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Mourning 'The Last Intellectuals'

October 04, 1987|JACK MILES | Times Book Editor

Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid

Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire;

Hands that the rod of empire might have swayed,

Or waked to ecstasy the living lyre.

But Knowledge to their eyes her ample page

Rich with the spoils of time did ne'er unroll;

Chill Penury repressed their noble rage,

And froze the genial currents of the soul.

Among those whom Thomas Gray mourned in his "Elegy in a Country Churchyard," one group was those whom we now would call free-lance writers. The words free lance are a metaphor that only comes back to life if one imagines its opposite: bound lance. The metaphor is one by which writers are imagined to be soldiers of a particular kind: not conscripts but mercenaries free to carry the lance under any flag. The conceit is one that Gray--who mourned mute Cromwells as well as mute Miltons--would have appreciated.

Russell Jacoby has just published a book that might be entitled "Elegy in a City Coffeehouse." "The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe" (Basic Books: $18.95; 320 pp.) claims that the generation of American writers born after 1940 will, by and large, take its best thoughts with it to the grave. This generation may have produced its share of journalists, professors, advertising and entertainment writers. But when it comes to writers whose agenda is not set by any newspaper publisher or editor, who do not keep a weather eye on what will pass muster in some academic discipline, and who do not aim to sell a product or to entertain--when it comes, as Jacoby thus externally defines the dread word, to intellectuals --this generation is as quiet as a country churchyard.

As recently as the 1950s, Jacoby says, a generation of writers born before 1920 was providing an independent, nonacademic, non-journalistic critique of American life and letters. Some members of that generation are still writing, but they are the last of their line, says Jacoby.

"Chill Penury" he finds to be much of the reason why. The low-income, low-cost life that writers managed to live in the '30s, the '40s and even the '50s became financially impossible by the mid-'60s. Greenwich Village rents rose faster than royalties and other free-lance emoluments.

But he notes other, more sociological reasons as well. After Jack Kerouac and the Beats took Bohemia "On the Road," you no longer had to go to the Village to find political coffee houses or gay bars or movie houses with foreign films. And perhaps more important, the United States began, in the 1950s, an improbable but real love affair with intellectuals, a change of mood that proved especially important for Jewish intellectuals. The media and the government may have gained by this change. The tradition of vigorous critical writing by unaffiliated intellectuals, says Jacoby, did not.

Finally, Jacoby writes, just as free-lance writing was ceasing to provide a living wage to aspiring intellectuals, the baby boom hit the university. Instead of writing and starving, you could now teach and eat. A generation that otherwise might have grown up to be the unaffiliated intellectuals of the late '70s and '80s became instead the affiliated intellectuals of the university, discussing some of the same subjects but doing so, he says, in an academic argot that nobody outside academe would ever learn.

Clearly, Jacoby is talking about events that have really occurred. And he gives a lively, richly informed account of them. Unfortunately, his exposition is marked by telling omissions on either side of his turning point, in both of the generations he considers.

In the pre-1920 generation, Jacoby does not mention Walter Lippmann (1889-1974), Norman Cousins (1915- ), or Carey McWilliams (1905-1983). Now, Jacoby might object that these three were journalists, not intellectuals. But Lippmann, a New York Herald-Tribune columnist of almost oracular influence from 1931 to 1962, was also an extremely prolific author of books. The same is true of Cousins, editor of Saturday Review from 1942 to 1971, and of McWilliams, editor at The Nation from 1945 to 1975. All three of these editors affected their publications far more than they were affected by them.

Partisan Review, founded in 1934, figures prominently in Jacoby's account, as it has in so many other recent accounts of American intellectual life in the 1950s. But, significantly, Jacoby makes no mention of Kenyon Review, founded in 1939. John Crowe Ransom and the "New Critics" associated with him at Kenyon Review--Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren, Donald Donaldson, Cleanth Brooks and others--were at the zenith of their influence in the 1950s, a decade that Jacoby sees as a relative heyday for intellectuals. New Criticism was both serious enough to transform the teaching of English in American universities and popular enough to make Brooks' "The Well-Wrought Urn" one of the best-selling works of serious literary criticism ever published in the United States.

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