The New York Intellectuals

The New York Intellectuals

Irving Howe, Stanford University, 1962

The social roots of the New York writers are not hard to trace. With a few delightful exceptions—a tendril from Yale, a vine from Seattle—they stem from the world of the immigrant Jews, either workers or petty bourgeois.1 They come at a moment in the development of immigrant Jewish culture when there is a strong drive not only to break out of the ghetto but also to leave behind the bonds of Jewishness entirely. Earlier generations had known such feelings, and through many works of fiction, especially those by Henry Roth, Michael Gold, and Daniel Fuchs, one can return to the classic pattern of a fierce attachment to the provincialism of origins as it becomes entangled with a fierce eagerness to plunge into the Gentile world of success, manners, freedom.

The New York intellectuals were the first group of Jewish writers to come out of the immigrant milieu who did not define themselves through a relationship, nostalgic or hostile, to memories of Jewishness. They were the first generation of Jewish writers for whom the recall of an immigrant childhood does not seem to have been completely overwhelming. That this severance from Jewish immigrant sources would later come to seem a little suspect is another matter. All I wish to stress here is that, precisely at the point in the thirties when the New York intellectuals began to form themselves into a loose cultural-political tendency, Jewishness as idea and sentiment played no significant role in their expectations—apart, to be sure, from a bitter awareness that no matter what their political or cultural desires, the sheer fact of their recent emergence had still to be regarded as an event within Jewish American life.

For decades the life of the East European Jews, in both the old country and the new, might be compared to a tightly gathered spring, trembling with unused force, which had been held in check until the climactic moment of settlement in America. Then the energies of generations came bursting out, with an ambition that would range from pure to coarse, and indeed would mix all these together, but finally—this ambition—would count for more as an absolute release than in any of its local manifestations. What made Sammy run was partly that his father and his father’s father had been bound hand and foot. And in all the New York intellectuals there was a fraction of Sammy.

The youthful experiences described by Alfred Kazin in his autobiography are, apart from his distinctive outcroppings of temperament, more or less typical of the experiences of many New York intellectuals—except for the handful who involved themselves deeply in the radical movement. It is my impression, however, that Kazin’s affectionate stress on the Jewish sources of his experience is mainly a feeling of retrospect, mainly a recognition that no matter how you might try to shake off your past, it would still cling to your speech, gestures, skin, and nose; it would still shape, with a thousand subtle movements, the way you did your work and raised your children. In the thirties, however, it was precisely the idea of discarding the past, breaking away from families, traditions, and memories which excited intellectuals.

The Jewish immigrant world branded upon its sons and daughters marks of separateness even while encouraging them to dreams of universalism. This subculture may have been formed to preserve ethnic continuity, but it was a continuity that would reach its triumph in self-disintegration. It taught its children both to conquer the Gentile world and to be conquered by it, both to leave an intellectual impress and to accept the dominant social norms. By the twenties and thirties the values dominating Jewish immigrant life were often secular, radical, and universalist, and if these were conveyed through a parochial vocabulary, they nonetheless carried some remnants of European culture. Even as they were moving out of a constricted immigrant milieu, the New York intellectuals were being prepared by it for the tasks they would set themselves. They were being prepared for the intellectual vocation as one of assertiveness, speculation, and freewheeling; for the strategic maneuvers of a vanguard, at this point almost a vanguard in the abstract, with no ranks following in the rear; and for the union of politics and culture, with the politics radical and the culture cosmopolitan. What made this goal all the more attractive was that the best living American critic, Edmund Wilson, had triumphantly reached it. The author of both The Triple Thinkers and To the Finland Station, he gave this view of the intellectual life a special authority.

That the literary avant-garde and the political left were not really comfortable partners would become clear with the passage of time; in Europe it already had. But during the years the New York intellectuals began to appear as writers and critics there was a feeling in the air that a union of the advanced— critical consciousness and political conscience—could be forged.

Throughout the thirties the New York intellectuals believed, somewhat naively, that this union was not only a desirable possibility but also a tie both natural and appropriate. Except, however, for the surrealists in Paris—and it is not clear how seriously this instance should be taken—the paths of political radicalism and cultural modernism have seldom met.

The history of the West in the last century offers many instances in which Jewish intellectuals played an important role in the development of political radicalism; but almost always this occurred when there were sizable movements, with the intellectuals serving as propagandists and functionaries of a party. In New York, by contrast, the intellectuals had no choice but to begin with a dissociation from the only significant radical movement in this country, the Communist Party. What for European writers like Koestler, Silone, and Malraux would be the end of the road was here a beginning. In a fairly short time, the New York writers found that the meeting of political and cultural ideas which had stirred them to excitement could also leave them stranded. Radicalism, in both its daily practice and ethical biases, proved inhospitable to certain aspects of modernism—and not always, I now think, mistakenly. Literary modernism often had a way of cavalierly dismissing the world of daily existence, a world that remained intensely absorbing to the New York writers. Literary modernism could sometimes align itself with reactionary movements, an embarrassing fact that required either tortuous explanations or complex dissociations. The New York writers discovered, as well, that their relationship to modernism as a purely literary phenomenon was less authoritative and more ambiguous than they had wished to feel. The great battles for Joyce, Eliot, and Proust had been fought in the twenties and mostly won; and now, while clashes with entrenched philistinism might still take place, they were mostly skirmishes or mopping-up operations (as in the polemics against the transfigured Van Wyck Brooks). The New York writers came at the end of the modernist experience, just as they came at what may yet have to be judged the end of the radical experience, and as they certainly came at the end of the immigrant Jewish experience. One shorthand way of describing their situation, a cause of both their feverish intensity and their recurrent instability, is to say that they came late.

During the thirties and forties their radicalism was anxious, problematic, and beginning to decay at the very moment it was adopted. They had no choice: the crisis of socialism was worldwide, profound, with no end in sight, and the only way to avoid that crisis was to bury oneself, as a few did, in left-wing sects. Some of the New York writers had gone through the “political school” of Stalinism, a training in coarseness from which not all recovered; some had even spent a short time in the organizational coils of the Communist Party. By 1936, when the anti-Stalinist Partisan Review was conceived, the central figures of that moment—Philip Rahv, William Phillips, Sidney Hook— had shed whatever sympathies they once felt for Stalinism, but the hope that they could find another ideological system, some cleansed version of Marxism associated perhaps with Trotsky or Rosa Luxemburg, was doomed to failure. Some gravitated for a year or two toward the Trotskyist group, but apart from admiration for Trotsky’s personal qualities and dialectical prowess, they found little satisfaction there; no version of orthodox Marxism could retain a hold on intellectuals who had gone through the trauma of abandoning the Leninist weltanschauung and had experienced the depth to which the politics of this century, notably the rise of totalitarianism, called into question Marxist categories. From now on, the comforts of system would have to be relinquished.

Though sometimes brilliant in expression and often a stimulus to cultural speculation, the radicalism of the New York intellectuals during the thirties was not a deeply grounded experience. It lacked roots in a popular movement which might bring them into relationship with the complexities of power and stringencies of organization. From a doctrine it became a style, and from a style a memory. It was symptomatic that the Marxist Quarterly, started in 1937 and probably the most distinguished Marxist journal ever published in this country, could survive no more than a year. The differences among its founders, some like James Burnham holding to a revolutionary Marxist line and others like Sidney Hook and Lewis Corey moving toward versions of liberalism and social democracy, proved too severe for collaboration. And even the radicalism of the Partisan Review editors and writers during its vivid early years—how deeply did it cut, except as a tool enabling them to break away from Marxism?


Yet if the radicalism of the New York intellectuals seems to have been without much political foundation or ideological strength, it certainly played an important role in their own development. For the New York writers, and even, I suspect, those among them who would later turn sour on the whole idea of radicalism (including the few who in the mid-sixties would try to erase the memory of having turned sour), the thirties represented a time of intensity and fervor, a reality or illusion of engagement, a youth tensed with conviction; so that even Dwight Macdonald, who at each point in his life made a specialty out of mocking his previous beliefs, could not help displaying tender feelings upon remembering his years, God help us, as a “revolutionist.” The radicalism of the thirties gave the New York intellectuals their distinctive style: a flair for polemic, a taste for the grand generalization, an impatience with what they regarded (often parochially) as parochial scholarship, an internationalist perspective, and a tacit belief in the unity—even if a unity beyond immediate reach—of intellectual work.

By comparison with competing schools of thought, the radicalism of the antiStalinist left, as it was then being advanced in Partisan Review, seemed cogent, fertile, alive; it could stir good minds to argument, it could gain the attention of writers abroad, it seemed to offer a combination of system and independence. With time the anti-Stalinist intellectuals came to enjoy advantages somewhat like those which have enabled old radicals to flourish in the trade unions; they could talk faster than anyone else, they were quicker on their feet.

