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Not Down to Our Last Intellectual

TIMES STAFF WRITER

“The definition of a New York intellectual,” critic Morris Dickstein once said, “is to think that he is the last one.” While the joke may be popular at some Manhattan cocktail parties, the species is clearly endangered.

With the death last month of premier literary critic Alfred Kazin, the ranks of those New York writers who once commanded center stage in the nation’s intellectual life have dwindled yet again. Luminaries such as Lionel and Diana Trilling, Irving Howe, Mary McCarthy, Philip Rahv and others are gone, and the culture they created has lost much of its luster.

But it would be a mistake to write an obituary for America’s public intellectuals, those thinkers who go beyond academic questions and address hot social issues. The old New York crowd has been replaced by a new generation of intellectuals who have different concerns, and Manhattan no longer dominates the action the way it did, given the growth of rival centers in Los Angeles, Washington and other cities.

“I’m tired of the nostalgia for New York intellectuals,” says critic Ellen Willis, professor of media studies at New York University. “People write about different issues today, as they should, and the intellectual’s role in our culture has changed.”

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It’s certainly more visible. The passionate literary magazines and political dialogues of Kazin’s world reached relatively few people, even though they had a big influence on national debates about communism, civil rights, liberal ideology and art. A man like Kazin, who died on his 83rd birthday, was greatly respected. But he was hardly a household name.

Today, however, many thinkers--like Doris Kearns Goodwin, Richard Rodriguez and Henry Louis Gates--are bona fide celebrities, known to millions of readers and viewers. Goodwin, a distinguished presidential historian; Rodriguez, a California essayist; and Gates, who heads Harvard’s African American studies department, are public intellectuals in the truest sense of the word.

“We are a culture driven by television,” says Todd Boyd, professor at the USC School of Cinema and Television. “And the professorial sound bite has become a staple on TV. It’s a powerful way to disseminate new ideas, something Kazin’s group almost never experienced.”

Traditionally leery of the learned class, America grew more comfortable with thinkers and writers in the 1960s, especially as they became fixtures in academic life and the media. But the men and women who burst on the New York scene in the ‘30s and ‘40s bear little resemblance to today’s prime-time pundits.

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Indeed, the difference between old and new intellectuals reflects the political, social and cultural upheavals that have rocked America in the 50 years since World War II. It’s a story of cold wars and hot media, a history of public thought and debate that runs from the Truman Doctrine to “The Truman Show.”

“As people like Kazin pass on, it may be the end of an era,” says James Atlas, who has written about the New York intellectuals. “But it’s not the end of civilization. We should honor these people, as well as their successors.”

A Community Fed Upon Argument

From its beginnings, the New York crowd was a renaissance community of contentious yet scholarly debate. Based largely on the Upper West Side, it lived and breathed argument; its members praised each other publicly and quite often stabbed each other in the back when writing their memoirs.

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The New Yorkers saw themselves as enemies of the established order, outsiders who had a coherent world view. Blending political philosophy with the rigors of literary criticism, they set themselves apart from middlebrow culture and power.

Today’s thinkers are equally outspoken, but they lack that kind of hothouse community. While there are circles of intellectual activity in Washington, Hollywood, Cambridge and the Bay Area, to name a few, there is no sense of a national debate fully engaging these personalities. They are, however, fully integrated into American life, viewing themselves as participants in--rather than alienated critics of--mainstream culture.

“In New York you had a world that thrived on conversations and quarrels,” said Rodriguez, a San Francisco-based writer who wrote “Hunger of Memory,” about his intellectual development. “It wasn’t just one voice, it was a multitude of voices interacting with each other. That’s absent now, and we do miss it.”

The debate itself also has changed.

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From the 1930s to the 1960s, Manhattan thinkers and writers were consumed with dialogues about communism and the Cold War. Members of the largely Jewish group clashed in publications such as Partisan Review and Commentary, nurturing feuds and friendships concerning Soviet foreign policy and McCarthyism.

Their cerebral, ingrown society has been captured in “Arguing the World,” a new documentary film by Joseph Dorman that tracks the careers of Howe and fellow intellectuals Irving Kristol, Daniel Bell and Nathan Glazer. Looking back at the production, Dorman was struck that so many of his subjects seemed painfully out of place in the modern media world.

“They spoke in long paragraphs and talked about complex matters,” he recalls. “It was the opposite of a sound bite. You couldn’t cut them off after 30 seconds if you tried.”

Breakdown Along Political Lines

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The New York crowd eventually split because of politics, and a host of onetime lefties became staunch neoconservatives, led by Norman Podhoretz, Glazer, Hilton Kramer and others. Those who clung to their ideological roots, like Kazin and Howe, continued to write until their deaths, appearing mainly in small magazines like Dissent and the New York Review of Books.

Despite disagreements, they were all people of the book, ruled by the written word. But in our time, intellectual debates are just as likely to focus on MTV and Madonna as on Marxism. And they are hardly confined to manifestoes.

Literary criticism is just one more specialty in a cultural free-for-all that roams from television and movies to ethnic studies and Internet poetry. For some thinkers, the idea of analyzing a linear novel to yield insights seems quaint indeed.

