Who should stir public intelligence, promoting a conversation that goes beyond the prattle of journalism? Scholars or freelance writers? And what should be the setting for this effort, the university or someplace bohemian, like New York’s Greenwich Village or its long-defunct version in Chicago, the old near-north side? Has “urban intelligence” suffered as once independent writers are herded into the university, absorbing its qualities and losing the distinctive voice of partisan opinion? Russell Jacoby, a writer and university instructor, has produced a new volume, flawed but useful and frequently brave, claiming that public debate since the 60s has been drained and flattened by the failure of a new generation of freelance critics to step into the ranks of the elderly group preceding them.
Where, asks The Last Intellectuals, is a new generation to replace Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin, Edmund Wilson, and Harold Rosenberg—or, to identify important but less prestigious writers, Jane Jacobs, Lewis Mumford, William H. Whyte, and Rachel Carson? Their potential successors are now at the university, composing formidably dense tracts wadded with jargon and intended only for scholarly peers. The issues debated are of the highest importance—the design of a city, the structure of an economy, the interpretation of a novel or poem—but most of the labor has shrunk to the mere mental exercise of intellectual technocrats.
Jacoby’s ideal is the freelance writer living by his or her wits, scraping by with hackwork but also producing essays, preferably of a leftist orientation, on significant issues. A Chicago author might live near the Newberry Library or west of Lincoln Avenue and congregate with friends at inexpensive coffeehouses on Clark Street or Halsted, talking late into the night like an expatriate Russian radical at the turn of the century. During the writer’s freshest hours, he or she might compose books like On Native Grounds (Alfred Kazin), White Collar Elite (C. Wright Mills), or The Death and Life of Great American Cities (Jane Jacobs). Jacoby’s goal is critical thought, social improvement, and a life of general interest.
Intellectuals, to borrow a dictionary definition the author would accept, think independently. Often left of center, they agitate for change. Society treats intellectuals, wrote Arthur Koestler, “like corns on [its] toes, a nuisance permanently trampled on and permanently hitting back with mean little stabs.”
But the university poisons the well of independent thinking; it cannot be the source of “mean little stabs.” Since the early 70s, radical scholarship in this country has flourished; there is an ample supply of radical feminist and Marxist instructors. But these newcomers preserve their endangered academic careers by adopting the protective coloration of their discipline’s language and style, reflecting what Jacoby calls professionalization and privatization. Safety comes by shielding yourself from public debate. Say what you like—as long as the public effect is invisible. But the quality of the work is questionable at best, and its separation from the public domain threatens what the author calls “the viability of public culture.”
“One thousand sociologists,” writes Jacoby, “and no C. Wright Mills; three hundred critical literary theorists but no Edmund Wilson; scads of Marxists but no Sweezy or Braverman; urban critics galore but no Mumford or Jacobs.”
Jacoby has justifiably written off the press as a source of serious opinion. William H. Whyte, who three decades ago brought out notable books like The Organization Man, which he wrote, and The Exploding Metropolis, a collection of essays he edited, came from the magazine empire of Henry Luce. Walter Lippmann, to take an older example, was a columnist able to exploit authentic reserves of intelligence and learning, debating Sinclair Lewis as easily as congressional legislation on civil liberties and tariffs. But today journalism is mechanized, infected with the principle of marketing, and very few reporters either write well or with a determined point of view refined by reading and thought. American journalism today, above all in its TV form, is mostly a distraction, though in earlier decades it sheltered writers of real ability—Hemingway, for example, or Ben Hecht. Jacoby also points out the decline of metropolitan dailies, national weeklies, and creatures like the New Republic designed for serious topical debate, and decries the subsequent rise of specialty magazines devoted to leisure activities (athletics, electronics, and the like).
If Jacoby’s argument is correct—that preserving an academic career rules out contact with the public—then a new danger has overtaken American scholarship. Older attacks on academia, from the days of H.L. Mencken, are well known. Writing two decades ago, Irving Howe reflected on the ten-odd years he had by then spent in various departments of English. He accuses his university colleagues of “parochialism, timidity, indifference to human suffering, a feeble-spirited ‘professionalism,’ thin-blooded gentility . . . sluggishness of mind and spirit. . . .” But, significantly, Howe added that “teaching allows one intellectual freedom. . . . Teaching involves one with materials of beauty, ideas of importance, the masterpieces of literature, the scientific tradition, the passions of history. And sometimes teaching even yields the pleasure of stirring the young mind to knowledge and thought.”
