In Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift there is a scene where the crazy poet-hero, Von Humboldt Fleisher, now widely known as Delmore Schwartz a clef tells his protege Charlie Citrine about his hopes and dreams for the presidency of Adlai Stevenson. “If you could believe Humboldt (and I couldn’t),” says Charlie, “Stevenson was Aristotle’s great-souled man. In his administration cabinet members would quote Yeats and Joyce. The new Joint Chiefs would know Thucydides. Humboldt would be consulted about each State of the Union message. He was going to be the Goethe of the new government and build Weimar in Washington. ‘You be thinking about what you might like to do, Charlie. Something in the Library of Congress, for a start.'”

That would have been 1952, and of course Humboldt didn’t get his wish. But the scene is a nice illumination of the not-quite-admitted attitudes that American intellectuals have brought to politics in the generation since the end of World War II, the end result of which is that the culture of intellectual life stands apart from the culture of democratic life. Humboldt’s sincere desire to apply his contemplative talents to the world of affairs; his just-as-strong Blue Angel-style scholar’s desire for the glamour and fame that are unavailable in his own field; his simultaneous scorn for politics generally and total susceptibility to being conned by the politician he thinks might listen to him—all these, repeated a thousand times, have produced an ongoing tragicomedy of intellectuals and politicians. Intellectuals, when regarding politicians, either turn up their noses (Ike); fall in love with the poetic, above-politics-seeming loser (Adlai Stevenson, Eugene McCarthy); or—with equal futility in terms of their actual effect on policy—come under the spell of a winner who uses them to his own ends. The classic example of the last type of politician is John F. Kennedy.

Kennedy was at first scorned by intellectuals except those who worked for him (most notably, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and John Kenneth Galbraith), but with time he gave many others reasons to join the team. He was at least mildly literary—a Pulitzer Prize-winning author. Robert Frost read at his inauguration. Pablo Casals played at the White House. Kennedy charmed Norman Mailer utterly by telling him he’d read his relatively obscure (though, it should be added, dirty) third novel, The Deer Park, and he similarly impressed dozens of other writers by showing a familiarity with their works. After the assassination, The New York Review of Books published a special Kennedy memorial issue in which Richard Rovere described Kennedy pulling him aside once to register a few minor complaints with a story in The New Yorker: “He seemed to feel that The New Yorker was losing its grip if it couldn’t be au courant in such matters…. He went on with something like, ‘What did you make of that last Norman Mailer piece?’ ” In other words, just like Humboldt and Adlai Stevenson, the way to win intellectuals’ political loyalty was through showing a sensitivity to literature.

With the benefit of hindsight, it seems clear that for all the influence intellectuals thought they were having on Kennedy, what was really happening was that they were being brought into a position of support for his agenda. Schlesinger worked in the East, or First Lady’s, Wing of a White House so obsessed with fear of sissyhood that the implications of that location could not have been lost on anyone. As Garry Wills puts it in The Kennedy Imprisonment, “Kennedy did not liberate the intellectuals who praised him; he subverted them. He played to all that was weakest and worst in them…. they wanted a President who would listen to them, and they were willing to say whatever ‘played’ with him.” And, though much has happened since then, the same syndrome among intellectuals remains. In the spring of 1980 Jeane Kirkpatrick told a reporter of her and the rest of the Commentary crowd’s growing regard for Ronald Reagan. “We are bombarded with friendly messages from Republicans,” she said, adding that “after a certain time it begins to seem irresistible, especially if the person seems very likely to be the next President of the United States.”

It has been in recent decades almost always to the advantage of politicians to undertake the easy task of winning over the intellectuals, the reason being that in the Great Chain of Opinion that ends with network television and life or death for presidents, the first link is the highbrow periodicals and faculty clubs. While intellectuals are not very good at creating the popular support that sweeps a Reagan or a Jimmy Carter into office, they are quite effective at beginning the turn of the tide against them. On the other hand, the politician-intellectual embrace has usually done much less for the intellectual. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, in his more Republican days, used to claim that the height of actual intellectual influence on American politics came in the first Nixon administration, and he might be right. The way it usually has ended is that the intellectual has left behind not his bold and original ideas about government, but part of his reputation for integrity. In retrospect, the intellectual-in-politics we usually admire is the one who stayed flintily apart from it, immune to all blandishments, and sent his ideas hurtling down like lightning bolts to the world below.

