Academic journal article American Jewish History

Neither 'Sissy' Boy nor Patrician Man: New York Intellectuals and the Construction of American Jewish Masculinity

Academic journal article American Jewish History

Neither 'Sissy' Boy nor Patrician Man: New York Intellectuals and the Construction of American Jewish Masculinity

Article excerpt

In a 1981 oral history, the Jewish essayist Milton Himmelfarb compared the New York intellectuals to a celebrated generation of military generals: "There was a class at West Point that was called the class that the stars fell on; it produced any number of three-, four- and even five- star generals for the United States Army. [Dwight David] Eisenhower was in one of those classes." Himmelfarb then turned to what he saw as the Jewish equivalent of West Point, located not in the pastoral setting of the Hudson River Valley, but in the heart of Manhattan: "Those years at City College produced an astonishingly high proportion of really major figures in American intellectual and cultural life, which says something about Jewish history as well." Himmelfarb implied that, prior to World War II, a CCNY education was to the New York intellectuals what West Point had long been to blue-blooded white Protestants: not only an elite educational institution, but also a place and a process of "masculine" socialization. Like other exclusive single-sex institutions during this period, CCNY instilled "masculine" ideals, but, unlike West Point and analogous schools, its student body was predominately Jewish in the first half of the twentieth century. Whereas elite Protestant constructions of masculinity stressed traits like strength and athleticism, Jewish masculinity emphasized intellect and combative debate--the mind over muscle. (2)

Much ink has been spilled on New York intellectuals since Irving Howe first chronicled their shared history in a 1968 Commentary article. In addition to coining the term "the New York intellectuals," Howe set the parameters for how future scholars would approach the group by downplaying the significance of their Jewishness. Thus, while scholars have noted their immigrant upbringings and their entry into literary circles through writing for Jewish magazines, few have analyzed how Jewishness shaped them over the course of their long careers. (3) Even historians of American Jewish history have largely overlooked these figures, as Tony Michels has noted, "despite the fact that most were Jews by birth, or as Irving Howe once wrote, by 'osmosis.'" The New York intellectuals, however, did not elude their Jewish identity, even when they were young. Instead, they refashioned what Jewishness in America could mean by embodying a new vision, or ideology, of secular Jewish masculinity. (4)

This ideology of secular Jewish masculinity took root in the 1920s and 1930s, when the New York intellectuals first coalesced as a group. It was neither assimilationist nor bound by traditional Jewish gender ideals, but it centered on a new construct: the combative secular scholar. Notably, this construction of American Jewish masculinity was not all encompassing and I use the term "ideology," in part, to distinguish it from other possible constructions of Jewish masculinity during this period. (5) Jewish masculine norms were always fluid, even in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, when discourses on race and gender intersected to cast constructions of Jewish masculinity as "other." (6) While multiple constructs of Jewish masculinity coexisted, one mode of gender expression dominated for the New York intellectuals: that of the argumentative and combative intellectual.

The absence of attention paid to gender by historians who have studied these figures is conspicuous. The New York intellectuals were primarily men, and anxieties about masculinity often inflected their writings, something scholars have, by and large, overlooked. (7) Significantly, the few women in their ranks were also bound by this ideology of masculinity. Only a handful of women gained entry into this group, and most of those did so through their relationships with men. That they were married to men in New York literary circles is unsurprising and certainly does not diminish their brilliance. Yet they struggled to be treated as intellectual equals. …

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