Yet in fairness I should add that this radicalism did achieve something of substantial value in the history of American culture. It helped destroy Stalinism as a force in our intellectual life, and also those varieties of populist sentimentality which the Communist movement of the late thirties exploited with notable skill. If certain sorts of manipulative softheadedness have been all but banished from serious American writing, and the kinds of rhetoric once associated with Archibald MacLeish and Van Wyck Brooks cast into permanent disrepute, at least some credit for this ought to go to the New York writers.

It has recently become fashionable, especially in the pages of the New York Review of Books, to sneer at the achievements of the anti-Stalinist left by muttering darkly about “the Cold War.” But we ought to have enough respect for the past to avoid telescoping several decades. The major battle against Stalinism as a force within intellectual life, and in truth a powerful force, occurred before anyone heard of the Cold War; it occurred in the late thirties and early forties. In our own moment we see “the old crap,” as Marx once called it, rise to the surface with unnerving ease; there is something dizzying in an encounter with Stalin’s theory of “social Fascism,” particularly when it comes from the lips of young people who may not even be quite sure when Stalin lived. Still, I think there will not and probably cannot be repeated in our intellectual life the ghastly large-scale infatuation with a totalitarian regime which disgraced the thirties.

A little credit is due. Whatever judgments one may have about Sidney Hook’s later political writings, and mine have been very critical, it is a matter of decency to recall the liberating role he played in the thirties as spokesman for a democratic radicalism and a fierce opponent of all the rationalizations for totalitarianism a good many intellectuals allowed themselves. One reason people have recently felt free to look down their noses at “anti-Communism” as if it were a mass voodoo infecting everyone from far right to democratic left is precisely the toughness with which the New York intellectuals fought against Stalinism. Neither they nor anybody else could reestablish socialism as a viable politics in the United States; but for a time they did help to salvage the honor of the socialist idea—which meant primarily to place it in the sharpest opposition to all totalitarian systems. What many intellectuals now say they take for granted had first to be won through bitter and exhausting struggle.

I should not like to give the impression that Stalinism was the beginning and end of whatever was detestable in American intellectual life during the thirties. Like the decades to come, perhaps like all decades, this was a “low dishonest” time. No one who grew up in, or lived through, these years should wish for a replay of their ideological melodramas. Nostalgia for the thirties is a sentiment possible only to the very young or the very old, those who have not known and those who no longer remember. Whatever distinction can be assigned to the New York intellectuals during those years lies mainly in their persistence as a small minority, in its readiness to defend unpopular positions against apologists for the Moscow trials and Popular-Front culture. Some historians, with the selectivity of retrospect, have recently begun to place the New York intellectuals at the center of cultural life in the thirties—but this is both a comic misapprehension and a soiling honor. On the contrary; their best hours were spent on the margin, in opposition.

Later, in the forties and fifties, most of the New York intellectuals would abandon the effort to find a renewed basis for a socialist politics—to their serious discredit, I believe. Some would vulgarize anti-Stalinism into a politics barely distinguishable from reaction. Yet for almost all New York intellectuals the radical years proved a decisive moment in their lives. And for a very few, the decisive moment.

I have been speaking here as if the New York intellectuals were mainly political people, but in reality this was true for only a few of them, writers like Hook, Macdonald, and perhaps Rahv. Most were literary men with no experience in any political movement; they had come to radical politics through the pressures of conscience and a flair for the dramatic; and even in later years, when they abandoned any direct political involvement, they would in some sense remain “political.” They would respond with eagerness to historical changes, even if these promised renewed favor for the very ideas they had largely discarded. They would continue to structure their cultural responses through a sharp, perhaps excessively sharp, kind of categorization, in itself a sign that political styles and habits persisted. But for the most part, the contributions of the New York intellectuals were not to political thought. Given the brief span of time during which they fancied themselves agents of a renewed Marxism, there was little they could have done. Sidney Hook wrote one or two excellent books on the sources of Marxism, Harold Rosenberg one or two penetrating essays on the dramatics of Marxism; and not much more. The real contribution of the New York writers was toward creating a new, and for this country almost exotic, style of work. They thought of themselves as cultural radicals even after they had begun to wonder whether there was much point in remaining political radicals. But what could this mean? Cultural radicalism was a notion extremely hard to define and perhaps impossible to defend, as Richard Chase would discover in the late fifties when against the main drift of New York opinion he put forward the idea of a radicalism without immediate political ends but oriented toward criticism of a meretricious culture.

Chase was seriously trying to preserve a major impetus of New York intellectual life: the exploration and defense of literary modernism. He failed to see, however, that this was a task largely fulfilled and, in any case, taking on a far more ambiguous and less militant character in the fifties than it would have had twenty or thirty years earlier. The New York writers had done useful work in behalf of modernist literature. Without fully realizing it, they were continuing a cultural movement that had begun in the United States during the mid-nineteenth century: the return to Europe, not as provincials knocking humbly at the doors of the great, but as equals in an enterprise which by its very nature had to be international. We see this at work in Howells’s reception of Ibsen and Tolstoy; in Van Wyck Brooks’s use of European models to assault the timidities of American literature; in the responsiveness of the Little Review and the Dial to European experiments and, somewhat paradoxically, in the later fixation of the New Critics, despite an ideology of cultural provincialism, on modernist writing from abroad.



The New York critics helped complete this process of internationalizing American culture (also, by the way, Americanizing international culture). They gave a touch of glamour to that style which the Russians and Poles now call “cosmopolitan.” Partisan Review was the first journal in which it was not merely respectable but a matter of pride to print one of Eliot’s Four Quartets side by side with Marxist criticism. And not only did the magazine break down the polar rigidities of the hard-line Marxists and the hard-line nativists; it also sanctioned the idea, perhaps the most powerful cultural idea of the last half-century, that there existed an all but incomparable generation of modern masters, some of them still alive, who in this terrible age represented the highest possibilities of the imagination. On a more restricted scale, Partisan Review helped win attention and respect for a generation of European writers—Silone, Orwell, Malraux, Koestler, Victor Serge—who were not quite of the first rank as novelists but had suffered the failure of socialism.

If the Partisan critics came too late for a direct encounter with new work from the modern masters, they did serve the valuable end of placing that work in a cultural context more vital and urgent than could be provided by any other school of American criticism. For young people up to and through World War II, the Partisan critics helped to mold a new sensibility, a mixture of rootless radicalism and a desanctified admiration for writers like Joyce, Eliot, and Kafka. I can recall that even in my orthodox Marxist phase I felt that the central literary expression of the time was a poem by a St. Louis writer called “The Waste Land.”

In truth, however, the New York critics were then performing no more than an auxiliary service. They were following upon the work of earlier, more fortunate critics. And even in the task of cultural consolidation, which soon had the unhappy result of overconsolidating the modern masters in the academy, the New York critics found important allies among their occasional opponents in the New Criticism. As it turned out, the commitment to literary modernism proved insufficient either as a binding literary purpose or as a theme that might inform the writings of the New York critics. By now modernism was entering its period of decline; the old excitements had paled and the old achievements been registered. Modernism had become successful; it was no longer a literature of opposition, and thereby had begun a metamorphosis signifying ultimate death. The problem was no longer to fight for modernism; the problem was now to consider why the fight had so easily ended in triumph. And as time went on, modernism surfaced an increasing portion of its limitations and ambiguities, so that among some critics earlier passions of advocacy gave way to increasing anxieties of judgment. Yet the moment had certainly not come when a cool and objective reconsideration could be undertaken of works that had formed the sensibility of our time. The New York critics, like many others, were trapped in a dilemma from which no escape could be found, but which lent itself to brilliant improvisation; it was too late for unobstructed enthusiasm, it was too soon for unobstructed valuation, and meanwhile the literary work that was being published, though sometimes distinguished, was composed in the heavy shadows of the modernists. At almost every point this work betrayed the marks of having come after.

Except for Harold Rosenberg, who would make “the tradition of the new” a signature of his criticism, the New York writers slowly began to release those sentiments of uneasiness they had been harboring about the modernist poets and novelists. One instance was the notorious Pound case,2 in which literary and moral values, if not jammed into a head-on collision, were certainly entangled beyond easy separation. Essays on writers like D. H. Lawrence—what to make of his call for “blood consciousness,” what one’s true response might be to his notions of the leader cult—began to appear. A book by John Harrison, The Reactionaries, which contains a full-scale attack on the politics of several modernist writers, is mostly a compilation of views that had already been gathering force over the last few decades. And then, as modernism stumbled into its late period, those recent years in which its early energies evidently reached a point of exhaustion, the New York critics became still more discomfited. There was a notable essay by Lionel Trilling in which he acknowledged mixed feelings toward the modernist writers he had long praised and taught. There was a cutting attack by Philip Rahv on Jean Genet, that perverse genius in whose fiction the compositional resources of modernism seem all but severed from its moral—one might even say, its human—interests.

