On Media / Pop Culcha

Jewish World Review May 18, 2000/ 13 Iyar, 5760

Robert Leiter

Kissing the
Intellectual Goodbye

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- THE RECENT, PERSISTENT use in the media of the phrase "public intellectual" has given rise to a lively essay by Joseph Epstein in the May issue of Commentary. At the root of Epstein’s piece is the question: Whatever became of the unadorned and far more precise term "intellectual," which the writer says he grew up with?

As an undergraduate at the University of Chicago in the late 1950s, Epstein first discovered the pleasures of the Harper library on campus. Among those pleasures was the periodical room, which contained the top flight journals of the day — Partisan Review, Commentary and Encounter — which he devoured with a mental avidity that even startled him a bit.

"I find it difficult to do justice to the deep pleasure I took in these magazines," Epstein writes. "Education, as everyone knows, is a disorderly business. It is chiefly available through four different means: schools, new and used bookstores, conversation with intelligent friends, and good magazines. For me, coming to them pretty much tabula rasa, these intellectual magazines were easily the key element."

Epstein then sketches in the history of the intellectual class in the United States and the fate of its main publications from the 1930s to the 1960s, centering his discussion on such famous writers as Lionel Trilling, Irving Howe, Dwight Macdonald and Susan Sontag.

In fact, the writer notes, until the 1960s, intellectuals managed to live fairly well, if not too prosperously, in America, "enjoying some of the comforts of a coterie existence." One of these comforts, Epstein says, was the "feeling of being vastly superior to their countrymen … " Granted, they weren’t asked to give their opinions on radio and TV, as today’s public intellectuals are called upon to do, and their names weren’t known much beyond the readership of elite journals. But their ideas did have an effect, as they eventually percolated down to the popular press and a wider audience.

But the ’60s changed all that, Epstein says. Rather than being alienated from the mainstream, the intellectual began to be integrated into American life. People like Philip Rahv, one of the founding editors of Partisan Review, and Irving Howe accepted prestigious positions at top-drawer universities. Their magazines, as well, began to be absorbed and funded by the same institutions.

But Epstein says that it was the decade of the ’60s, with all its radical shenanigans, which truly finished off the old "freelance" intellectual life. As Midge Decter has remarked: "The ‘partisan’ community would become unstuck in the ’60s, with several defections from among its ranks to the camp of the radical students, and would blow up even further in the ’70s with the onset of neoconservatism."


Now, Epstein says, we are stuck with the "empty term" public intellectual because the real thing is on its way out, if not gone for good. "As for me," he writes, "harshly though I have written about the traditional intellectual, I now find myself … rather sorrowful at his departure from the scene. What once distinguished him was a certain cast of mind, a style of thought, wide-ranging, curious, playful, genuinely excited by ideas for ideas’ sake. Unlike so many of today’s public intellectuals, he was not primarily a celebrity hound, a false philosopher-king with tenure, or a single-issue publicist. An elegantly plumed, often irritating bird, the traditional intellectual was always a minuscule minority, and now he is on the list of endangered species. Anyone who was around in his heyday to see him soar is unlikely to forget the spectacle."

JWR contributor Robert Leiter is Literary Editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. Let him know what you think by clicking here.

03/1300: Unorthodox Coverage
02/16/00: Heller's Legacy Poses a Catch-22
11/29/99: The corrosive nature of fame
11/06/99: Humanizing Hitler
9/21/99: Spock's spectacular voyage
5/26/99: America's new anti-Semites
5/06/99: New York (Times) Jews
4/29/99: To tell the truth
3/17/99: Beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder


© 2000 Robert Leiter