Does this seem a sad truth? Does it seem that the place of intellectuals in the political world, especially the liberal political world, isn’t what it ought to be? Then it’s worth looking at how that came to be, and there’s no better place to start than with a tiny publication that is the seed from which virtually all American intellectual life today sprang, Partisan Review.

There is a shelf’s worth of thinly veiled novels and other accounts of Partisan Review and its attendant crowd, but the most direct book on the subject, The Truants by William Barrett (with the Review from 1945 to 1952), was published this spring. It is not so much a straightforward history of the magazine as a long, moody portrait of its guiding light, Philip Rahv, a man whom, judging from Barrett, you wouldn’t want to go bowling with but whom it’s impossible not to admire. An immigrant from Russia, born Ivan Goldberg, educated informally in the New York public library, Rahv was passionate, suspicious, vituperative, conspiratorial. He spent decades feuding elaborately with his co-editor and best friend, William Phillips, who in return bestowed a series of memorable bons mots on Rahv (“Philip is a manic-impressive,” for instance). He gathered around him an extraordinary group of people: Mary McCarthy, Dwight MacDonald, F. W. Dupee, Delmore Schwartz, Elizabeth Hardwick, Harold Rosenberg, Clement Greenberg, Lionel Trilling, Saul Bellow, Hannah Arendt—the list goes on. He was a lifelong Marxist who started Partisan Review in 1934 as an organ of the Communist Party USA, and at the same time an ardent supporter of modern art and modern literature.

In 1937 Rahv was expelled from the party over two points, one specific, one general. The first was Stalin and the series of purges that culminated in the Moscow Trials, which led Rahv to the conclusion, dishearteningly rare among American intellectuals of the time, that Stalin was an evil man whose actions were inexcusable. The more general point was the party’s position that art and literature, to be of merit, had to portray the class nature of society and the inevitable heroic victory of the working man that history was bringing to pass. Rahv realized this left no room for an appreciation of virtually all great world literature, and as a sincere man of letters he decided that the extent to which art is art is more important than the extent to which it is politically correct. Albert O. Hirschman, in Shifting Involvements, says that “[i]ndividuals having had disappointing experiences with one set of activities turn to another set; they exit from one to another.” Rahv exited from the party to literature.

The break from the party and concomitant adherence to an independent Marxism and intellectual integrity in literary and artistic matters was the central event in Rahv’s life. Now, it makes him look great; then, it was a decision away from the organized politics of the Popular Front-era Left, and thus a consignment to the lonely life of a Jeremiah. The result was that if Rahv ever had an impulse to get out among the American people, it was now put in cold storage; he was an ivory-tower man. So completely did Greenwich Village represent the entirety of actual experience to him that, says Barrett, “Midtown was for us the name of an alien territory, the haunt of the middlebrows and philistines of the cultural world.” If that’s what Rahv thought of midtown Manhattan, one shudders to think what he must have thought of, say, Manhattan, Kansas.

Rahv supported American entry into World War II—again, it makes sense now, but in that milieu at that time it wasn’t obvious. Dwight MacDonald stormed off and started his own magazine, Politics, because he thought Partisan Review was wrong to approve of helping out capitalist powers like England and France. Rahv opposed Joe McCarthy in the fifties much sooner than other anti-Stalinists. As time went on, all his important ideas proved right and became part of all thinking-people’s received wisdom; Rahv himself, however, lost his place at the center of the intellectual world. Barrett’s theory is that with the death of his great nemesis, Stalin, Rahv was essentially finished because of both a diminution of passion and an inability to see that the Soviet Union wasn’t going to get any more benign with Stalin gone. Like many members of the Old Left, Rahv had little use for the New Left. By the mid-sixties Rahv was no longer the dominant figure at Partisan Review, and in 1970 he left to start a magazine called Modern Occasions, which lasted only six issues. He died in 1973, 65 years old, a good 20 years past the peak of his influence.

But perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the early fifties was the peak of his direct influence; to a large extent, he lives on today. Even in the late fifties, his ideas reached a wider field than Partisan Review’s tiny circulation through The New Yorker, which used several members of the Partisan Review crowd—Mary McCarthy, Harold Rosenberg, Dwight MacDonald, Rahv’s friend and enemy Edmund Wilson—as the writers who would express its own most serious side. What were themes in the Partisan Review became trends in the wider world: support of abstract expressionism, admiration for Henry James, liberal skepticism of Henry Wallace and the world of late-forties fellow-traveling.

The New York Review of Books, America’s most important and influential intellectual magazine since its founding 20 years ago, is a child of Partisan Review: its first issue carried contributions by Rahv, Phillips, McCarthy, Dupee, MacDonald, and several others from the old crowd. The neoconservative world of which Commentary is the epicenter, while in disagreement with The New York Review about virtually everything, is also descended from Partisan Review in the sense that Norman Podhoretz came of age in its golden era, wrote for it, and, like everyone else, feuded with Rahv. The New Republic has, under Martin Peretz, established its link with the Partisan Review tradition, leaving The Nation and The Progressive as the only real continuing legatees of the soft-on-Russia side of American liberalism. Even National Review has a Partisan Review veteran, James Burnham.

The legacy of Partisan Review does not end with people, institutions, or even particular political ideas, however. It extends also, less noticeably but just as influentially, into matters of style—into the way in which American intellectuals regard their society, and in particular its politics. The unsatisfactory fit between liberal intellectual and political life today is in part a product of this side of the Partisan Review legacy. Specifically, it has roots in three traits of Rahv’s, minor and harmless when they first appeared, that now, huge and unexamined, stand in the way. Put simply, they are: literariness, remoteness, and avant-gardism.

Rahv’s love of literature was as strong as, and perhaps stronger than, his love of politics. It was a large part of what propelled him out of the Communist party, and he left behind more literary criticism than political analysis, under his own name, at least. Given that the Communists were hostile to great literature because it didn’t speak to their idea of “the people,” and given that the segment of great literature that most appealed to Rahv (Joyce, Pound, Eliot, Dostoevsky, James) was not the most accessible to begin with, it was inevitable that Rahv would become suspicious that popularity and great literature could coexist. Trilling even harbored doubts that a liberal culture and great literature could coexist. And the further, unstated step to which this line of reasoning could be taken was that whatever general truths pertained to literature also pertained to political ideas. William Barrett calls this a tendency to “cultivate politics as if it were a purely aesthetic discipline.”

Thus an appreciation of great literature required breaking away from the public’s and the critical establishment’s tastes. The inescapable corollary was that having great political ideas required the same process. Weren’t Rahv’s own ideas about politics—faith in Marx, yet hatred of Stalin—appealing to only a handful of people? With literature as an intellectual starting point (modern literature, anyway; Shakespeare and Dickens were certainly popular), it is difficult to accept that a true titan of the political field would be one who not only had great ideas but also could sell them to millions of people. Such a person would, to carry out the analogy, be like a bestselling author, and bestselling authors invariably lacked literary merit. When, in the mood of consensus that developed after the war, the notion of culture for the masses began to reemerge from the mists of the thirties, stripped of the cloak of Marxism that it had come to carry back then, nowhere was it more assiduously opposed than in the pages of Partisan Review, where the lessons of the thirties were well remembered; and when, in the same spirit, the idea of intellectuals helping form a political consensus came out, too, Partisan Review again looked askance.

Remoteness, the second Rahv trait, came to him more gradually, but perhaps it was inevitable, given his life-forming decisions in the mid-thirties. As a young critic, Rahv was well aware of the benefit to writers, particularly in a huge and still changing country like the United States, of what he called “experience.” “The dissociation of mind from experience,” he wrote in his best-known essay, “Paleface and Redskin,” “has resulted in truncated works of art, works that tend to be either naive and ungraded, often flat reproductions of life, or else products of cultivation that remain abstract because they fall short of evidence drawn from the sensuous and material world.” Certainly, in politics, the Stalinism of the thirties liberals was an example of just those deleterious effects that await the intellectual who doesn’t bother going out to find out what’s really happening.

