to a definition of New York Intellectuals that is no more than a historical narrative.

Much of the academic study has focused on the cultural character of the Jewish community manifesting itself in the movement, so we have lots of talk about the rabbinical nature of their love of incessant discourse, the immigrant-son's scrappiness and street-fighting style, the Jewish admiration and belief in education, the embracement of the character of the wanderer, intense textual study, traditions of radicalism, and love of the martyr. Hand-in-hand with this attention to the Jewish distinctiveness of the New York Intellectuals, we find the talk of the movement as an oddity, a quirk of time and place. Almost immediately, the academics turn to the lack of heirs as a failure, undermining the significance and authority of the movement.

The failure to pass on a tradition speaks ill of the New York Intellectuals, for if the movement fails to be a tradition and fails to perpetuate itself, then perhaps it was only a fad or a passing thing applicable just to a specific need. If the New York Intellectuals are but a historical quirk, an oddity, an accident of circumstances, then what they said and what they did are not broadly valuable. The "death of the public intellectual" is, in the ceasing itself, a foundational challenge to the worth of the public intellectual. Seeing the movement pass away must force us to ask if it was merely a product of its time, a movement not speaking to themes outside of its own political and cultural context.

And so it died without an heir, passing into histories and falling from the near-height of placing its indelible signature upon the world.

It should not be said that the New York Intellectuals disappeared, simply turning gray, moving to retirement homes, and dying. The tradition didn't even, despite this critique, pass into nothing. The end of the New York Intellectuals is a kind of bleeding out into the entire political landscape. The New York Intellectuals left no mark, no line of successors. Only their shade is still recognized among us today.

The New Left and the neoconservative were both potential heirs. Political magazines—and today the e-zines that mark the landscape and rise with a frequency that recalls the New York Intellectuals' eagerness to start the next magazine—all owe some sort of nod to the New York Intellectuals. While they do not live among us, the ghost of the New York Intellectuals haunts us.

In their identity of Jewishness, we see the New York Intellectuals receiving a tradition and making it theirs but making the identity such a product of circumstance that passing on such a tradition seems impossible. This seems to be recognized by the New York Intellectuals, or perhaps it was only felt in subtle undertones. There is a second attempt at self-definition that looks to move past the contextual definition—specific historic identity—and on to an identity based in their function and in their role.

Looking to the uniqueness of the New York Intellectuals that is more than a historical position, we find the members themselves speaking of the breadth of their discourse and the great conversation. To the New York Intellectuals, it was capitalized: The Great Conversation. Beginning with their induction into the world at alcove one, they went public with The Great Conversation. The New York Intellectuals, self-consciously brilliant, located their brilliance in the talking. Dissent, dialogue, conversation, and talk were watchwords among them. Talk was their gold-standard, and they intended to always have plenty of room for debate and this continual intellectual ferment that was so productive.

It is for this reason that the National Endowment for the Humanities documentary—focusing on Daniel Bell, Nathan Glazer, Irving Howe, and Irving Kristol—is titled Arguing the World. They had rabbinic tendencies, noted by many inside and outside the movement, to go wider, wider, ever wider, expanding to synthesize everything into a single theory. They wanted to engage everyone in the intellectual engagement of everything, and this, finally, is what they meant when they referred to themselves as New York Intellectuals.

And these things were true—they talked the width of the world and they attempted to synthesize everything under the rubric of socialism—but these are not honestly things particular to this movement. Certainly discourse was the staple of their intellectualism and the constant that bound them together as a group, but this is true of movements large and small. Synthesis and conversation are what make a movement a movement and surely not that which distinguishes one from another. Talkers have always been among us. Talkers with conversations that span and encompass the world are more rare, but surely not a class either beginning or ending with the New York Intellectuals.

At the end of Herman Hesse's novel Steppenwolfe, we see composers Brahms and Wagner wandering in a sort of purgatory, waiting to see if they are more than mere products of their time. The New York Intellectuals, too, wander in this purgatory. Their lack of heirs and the continued, even increasing, identification of the movement with a time seems to indicate that the New York Intellectuals are damned by this standard: they were not greater than their age.