But for Jacoby now, “academic freedom is the freedom to be academic.” A young scholar’s critical experience is the composition of his or her doctoral dissertation; even the proposal must be approved by an adviser to assure that the subject is suitable for research. Style and content are thus determined at the outset, and the chrysalid scholar is strangled at birth. The research is judged by a committee of experts who decide not only the fate of the project but the academic career of its author. Jacoby considers this a deforming experience.
He certainly has mounds of evidence on which to draw. Literary scholarship, which in better times might connect scholars and the reading public, has been badly damaged by the waves of interpretive theory flooding departments of English. In the 50s it was the New Criticism, in the 60s structuralism, and in the 70s deconstruction. All the attention goes to techniques of interpretation; the defenseless novel or poem is a patient etherized upon a table. Contemporary literary scholarship does not affect the taste of the reading public. Swamped with cultural rubbish and avid for cheap entertainment, this public has ebbed considerably over the years; but it hasn’t disappeared altogether.
Consider economics. It would seem the quintessential example, where baffling technical work excludes not only the public but planners as well. For over a decade, economists and business writers outside and within the university have decried the younger generation’s preference for mathematical models, which may have academic prestige but are rapidly dated, and amount to little more than complex concatenations of formula with limited application. Jacoby cites the University of Chicago’s Donald N. McCloskey, who describes his junior peers in the economics department as “bored by history,” “ignorant of civilization,” “thoughtless in their ethics, and unreflective in method.”
Philosophy has dwindled to logic and linguistics. Political science abandons the traditional categories—of rights, duties, and society—for new words like “attitude,” “cross-pressure,” “socialization.” In the social sciences generally a specialized language, largely artificial, and quantitative techniques abound. Charts, graphs, and tables rule. Whether this leads to genuine progress in a particular discipline is open to debate; that it extends the chasm between scholarship and the reading public is not. Jacoby’s willingness to assail whole groups of scholars in areas well beyond the ones with which he is most familiar is itself an act of singular bravery.
Jacoby’s preference is for city streets and low rents, cheap places to find a simple meal with conversation over serious books and subjects. He offers the conviviality of secondhand bookshops, liberating dirt, and scattered copies of hard-to-find books as an answer to the microwave and the VCR. It all seems more real. “In the lives of intellectuals—in the lives of all individuals—it just takes several friends to make the difference,” the author says, “and these friends can meet in a coffeehouse in Saint Louis or a bookstore in Seattle. Bohemia can be this small, this vital.” Saul Bellow writes in a description of Depression-era Chicago that “weekly rent in a rooming house was seldom more than three dollars. Breakfast at a drugstore counter cost fifteen cents. The blue-plate-dinner special . . . appeared on the hectographed menu for thirty-five cents. Young hustlers could get by on something like eight or ten dollars a week.”
This kind of environment nourished the writing that Jacoby would like a younger group to produce, but it has vanished completely. Virtually all cultural life (save the performing arts) is centralized in the university. Decades of federal spending for highway and suburban construction have weakened the integrity of the city; it’s choked with traffic and commuters. There aren’t any cheap neighborhoods, only dangerous ones, and even everyday expenses have climbed out of sight. The modern city confronts us with office towers downtown—midtown Manhattan, Chicago’s Loop and near-Loop areas—and residential or out-of-the-way streets that are vacant during the day. The main action has been siphoned off downtown. Rehabbing may restore a blighted area, but replaces it with high-rise construction, like Presidential Towers, or expensive town houses for professionals making handsome wages (consider the recent improvement of Webster between Racine and Clybourn).
Jacoby’s claim is that public writing from decades past derived from cheap urban neighborhoods. Expenses pared to the bone offered these writers a measure of independence and a modest sense of companionship, and they were eager to find a public. But bohemia died out when the public at the end of the 60s took up casual living, colorful clothing, drugs, and sex—depriving the bohemian style of its outsider verve—while other pressures (inflation, suburbanization) attacked its material setting. Then, in the early 70s, just when a new generation of writers decided the university was the only place left to go, rollbacks of federal subsidies and dwindling enrollments severely jeopardized their hopes for a university career. Hence the professional squeeze, restricting free academic expression, and the impasse the author deplores.
