The Making of the New York Intellectuals
By Sudeep Paul
The heyday of academic interest in the achievements of Jewish-American writers, critics, and scholars may have passed, but they continue to be of the utmost significance to American studies given their dominance in the post-World War 2 period. These Intellectuals covered almost the entire spectrum of academic, critical and creative activities between them. Prominent Jewish names would be writers such as the recently (2005) deceased Saul Bellow (Dangling Man; Herzog; Seize the Day; Humboldt's Gift; Ravelstein, etc.), the 'evergreen' Philip Roth (Goodbye, Columbus; Portnoy's Complaint; Zuckerman Unbound; The Counterlife; Operation Shylock; American Pastoral; The Human Stain; The Plot Against America, etc.), Bernard Malamud (The Natural; The Magic Barrel; A New Life; The Fixer, etc.), poets such as Delmore Schwartz and Karl Shapiro. There have also been intellectuals from other vocations such as critics (although they dabbled in fiction, poetry as well sometimes) Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin (On Native Grounds; The Bright Book of Life; A Walker in the City; New York Jew, etc.), Lionel Trilling (The Liberal Imagination), Diana Trilling. There were sociologists like Daniel Bell, Sidney Hook - who also wrote political treatises, art historians and critics such as Clement Greenberg and others. Two well-known 'nominally Jewish' authors would be Norman Mailer and J. D. Salinger.
This essay concentrates on the late 1920's and early 30's when the first and second generation of New York Intellectuals were just coming into maturity - i.e. the period which led to the era of fame for Jewish Intellectuals, from the late 1940's to the 1970's. The purpose of the essay is to peep into the complex socio-political and family circumstances which shaped the growth of the Intellectuals.
That they were the children or grandchildren of Jewish immigrants and that they belonged by and large to New York turned out to be the twin pillars of a, now, legendary genesis that pushed the New York Intellectuals out into the world and pulled them back in time close to a home that was no longer there. A conspicuously male group, these "bright boys" had in common enough of the warmth and the love, the strife and the anxiety, of the immigrant quarters for us to accept Howe's retrospection (above) as the lowest common denominator for the Jewish milieu on the East Coast in the early twentieth century. As the centre of American art and political radicalism, New York was the ideal school for the education and maturation of the young Intellectuals. Nevertheless, they did not grow up in the politically radical and artistically significant part of New York. They emerged from the 'ghettos' of Brooklyn, the Bronx, Newark and so on. However, without this margin, there may not have been any "New York Intellectuals" to begin with.
This was a world the New York Intellectuals would reject and abandon but they would not forfeit the dreams their parents nurtured in this ghetto environment. Parental desire for the children's success and assimilation into the larger society, coupled with the ambition of the latter, produced, not so much a battle of systems and goals, as a collaborative effort to project the young. For the parents, first or second generation immigrants, life was a struggle to carve a living out of poverty and prejudice. In this battle for survival, their own ambitions had to be shelved and then transferred to their children who would "make it" by prospering in mainstream America. Meanwhile, the Jewish community cushioned the growth of the young with its protective environment. While overcrowded classrooms and living quarters boasting few rooms and crowded beds were a part of their woes, the immigrant neighbourhood offered a sense of community to mitigate the despair of isolation. The adults had their community organizations, their social interactions, their cultural and religious groups. The young, never feeling at home in these institutions, nonetheless drew on the warmth indirectly through the parents. Consequently, the family and the neighbourhood also shielded the children somewhat from the Crash and the Depression.
But the security and careful nurturing also meant the pressures of achievement - for oneself and for one's parents - which would be immediately satisfied by academic success would later become a part of the boys' psychological makeup. For the moment, the ghetto was not merely a cultural boundary. Jewish immigrants lingered as there was no place better to move to. Their language and education conspired with poverty and prejudice to shut the parents out of the larger America. The children, therefore, had to go to school, to university, and to succeed in order to end the long Jewish journey out of the Pale into Brownsville and, finally, out of Brownsville into Americana. As Alfred Kazin would admit:
The street remained the only place to acquire and exercise a degree of personal freedom. Thus the tag "streetwise" was another epithet the boys picked up on the way. The cultural and political institutions within the Jewish community - socialist radicalism, political meetings, Yiddish literature, the Forward, even the street-corner speakers - coloured the budding consciousness of the young intellectuals. As Alexander Bloom claims, it was the assimilation of this myriad assortment of cultural and political material that kept
The incessant debates and stimulating intellectual interests, throwing back to the talmudic tradition, made the poverty of the ghetto a very intense environment for the children to grow up in. While the elders used the intellectual pleasures as a means of transient escape, they passed on their style and mannerisms to the young. What saved the latter from eccentricity and mockery was their intelligence.
