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Not Down to Our Last Intellectual

When Alfred Kazin died, the ranks of the New York sages dwindled. And with a new generation of public thinkers replacing that crowd, Manhattan no longer dominates the scene.

July 01, 1998|JOSH GETLIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — "The definition of a New York intellectual," critic Morris Dickstein once said, "is to think that he is the last one." While the joke may be popular at some Manhattan cocktail parties, the species is clearly endangered.

With the death last month of premier literary critic Alfred Kazin, the ranks of those New York writers who once commanded center stage in the nation's intellectual life have dwindled yet again. Luminaries such as Lionel and Diana Trilling, Irving Howe, Mary McCarthy, Philip Rahv and others are gone, and the culture they created has lost much of its luster.

But it would be a mistake to write an obituary for America's public intellectuals, those thinkers who go beyond academic questions and address hot social issues. The old New York crowd has been replaced by a new generation of intellectuals who have different concerns, and Manhattan no longer dominates the action the way it did, given the growth of rival centers in Los Angeles, Washington and other cities.

"I'm tired of the nostalgia for New York intellectuals," says critic Ellen Willis, professor of media studies at New York University. "People write about different issues today, as they should, and the intellectual's role in our culture has changed."

It's certainly more visible. The passionate literary magazines and political dialogues of Kazin's world reached relatively few people, even though they had a big influence on national debates about communism, civil rights, liberal ideology and art. A man like Kazin, who died on his 83rd birthday, was greatly respected. But he was hardly a household name.

Today, however, many thinkers--like Doris Kearns Goodwin, Richard Rodriguez and Henry Louis Gates--are bona fide celebrities, known to millions of readers and viewers. Goodwin, a distinguished presidential historian; Rodriguez, a California essayist; and Gates, who heads Harvard's African American studies department, are public intellectuals in the truest sense of the word.

"We are a culture driven by television," says Todd Boyd, professor at the USC School of Cinema and Television. "And the professorial sound bite has become a staple on TV. It's a powerful way to disseminate new ideas, something Kazin's group almost never experienced."

Traditionally leery of the learned class, America grew more comfortable with thinkers and writers in the 1960s, especially as they became fixtures in academic life and the media. But the men and women who burst on the New York scene in the '30s and '40s bear little resemblance to today's prime-time pundits.

Indeed, the difference between old and new intellectuals reflects the political, social and cultural upheavals that have rocked America in the 50 years since World War II. It's a story of cold wars and hot media, a history of public thought and debate that runs from the Truman Doctrine to "The Truman Show."

"As people like Kazin pass on, it may be the end of an era," says James Atlas, who has written about the New York intellectuals. "But it's not the end of civilization. We should honor these people, as well as their successors."

A Community Fed Upon Argument

From its beginnings, the New York crowd was a renaissance community of contentious yet scholarly debate. Based largely on the Upper West Side, it lived and breathed argument; its members praised each other publicly and quite often stabbed each other in the back when writing their memoirs.

The New Yorkers saw themselves as enemies of the established order, outsiders who had a coherent world view. Blending political philosophy with the rigors of literary criticism, they set themselves apart from middlebrow culture and power.

Today's thinkers are equally outspoken, but they lack that kind of hothouse community. While there are circles of intellectual activity in Washington, Hollywood, Cambridge and the Bay Area, to name a few, there is no sense of a national debate fully engaging these personalities. They are, however, fully integrated into American life, viewing themselves as participants in--rather than alienated critics of--mainstream culture.

"In New York you had a world that thrived on conversations and quarrels," said Rodriguez, a San Francisco-based writer who wrote "Hunger of Memory," about his intellectual development. "It wasn't just one voice, it was a multitude of voices interacting with each other. That's absent now, and we do miss it."

The debate itself also has changed.

From the 1930s to the 1960s, Manhattan thinkers and writers were consumed with dialogues about communism and the Cold War. Members of the largely Jewish group clashed in publications such as Partisan Review and Commentary, nurturing feuds and friendships concerning Soviet foreign policy and McCarthyism.

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