But this analysis misses the genius of the New York Intellectuals. It misses—in a way that they themselves missed—the distinctives that separate them from the others who never merited this attention. In two ways, they were different. In two ways, they stood out as attempting something the movements around them and the movements following them knew nothing of.

The New York Intellectuals were a movement that ought to have continued, one whose lack of an heir is frustrating and discouraging. They were different from the other political movements in two respects: the occupation of a position between pundit and academic and their attention to culture, especially the literary.

Moving past the historical accident that identified them and moving past the often overwrought talk of "talk" with which they identified themselves, we find these two points coming forth as curiously unique to the New York Intellectuals.

The New York Intellectuals' distinctive middle stance as critic somewhere in between and somehow combining the academic and the pundit is a distinctive unmatched. They served outside of the ivory towers, barred from higher academia because of race and class, using their magazines to influence policy, the public, and each other. But in a day when punditry wasn't today's ever-present monster, they were still intellectuals, using the methodology of the universities in a less polished, less strictured, and more public way then the universities ever could.

They occupied a middle ground: moving outside the academic towers with the freedom that allowed and with the aggression that created, staying above the pundits with a discourse of scholarly analysis. As Ruth Wisse wrote, the individual New York Intellectual was "part street fighter, part scholar," and as a group they "were a literate street gang, using whatever tactics they had at hand in defense of their shifting territory." They combined street savvy with an intellectual sophistication. Not tied into the sophisms of the Ivory Tower, they intimately knew regular America without sliding into an anti-intellectualism common to cheaper forms of socialism and populism.

The one-of-a-kind functional role of their position is noted, historically, in the attempted terminological switch from New York to Public. The attempt to broaden the term beyond the strictures of race, class, and geography to a position and an action hints at the attempt to broaden the movement and pass it on. If the movement could be defined as an act, role, or position instead of a historical context, then there could be heirs.

A few current figures have worked to imitate the New York Intellectuals, standing between pundit and academic in the balancing act of the public intellectual, and a few of those have even done it with the aggressive style of the New York Intellectuals. Christopher Hitchens, calling himself a contrarian and bringing an excellent education and an attention to culture to the circle of punditry, is a notable one walking in the path of the New York Intellectuals. In a more political way, Andrew Sullivan does the same. Both of these men act as intelligent commentators, authoring books and articles on a New York subject, moving in and out of the political, the social, and the cultural with a role outside of the universities but an education lifting them above the pundit. (It may be of significance that both of these men are British and yet marked as very American in their aggressive style. The New York Intellectuals are occasionally noted for being European in outlook and American in style.)

The redefinitional move, unfortunately, is also one that never really worked in that it wasn't accepted by the New York Intellectuals. Its failure could be attributed to the fact that it was a redefinition mostly from the outside—from the Gentile cousins and from those wanting to graft themselves into the movement, inheriting the tradition.

There never really was a movement that was a movement of people named Public Intellectuals, except as a synonym for the New York Intellectuals or an unaccepted and failed attempt to expand the New York Intellectuals. The New York Intellectuals were always something more than public intellectuals. Again, there is a turn to the contextualizing narrative: they were the boys from alcove one, the red diaper babies, the Jewish sons of working-class immigrants, the anti-Stalinist left who had supported Trotsky and been suspicious of the utopia of the Soviet Union. They were public intellectuals in action but not in identity; they were the New York Intellectuals, a tradition they held to tightly enough to refuse the motion that would have allowed them to pass the final test of a movement, making possible the bequeathing of the movement to successors.

Yet even had they accepted this identity, it seems it was only a tenuous one. By the end of their lives, the distinction was fading, with some of the charter New York Intellectuals moving happily into the universities. Daniel Bell became a professor of social science at Harvard and professor of sociology at Columbia. Irving Howe became a professor of literature at City University and Stanford University. Nathan Glazer went on to teach at Harvard's Graduate School of Education. Irving Kristol joined the faculty at New York University.

Others made similar moves, and the distinction of operating outside the universities seems to be something forced upon them, not chosen. If this is the defining characteristic, then they failed—sold out—even before failing to pass something on. This distinction is at best a passing and accidental one. Thus the first of the distinctive fails to serve definitionally, leaving us in the same situation as before.