For the New York intellectuals in the thirties and forties there was still another focus of interest, never quite as strong as radical politics or literary modernism but seeming, for a brief time, to promise a valuable new line of discussion. In the essays of writers like Clement Greenberg and Dwight Macdonald, more or less influenced by the German neo-Marxist school of Adorno-Horkheimer, there were beginnings at a theory of “mass culture,” that mass-produced pseudo-art characteristic of industrialized urban society, together with its paralyzed audiences, its inaccessible sources, its parasitic relation to high culture. More insight than system, this slender body of work was nevertheless a contribution to the study of that hazy area where culture and society meet. It was attacked by writers like Edward Shils as being haughtily elitist, on the ground that it assumed a condescension to the tastes and experiences of the masses. It was attacked by writers like Harold Rosenberg, who charged that only people taking a surreptitious pleasure in dipping their noses into trash would study the “content” (he had no objection to sociological investigations) of mass culture. Even at its most penetrating, the criticism of mass culture was beset by uncertainty and improvisation; perhaps all necessary for a beginning.

Then, almost as if by common decision, the whole subject was dropped. For years hardly a word could be found in the advanced journals about what a little earlier had been called a crucial problem of the modern era. One reason was that the theory advanced by Greenberg and Macdonald turned out to be static: it could be stated but apparently not developed. It suffered from weaknesses parallel to those of Hannah Arendt’s theory of totalitarianism: by positing a cul-de-sac, a virtual end of days, for twentieth-century man and his culture, it proposed a suffocating relationship between high or minority culture and the ever-multiplying mass culture.

In the absence of more complex speculations, there was little point in continuing to write about mass culture. Besides, hostility toward the commercial pseudoarts was hard to maintain with unyielding intensity, mostly because it was hard to remain all that interested in them—only in Macdonald’s essays did both hostility and interest survive intact. Some felt that the whole matter had been inflated and that writers should stick to their business, which was literature, and intellectuals to theirs, which was ideas. Others felt that the movies and TV were beginning to show more ingenuity and resourcefulness than the severe notions advanced by Greenberg and Macdonald allowed for, though no one could have anticipated that glorious infatuation with trash which Marshall McLuhan would make acceptable. And still others felt that the multiplication of insights, even if pleasing as an exercise, failed to yield significant results: a critic who contributes a nuance to Dostoevsky criticism is working within a structured tradition, while one who throws off a clever observation about Little Orphan Annie is simply showing that he can do what he has done.

There was another and more political reason for the collapse of mass-culture criticism. One incentive toward this kind of writing was the feeling that industrial society had reached a point of affluent stasis where major events could now be registered much more vividly in culture than in economics. While aware of the dangers of reductionism here, I think the criticism of mass culture did serve, as some of its critics charged, conveniently to replace the criticism of bourgeois society. If you couldn’t stir the proletariat to action, you could denounce Madison Avenue in comfort. Once, however, it began to be felt among intellectuals in the fifties that there was no longer so overwhelming a need for political criticism, and once it began to seem in the sixties that there were new openings for political criticism, the appetite for cultural surrogates became less keen.

Greenberg now said little more about mass culture; Macdonald made no serious effort to extend his theory or test it against new events; and in recent years, younger writers have seemed to feel that the whole approach of these men was heavy and humorless. Susan Sontag has proposed a cheerfully eclectic view which undercuts just about everything written from the Greenberg-Macdonald position. Now everyone is to do “his thing,” high, middle, or low; the old puritan habit of interpretation and judgment, so inimical to sensuousness, gives way to a programmed receptivity; and we are enlightened by lengthy studies of the Beatles.

By the end of World War II, the New York writers had reached a point of severe intellectual crisis, though they themselves often felt they were entering a phase of enlarged influence. Perhaps there was a relation between inner crisis and external influence. Everything that had kept them going—the idea of socialism, the advocacy of literary modernism, the assault on mass culture, a special brand of literary criticism—was judged to be irrelevant to the postwar years. But as a group, just at the time their internal disintegration had seriously begun, the New York writers could be readily identified. The leading critics were Rahv, Phillips, Trilling, Rosenberg, Lionel Abel, and Kazin. The main political theorist was Hook. Writers of poetry and fiction related to the New York milieu were Delmore Schwartz, Saul Bellow, Paul Goodman, and Isaac Rosenfeld. And the recognized scholar, and also inspiring moral force, was Meyer Schapiro.


A sharp turn occurs, or is completed, soon after World War II. The intellectuals now go racing or stumbling from idea to idea, notion to notion, hope to hope, fashion to fashion. This instability often derives from a genuine eagerness to capture all that seems new—or threatening—in experience, sometimes from a mere desire to please a bitch goddess named Novelty. The abandonment of ideology can be liberating: a number of talents, thrown back on their own resources, begin to grow. The surrender of “commitment” can be damaging: some writers find themselves rattling about in a gray freedom. The culture opens up, with both temptation and generosity, and together with intellectual anxieties there are public rewards, often deserved. A period of dispersion; extreme oscillations in thought; and a turn in politics toward an increasingly conservative kind of liberalism—reflective, subtle, acquiescent.

The postwar years were marked by a sustained discussion of the new political and intellectual problems raised by the totalitarian state. Nothing in received political systems, neither Marxist nor liberal, adequately prepared one for the frightful mixture of terror and ideology, the capacity to sweep along the plebeian masses and organize a warfare state, and above all the readiness to destroy entire peoples, which characterized totalitarianism. Still less was anyone prepared—who had heeded the warning voices of the Russian socialist Julian Martov or the English liberal Bertrand Russell?— for the transformation of the revolutionary Bolshevik state, through either a “necessary” degeneration or an internal counterrevolution, into one of the major totalitarian powers. Marxist theories of fascism—the “last stage” of capitalism, with the economy stratified to organize a permanent war machine and mass terror employed to put down rebellious workers—came to seem, if not entirely mistaken, then certainly insufficient. The quasior pseudoLeninist notion that “bourgeois democracy” was merely a veiled form of capitalist domination, little different in principle from its open dictatorship, proved to be a moral and political disaster. The assumption that socialism was an ordained “next step,” or that nationalization of industry constituted a sufficient basis for working-class rule, was as great a disaster. No wonder intellectual certainties were shattered and these years marked by frenetic improvisation. At every point, with the growth of Communist power in Europe and with the manufacture of the Bomb at home, apocalypse seemed the fate of tomorrow.

So much foolishness has been written about the New York intellectuals and their anti-Communism, either by those who have signed a separate peace with the authoritarian idea or those who lack the courage to defend what is defensible in their own past, that I want here to be both blunt and unyielding.

Given the enormous growth of Russian power after the war and the real possibility of a Communist takeover in Europe, the intellectuals—and not they alone—had to reconsider their political responses.3 An old-style Marxist declaration of rectitude, a plague repeated on both their houses? Or the difficult position of making foreign-policy proposals for the United States, while maintaining criticism of its social order, so as to block totalitarian expansion without resort to war? Most intellectuals decided they had to choose the second course, and they were right.

Like anticapitalism, anti-Communism was a tricky politics, all too open to easy distortion. Like anticapitalism, anti-Communism could be put to the service of ideological racketeering and reaction. Just as ideologues of the fanatic right insisted that by some ineluctable logic anti-capitalism led to a Stalinist terror, so ideologues of the authoritarian left, commandeering the same logic, declared that anti-Communism led to the politics of Dulles and Rusk. But there is no “anticapitalism” or “anti-Communism” in the abstract; these take on political flesh only when linked with a larger body of programs and values, so that it becomes clear what kind of “anticapitalism” or “anti-Communism” we are dealing with. It is absurd, and indeed disreputable, for intellectuals in the sixties to write as if there were a unified “anti-Communism” which can be used to enclose the views of everyone from William Buckley to Michael Harrington.

There were difficulties. A position could be worked out for conditional support of the West when it defended Berlin or introduced the Marshall Plan or provided economic help to underdeveloped countries; but in the course of daily politics, in the effort to influence the foreign policy of what remained a capitalist power, intellectuals could lose their independence and slip into vulgarities of analysis and speech.

Painful choices had to be faced. When the Hungarian revolution broke out in 1956, most intellectuals sympathized strongly with the rebels, yet feared that active intervention by the West might provoke a world war. For a rational and humane mind, anti-Communism could not be the sole motive—it could be only one of several—in political behavior and policy; and even those intellectuals who had by now swung a considerable distance to the right did not advocate military intervention in Hungary. There was simply no way out—as there was none in Czechoslovakia.

It became clear, furthermore, that United States military intervention in underdeveloped countries could help local reactionaries in the short run, and the Communists in the long run. These difficulties were inherent in postwar politics, and they ruled out—though for that very reason, also made tempting—a simplistic moralism. These difficulties were also exacerbated by the spread among intellectuals of a crude sort of anti-Communism, often ready to justify whatever the United States might do at home and abroad. For a hard-line group within the American Committee for Cultural Freedom, all that seemed to matter in any strongly felt way was a sour hatred of the Stalinists, historically justifiable but more and more a political liability even in the fight against Stalinism. The dangers in such a politics now seem all too obvious, but I should note, for whatever we may mean by the record, that in the early fifties they were already being pointed out by a mostly unheeded minority of intellectuals around Dissent. Yet, with all these qualifications registered, the criticism to be launched against the New York intellectuals in the postwar years is not that they were strongly anti-Communist but, rather, that many of them, through disorientation or insensibility, allowed their anti-Communism to become something cheap and illiberal.

