New York Intellectual: The Case of Irving Howe

Article excerpt

Like Moliere's gentleman who spoke prose all his life without realizing it, we have always had intellectuals in our midst, even if we have failed to recognize them as such. Philosopher William James was perhaps the first person to speak of "the intellectual," that is to say, to think of "intellectual" as noun as well as adjective. James coined the word in the midst of the Dreyfuss affair of the late eighteennineties. The "intellectuals" were those who stood with the beleaguered colonel and against his rabidly anti-Semitic and militaristic detractors. Within a very short time the "I" word was being heard at sundry New York cafes and meeting houses. The intellectuals, so it seemed, had arrived (Bender 288).

In the last decade or so, a number of scholars have devoted considerable attention to what has been described as, for want of a better term, "the New York Intellectuals." Alexander Bloom's Prodigal Sons (the book is less polemical than the title would suggest) and Alan Wald's The New York Intellectuals (a work more polemical then its title would indicate) are only the two most prominent. There are several more specialized studies focusing on one aspect of the New York intellectual community, such as the early years of Partisan Review, that subculture's flagship journal. All have been enriched by a spate of memoirs written by the genuine articles (Bloom, Wald, Cooney).1

In no small part today's scholars of the New York Intellectuals are deeply indebted to a perceptive, quirky, and not altogether flattering portrait of that world painted by one of their own nearly thirty years ago. The late Irving Howe's 1968 piece for Partisan Review, "The New York Intellectuals," was at once detached and engaged (Howe "Intellectuals"). In short, it exhibited many of the traits one associates with the New York Intellectuals. It also wrestled with many of the same issues that concern contemporary students of the movement.

Howe began his essay with the acknowledgement that it was not especially easy to write about a community that was so fiercely individualistic. In fact, at times the New York Intellectuals more readily resembled a "tribe" than a community. All too often their world seemed to smack of Hobbes's famous war of all against all. In some respects, Howe's attitude toward the New York Intellectuals-and he made it absolutely clear that he was indeed one of them-was not unlike that of another insider, Harold Rosenberg, who had written that the New York Intellectuals were truly "a herd of independent minds" (Bloom 7). No other metaphor, to my mind at least, captures the contradictions of the New York intellectual community so well.

What was it, though, that made these "independent minds" a "herd," or at least a tribe? In part, Howe held, the answer was generational. For these were men-and women-who largely came of age during the Thirties, a period poet W.H. Auden described as "a low, dishonest decade."2 More importantly, perhaps, they were on the left politically. Few of them had ever been attracted to Stalin, but a rather large number had cut their political teeth on Trotskyism. As such, they were unremitting opponents of the Stalinist left. And as they aged, the New York Intellectuals became decidedly less radical. They were, Howe went on, an exceptionally selfconscious group, ever alert to what one of them might be saying-or even thinking-about another of them. And they possessed common interests, not the least of which was a preoccupation with literature and politics-and "the bloody crossroads" (to use literary critic Lionel Trilling's term) where the two realms intersected.3

Most of all, they shared a certain 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...of intellectual work." In tandem with this they remained committed to "universalist" values and to a conception of culture distinctly "cosmopolitan" (Howe "Intellectuals" 220). …