This is one reason why Christopher Hitchens, for example, isn't an heir of the New York Intellectuals. A Gentile son of Britain without immigrant parents and the post-Second World War New York, he could never be one of them. When asked what tradition he belongs to, Hitchens points instead to the anti-Stalinist leftism of George Orwell. Hitchens (however unconsciously) has worked diligently to accept that tradition, to possess it, and to pass it on, as two of his books show clearly: Why Orwell Matters (New York: Basic Books, 2002) and Letters to a Young Contrarian (New York: Basic Books, 2001).

The second distinction—attention to culture, especially the literary—is stronger but less noticed. It is the first thing that separated the New York Intellectuals from the crowd, a crowd that often had a similar background, and it may well be the last.

Surveying the scene of the radical magazines of the time, one finds them being published on every New York corner. The socialist revolution was immanent. The proletariat was producing intellectual sons who would, with the next magazine, lead the world into the Marxist future. Disillusionment with the grotesqueries of Stalinism had not yet turned into disillusionment with the Marxist project itself.

The New York Intellectuals were full members and participants in all of this and turned to magazines as the usher of Marxist revolution with the deftness fitting men raised among these radicals. It was a natural move, and it was unremarkable in that everyone was starting a magazine, fighting to define the revolution and working to aid it to port.

Moving from City College into magazines, what made the New York Intellectuals' Partisan Review and subsequent publications noteworthy and significant was their effort to introduce literary theory and cultural studies to Marxism. The radical magazines were mostly political, Marxism and socialism being fundamentally political and economic movements that were going to change the world. Young men with some literary bent, young men with a view toward culture, the New York Intellectuals wanted Marxism to be the synthesis. Marxism was great because of this opportunity for fecundity: a single grand synthesis of the world was waiting in Marxism.

The New York Intellectuals were asking the questions: "What did Marxism mean for someone whose first love was literature? How did politics and culture go together?" They were pushing socialism to ask more questions and give more answers. They were taking a political movement and demanding it give a world that was deeper than the political. Marxism, to be of any value, had to speak to art and culture, to be of such a breadth that encompassed the world.

The literary side of the party wasn't monolithic at the time and was filled with argumentative types, allowing the New York Intellectuals to play with and attempt to shape the Marxist aesthetic. This let them proceed as cultural critics and artists informed by Marxism—a position also taken by John Steinbeck—avoiding the stigma of political hacks that would later follow such authors as Howard Fast.

To be a legitimate artist informed by and sympathetic with socialism without becoming a propagandist who was given stamped out heroes and story lines was increasingly difficult as the Cold War progressed. One finds exactly this struggle in the letters of Ernest Hemingway, who decided that art was primary and, in fact, more lasting and influential than politics. Authors tended to preserve the art at the cost of the political connections more successfully than musicians. Folk singer Woody Guthrie, for example, switched from writing anti- to pro-war songs in accordance with the flip flop of the party's position. Pete Seeger, while a fair artist, always preformed in the border between activist and hack. The entire genre of folk music was artistically saved by the new left, and shifts and influx brought with the hippies.

The New York Intellectuals moved into the space between the political and the literary producing numerous authors—Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, Philip Roth—and many literary critics. When the list of New York Intellectuals is broken down into fields, we find the movement wasn't strictly or even essentially a political one, for the New York Intellectuals were authors and literary critics; they were in art, philosophy, sociology, and history, in addition to journalism, typical of political movements.

It is here we see, starkly, the lack of successors. Those movements that could have been heirs and those that in some way owe a nod to the New York Intellectuals are political ones. Certainly the New Left and the neoconservative movements have the occasional turn toward the cultural aspect of society, but their souls are political, not literary. The subsequent generations of movements did not possess this literary focus, this attention to culture that was fundamental. This is the difference between politics and art being cyclically informed by each other and a political magazine including three or four short book reviews in the back. This is the difference between an attempted synthesis of political and literary theories and a magazine's ad hoc inclusion of a film critic.

