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Sunrise, Sunset

EX-FRIENDS: Falling out with Allen Ginsberg, Lionel and Diana Trilling, Lillian Hellman, Hannah Arendt, and Norman Mailer;\o7 By Norman Podhoretz; (The Free Press: 244 pp., $25)\f7

THE TWILIGHT OF THE INTELLECTUALS: Culture and Politics in the Era of the Cold War;\o7 By Hilton Kramer; (Ivan R. Dee: 364 pp., $27.50)\f7

May 09, 1999|RUSSELL JACOBY | Russell Jacoby is the author of numerous books, including "Social Amnesia," "The Last Intellectuals" and the forthcoming "The End of Utopia." He teaches in the history department at UCLA

The term "New York intellectuals" has come to designate a generation of writers and critics born in the first decades of this century. Beyond the name, little about this group goes uncontested. Is this really a collection of writers with a common theme or orientation? What links Sidney Hook, the philosopher, and Alfred Kazin, the memoirist; or Lionel Trilling, the literary critic, and Susan Sontag, the novelist and writer? What do these writers share with Hilton Kramer, who offers a collection of his essays on writers and politics in "The Twilight of the Intellectuals"? Or with Norman Podhoretz, who gives us autobiographical reflections in "Ex-Friends"?

The usual descriptions of New York intellectuals portray them as predominantly Jewish and leftist essayists; their world centered on a series of periodicals like Partisan Review, Commentary and the New York Review of Books. They were not primarily specialists and academics; rather they assumed the role of men and women of letters, writing for an educated public.

For many decades, these New York intellectuals dominated American letters and criticism. Serious students and scholars had to respond to Meyer Schapiro on art, Irving Howe on literature, Richard Hoftstadter on history and Daniel Bell on sociology.

Three sets of events shaped the New York intellectuals: the radicalism of the 1930s, the Cold War and McCarthyism of the 1950s and the rebellions of the 1960s. In the 1930s the New York intellectuals stood on the left, supporting various schools of dissenting socialism and Trotskyism. The 1950s brought doubts and disagreements; the radical faith flagged. Some New York intellectuals became reform Democrats with a renewed appreciation of American institutions; at the same time, many sharply attacked McCarthyism and its supporters.

The 1960s pounded an already politically divided group. Though some, like Norman Mailer and Dwight Macdonald, embraced the youthful rebellion, most responded with coolness. A few like Kramer and Podhoretz drew back in disgust and declared themselves conservatives. They denounced what they saw as cultural anarchy and decline.

Yet this is misleading; simply by virtue of their age, Kramer and Podhoretz stand apart from the main group of New York intellectuals; born in 1928 and 1930, they politically matured not in the radical '30s but the anti-communist '50s. The difference is telling. They did not move to the right as the earlier group did; they began on the right--and moved further rightward. Although Podhoretz wavered for a moment in the '60s, he began as a conservative moralist. One of his earliest essays from the 1950s lambasted the beat generation as "know-nothing bohemians" and offered opinions like the following: "I happen to believe there is a direct connection between the flabbiness of American middle-class life and the spread of juvenile crime." Under his tutelage the once-liberal periodical Commentary became a conservative outlet.

Kramer has never vacillated: The threat to art and culture is from the left. He had been an art critic at the New York Times before resigning in 1982 to launch a periodical, the New Criterion, funded by a conservative foundation. From its inception the journal presented itself as defending moral and aesthetic principles against a corrosive leftism. "The Twilight of the Intellectuals" assembles essays from the last 20 years that mainly appeared in the New Criterion. Yet the book feels musty, as if it were written half a century ago; this is exemplified by the two essays that open this volume. In both, Kramer celebrates Whittaker Chambers, the anti-communist hero of the 1950s.

With confidence and vigor, Podhoretz and Kramer champion a hard anti-communism and anti-liberalism. Yet it may be beside the point to damn (or celebrate) them for their politics. The problem is less their positions than their delusions about them; they seem to think they represent lonely and beleaguered outposts of anti-communism. Kramer writes as if he were a denizen of the former Soviet Union, where the party controls intellectual life and only a few brave souls like himself risk their lives and careers to tell the truth.

In fact--need this be said?--he lives in the United States, where anti-communism has been the official and unofficial creed and where the resources of the state and society have most often been used against communists and leftists. Kramer refashions this reality. "Future generations will marvel," he writes, quoting with approval an editorial in his own journal, "that it was not the Western defenders of Communist tyranny who suffered so conspicuously from censure and opprobrium in the Cold War period but those who took up the anti-communist cause."

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