Nor is the main point of moral criticism that the intellectuals abandoned socialism. We have no reason to suppose that the declaration of a socialist opinion induces a greater humaneness than does acquiescence in liberalism. It could be argued (I would) that in the ease with which ideas of socialism were now brushed aside there was something shabby. It was undignified, at the very least, for people who had made so much of their Marxist credentials now to put to rest so impatiently the radicalism of their youth. Still, it might be said by some of the New York writers that reality itself had forced them to conclude socialism was no longer viable or had become irrelevant to the American scene, and that while this conclusion might be open to political argument, it was not to moral attack.

Let us grant that for a moment. What cannot be granted is that the shift in ideologies required or warranted the surrender of critical independence which was prevalent during the fifties. In the trauma—or relief—of ideological ricochet, all too many intellectuals joined the American celebration. It was possible, to cite but one of many instances, for Mary McCarthy to write: “Class barriers disappear or tend to become porous [in the U.S.]; the factory worker is an economic aristocrat in comparison with the middle-class clerk. . . . The America . . . of vast inequalities and dramatic contrasts is rapidly ceasing to exist” (emphasis added). Because the New York writers all but surrendered their critical perspective on American society—that is why they were open to attack.

It was the growth of McCarthyism which brought most sharply into question the role of the intellectuals. Here, presumably, all men of good will could agree; here the interests of the intellectuals were beyond dispute and directly at stake. The record is not glorious. In New York circles it was often said that Bertrand Russell exaggerated wildly in describing the United States as “subject to a reign of terror” and that Simone de Beauvoir retailed Stalinist clichés in her reportage from America. Yet it should not be forgotten that, if not “a reign of terror,” McCarthyism was frightful and disgusting, and that a number of Communists and fellow-travelers, not always carefully specified, suffered serious harm.

A magazine like Partisan Review was of course opposed to McCarthy’s campaign, but it failed to take the lead on the issue of freedom which might once again have imbued the intellectuals with fighting spirit. Unlike some of its New York counterparts, it did print sharp attacks on the drift toward conservatism, and it did not try to minimize the badness of the situation in the name of antiCommunism. But the magazine failed to speak out with enough force and persistence, or to break past the hedgings of those intellectuals who led the American Committee for Cultural Freedom.

Commentary, under Elliot Cohen’s editorship, was still more inclined to minimize the threat of McCarthyism. In September 1952, at the very moment McCarthy became a central issue in the presidential campaign, Cohen could write: “McCarthy remains in the popular mind an unreliable, second-string blowhard; his only support as a great national figure is from the fascinated fears of the intelligentsia”— a mode of argument all too close to that of the anti-antiCommunists who kept repeating that Communism was a serious problem only in the minds of anti-Communists.

In the American Committee for Cultural Freedom the increasingly conformist and conservative impulses of the New York intellectuals, or at least of a good number of them, found formal expression. I quote at length from Michael Harrington in a 1955 issue of Dissent, because it says precisely what needs to be said:

In practice the ACCF has fallen behind Sidney Hook’s views on civil liberties. Without implying any “conspiracy” theory of history . . . one may safely say that it is Hook who has molded the decisive ACCF policies. His Heresy Yes, Conspiracy No articles were widely circulated by the Committee, which meant that in effect it endorsed his systematic, explicit efforts to minimize the threat to civil liberties and to attack those European intellectuals who, whatever their own political or intellectual deficiencies, took a dim view of American developments. Under the guidance of Hook and the leadership of Irving Kristol . . . the American Committee cast its weight not so much in defense of those civil liberties which were steadily being nibbled away, but rather against those few remaining fellow-travelers who tried to exploit the civil-liberties issue.

At times this had an almost comic aspect. When Irving Kristol was executive secretary of the ACCF, one learned to expect from him silence on those issues that were agitating the whole intellectual and academic world, and enraged communiqués on the outrages performed by people like Arthur Miller and Bertrand Russell in exaggerating the dangers to civil liberties in the U.S.

Inevitably this led to more serious problems. In an article by Kristol, which first appeared in Commentary and was later circulated under the ACCF imprimatur, one could read such astonishing and appalling statements as “there is one thing the American people know about Senator McCarthy; he, like them, is unequivocally anti-Communist. About the spokesmen for American liberalism, they feel they know no such thing. And with some justification.” This in the name of defending cultural freedom!

Harrington then proceeded to list several instances in which the ACCF had “acted within the United States in defense of freedom.” But these activities do not absorb the main attention or interest of the Committee; its leadership is too jaded, too imbued with the sourness of indiscriminate anti-Stalinism to give itself to an active struggle against the dominant trend of contemporary intellectual life in America. What it really cares about is a struggle against fellow-travelers and “neutralists”— that is, against many European intellectuals. . . .

One of the crippling assumptions of the Committee has been that it would not intervene in cases where Stalinists or accused Stalinists were involved. It has rested this position on the academic argument . . . that Stalinists, being enemies of democracy, have no “right” to democratic privileges. . . . But the actual problem is not the metaphysical one of whether enemies of democracy (as the Stalinists clearly are) have a “right” to democratic privileges. What matters is that the drive against cultural freedom and civil liberties takes on the guise of anti-Stalinism.

Years later came the revelations that the Congress for Cultural Freedom, which had its headquarters in Paris and with which the American Committee was for a time affiliated, had received secret funds from the CIA. Some of the people, it turned out, with whom one had sincerely disagreed were not free men at all; they were accomplices of an intelligence service. What a sad denouement! And yet not the heart of the matter, as the malicious Ramparts journalists have tried to make out. Most of the intellectuals who belonged to the ACCF seem not to have had any knowledge of the CIA connection—on this, as on anything else, I would completely accept the word of Dwight Macdonald. It is also true, however, that these intellectuals seem not to have inquired very closely into the Congress’s sources of support. That a few, deceiving their closest associates, established connections with the CIA was not nearly so important, however, as that a majority within the Committee acquiesced in a politics of acquiescence. We Americans have a strong taste for conspiracy theories, supposing that if you scratch a trouble you’ll find a villain. But history is far more complicated; and squalid as the CIA tie was, it should not be used to smear honest people who had nothing to do with secret services even as they remain open to criticism for what they did say and do.

At the same time, the retrospective defenses offered by some New York intellectuals strike me as decidedly lame. Meetings and magazines sponsored by the Congress, Daniel Bell has said, kept their intellectual freedom and contained criticism of U.S. policy—true but hardly to the point, since the issue at stake is not the opinions the Congress tolerated but the larger problem of good faith in intellectual life. The leadership of the Congress did not give its own supporters the opportunity to choose whether they wished to belong to a CIA-financed group. Another defense, this one offered by Sidney Hook, is that private backing was hard to find during the years it was essential to publish journals like Preuves and Encounter in Europe. Simply as a matter of fact, I do not believe this. For the Congress to have raised its funds openly, from nongovernmental sources, would have meant discomfort, scrounging, penny-pinching: all the irksome things editors of little magazines have always had to do. By the postwar years, however, leading figures of both the Congress and the Committee no longer thought or behaved in that tradition.

Dwight Macdonald did. His magazine Politics was the one significant effort during the late forties to return to radicalism. Enlivened by Macdonald’s ingratiating personality and his table-hopping mind, Politics brought together sophisticated muckraking with tortuous revaluations of Marxist ideology. Macdonald could not long keep in balance the competing interests which finally tore apart his magazine: lively commentary on current affairs and unavoidable if depressing retrospects on the failure of the left. As always with Macdonald, honesty won out (one almost adds, alas) and the “inside” political discussion reached its climax with his essay “The Root Is Man,” in which he arrived at a kind of anarcho-pacifism based on an absolutist morality. This essay was in many ways the most poignant and authentic expression of the plight of those few intellectuals—Nicola Chiaromonte, Paul Goodman, Macdonald—who wished to dissociate themselves from the postwar turn to realpolitik but could not find ways of transforming sentiments of rectitude and visions of utopia into a workable politics. It was also a perfect leftist rationale for a kind of internal emigration of spirit and mind, with some odd shadings of similarity to the Salinger cult of the late fifties.4

The overwhelming intellectual drift, however, was toward the right. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., with moony glances at Kierkegaard, wrote essays in which he maintained that American society had all but taken care of its economic problems and could now concentrate on raising its cultural level. The “end of ideology” became a favorite shield for intellectuals in retreat, though it was never entirely clear whether this phrase meant the end of “our” ideology (partly true) or that all ideologies were soon to disintegrate (not true) or that the time had come to abandon the nostalgia for ideology (at least debatable). And in the mid-fifties, as if to codify things, there appeared in Partisan Review a symposium, “Our Country and Our Culture,” in which all but three or four of the thirty participants clearly moved away from their earlier radical views. The rapprochement with “America the Beautiful,” as Mary McCarthy now called it in a tone not wholly ironic, seemed almost complete.