This was a period when the strangled intellectualism of the working-class father was transferred to the son and the burden of parental expectations pressured the young in their academic work, their behaviour in school and their relations with the same parents. At this stage, the boys incorporated the perspective of the parents into their own, appropriating values which were to be rejected later. As Irving Howe would say, the young came to be driven by "precocity, internality, moral quest and self-judgement, a neurotic need for perfection."
Parents and children agreed on the importance of academic success. They came to differ on the application of the same. Poor, hardworking, and relentlessly struggling, American success, for the parents, was to be defined by material success. For the elders, a rich businessman was preferable to an impoverished scholar. In Delmore Schwartz's story "America! America!", Mrs. Bauman wished her sons "would be millionaires and her grandsons rabbis and philosophers". However, as Bloom points out, the young Intellectuals, while making career choices or feeling disillusioned at their poor career prospects, chose the path of the grandchildren - philosophers, scholars, critics, and writers. But, refusing to forego altogether the expectations of the parents, they did not end up as penniless either as they moved toward financial and professional security in the post-war scenario. While their talents could have led them to the top of the list of prospective careers, they worked out a compromise between parental wishes and personal ambition. But, before they achieved the security of vocation and reputation, often for a long time, they had to endure the constraints of jobs as factory-hands or dockhands and so on.
Relations between parents and children in the family were typified by an almost abnormal closeness to the mother and distance from the father, largely the result of maternal smothering of the children with care and concern, and an indifference or aloofness on the part of the father. In their adolescence, the boys characteristically rebelled against the maternal constraints. It took them much longer, however, to resolve the more complex equation of sympathy and hostility toward the father. Notwithstanding the father's intellectualism, the hardships of the family were ultimately attributed to his failure and useless public "pretensions". Robert Warshaw has claimed that disappointment "was often the only thing [the father] could clearly communicate." As acknowledged by the New York Intellectuals in later life, Isaac Rosenfield's Passage from Home (1946) came to be the bible of the generational conflict between fathers and sons in the Jewish neighbourhoods. Although generational tensions were not unique to the Jewish immigrants, what set them apart was the psychological impact of the conflict on the young intellectuals. Lionel Trilling would sum it up for the youth with the words: "In my time, we all were trying to find a release from our fathers." And Daniel Bell: "Few generational conflicts have such exposed nakedness, such depths of strain as this."
This perspective on the struggle between fathers and sons developed in the Intellectuals' adult days after they had had the distance of space and time to objectively reflect on it. But the fissures had become visible in their childhood itself. It all began with the juxtaposition of the parents' "alien" world against that of the larger American society to which they had their first exposure through school. The ghetto had allowed the parents a sense of belonging in an alien land precisely because it could allow them the preservation of their old ways. A primary obstacle to their assimilation in the New World was language. While Yiddish sufficed for all at home, children going to school were embarrassed by their own weak English. Hence the binary split between home-Yiddish and school-English, a battle which, for the young, could have had only one inevitable outcome. According to Delmore Schwartz, the result of this bilingualism for some was "a fear of mispronunciation; a hesitation in speech; and a sharpened focus upon the characters of parents." The status of parents came to be lowered in the eyes of the children. With time and maturation, this distance between the generations would be translated into more concrete cultural forms. Daniel Bell would ruminate: "Most of this generation, including myself, were ashamed of our parents."
Perhaps the distance and the rebellion were not consciously initiated but forced by the context. In any case, Alexander Bloom offers a precise summary of the quest:
Voyaging out of the ghetto did not influence the mainstream to welcome the young Intellectuals with open arms. In truth, they came, for a while, to be suspended between two worlds. It was their Jewish identity that was to play a not-so-insignificant role in compounding the burden of the immigrant stamp. Immigration almost always comes with the hope of assimilation. But, for a Jew, a denial of tradition is a sin. However, in their drive, aspiration and desperation, the Intellectuals had no time for such subtleties. Alfred Kazin felt compelled to call for a separation of the immigrant and the Jewish experiences. Assimilation without the abandonment of the immigrant institutions - local synagogues, cultural associations, the Yiddish Press - which sustained the parents, was unthinkable for the young men. They rejected them, but without fully realizing at the time that they were also sundering any palpable link to Jewishness, let alone to Judaism. Jewishness, at the most, came to be equated with poverty and perpetual anxiety. Kazin would say, "I learned long ago to accept that I was Jewish without being a part of any meaningful Jewish life or culture."