As time went on and Rahv was drawn more and more into a closed circle, he seemed to forget his own lesson. “Paleface and Redskin” was a perfectly balanced assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of writers of experience (Whitman, Twain) and writers of contemplation (James, Melville), but Rahv’s own tastes in American literature turned inexorably back toward James and the Paleface school. He was convinced that American society, having moved past the frontier stage, was becoming more complex and so needed a literature and a politics of ideas. “Until very recently there has really been no urgent need in America for high intellectual productivity,” he wrote in 1940, implying the time had arrived. Under these conditions, the usefulness of experience in literature—and by extension in politics—was lessened. He said the “real” appears in American fiction “as a vast phenomenology swept by waves of sensation and feeling,” leaving “little room for the intellect.” Thus it was incumbent upon the intellectual to concentrate on writing about ideas, as the times required, and to cast off the sloppy, non-idea-producing accumulation of firsthand experience. To do so was practically a matter of intellectual integrity. (It should be noted that the intellectual who was writing for 1950s quarterly fees would not be presented with the slightest temptation to behave otherwise.)

Mistrusting mass opinion and firsthand experience, the Partisan Review crowd, as intelligent as it was, could hardly avoid beginning to think of itself as a hardy, lonely band, a classic avant-garde, doomed to unpopularity by the very rightness of its view. From there, it is a short leap to the attitude that any idea that really catches on that is no longer avant-garde—is unappealing because standing by it requires abandoning the lonely-sentry-of-society stance. And from there, it is just another short step to outright snobbery: better to keep abreast of what ideas are one step ahead of public tastes than to risk thinking like (being like!) the philistines. The Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan, says William Barrett, were exactly what Philip Rahv had been advocating for years, “but [they] also left him faintly ill at ease. A political policy which had been avant-garde was now about to be contaminated by being taken up by the hoi polloi…. For the intellectual the avant-garde position may lose its special enchantment when it becomes commonly accepted: after all, it may be held now in a vulgar way and not for his lofty reasons.” By the early fifties in New York, say some who were there, one reason to read Partisan Review was to keep one step ahead of the game, to know which names could be dropped at cocktail parties and which couldn’t.

So the three strains—the literary, the remote, and the avant-garde—were established, and they quickly became interwoven and persisted through the years. The result was a feeling that the best minds would exist at a distance from the society—removed from the court of public opinion, removed from firsthand experience, and prone to taking artistically pure political positions while scorning the grubby practicality of politics and government.

This led, first, to a splintering of the intellectual family into loose camps based on how closely the Partisan Review’s stance was adhered to. Social scientists, who might have been valued for their familiarity with empirical evidence, instead were regarded as the second class of intellectuals, too practical and boring. “When I was an undergraduate at Columbia,” Jason Epstein once wrote, in a tone of some self-mocking but not so much as to make you miss the point, “it was unfashionable to study sociology. Those who did were, one felt, the future businessmen of the crash of 1949 or the dentists, the careerists, the politicians.” Alternatively, the few intellectuals who, under the banner of William Blake and Walt Whitman, became first beatniks and then hippies (like Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac), had sterling avant-garde credentials—the press with which many of them published their books was suitably titled New Directions—but became too non-literary and non-remote.

Another type, the intellectual-in-government, was also viewed with a weather eye by the old crowd back in New York, his every hint of ridiculousness and self-lowering instantly noted. Elizabeth Hardwick, wielding the rapier deftly, described such a person in this way: “Our writer, our economist, our thinker, this person who would bring to Washington and national affairs some of the order that goes into the making of books or even into the reading of them did at last enter the city with Kennedy, a few of them entered at least. What he was to do there we do not quite know, since government is not a book.” With that kind of support from the home office, no wonder intellectuals in Washington so often tended to be more influenced by the government than the government was by them.

In much the same way that the intellectuals’ perception of people had its biases, their perception of issues did, too. William Barrett suggests that the intellectual passion for anti-communism (as opposed to the more practical Bundy-McNamara-Kennedy passion for anti-communism) was gone as soon as anti-communism reemerged from its wartime slumber as a great cause of the Babbitt and sub-Babbitt classes. Generally, a certain amount of snob appeal helped sell a cause to the intellectuals. While the Partisan Review crowd and its legatees were never ardently pro-Vietnam war, they didn’t say much about it under Kennedy. Granted, it barely deserved to be called a war then, but Kennedy’s unmistakable hawkishness was surely counterbalanced by his personal attractiveness to intellectuals. When Vietnam became the way of Lyndon Johnson—vulgar, badly educated, and hick—the tide turned.