In these years there also began that series of gyrations in opinion, interest, and outlook— so frenetic, so unserious—which would mark our intellectual life. In place of the avant-garde idea we now had the style of fashion, though to suggest a mere replacement may be too simple, since fashion has often shadowed the avant-garde as a kind of dandified double. Some intellectuals turned to a weekend of religion, some to a semester of existentialism, some to a holiday of Jewishness without faith or knowledge, some to a season of genteel conservatism. Leslie Fiedler, no doubt by design, seemed to go through more of such episodes than anyone else: even his admirers could not always be certain whether he was davenning or doing a rain dance.

These twists and turns were lively, and they could all seem harmless if only one could learn to look upon intellectual life as a variety of play, like potsy or king of the hill. What struck one as troubling, however, was not this or that fashion (tomorrow morning would bring another), but the dynamic of fashion itself, the ruthlessness with which, to remain in fashion, fashion had to keep devouring itself.

It would be unfair to give the impression that the fifteen years after the war were without significant growth or achievement among the New York writers. The attempt of recent New Left ideologues to present the forties and fifties as if they were no more than a time of intellectual sterility and reaction is an oversimplification. Together with the turn toward conservative acquiescence, there were serious and valuable achievements. Hannah Arendt’s book on totalitarianism may now seem open to many criticisms, but it certainly must rank as a major piece of work which, at the very least, made impossible—I mean, implausible—those theories of totalitarianism which, before and after she wrote, tended to reduce fascism and Stalinism to a matter of class rule or economic interest. Daniel Bell’s writing contributed to the rightward turn of these years, but some of it, such as his excellent little book Work and Its Discontents, constitutes a permanent contribution, and one that is valuable for radicals too. The stress upon complexity of thought which characterized intellectual life during these years could be used as a rationale for conservatism, and perhaps even arose from the turn toward conservatism; but in truth, the lapsed radicalism of earlier years had proved to be simplistic, the world of late capitalism was perplexing, and for serious people complexity is a positive value. Even the few intellectuals who resisted the dominant temper of the fifties underwent during these years significant changes in their political outlooks and styles of thought: e.g., those around Dissent who cut whatever ties of sentiment still held them to the Bolshevik tradition and made the indissoluble connection between democracy and socialism a crux of their thought. Much that happened during these years is to be deplored and dismissed, but not all was waste; the increasing sophistication and complication of mind was a genuine gain, and it would be absurd, at this late date, to forgo it.

In literary criticism there were equivalent achievements. The very instability that might make a shambles out of political thought could have the effect of magnifying the powers required for criticism. Floundering in life and uncertainty in thought could make for an increased responsiveness to art. In the criticism of men like Trilling, Rahv, Richard Chase, and F. W. Dupee there was now a more authoritative relation to the literary text and a richer awareness of the cultural past than was likely to be found in their earlier work. And a useful tension was also set up between the New York critics, whose instinctive response to literature was through a social-moral contextualism, and the New Critics, whose formalism proved of great value to those who opposed it.

Meanwhile, the world seemed to be opening up, with all its charms, seductions, and falsities. In the thirties the life of the New York writers had been confined: the little magazine as island, the radical sect as cave. Partly they were recapitulating the pattern of immigrant Jewish experience: an ingathering of the flock in order to break out into the world and taste the Gentile fruits of status and success. Once it became clear that waiting for the revolution might turn out to be steady work and that the United States would neither veer to fascism nor sink into depression, the intellectuals had little choice but to live within (which didn’t necessarily mean, become partisans of ) the existing society.

There was money to be had from publishers, no great amounts, but more than in the past. There were jobs in the universities, even for those without degrees. Some writers began to discover that publishing a story in the New Yorker or Esquire was not a sure ticket to Satan; others to see that the academy, while perhaps less exciting than the Village, wasn’t invariably a graveyard for intellect and might even provide the only harbor in which serious people could do their own writing and perform honorable work. This dispersion involved losses, but usually there was nothing sinister about it. Writers ought to know something about the world; they ought to test their notions against the reality of the country in which they live.

Worldly involvements would, of course, bring risks, and one of these was power, really a very trifling kind of power, but still enough to raise the fear of corruption. That power corrupts everyone knows by now, but we ought also to recognize that powerlessness, if not corrupting, can be damaging—as in the case of Paul Goodman, a courageous writer who stuck to his anarchist beliefs through years in which he was mocked and all but excluded from the New York journals, yet who could also come to seem an example of asphyxiating righteousness.

What brought about these changes? Partly ideological adaptation, a feeling that capitalist society was here to stay and there wasn’t much point in maintaining a radical position. Partly the sly workings of prosperity. But also a loosening of the society itself, the start of that process which only now is in full swing—I mean the remarkable absorptiveness of modern society, its readiness to abandon traditional precepts for a moment of excitement, its growing permissiveness toward social criticism, perhaps out of indifference, or security, or even tolerance.

In the sixties well-placed young professors and radical students would denounce the “success,” sometimes the “sellout,” of the New York writers. Their attitude reminds one a little of George Orwell’s remark about wartime France: only a Pétain could afford the luxury of asceticism, ordinary people had to live by the necessities of materialism. But really, when you come to think of it, what did this “success” of the intellectuals amount to? A decent or a good job, a chance to earn extra money by working hard, and in the case of a few, like Trilling and Kazin, some fame beyond New York— rewards most European intellectuals would take for granted, so paltry would they seem. For the New York writers who lived through the thirties expecting never to have a job at all, a regular paycheck might be remarkable; but in the American scale of things it was very modest indeed. And what the “leftist” prigs of the sixties, sons of psychiatrists and manufacturers, failed to understand—or perhaps understood only too well—was that the “success” with which they kept scaring themselves was simply one of the possibilities of adult life, a possibility, like failure, heavy with moral risks and disappointment. Could they imagine that they too might have to face the common lot? I mean the whole business: debts, overwork, varicose veins, alimony, drinking, quarrels, hemorrhoids, depletion, the recognition that one might prove not to be another T. S. Eliot, but also some good things, some lessons learned, some “rags of time” salvaged and precious.

Here and there you could find petty greed or huckstering, now and again a drop into opportunism; but to make much of this would be foolish. Common clay, the New York writers had their share of common ambition. What drove them, and sometimes drove them crazy, was not, however, the quest for money, nor even a chance to “mix” with White House residents; it was finally a gnawing ambition to write something, even three pages, that might live.

The intellectuals should have regarded their entry into the outer world as utterly commonplace, at least if they kept faith with the warning of Stendhal and Balzac that one must always hold a portion of the self forever beyond the world’s reach. Few of the New York intellectuals made much money on books and articles. Few reached audiences beyond the little magazines. Few approached any centers of power, and precisely the buzz of gossip attending the one or two sometimes invited to a party beyond the well-surveyed limits of the West Side showed how confined their life still was. What seems most remarkable in retrospect is the innocence behind the assumption, sometimes held by the New York writers themselves with a nervous mixture of guilt and glee, that whatever recognition they won was cause for either preening or embarrassment. For all their gloss of sophistication, they had not really moved very far into the world. The immigrant milk was still on their lips.


In their published work during these years, the New York intellectuals developed a characteristic style of exposition and polemic. With some admiration and a bit of irony, let us call it the style of brilliance. The kind of essay they wrote was likely to be wide-ranging in reference, melding notions about literature and politics, sometimes announcing itself as a study of a writer or literary group but usually taut with a pressure to “go beyond” its subject, toward some encompassing moral or social observation. It is a kind of writing highly self-conscious in mode, with an unashamed vibration of bravura. Nervous, strewn with knotty or flashy phrases, impatient with transitions and other concessions to dullness, calling attention to itself as a form or at least an outcry, fond of rapid twists, taking pleasure in dispute, dialectic, dazzle—such, at its best or most noticeable, was the essay cultivated by the New York writers. Until recently its strategy of exposition was likely to be impersonal (the writer did not speak much as an “I”) but its tone and bearing were likely to be intensely personal (the audience was to be made aware that the aim of the piece was not judiciousness, but, rather, a strong impress of attitude, a blow of novelty, a wrenching of accepted opinion, sometimes a mere indulgence of vanity).

In some of these essays there was a sense of tournament, the writer as gymnast with one eye on other rings, or as skilled infighter juggling knives of dialectic. Polemics were harsh, often rude. And audiences nurtured, or spoiled, on this kind of performance, learned not to form settled judgments about a dispute until all sides had registered their blows: surprise was always a possible reward.

This style may have brought new life to the American essay, but among contemporary readers it often evoked a strong distaste, even fear. “Ordinary” readers could be left with the fretful sense that they were not “in,” the beauties of polemic racing past their sluggish eye. Old-line academics, quite as if they had just crawled out of The Dunciad, enjoyed dismissing the New York critics as “unsound.” And for some younger souls, the cliffs of dialectic seemed too steep. Seymour Krim has left a poignant account of his disablement before “the overcerebral, Europeanish, sterilely citified, pretentiously alienated” New York intellectuals. Resentful at the fate which drove them to compare themselves with “the overcerebral, etc., etc.,” Krim writes that he and his friends “were often tortured and unappeasably bitter about being the offspring of this unhappily unique-ingrown-screwed-up breed.” Similar complaints could be heard from other writers who felt that New York intellectualism threatened their vital powers.