A similar slide is seen in the direct line of conservatism from the Tory traditionalism of Edmund Burke or Russell Kirk, where conservative identified an attitude toward culture and tradition, to its current state of being almost exclusively a political movement. The identity of conservatism today is a belief in limited government without an adherence to the view of preserving tradition and culture that first prompted the desire to limit the implementations of intellectual abstractions that was large government. Conservatism has moved from wanting to limit meddling with culture and molding it (too often violently) to abstract ideas to wanting to limit large government for the sake of limiting government, even when and where that means molding the culture to abstract ideas.

It is almost an error to call the New York Intellectuals a political movement, though it was one. Perhaps it was a political movement with a literary soul or a literary movement within a political one. However one categorically balances attention to culture and the politics within the New York Intellectuals, one finds the distinction that left the movement without heirs.

Perhaps this is a failure to recognize, on the part of the New York Intellectuals and on the part of those who wished to follow them, the literary and cultural centre setting the New York Intellectuals apart.

The New Left—a movement that more or less wrote to the New York Intellectuals and asked for its mantle—wanted to be the anticommunist liberals and the new radicals who would subvert and recreate a radicalism that had grown stale. The neoconservative wanted to be the one who had seen and learned from the failure of socialism without reverting to the stodgy, snobby, racist, and tired conservatism. There was no heir in as much as there was no next movement interested in the New York Intellectuals' devotion to the cultural, no one with the urge to work toward the literary maturation of the United States, no one wanting to take political ideas and focus them on the world of art and culture.

Surveying the modern political landscape, there are no movements with literary souls, or even artistic ones. If today's movements make an aesthetic statement or judgement of literary criticism, it is only as a sort of anti-statement, deriding deconstructionism or laughing off the snobbery of art and culture. Political movements embrace a faux populism in deriding or ignoring art. One finds not a thought of a move to incorporate aesthetic theories or criticism. Among current movements, there is no such thing as a cyclical informing of art by politics and politics by art.

It is here that we find the hope and potential of the New York Intellectuals. Here they were poised to change everything. Here they had a chance at genius and the mark of individuality. It is here that we find the most heart-rending failure: they were unable to be more than products of their time and never embraced their literary focus as the essence of their potential. It was never seen as the definition, either by the New York Intellectuals or by the observers of the New York Intellectuals. The New York Intellectuals themselves embraced the literary but never saw it as what they were, failing to get past the historical accidents of context from which they rose.

It is here, too, that we find their final failure, their lack of heirs. It is on this point of a political movement informed by and informing the aesthetic that the end of the New York Intellectuals is felt most dearly, perhaps in the subtlety of echoes half heard, but felt as an absence. This breadth has not been replaced and, looking, one finds political movements designed for political men with political souls. And, for some of us observers, the landscape feels bereft of something that was great, or, at least, something that could have been great. The New York Intellectuals never saw themselves predicated on this point, and those movements hoping to be heirs to the New York Intellectuals didn't see it either.

Camping on the edge of a river, knowing they could move unstopped across all the barriers and through all the enemies, the system that supported them subverted itself. In the end, they failed, leaving the world without an heir.

Recommended Reading

  • Arguing the World, produced, written, and directed by Joseph Dorman (New York: First Run Features, 1997).

  • Alexander Bloom, Prodigal Sons: The New York Intellectuals and Their World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986).

  • Terry A. Cooney, The Rise of the New York Intellectuals: Partisan Review and Its Circle, 1935-1945 (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1986).

  • Irving Howe, A Margin of Hope: An Intellectual Autobiography. New York: Harvest Books, 1984).

  • Neil Jumonville, Critical Crossings: The New York Intellectual in Post War America (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1991).

  • Alan M. Wald, The New York Intellectuals: The Rise and Decline of the Anti-Stalinist Left from the 1930s to the 1980s (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1987).

  • Ruth R. Wisse, "The New York (Jewish) Intellectuals," in Commentary (November 1987).

 

Daniel Silliman is an American writer and journalist doing graduate work in American Studies at the University of Tübingen in Tübingen, Germany. More of his writing can be read at www.danielsilliman.blogspot.com.

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