The young Intellectuals, therefore, came to adopt a minimal definition of Jewishness to explain their ethnicity. In their youth, in the life and times of the cosmopolitan and radical 1930's, such a stance could only fit into place. Only with the realization of the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in Europe over the next few years, and then again, only after the end of the war, would they return to a redefinition of their Jewishness. Then they would resolve the dichotomy of their Jewish and American identities. But, in their youth, it was this very ambivalence and enigma that defined them.
Nevertheless, they seldom had any doubt about the Jewish identity imposed upon them by the Gentile society. Unable to define Jewishness for themselves, they had a distinct sense of how the outside world perceived them as Jews. To their communal heritage of accounts of pogroms in the Old World, they added their personal tales of anti-Semitism experienced in school and, more importantly, in their quest for suitable careers. In school, they were made to feel "a little ashamed of what [they] were." Seeking academic, publishing or critical careers as adults, they encountered unabashed prejudice. Lionel Trilling's career-graph at Columbia is a case in point - he was unceremoniously dropped from the faculty after four years.
But the same Trilling had said:
In their anxiety to abandon the world they were somewhat ashamed of, they felt the necessity of abandoning the characteristics of their parents and their Jewishness - a process of a gradual alteration of perspective began at school. In time, the Jewish Intellectuals came to see that this sense of alienation was not unique to them, that they shared it with their counterparts from old-stock American families. And it was then that they pounced on this very alienation as a source of intellectual insight and artistic motivation. Daniel Bell concluded: "This is a generation which more than any other has made itself."
Solace, insight and identification would be sought in the archetypes of so-called aliens from American culture - in Walt Whitman, in Emily Dickinson - as in the quest that Alfred Kazin would embark upon. But neither Kazin nor Trilling could, in the end, belong to the non-Jewish world. However, where they retrieved a sense of belonging was not the Jewish milieu of their parents but the space created between the two worlds by other young men like themselves.
At this time, it was perhaps easier for the young Intellectuals to envision the future than take cognizance of their growing detachment from the past. The sense of liberation from the parental domain was clearly felt but a sense of loss at the estrangement was yet to make its mark on the adventurous minds. (Norman Podhoretz would later call the estrangement a "kind of treason"). The Intellectuals did not, of course, come to dominate New York immediately. To begin with, they were still living at home while commuting to college in Manhattan. School helped them to slowly negotiate their way in. Many of them took up odd jobs and used whatever small opportunities came their way in writing or reviewing. All along, however, as Bloom demonstrates, it was the "dynamic of immigrant assimilation" that propelled them. The radical political and intellectual atmosphere of the 1930's fostered their maturation.
What mattered, finally, was their sense of newness. They were to be a part of neither the Jewish heritage nor the American past. Ultimately, keeping off the traditional road to American society and culture and freedom from the burden of history signalled a new beginning for Jewish literature. This new trend in Jewish literature would be that of a quest and a discovery of another world. It would be a literature of flight rather than one of tradition and exclusion. In the words of Clement Greenberg, the new Jewish-American writers
Greenberg had to admit that this did not cancel out the greatest of American themes, but the peculiarities of the predicament of these authors intensified and personalized these accounts. This intercourse between life and work turned writing into a career which itself would be the key to escape.
In later life, the Intellectuals came to note the element of social-climbing and class, of 'status-anxiety', that triggered their flight from the ghetto. Manhattan did not immediately allow them full participation in the intellectual life of America but it bolstered their education through the academy, with its politics, and the editorial offices of its journals. The young Intellectuals brought with them the advantages of living on the periphery as well as the burdens of ghetto life. They would shake off the latter very soon, but, in time, would become conscious of the new burden of abandonment of history.
1. Irving Howe: Twentieth Century Authors, 1st Supplement (N.Y. 1971)
2. Alfred Kazin: A Walker in the City (1951)
3. Alexander Bloom: Prodigal Sons (N.Y., 1986)
5. Lionel Trilling: from "Under Forty: A Symposium"
6. Bloom: Prodigal Sons
7. Clement Greenberg: from "Under Forty: A Symposium"
© Sudeep Paul, January 2006