At its best the style of brilliance reflected a certain view of the intellectual life: free-lance dash, peacock strut, daring hypothesis, knockabout synthesis. For better or worse it was radically different from the accepted modes of scholarly publishing and middlebrow journalism. It celebrated the idea of the intellectual as antispecialist, or as a writer whose speciality was the lack of a speciality: the writer as dilettante-connoisseur, Luftmensch of the mind, roamer among theories. But it was a style which also lent itself with peculiar ease to a stifling mimicry and decadence. Sometimes it seemed—no doubt mistakenly—as if any sophomore, indeed any parrot, could learn to write one of those scintillating Partisan reviews, so thoroughly could manner consume matter. In the fifties the cult of brilliance became a sign that writers were offering not their work or ideas but their persona as content; and this was but a step or two away from the exhibitionism of the sixties. Brilliance could become a sign of intellect unmoored: the less assurance, the more pyrotechnics.

If to the minor genre of the essay the New York writers made a major contribution, to the major genres of fiction and poetry they made only a minor contribution. As a literary group, they will seem less important than, say, the New Critics, who did set in motion a whole school of poetry. A few poets—John Berryman, Robert Lowell, Randall Jarrell, perhaps Stanley Kunitz—have been influenced by the New York intellectuals, though in ways hardly comprising a major pressure on their work: all were finished writers by the time they brushed against the New York milieu. For one or two poets, the influence of New York meant becoming aware of the cultural pathos resident in the idea of the Jew (not always distinguished from the idea of Delmore Schwartz). But the main literary contribution of the New York milieu has been to legitimate a subject and tone we must uneasily call American Jewish writing. The fiction of urban malaise, second-generation complaint, Talmudic dazzle, woeful alienation, and dialectical irony, all found its earliest expression in the pages of Commentary and Partisan Review—fiction in which the Jewish world is not merely regained in memory as a point of beginnings, an archetypal Lower East Side of spirit and place, but is also treated as a portentous metaphor of man’s homelessness and wandering.

Such distinguished short fictions as Bellow’s Seize the Day, Schwartz’s “In Dreams Begin Responsibility,” Mailer’s “The Man Who Studied Yoga,” and Malamud’s “The Magic Barrel” seem likely to survive the cultural moment in which they were written. And even if one concludes that these and similar pieces are not enough to warrant speaking of a major literary group, they certainly form a notable addition—a new tone, a new sensibility—to American writing. In time, these writers may be regarded as the last “regional” group in American literature, parallel to recent Southern writers in both sophistication of craft and a thematic dissociation from the values of American society. Nor is it important that during the last few decades both of these literary tendencies, the Southern and the Jewish, have been overvalued. The distance of but a few years has already made it clear that except for Faulkner Southern writing consists of a scatter of talented minor poets and novelists; and in a decade or so a similar judgment may be commonly accepted about most of the Jewish writers.

What is clear from both Southern and Jewish writing is that in a society increasingly disturbed about its lack of self-definition, the recall of regional and traditional details can be intensely absorbing in its own right, as well as suggestive of larger themes transcending the region. (For the Jewish writers New York was not merely a place, it was a symbol, a burden, a stamp of history.) Yet the writers of neither school have thus far managed to move from their particular milieu to a grasp of the entire culture; the very strengths of their localism define their limitations; and especially is this true for the Jewish writers, in whose behalf critics have recently overreached themselves.

Whatever the hopeful future of individual writers, the “school” of American Jewish writing is by now in an advanced state of decomposition: how else to explain the attention it has lately enjoyed? Or the appearance of a generation of younger Jewish writers who, without authentic experience or memory to draw upon, manufacture fantasies about the lives of their grandfathers? Or the popularity of Isaac Bashevis Singer, who, coming to the American literary scene precisely at the moment when writers composing in English had begun to exhaust the Jewish subject, could, by dazzling contrast, extend it endlessly backward in time and deeper in historical imagination?

Just as there appear today young Jewish intellectuals who no longer know what it is that as Jews they do not know, so in fiction the fading immigrant world offers a thinner and thinner yield to writers of fiction. It no longer presses on memory; people can now choose whether to care about it. We are almost at the end of a historic experience, and it now seems unlikely that there will have arisen in New York a literary school comparable to the best this country has had. Insofar as the New York intellectual atmosphere has affected writers like Schwartz, Rosenfeld, Bellow, Malamud, Mailer, Goodman, and Philip Roth, it seems to have been too brittle, too contentious, too insecure for major creative work. What cannot yet be estimated is the extent to which the styles and values of the New York world may have left a mark on the work of American writers who never came directly under its influence.

Thinking back upon intellectual life in the forties and fifties, and especially the air of malaise that hung over it, I find myself turning to a theme as difficult to clarify as it is impossible to evade. And here, for a few paragraphs, let me drop the porous shield of impersonality and speak openly in the first person.


We were living directly after the holocaust of the European Jews. We might scorn our origins; we might crush America with discoveries of ardor; we might change our names. But we knew that but for an accident of geography we might also now be bars of soap. At least some of us could not help feeling that in our earlier claims to have shaken off all ethnic distinctiveness there had been something false, something shaming. Our Jewishness might have no clear religious or national content, it might be helpless before the criticism of believers; but Jews we were, like it or not, and liked or not.

To recognize that we were living after one of the greatest catastrophes of human history, and one for which we could not claim to have adequately prepared ourselves either as intellectuals or as human beings, brought a new rush of feelings, mostly unarticulated and hidden behind the scrim of consciousness. It brought a low-charged but nagging guilt, a quiet remorse. Sartre’s brilliant essay on authentic and inauthentic Jews left a strong mark. Hannah Arendt’s book on totalitarianism had an equally strong impact, mostly because it offered a coherent theory, or at least a coherent picture of the concentration-camp universe. We could no longer escape the conviction that, blessing or curse, Jewishness was an integral part of our life, even if—and perhaps just because—there was nothing we could do or say about it. Despite a few simulated seders and literary raids on Hasidism, we could not turn back to the synagogue; we could only express our irritation with “the community” which kept nagging us like disappointed mothers; and sometimes we tried, through imagination and recall, to put together a few bits and pieces of the world of our fathers. I cannot prove a connection between the holocaust and the turn to Jewish themes in American fiction, at first urgent and quizzical, later fashionable and manipulative. I cannot prove that my own turn to Yiddish literature during the fifties was due to the shock following the war years. But it would be foolish to scant the possibility.

The violent dispute which broke out among the New York intellectuals when Hannah Arendt published her book on Eichmann had as one of its causes a sense of guilt concerning the Jewish tragedy—a guilt pervasive, unmanageable, yet seldom declared. In the quarrel between those attacking and those defending Eichmann in Jerusalem there were polemical excesses on both sides, since both were acting out of unacknowledged passions. Yet even in the debris of this quarrel there was, I think, something good. At least everyone was acknowledging emotions that had long gone unused. Nowhere else in American academic and intellectual life was there such ferocity of concern with the problems raised by Hannah Arendt. If left to the rest of the American intellectual world, her book would have been praised as “stimulating” and “thoughtful,” and then everyone would have gone back to sleep. Nowhere else in the country could there have been the kind of public forum sponsored on this subject by Dissent: a debate sometimes ugly and outrageous, yet also urgent and afire—evidence that in behalf of ideas we were still ready to risk personal relationships. After all, it had never been dignity that we could claim as our strong point.

Nothing about the New York writers is more remarkable than the sheer fact of their survival. In a country where tastes in culture change more rapidly than lengths of skirts, they have succeeded in maintaining a degree of influence, as well as a distinctive milieu, for more than thirty years. Apart from reasons intrinsic to the intellectual life, let me note a few that are somewhat more worldly in nature.

There is something, perhaps a quasireligious dynamism, about an ideology, even a lapsed ideology that everyone says has reached its end, which yields force and coherence to those who have closely experienced it. A lapsed Catholic has tactical advantages in his apostasy which a lifelong skeptic does not have. And just as Christianity kept many nineteenth-century writers going long after they had discarded religion, so Marxism gave bite and edge to the work of twentiethcentury writers long after they had turned from socialism.

The years in which the New York writers gained some prominence were those in which the style at which they had arrived—irony, ambiguity, complexity, the problematic as mode of knowledge—took on a magnified appeal for the American educated classes. In the fifties the cultivation of private sensibility and personal responsibility were values enormously popular among reflective people, to whom the very thought of public life smacked of betrayal and vulgarity.

An intelligentsia flourishes in a capital: Paris, St. Petersburg, Berlin. The influence of the New York writers grew at the time New York itself, for better or worse, became the cultural center of the country. And thereby the New York writers slowly shed the characteristics of an intelligentsia and transformed themselves into—

An Establishment?

