The Loneliest Jukebox

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Friday, October 01, 2004

Silly man

An interesting piece by Daniel Silliman appears in Comment, bemoaning the failure of the New York Intellectuals to produce an heir to their collective throne: “The New York Intellectuals were a movement that ought to have continued, one whose lack of an heir is frustrating and discouraging. They were different from the other political movements in two respects: the occupation of a position between pundit and academic and their attention to culture, especially the literary … This let them proceed as cultural critics and artists informed by Marxism - a position also taken by John Steinbeck - avoiding the stigma of political hacks that would later follow such authors as Howard Fast.”
The analysis is odd for several reasons: it fails to note the present, rather barmy claims suggesting that the Bush foreign policy team are heirs of the New York Intellectuals. (This article suggests that its author knows enough to refute them.) Second, I’m not sure if Howard Fast suffered stigma from political hacks or the stigma of being one, but he certainly had enough good editors over the years to reduce the number of garbled sentences like this one appearing in his work. As for Steinbeck, NYIs like Dwight Macdonald were disdainful of this middlebrow ‘mid-cult’ writer, rather than kindred spirits.

What’s missing from the analysis is precisely the post-1945 and Cold War context in which the New York 'family' could flourish. After all, their early encounters with US Stalinists meant they could say they were ‘right all along’ about Communism, with a degree of moral authority not available to their conservative counterparts. Take away this context and the New York Intellectuals were always likely to dwindle.


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