I think Jacoby may be mistaken in the close connection he draws between effective writing on public issues and a particular setting. I don’t quarrel with his argument that bohemia has departed, and that most forms of cultural activity around which public debate might coalesce are indeed captives of the campus. But the authenticity of Jacoby’s model of bohemia may be questioned, and also whether university life invariably stifles the potential public voice.
The ultimate bohemia, of course, is the Village in New York, with its pleasant winding streets and corner eating establishments. Jacoby claims that until the end of the 50s the Village was a valuable source of the writing he admires. But this piece of historical research by Eric F. Goldman in Rendezvous With Destiny suggests that the Village was from its inception a fabrication by developers:
“At the turn of the century the area was just another decaying region of New York City, so many old brownstones settling into tenements. Then a group of enterprising real-estate men, noting the picturesqueness of the neighborhood, saw the possibilities of luring artists and writers by low rents. The artists and writers attracted artists and writers, and by the days of the New Freedom (1910) the Village was becoming an American Left Bank. . . . Some eccentricity was de rigueur, if only a shirt that shouted dissent from convention.”
And Goldman is not the only one to report that the Village was a mere facsimile of Old World quaintness. The late Harold Rosenberg, a faithful Villager and one of the free-lance critics Jacoby singles out for admiration, observes in his 1954 essay “Tenth Street” that the Village “was imitation Paris—and in a manner which showed that what it adored in Paris was a smaller town than New York and an older one. Its little trees and crooked streets were decor for the first stagelanding for pilgrims on their way to Paris from the West, the Middle West or the Bronx.”
(Rosenberg defines the Village and its imitations elsewhere in the country as “habitations as art-setting,” but he’s not entirely critical. The attempted constitution of an American Left Bank did draw native writers and artists toward modern culture, detaching them from the harmful Anglophilia of the 19th century: “Americans learned to speak in the modern idiom instead of in a fake English accent.”)
So American bohemia—the actual physical setting—was just a reproduction grafted on the American scene, a place that was not a natural growth or even a native product. Jacoby might argue that it nevertheless supplied a suitable setting for public work; but if all that is needed (as he claims) is a coffeeshop in Seattle or a bookshop in Saint Louis, then much less than a new Village should suffice. Those coffeeshops and bookshops do exist after all—but they’re not producing the cultural goods the author is seeking.
Furthermore, many of the writers that exemplify Jacoby’s ideal survived their migration to the university, where most of them ended up. Howe and Kazin, Rosenberg and Philip Rahv, to mention just a few, all wrote for a refined public before and after becoming faculty members. And other writers known to the publi—J.K. Galbraith, Arthur Schlesinger, Lionel Trilling, among others—spent almost their entire careers at a university.
If our original “bohemia” was a pleasant but fictitious creation of the developers, then it is hard to argue that a real one is a precondition for valuable public writing. And if an older generation, born between 1910 and 1920, survived its migration to the university, then a scholarly milieu may not be invariably fatal to public writing.
I can think of other elements, which Jacoby doesn’t mention, damaging a younger generation stuck on the university campus. Cultural decay impairs their effectiveness: they simply know less, they lack the range of the older group. Weakened by the relativistic view that popular culture is as worthy of study as Aristotle’s Poetics, they lack the discipline and cultural anchoring that steadied an older generation. But the principal danger stems from the cult of scientific expertise. The natural sciences command enormous prestige, not to mention the lion’s share of the university budget. So the humanities and social sciences tend to cast their lot with science and abstraction, elaborating formulas, laws, theories, and principles in a technical language that certifies their value under the mantle of science.
This may explain the “specter” that, according to Jacoby, haunts the university faculty—boredom. “A generation of professors entered the universities in the middle and wake of the 60s, when campuses crackled with energy; today these teachers are visibly bored, if not demoralized. One report found college and university faculties ‘deeply troubled’ with almost 40 percent ready and willing to leave the academy.” If these scholars felt they were writing about real issues for a real public in authentic language, they might find relief from their ennui and dissatisfaction.
But I wouldn’t put money on that. Abstraction, specialization, artificial words and categories feeding on themselves, the interminable mental treadmill, the mental self-segregation within a network of specialties–these appear to be the principles at work today. And my guess is that they’re at least as influential as, and independent of, the need for academic self-preservation.
The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe by Russell Jacoby, Basic Books, $18.95.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Troy Thomas.