The story of Kazin’s rise to intellectual prominence is a case in point. Brilliant, acerbic and often visionary, he was passionately committed to the primacy of literature and literary criticism; admiring colleagues say it would be difficult for someone like him to thrive in today’s world.

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Born in Brooklyn, he dreamed of a writer’s life across the river in Manhattan. He got a bargain rate education at City College of New York, along with other future lawyers, doctors, intellectuals and Nobel prize winners of his generation.

Like his contemporaries, Kazin saw literature as a crucial gateway to understanding society. In seminal works such as “On Native Grounds” (1942) and “A Walker in the City” (1951), he drew on literary criticism and the richness of his childhood experiences to illuminate new worlds. An exacting, autocratic man, he challenged writers to reach ever higher standards.

Kazin used words to skewer--and to reveal.

“She had, I thought a wholly destructive critical mind,” he wrote of novelist McCarthy, “shown in her unerring ability to spot the hidden weakness or inconsistency in any literary effort or person. To this weakness she instinctively leaped with cries of pleasure--surprised that her victim, as he lay torn and bleeding, did not applaud her perspicacity.”

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Kazin’s wit and erudition were celebrated, yet time inexorably passed him by. In a memoir, he recalled the night he shared a cab in New York with Jacquelyn Kennedy, who asked where he was headed. The critic said he was going to deliver a lecture on “Huckleberry Finn,” and she laughed, asking: “Do people actually give lectures on ‘Huckleberry Finn’?”

“Alas,” said Kazin. “I do.”

The intellectual scene was changing, and Kazin knew it. He realized that America had become a mass-media echo chamber, a society with decreasing respect for literary writing and even less regard for distinctions between high and low culture.

Meanwhile, intellectuals fell victim to their own successes. They had been contemptuous of established power, but many took academic positions after World War II. They earned good money writing for middlebrow magazines previously scorned.

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As a group, they started out living lives of romantic poverty; members typically lived off meager payments for book reviews and rented cold-water flats. Given the opportunity to shed that lifestyle, however, most leaped at the chance.

“We were all looking very well after ourselves,” Kazin wrote. “Round and round we rode the great carousel of American literature, American money-getting, American fame.”

Much of that acclaim came in the 1960s, but it was a mixed blessing. The New York crowd clashed with younger thinkers concerning hot-button issues such as sexual freedom and revolutionary violence, and to this day their personal conservatism draws ideological fire from critic Willis and other ‘60s intellectuals.

Amid the tumult, Kazin was able to teach at several universities, even though he never got a doctorate. But that would be difficult for most writers in today’s tenure-driven world. Once bristling with independence, U.S. intellectual life had been torn from its bohemian roots and transplanted in the academy.

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“I believe the New York intellectuals of the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s are a thing of the past,” says Russell Jacoby, who teaches at UCLA and is the author of “The Last Intellectuals.” “They brought something to the table--arguments and analysis and polemics--in lucid prose, and this has certainly been disappearing in our own time.”

Criticism and Praise for the Old Guard

As America marks the passing of Kazin and his ilk, there is a tendency to lament the end, not only of the group but of intellectual life. Vivian Gornick, a New York-based writer and critic, has bitterly criticized the old guard for its sexism and conservatism--but she calls its passing “a tremendous loss. . . . We simply don’t have people like them anymore.”

Yet others believe contemporary intellectuals are every bit as contentious as their predecessors. True, the New York group had bitter ideological arguments, but today’s thinkers have trouble agreeing on what they should talk about.

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Kazin and his contemporaries focused on a few key issues, such as the Cold War and the meaning of art. Yet modern intellectuals tend to be splintered into competing groups with radically different agendas: African Americans, gays, feminists, ethnic specialists, Internet gurus and the like.

“You don’t have people with the same assumptions talking about what’s important,” says author and critic Todd Gitlin. “And until you do, there won’t be a real center of American intellectual life. It shows you how much has changed.”

Some threads remain.

Just as Kazin drew on his immigrant roots to trace his love for books, so did Rodriguez in “Hunger of Memory.” Both men talked about “trembling” in front of books as children, realizing they were passages to new understanding.

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Both described a journey: Kazin escaped Brooklyn and crossed the river to live in the Shining City. Rodriguez’s odyssey from modest roots in California’s Central Valley to the life of an intellectual was a personal triumph.

“Part of the brilliance of the original New York intellectuals was being rooted in a first generation of immigrant experiences,” says Mike Davis, a fiery Los Angeles-based essayist and the author of “City of Quartz.”

“And that should remain an important source for writers today. But I see a huge discrepancy in Los Angeles between the real drama of the city--the new immigrant generation--and what’s reflected in Los Angeles art and writing. It makes you wonder about the intellectual voices we aren’t hearing.”

Boyd agrees, adding that diversity is perhaps the key challenge now facing public intellectuals.

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“Back in the 1940s, there were few, if any, female voices” in the intellectual crowd, he notes. “And there were few black voices. Now, with the end of the Cold War, we have become a very splintered society. I don’t think that’s a bad thing necessarily, but we do live in a much different world.”

A world in which Alfred Kazin felt less comfortable, perhaps, but in which he still had an important role to play. The writer Atlas says it’s time to remember the past--and move on.

“People always say, as someone said of Kazin, that we shall not look on his like again,” he noted. “And this is true. Kazin was a powerful presence. But we’ll look on others.”


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