The American Conservative

April 7, 2008

by Paul Gottfried


Review of The New York Intellectuals Reader, Neil Jumonville, ed., Routledge, 456 pages

The New York Intellectuals Reader is a sequel of sorts to editor Neil Jumonville's earlier work Critical Crossings, which dealt with some of the same figures of the New York highbrow set. In Critical Crossings, Jumonville focused on Partisan Review, a journal founded in 1940 by a circle of mostly Jewish Leftists who were then breaking--or had already broken--from the Communist Party. In The New York Intellectuals Reader, we are presented with excerpts from this group's contributions to Partisan Review and other periodicals that they and their disciples founded and maintained over several generations.

Almost all of the writers here excerpted--Philip Rahv, Clement Greenberg, Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz, Daniel Bell, Meyer Schapiro, Lionel and Diana Trilling, Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin, and Sidney Hook--shared a similar ethnic background. They came from immigrant parents who had settled on New York's Lower East Side. The offspring of these immigrants studied and debated politics at City College of New York or Brooklyn College. Unlike the Sephardic and German Jews who had arrived before them in the U.S., the more easily identified and often radicalized Jews from Lithuania or the Ukraine encountered resistance throughout American society. Columbia and the other Ivies were reluctant to admit them as students and refused to hire them as professors until the 1950s. Of this group, the English professor Trilling and the art historian Schapiro were the first to make it onto the Columbia faculty. (Despite his adoption of Eastern European Jewish quirks, Richard Hofstadter, who also joined Columbia, had a Protestant mother and had been raised as a Lutheran in Buffalo.)

Jumonville suggests that his subjects, having been denied other outlets for their theorizing energies, decided to found their own magazines. The reality was perhaps more complicated. With the exception of Dwight Macdonald, C. Wright Mill, Mary McCarthy and the German refugee Hannah Arendt, the Partisan Review circle seems to have been restricted to a specific Jewish subculture. Partisan Review, and later Dissent, Commentary, and Encounter were their publications of choice, magazines in which the contributors could present their own political, cultural, and existential concerns without having to please the gentile society from which they felt excluded. Each publication mirrored the mind and consciousness of the group that established it.

Jumonville divides his subjects into generational clusters, attaching certain attributes to each. He views the succession of generations--extending from such representative figures as Philip Rahv, to Daniel Bell and Irving Kristol, down to Norman Podhoretz--as moving steadily in a particular ideological direction. As his subjects became increasingly assimilated to and comfortable in American life, they shifted toward the center and then toward the right.

The anthologist also notes certain pivotal themes that interested each particular generation. The first generation sought a leftist socialist position that would allow them to support revolutionary change without being identified with Stalin's dictatorship. They denounced McCarthyism and other manifestations of post-World War II anticommunism while simultaneously depicting the Soviets as "totalitarian." At the same time, this generation tried to push a certain kind of Marxist esthetic, stressing the social background of artistic and literary works. For those adopting this perspective, the principal adversaries were the New Critics, such as Kenneth Burke, Yvor Winters, and Cleanth Brooks, who were dismissive of social influence in their literary studies.

The second generation, typified by Bell, Kristol, and S.M. Lipset, overcame the alienation from American life and constructed the influential theory that the U.S. was experiencing the "end of ideology." In a moderate welfare-state democracy, with a vigorous mixed economy, the social conflicts that had plagued Europe and even an earlier America were things of the past. Americans might quarrel over political issues; they were not likely, however, to be divided again by sharp class differences. In the third generation, represented by Podhoretz and other neoconservatives, the same tendency continued to unfold. The descendants of Eastern European Jewish immigrants who were active among New York's public intellectuals eventually claimed the mantle of American patriotism. The rise of this third cohort as leaders of the American conservative movement underscored this Americanizing process.

One of Jumonville's useful contributions is to note a frequently neglected characteristic of his first group. Members of the Partisan Review circle, exemplified by PR founder Rahv, flaunted their distance from American life. Until his death in 1973, Rahv went out of his way to call himself a "European." Although he and his colleagues had sprung from immigrant families that had come from the Eastern margin of European civilization, from Jewish ghettos in the Russian Pale of Settlement, they became eagerly European after arriving in the United States. This may have largely been a pose--in the same way that many of them sported French berets--but it reflected their deep anxiety about the "real America" across the Hudson, one that was imagined to be peopled by Protestant bigots and raving McCarthyites. Europe was safely at a distance, still ravaged from the last war, and Soviet armies had overrun the Eastern part of the continent. A prostrate Europe posed no threat to these intellectuals, who also incidentally showed little interest in Jewish nationalism.