Perhaps. But what precisely is an Establishment? Vaguely sinister in its overtones, the term is used these days with gay abandon on the American campus; but except as a spread-eagle put-down it has no discernible meaning, and if accepted as a put-down, the problem then becomes to discover who, if anyone, is not in the Establishment. In England the term has had a certain clarity of usage, referring to an intellectual elite which derives from the same upper and middle classes as the men who wield political power and which shares with these men Oxbridge education and Bloomsbury culture. But except in F. R. Leavis’s angrier tirades, “Establishment” does not bear the conspiratorial overtones we are inclined to credit in this country. What it does in England is to locate the social-cultural stratum guiding the tastes of the classes in power and thereby crucially affecting the tastes of the country as a whole.

In this sense, neither the New York writers nor any other group can be said to comprise an American Establishment, simply because no one in this country has ever commanded an equivalent amount of cultural power. The New York writers have few, if any, connections with a stable class of upper-rank civil servants or with a significant segment of the rich. They are without connections in Washington. They do not shape official or dominant tastes. And they cannot exert the kind of control over cultural opinion that the London Establishment is said to have maintained until recently. Critics like Trilling and Kazin are listened to by people in publishing, Rosenberg and Greenberg by people in the art world; but this hardly constitutes anything so formidable as an Establishment. Indeed, at the very time mutterings have been heard about a New York literary Establishment, there has occurred a rapid disintegration of whatever group ties may still have remained among the New York writers. They lack— and it is just as well—the first requirement for an Establishment: that firm sense of internal discipline which enables it to impose its taste on a large public.

During the last few years the talk about a New York Establishment has taken an unpleasant turn. Whoever does a bit of lecturing about the country is likely to encounter, after a few drinks, literary academics who inquire enviously, sometimes spitefully, about “what’s new in New York.” Such people seem to feel that exile in outlying regions means they are missing something remarkable (and so they are: the Balanchine company). The cause of their cultural envy is, I think, a notion that has become prevalent in our English departments that scholarship is somehow unworthy and the “real” literary life is to be found in the periodical journalism of New York. Intrinsically this is a dubious notion, and for the future of American education a disastrous one; when directed against the New York writers it leads to some painful situations. As polite needling questions are asked about the cultural life of New York, a rise of sweat comes to one’s brow, for everyone knows what no one says: New York means Jews.5

Whatever the duration or extent of the influence enjoyed by the New York intellectuals, it is now reaching an end. There are signs of internal disarray: unhealed wounds, a dispersal of interests, the damage of time. More important, however, is the appearance these last few years of a new and powerful challenge to the New York writers. And here I shall have to go off on what may appear to be a long digression, since one cannot understand the present situation of the New York writers without taking into account the cultural-political scene of America in the late sixties.


There is a rising younger generation of intellectuals: ambitious, self-assured, at ease with prosperity while conspicuously alienated, unmarred by the traumas of the totalitarian age, bored with memories of defeat, and attracted to the idea of power. This generation matters, thus far, not so much for its leading figures and their meager accomplishments, but for the political-cultural style—what I shall call the “new sensibility”— it thrusts into absolute opposition against both the New York writers and other groups. It claims not to seek penetration into, or accommodation with, our cultural and academic institutions; it fancies the prospect of a harsh generational fight; and given the premise with which it begins—that everything touched by older writers reeks of betrayal—its claims and fancies have a sort of propriety. It proposes a revolution—I would call it a counterrevolution—in sensibility. Though linked to New Left politics, it goes beyond any politics, making itself felt, like a spreading blot of anti-intellectualism, in every area of intellectual life. Not yet fully cohered, this new cultural group cannot yet be fully defined, nor is it possible fully to describe its projected sensibility, since it declares itself through a refusal of both coherence and definition.

There is no need to discuss once more the strengths and weaknesses of the New Left, its moral energies and intellectual muddles. Nor need we be concerned with the tactical issues separating New Left politics from that of older left-wing intellectuals. Were nothing else at stake than, say, “coalition politics,” the differences would be both temporary and tolerable. But in reality a deeper divergence of outlook has begun to show itself. The new intellectual style, insofar as it approximates a politics, mixes sentiments of anarchism with apologies for authoritarianism; bubbling hopes for “participatory democracy” with manipulative elitism; unqualified populist majoritarianism with the reign of the cadres.

A confrontation of intellectual outlooks is unavoidable. And a central issue is certain to be the problem of liberalism, not liberalism as one or another version of current politics, nor even as a theory of power, but liberalism as a cast of mind, a structure of norms by means of which to humanize public life. For those of us who have lived through the age of totalitarianism and experienced the debacle of socialism, this conflict over liberal values is extremely painful. We have paid heavily for the lesson that democracy, even “bourgeois democracy,” is a precious human achievement, one that, far from being simply a mode of mass manipulation, has been wrested through decades of struggle by the labor, socialist, and liberal movements. To protect the values of liberal democracy, often against those who call themselves liberals, is an elementary task for intellectuals as a social group.

Yet what I have just been saying has in the last few years aroused opposition, skepticism, open contempt among professors, students, and intellectuals. On the very crudest, though by no means unpopular level, we find a vulgarization of an already vulgar Marxism. The notion that we live in a society that can be described as “liberal fascism” (a theoretic contribution from certain leaders of the Students for a Democratic Society) isn’t one to be taken seriously; but the fact that it is circulated in the academic community signifies a counterrevolution of the mind: a refusal of nuance and observation, a willed return to the kind of political primitivism which used to declare the distinctions of bourgeois rule—democratic, authoritarian, totalitarian—as slight in importance.

For the talk about “liberal fascism” men like Norman Mailer must bear a heavy responsibility, insofar as they have recklessly employed the term “totalitarian” as a descriptive for present-day American society. Having lived through the ghastliness of the Stalinist theory of “Social Fascism” (the granddaddy of “liberal fascism”) I cannot suppose any literate person really accepts this kind of nonsense, yet I know that people can find it politically expedient to pretend that they do.

There are sophisticated equivalents. One of these points to the failings and crises of democracy, concluding that the content of decision has been increasingly separated from the forms of decision-making. Another emphasizes the manipulation of the masses by communication media and declares them brainwashed victims incapable of rational choice and acquiescing in their own subjugation. A third decries the bureaucratic entanglements of the political process and favors some version, usually more sentiment than scheme, for direct plebiscitary rule. With varying intelligence, all point to acknowledged problems of democratic society; and there could be no urgent objection were these criticisms not linked with the premise that the troubles of democracy can be overcome by undercutting or bypassing representative institutions. Thus, it is quite true that the masses are manipulated, but to make that the crux of a political analysis is to lead into the notion that elections are mere “formalities” and majorities mere tokens of the inauthentic; what is needed, instead, is Herbert Marcuse’s “educational dictatorship” (in which, I hope, at least some of the New York intellectuals would require the most prolonged reeducation). And in a similar vein, all proposals for obligatory or pressured “participation,” apart from violating the democratic right not to participate, have a way of discounting those representative institutions and limitations upon power which can alone provide a degree of safeguard for liberal norms.

Perhaps the most sophisticated and currently popular of anti-democratic notions is that advanced by Marcuse: his contempt for tolerance on the ground that it is a rationale for maintaining the status quo, and his consequent readiness to suppress “regressive” elements of the population lest they impede social “liberation.” About these theories, which succeed in salvaging the worst of Leninism, Henry David Aiken has neatly remarked: “Whether garden-variety liberties can survive the ministrations of such ‘liberating tolerance’ is not a question that greatly interests Marcuse.” Indeed not.

Such theories are no mere academic indulgence or sectarian irrelevance; they have been put to significant use on the American campus as rationalizations for breaking up meetings of political opponents and as the justification for imaginary coups d’état by tiny minorities of enraged intellectuals. How depressing that “men of the left,” themselves so often victims of repression, should attack the values of tolerance and freedom.6

These differences concerning liberal norms run very deep and are certain to affect American intellectual life in the coming years; yet they do not quite get to the core of the matter. In the Kulturkampf now emerging there are issues more consequential than the political ones, issues that have to do with the nature of human life.

One of these has been with us for a long time, and trying now to put it into simple language, I feel a measure of uneasiness, as if it were bad form to violate the tradition of antinomianism in which we have all been raised.

What, for “emancipated” people, is the surviving role of moral imperatives, or at least moral recommendations? Do these retain for us a shred of sanctity or at least of coercive value? The question to which I am moving is not, of course, whether the moral life is desirable or men should try to live it; no, the question has to do with the provenance and defining conditions of the moral life. Do moral principles continue to signify insofar as and if they come into conflict with spontaneous impulses, and more urgently still, can we conceive of moral principles retaining some validity if they do come into conflict with spontaneous impulses? Are we still to give credit to the idea, one of the few meeting points between traditional Christianity and modern Freudianism, that there occurs and must occur a deep-seated clash between instinct and civilization, or can we now, with a great sigh of collective relief, dismiss this as still another hang-up, perhaps the supreme hang-up, of Western civilization?

