Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The New York Intellectuals

The subject of probably too many books and articles, the New York Intellectuals were no doubt overrated in their achievements. Not one of them — with the exception in art criticism of Clement Greenberg and in literary criticism of Lionel Trilling — left a body of criticism or cultural commentary that figures to endure, and the author of the next of these essays on the literary life for The New Criterion, the one written in 2032, may well turn out never to have heard of Philip Rahv. Yet, whatever their weakness, the New York Intellectuals represented a level of seriousness about culture, its problems, questions, and issues, whose absence has made a difference in the tone of literary culture. More than snarky, their criticisms could be downright snarling, but they had a weight that no current literary critics seem able to supply. Kindly praise is always nice, appreciation pleasant, but authoritative understanding is best of all, and few are the critics left today who seem in a position to supply it.

The New York Intellectuals were, moreover, pure types of the intellectual. They have been replaced by something called public intellectuals. Lionel Trilling, Jacques Barzun, William Phillips, Diana Trilling, Dwight Macdonald, Robert Warshow, Midge Decter, and other of the New York Intellectuals did not comment regularly on current events or appear regularly on television and radio talk shows as do the so-called public intellectuals. They saw their job as that of investigating and making some sort of sense of the general culture — cultural criticism was their calling. Their materials derived from the culture itself: its books, paintings, films, and sometimes popular culture. Each had his or her own politics, but their politics tended to be the least interesting, and often the silliest, thing about them. When these politics came to the fore — as did Mary McCarthy’s in Vietnam — they were almost always disappointing. Dwight Macdonald once said that he was wrong whenever he said Yes, which he did for the last time in his life to the student revolution of the 1960s: wrong again.

— Joseph Epstein, The literary life at 25, New Criterion, September 2007.