The intellectuals woke up about the war before almost anyone else, and to their credit they helped change the rest of the country’s mind about it. But it’s significant that the great epiphany about the war for the intellectual community came in the summer of 1965, when Johnson held an arts festival at the White House and Robert Lowell, an impeccably credentialed intellectual, refused to attend on grounds of the Vietnam policy. The subtext of the event was how dare Johnson, of all people, try to make political hay by having an arts festival when he was known to lack an appreciation of the arts. So Lowell’s protest put the anti-war movement in the context of seriousness about culture, and as such it caught on in a big way. By the time of the great troop escalation in the fall of 1965, the New York Review had already printed “A Special Supplement: Getting Out of Vietnam.”

The other side of the coin was that the intellectuals, while tireless in their writing, petition-signing, and speaking in furtherance of the cause, in the end did not win over more than a large minority of the people—witness the 1972 election results. The reasons are many, but one is that the culture of the antiwar movement (and also the anti-poverty movement), while it greatly valued being right early and being right elegantly, did not greatly value the ceaseless, clumsy, endlessly repeated acts of political persuasion. Thus the political ante was constantly being raised—did you support the NLF? the Panthers?—and, at least in intellectual circles, the restrained, lovely, Anglophilic mode of discourse was never seriously breached. In other words, intellectuals played a political version of the old literary game of staying one step ahead of popular tastes, in a way that, at its worst, found expression in an anti-working-class prejudice (remember how policemen were routinely called “pigs”?) that was both morally unattractive and politically unproductive.

The best example that it doesn’t have to be that way comes from the period just before the Revolutionary War to just after the ratification of the Constitution, when men of high intelligence and writing ability (and even less faith in the wisdom of the masses than had Philip Rahv et al.) successfully sold a majority of their countrymen on a wild new form of government—democracy. Bernard Bailyn, in his classic study of the pre-Revolutionary War political pamphlets that he says were American democracy’s real crucible, makes the point that British pamphlets of the same period were far superior as literature. Many of them are still read today, as literature, whereas the American pamphlets are now forgotten, except possibly for Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, which is read more as a historical document than fine writing. But there was a reason, Bailyn says, why the American pamphlets had such a vast effect on the history of the world: “They sought to convince their opponents, not… annihilate them…. The communication of understanding… lay at the heart of the revolutionary movement, and its great expressions, embodied in the best of the pamphlets, are consequently expository and explanatory: didactic, systematic, and direct, rather than imaginative and metaphoric. They take the form most naturally of treatises and sermons, not poems; of descriptions, not allegories; of explanations, not burlesques. The reader is led through arguments, not images. The pamphlets aim to persuade.” Later, when images also were called for, the Founders served them up; the point about their writing is that they were able to turn their talents fully to rallying and winning over the public to their ideas. So, later, were the abolitionists. So were the New Dealers. But in the last decade or so this ability has lain dormant, except among intellectuals of the Right.

The great recent example of how liberal intellectuals might act in the political world is that of the supply-side economists. Though it was thanks in part to an incredible series of lucky breaks, these men formulated a series of new and wild ideas and, in less than five years, saw them become government policy. They were, as is now painfully clear, the dreamiest of dreamy intellectuals, and they were certainly avant-garde, if not exactly the avant-garde. But there was a lot of other baggage they weren’t carrying, not having come out of the dominant postwar intellectual tradition. They didn’t believe that a great idea would be corrupted by becoming popular, so they ceaselessly propagandized for theirs in organs high and low. They didn’t think examples drawn from experience would pollute their thought, so they combed the world for examples (Singapore, Puerto Rico) that they felt proved their points. They didn’t derive any snob appeal from their idea, so when it showed signs of catching on they didn’t start looking for the next twist. And the pity is that all this couldn’t have happened to a less wonderful bunch of theories. Next time the same fate ought to befall the right idea

Nicholas Lemann

Nicholas Lemann is a professor at Columbia Journalism School and a staff writer for The New Yorker. His most recent book is Transaction Man.