For more than one hundred and fifty years there has been a line of Western thought, as also of sentiment in modern literature, which calls into question not one or another moral commandment or regulation, but the very idea of commandment and regulation; which insists that the ethic of control, like the ethic of work, should be regarded as spurious, a token of a centuries-long heritage of repression. Sometimes this view comes to us as a faint residue of Christian heresy, more recently as the blare of Nietzschean prophecy, and in our own day as a psychoanalytic gift.

Now even those of us raised on the premise of revolt against the whole system of bourgeois values did not—I suppose it had better be said outright—imagine ourselves to be exempt from the irksome necessity of regulation, even if we had managed to escape the reach of the commandments. Neither primitive Christians nor romantic naifs, we did not suppose that we could entrust ourselves entirely to the beneficence of nature, or the signals of our bodies, as a sufficient guide to conduct. (My very use of the word “conduct,” freighted as it is with normative associations, puts the brand of time on what I am saying.)

By contrast, the emerging new sensibility rests on a vision of innocence: an innocence through lapse or will or recovery, an innocence through a refusal of our and perhaps any other culture, an innocence not even to be preceded by the withering away of the state, since in this view of things the state could wither away only if men learned so to be at ease with their desires that all need for regulation would fade. This is a vision of life beyond good and evil, not because these experiences or possibilities of experience have been confronted and transcended, but because the categories by which we try to designate them have been dismissed. There is no need to taste the apple: the apple brings health to those who know how to bite it: and look more closely: there is no apple at all; it exists only in your sickened imagination.

The new sensibility posits a theory that might be called the psychology of unobstructed need: men should satisfy those needs which are theirs, organic to their bodies and psyches, and to do this they must learn to discard or destroy all those obstructions, mostly the result of cultural neurosis, which keep them from satisfying their needs. This does not mean that the moral life is denied; it only means that in the moral economy costs need not be entered as a significant item. In the current vocabulary it becomes a matter of everyone doing “his own thing,” and once everyone is allowed to do “his own thing,” a prospect of easing harmony unfolds. Sexuality is the ground of being, and vital sexuality the assurance of the moral life.

Whether this outlook is compatible with a high order of culture or a complex civilization I shall not discuss here; Freud thought they were not compatible, though that does not foreclose the matter. More immediately, and on a less exalted plane, one is troubled by the following problem: what if the needs and impulses of human beings clash, as they seem to do, and what if the transfer of energies from sexuality to sociality does not proceed with the anticipated abundance and smoothness? The new sensibility, as displayed in the writings of Norman Brown and Norman Mailer, falls back upon a curious analogue to laissez-faire economics: Adam Smith’s invisible hand, by means of which innumerable units in conflict with one another achieve a resultant of cooperation. Is there, however, much reason to suppose that this will prove more satisfactory in the economy of moral conduct than it has in the morality of economic relations?

Suppose that, after reading Mailer’s “The White Negro,” my “thing” happens to be that, to “dare the unknown” (as Mailer puts it), I want to beat in the brains of an aging candy-store keeper; or after reading LeRoi Jones, I should like to cut up a few Jews, whether or not they keep stores—how is anyone going to argue against the outpouring of my need? Who will declare himself its barrier? Against me, against my ideas it is possible to argue, but how, according to this new dispensation, can anyone argue against my need? Acting through violence I will at least have realized myself, for I will have entered (to quote Mailer again) “a new relation with the police” and introduced “a dangerous element” into my life; thereby too I will have escaped the cellblock of regulation which keeps me from the free air of self-determination. And if you now object that this very escape may lead to brutality, you reveal yourself as hopelessly linked to imperfection and original sin. For why should anyone truly heeding his nature wish to kill or wound or do anything but love and make love? That certain spokesmen of the new sensibility seem to be boiling over with fantasies of blood, or at least suppose that a verbal indulgence in such fantasies is a therapy for the boredom in their souls, is a problem for dialecticians. And as for skeptics, what have they to offer but evidence from history, that European contamination?

When it is transposed to a cultural setting, this psychology—in earlier times it would have been called a moral psychology—provokes a series of disputes over “complexity” in literature. Certain older critics find much recent writing distasteful and tiresome because it fails to reach or grasp for that complexity which they regard as intrinsic to the human enterprise. More indulgent critics, not always younger, find the same kind of writing forceful, healthy, untangled. At first this seems a mere problem in taste, a pardonable difference between those who like their poems and novels knotty and those who like them smooth; but soon it becomes clear that this clash arises from a meeting of incompatible world outlooks. For if the psychology of unobstructed need is taken as a sufficient guide to life, it all but eliminates any place for complexity—or, rather, the need for complexity comes to be seen as a mode of false consciousness, an evasion of true feelings, a psychic bureaucratism in which to trap the pure and the strong. If good sex signifies good feeling; good feeling, good being; good being, good action; and good action, a healthy polity, then we have come the long way round, past the Reichian way or the Lawrentian way, to an Emersonian romanticism minus Emerson’s complicatedness of vision. The world snaps back into a system of burgeoning potentialities, waiting for free spirits to attach themselves to the richness of natural object and symbol—except that now the orgasmic blackout is to replace the Oversoul as the current through which pure transcendent energies will flow.

Reprinted from A Voice Still Heard: Selected Essays of Irving Howe, edited by Nina Howe and published by Yale University Press. From Commentary (October 1969): 4.


1. In placing this emphasis on the Jewish origins of the New York intellectuals, I am guilty of a certain—perhaps unavoidable—compression of realities. Were I writing a book rather than an essay, I would have to describe in some detail the relationship between the intellectuals who came on the scene in the thirties and those of earlier periods. There were significant ties between Partisan Review and the Dial, Politics and The Masses. But I choose here to bypass this historical connection because I wish to stress what has been distinctive.

A similar qualification has to be made concerning intellectuals associated with this milieu but not Jewish. I am working on the premise that in background and style there was something decidedly Jewish about the intellectuals who began to cohere as a group around Partisan Review in the late thirties—and one of the things that was “decidedly Jewish” was that most were of Jewish birth! Perhaps it ought to be said, then, that my use of the phrase “New York intellectuals” is simply a designation of convenience, a shorthand for what might awkwardly be spelled out as “the intellectuals of New York who began to appear in the thirties, most of whom were Jewish.”

2. In 1948 Ezra Pound, who had spent the war years as a propagandist for Mussolini and whose writings contained strongly anti-Semitic passages, was awarded the prestigious Bollingen Prize. The committee voting for this award contained a number of ranking American poets. After the award was announced, there occurred a harsh dispute as to its appropriateness.

3. Some recent historians, under New Left inspiration, have argued that in countries like France and Italy the possibility of a Communist seizure of power was really quite small. Perhaps; counterfactuals are hard to dispose of. What matters is the political consequences these historians would retrospectively have us draw, if they were at all specific on this point. Was it erroneous, or reactionary, to believe that resistance had to be created in Europe against further Communist expansion? What attitude, for example, would they have had intellectuals, or anyone else, take during the Berlin crisis? Should the city, in the name of peace, have been yielded to the East Germans? Did the possibility of Communist victories in Western Europe require an extraordinary politics? And to what extent are later reconsiderations of Communist power in postwar Europe made possible by the fact that it was, in fact, successfully contained?

4. It is not clear whether Macdonald still adheres to “The Root Is Man.” In a BBC broadcast he said about the student uprising at Columbia: “I don’t approve of their methods, but Columbia will be a better place afterwards.” Perhaps it will, perhaps it won’t; but I don’t see how the author of “The Root Is Man” could say this, since the one thing he kept insisting was that means could not be separated from ends, as the Marxists too readily separated them. He would surely have felt that if the means used by the students were objectionable, then their ends would be contaminated as well—and thereby the consequences of their action. But in the swinging sixties not many people troubled to remember their own lessons.

5. Not quite no one. In an attack on the New York writers (Hudson Review, Autumn 1965) Richard Kostelanetz speaks about “Jewish group-aggrandizement” and “the Jewish American push.” One notices the delicacy of his phrasing.

6. That Marcuse chooses not to apply his theories to the area of society in which he himself functions is a tribute to his personal realism, or perhaps merely a sign of a lack of intellectual seriousness. In a recent public discussion, recorded by the New York Times Magazine (May 26, 1968), there occurred the following exchange:

Hentoff: We’ve been talking about new institutions, new structures, as the only way to get fundamental change. What would that mean to you, Mr. Marcuse, in terms of the university, in terms of Columbia?

Marcuse: I was afraid of that because I now finally reveal myself as a fink. I have never suggested or advocated or supported destroying the established universities and building new anti-institutions instead. I have always said that no matter how radical the demands of the students and no matter how justified, they should be pressed within the existing universities. . . . I believe—and this is where the finkdom comes in—that American universities, at least quite a few of them, today are still enclaves of relatively critical thought and relatively free thought.