Kazin: Debate About Topics That Matter

Thomas Bender, who teaches history at New York University, is the author of "New York Intellect" and "Intellect and Public Life."

Not many people know that the upper triangle of the urban space known as Times Square is, in fact, Duffy Square. I possess this slightly esoteric knowledge of Manhattan's geography because of Alfred Kazin, the distinguished writer and critic who died June 5. As a graduate student from California, new to the city in 1970, I went there to hear Kazin speak in the open air about the moral condition of our society, about class and racial injustice and in opposition to an immoral war. In the most literal sense, he was being a public intellectual, taking advantage of the city's public space to speak the truth, particularly moral truth, as he saw it.

Kazin's distinguished career invites reflection upon the role of public intellectual. We may live in a knowledge society, but there is a general lament for the passing of the intellectual's voice in public debate.

Kazin was an outstanding literary critic, but that alone did not make him a public intellectual. He used literature for larger purposes, to talk about subjects that mattered to contemporary society. His capacity to speak to more general and deeply felt worries, questions and aspirations, and to do so in a common idiom, made him a public intellectual. Kazin's death raises large questions for many because we share a sense that intellectuals of his type are becoming rarer, and we fear their extinction would be a loss to society as a whole.

The work of Kazin and critics like him was to continually reread, and with each reinterpretation to initiate a new conversation between the present and the past about the future. Without reducing literature to politics, they made it speak to politics: Literature and politics were at once distinguished and brought together to illuminate each other. There is reason to worry that this balanced counterpoint has eroded in recent years. Literature is now in danger of being reduced to politics. The distance that made literature such a fecund foil for moral exploration collapses when, under the sway of identity politics, one seeks a mirror of oneself both in literature and in one's audience, instead of reaching for the other.

The defining moment for the modern literary intellectual occurred a century ago, in 1898, when Emile Zola published "J'accuse," in protest against the anti-Semitic accusers of Alfred Dreyfus. He claimed moral authority for art and intellect, free of obligation to established institutions. When the establishment derided Zola and his fellow writers as "intellectuals," they embraced the epithet and the role. In the United States, the philosopher William James, writing in McClure's magazine, was among the first to recognize and embrace this new way of bringing intellect into public life.

Kazin entered this world in the 1930s, while still a college student, and he was able to earn his living and hone his writing as a book reviewer for several magazines and newspapers. His models were the early 20th-century critics who emerged during James' time: Lewis Mumford, Edmund Wilson, Malcolm Cowley and others. In 1942, after years of reading in the New York Public Library, Kazin published "On Native Grounds," a fresh and vigorous interpretation of American writing since the Civil War.

From that point on, Kazin was a public figure. He later taught at universities, but he was formed in the literary world of the city, a public world bound together by a common fascination with and intense debate over literature as a domain of moral and political insight.

Literature and public life have been linked since the 18th century. The public sphere of that time, however, was still informed by the classical tradition. The founding fathers, for example, worked within the classical intellectual tradition, and their social position was far different from that personified by Kazin. These leaders were not critics of power: They were men of learning in power.

It is no accident that the emergence of the intellectual outside of power, indeed as a critic of power, coincided with the democratization of politics. Intellectuals, committed to the idea of democracy but often uncomfortable with its practice, spoke for the continued worth in public of the singular voice of learning and insight.

Only in the 19th century would the novel, a literary form disdained by the Founders, emerge as the locus for literary exploration of moral and political issues. Fiction and poetry sustained a new intellectual type: the writer as public moralist. The Dreyfus affair did not mark the creation of this type but rather named it. In the 1830s and 1840s, "Young America," a circle of New York writers, including Walt Whitman and Herman Melville, saw literature as a medium for exploring the possibilities of a democratic polity and culture. They did not comment directly on politics but were political and public in a way that presaged Kazin, who would become a great commentator on these writers as he examined the moral and political questions of his own time.

Kazin was one of those mid-century writers known as the New York Intellectuals. Associated with the Partisan Review, they came to prominence in the 1940s and held the stage at least through the 1960s. They came to define the very meaning of public intellectual.

What accounts for their heightened position in our culture and historical memory? Largely, it was timing: The right people and ideas at the right time. A society that had routinely excluded Jews from college posts before the war was newly sensitive to the challenge to human dignity and pluralism posed by the Holocaust and Soviet communism. Granting public presence to new voices, many from the immigrant ghetto, was a testament to the possibilities of American society. It was the first time a circle of intellectuals, of mostly immigrant background, often Jewish, claimed to speak not merely for their group, but for American democracy.

This explains much of their prominence, but even more important were their ideas. The Cold War assured wide appreciation for a group of critics unmistakably of the left, while also staunchly anticommunist. The New York Intellectuals had spent the 1930s as Marxist anti-Stalinist critics in the internecine cultural and political debates on the left. By the 1940s, as they achieved wide visibility and influence, their position in the polity and in the fellowship of critics had become complicated. In so far as they spoke for modernist literature and an expansive democracy, they were critics of established power. But not completely. Whether by intention or not, critics can serve the ideological interests of more conservative power, and one might say as much about some of this group in respect to their liberal anticommunism.

My point, however, is not to judge the politics of the New York Intellectuals, but rather to argue that intellectuals gain public prominence only when they address the most difficult issues of a given historical moment--and do so in a common language. It is, therefore, no accident that Henry Louis Gates Jr., Cornel West and Toni Morrison emerged as major intellectual voices in the 1980s and '90s, when the United States sought to understand the pain of racial injustice and comprehend the moral urgency of racial justice.

There is much nostalgia today about the New York Intellectuals, evident in the popularity of the recent documentary "Arguing the World." Seeking to understand this sense of loss, some insist that Kazin and his generation are the last public intellectuals, that academic life, characterized by specialization, professional privilege and self-referentiality, has captured the men and women who might otherwise have contributed to general public discussion.

The late French philosopher Michel Foucault offered a slightly different analysis, arguing that the contemporary intellectual would be, and ought to be, the specific intellectual. This argument is not the same as defending disciplinary specialization, but it does suggest highly specific rather than general interventions in public life.

Some observe that general intellectuals have been replaced by social-science experts, who focus on specific policy issues, avoiding the general commentary that marked the New York Intellectuals.

Others note that the intellectuals are still with us, as the examples of Morrison and Gates reveal. Their numbers might seem small, but that is because many intellectuals today are located differently on the political landscape. They have switched sides from left to right. Some of the most visible no longer speak for the extension of democracy and the emancipation of the oppressed. They are now identified with various right-wing causes. Hardly critics of power, these intellectuals, well supported by wealthy, conservative think tanks, represent and speak for established power.

There are truths in all these interpretations; they describe important changes in the relation of intellect to public life. Intellect surely survives in public life, but in different forms, and that represented by Kazin today is attenuated. The literary culture that enabled him to assume the role of public moralist is much weakened by the practices of commercial publishing; by literary study more interested in theory than art; by a crippling self-referentiality and jargon that, ironically, defeats a genuine desire to reach a public, and by an impulse toward identification in both text and audience rather than reaching for the unfamiliar, the other--so necessary a prompt to the political and moral imagination.

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