There was a positive side to this obsession with things European. This anthology is full of intriguing references to modern European literary and artistic figures, including such stars of the cultural Right as Louis-Ferdinand Celine, Gottfried Benn, and T.S. Eliot. In 1949, Dwight Macdonald in his own magazine, Politics, published an enthusiastic endorsement of the Bollinger Committee's decision to award its annual literary prize to the Modernist poet Ezra Pound. Pound had been arrested and submitted to especially grim treatment after World War II for his pro-Axis speeches delivered in Mussolini's Italy. Furthermore, the work for which he received the Bollinger Prize, The Pisan Cantos, included grossly anti-Semitic references. Yet for Macdonald and perhaps others in the New York circle, Pound's achievements as a literary innovator trumped his unfortunate political associations and anti-Jewish opinions. And while the Commentary crowd gave a cold shoulder to Southern literature, earlier New York intellectual publications treated the genre sympathetically. Both Partisan Review and Dissent talked up the novels of William Faulkner and pointed approvingly to his stream of consciousness technique.

One critical reason, treated by Alexander Bloom in Prodigal Sons, for Norman Podhoretz's break with other New York Jewish intellectuals was their lack of concern about anti-Semitism. Podhoretz complained that his mentors had praised authors who transmitted anti-Jewish ideas. He was further troubled by the reluctance of older-generation Jewish intellectuals to take strongly pro-Zionist political positions. Given his worldview, he was of course correct. Partisan Review and in its early years Dissent would never reveal the same militantly Zionist edge as Commentary under Podhoretz's watch. Nor would one find in the latter any sympathy toward European thinkers and authors who were critical of Jews or Jewish influence.

Jumonville's focus on the intergenerational journey toward Americanization may have its limits. Although Alfred Kazin scandalized his peers in 1942 when he published On Native Grounds, his patriotic appraisal of Faulkner's works, this hymn to "our American culture" was not entirely out of place among the Jewish New York cognoscenti. It was only premature. By the 1950s, academic and professional barriers to Kazin's co-ethnics were coming down, and by the 1960s the New York Jewish immigrants and their children--whose alienation had been poured into Partisan Review and Dissent--were achieving a social success that had once been unimaginable.

It would be wrong to insist, however, that the uneasiness about a strange land that had been present among the first generation disappeared with the shift from the second to the third. That sense of marginality persisted, for example, in the stress on the "paranoid style" of heartland Americans and in their association of Goldwater Republicans with the "extreme Right"--both preoccupations that one could find in Bell and other representatives of the second cohort. Like the American Jewish Committee's sponsored anthology on prejudice, The Authoritarian Personality, the emphasis of the New York intellectuals on white Christian psychic disorders could be described as sociological window dressing. It expressed their persistent fear that outside of New York, things were still grim for urban Jews.

Even more importantly, another process, starting with the second generation and continuing into the third, reduced the sense of alienation felt by New York intellectuals. Jumonville's subjects set about revising American history in such a way as to close the distance between their concerns and those of the United States. These new "consensus" ideas presented a narrative of American progress leading toward pluralism, public administration, and the welfare state. The challenge to this non-ideological, consensual position was, for Bell and Lipset, not merely Communism but the Goldwater Right, which questioned the New Deal and the rising pluralist order. Fortunately for the New York intellectuals, American politics veered left after the Eisenhower years, so that the national experience conveniently intersected with the course they wished to see in the American experiment. It would, of course, be inadequate to tell someone who is measuring the distance between two objects that A is moving toward B without also notifying him that B is moving toward A with equal speed. This kind of comprehensive information, however, is never furnished in conventional accounts of how Jumonville's second and third cohorts became absorbed into the American Right and eventually became its most influential voice. What happened is less that these generations steered toward the Right than that those who accepted them as leaders of the American conservative movement shifted leftward with society as a whole. In the upshot, those who had once defined themselves as the anticommunist Left suddenly appeared to belong to the Right. Advocates of a large centralized welfare state with strong Zionist sympathies were embraced as natural allies of the Right, to the extent they opposed the moral revolution of the 1960s counterculture and favored a strong defensive posture vis-a-vis the Soviets.

An exaggerated emphasis on a neoconservative march toward the Right also diverts attention from certain other significant facts. Jumonville's anthology includes essays by Kristol and Podhoretz, published in the 1950s and 1960s, about McCarthyism and racial minorities that are far more reactionary than anything the authors would have published in the 1980s. Moreover, the first of the generations also seemed the least encumbered by Jewish parochialism. Despite their estrangement from gentile America, Jumonville's first cohort sometimes showed remarkable enthusiasm for made-in-America cultural products. One would be hard pressed today to find in Commentary the appreciations of Southern literature that were once taken for granted in PR.

Paul Gottfried is Raffensperger Professor of Humanities at Elizabethtown College and the author of Conservatism in America: Making Sense of the American Right.