For anyone who has ever worked on a struggling, high-minded publication, the fate of Partisan Review represents the ultimate Walter Mitty fantasy. Here is a publication with a circulation in the low four figures whose every leading writer and editor seems to have been the subject of a biography, a written memoir, or both, and whose editorial policies, especially from the late thirties through the middle fifties, are still intensely discussed and extremely influential everywhere, from the White House and State Department, to big-time academia and the book-and-magazine publishing world. Surely every schoolboy can recite the details of Mary McCarthy’s leaving Philip Rahv for Edmund Wilson, or of the skid-row deaths of Isaac Rosenfeld and Delmore Schwartz. The Partisan Review crowd is the American Bloomsbury.

Not surprisingly, the mood of the legatees of the Partisan Review crowd today is self-congratulatory—of course you’ve heard the story of how they’ve repelled the Soviet threat and tamed the welfare monster. So it’s a departure from conventional wisdom for Alexander Bloom to say, in the latest addition to the Partisan Review shelf, that the crowd’s story is not in some kind of final glorious phase, but over. Bloom says flatly that “the New York Intellectuals have gone,” and that “[I]n recent years other younger critics have popped up, eager to become New York Intellectuals. Unfortunately for them, it can no longer be done.”

Bloom’s explanation as to why this is so is an anthropological one: he sees the story of the New York intellectuals as that of the assimilation of a group (an unusual group, to be sure) of ghetto-born ethnics into the comfortable center of American society. He makes the case well enough to prove his point that the intellectuals’ status has dramatically changed in a generation, and also, almost unintentionally, that assimilation is a real possibility for even the unlikeliest people. The Yiddish-speaking Brooklyn childhoods of figures like Daniel Bell, Alfred Kazin, and Sidney Hook fill his first chapter; a memorable quote from Irving Howe on how everyone started out as “a talkative little pisher” bluffing through street-corner political arguments resonates through the book, even as the arguments become extremely abstruse. In a way it denigrates the intellectuals to say that their broad shift from left to right has mirrored their increasing age and good fortune, rather than some independent thought process, but it does ring true.

The difference between the original New York intellectuals and their would-be successors today is that the original group started out as true outsiders. They grew up working-poor in the twenties and came of age during the Depression. They were politically radical (almost everyone had at least a flirtation with communism), not in a parlor or common-room way, but because everybody in the neighborhood was, too. They were fiercely ambitious, but as young men most of them were not careerist, if only because in the late thirties it seemed crazy for a poor young Jew to lay the groundwork for a bourgeois middle age. The intellectuals’ indifference to money and to the security and prestige of a steady job is practically unknown today, certainly among intellectuals. The touchstone experience for most intellectuals under 40, the Vietnam-inspired student revolution on prestige campuses in the late sixties, is simply worlds away from the experience of coming from Brooklyn to City College to argue about Stalin in the lunchroom. Bloom says the event that symbolizes the end of the New York intellectuals was the publication in 1967 of Norman Podhoretz’s Making It (though Prodigal Sons is written in scrupulously neutral academic, prose, Bloom seems not to like Podhoretz), because it announced that the intellectuals were now just like everybody else.

Podhoretz, who has assiduously cultivated a network of proteges and placed them in strategic jobs in the press and government, would probably argue that the tradition of the New York intellectuals is very much alive, even though the family has been split into several camps. We’ve gone from arguing in the lunchroom to arguing in the Senate and the United Nations—and it’s the same argument—he might say. What’s been lost? He can be answered without resorting to ethnic history: his branch, at least, of New York intellectuals is extremely active, but its main activity is influencing public opinion and policy. One does not read the neoconservatives any more for their intellectual freshness—for the feeling (which was the key to Partisan Review in its glory days) that they are on the cutting edge of writing about politics and culture. What’s most interesting about them now is the vagaries of their careers not as thinkers but as political actors—for example, their fight with the Old Right over tradition and anti-Semitism.

The simplest reason why neoconservative writing doesn’t seem fresh is that the positions have become so predictable. When Commentary writes about Star Wars or the contras, it is inconceivable that it will be with anything but enthusiasm. In fact it seems inconceivable that there could be doubts expressed in Commentary about any weapons system or anti-communist guerrilla group. Partisan Review was constant in its love for modern art and literature, but in politics it went from Stalinist to quasi Trotskyist to liberal anti-communist in the space of 15 years. Position-changing is inherently interesting, and when the times are so much more convulsive than they are now, it seems intellectually honorable, too.

It is possible, though, to detect some of the uncompelling qualities of the New York intellectuals today in embryonic form at Partisan Review. These have to do with how “intellectual” is defined. It’s a more elusive word than you’d think. Back in the thirties and forties, the New York intellectuals thought of themselves as free-floating writers, people who pointedly didn’t have regular jobs as professors, journalists, or government officials, and who scorned those who did; an intellectual was a learned person who was not an academic. Edmund Wilson was essentially a free-lance writer for all of his life, and as Bloom points out, was much admired by other intellectuals for refusing to take a job. It was taken as a given that an intellectual would write from a deep familiarity with the history of thought, often gained simply through self-education. Alfred Kazin wrote On Native Grounds based on five years of intensive reading, while unemployed, at the New York Public Library.

After World War II the New York intellectuals almost all found steady employment, usually in academia and sometimes in journalism. Some, like Lionel Trilling, had always been academic careerists; others, like Rahv, accepted employment a little ruefully but without much resistance. This meant that the distinction between “intellectual” and “scholar” or “academic” became blurred; it was assumed that an intellectual was anybody who made a living by thinking and writing, and the debate about the role of intellectuals, once the question of their holding jobs was solved, has been mostly over how involved in politics they should become.

Attitude platitude

This long preoccupation with the distribution side of intellectual life has left the production side unexamined. On what authority should an intellectual offer his views? To judge from Bloom’s book, the Partisan Review writers did not actually research their political pieces. The justification for their sureness was, first, their indisputable intelligence and learning, and, second, the fast-changing nature of the world. The collapse of the communist dream, the rise of fascism, the atomic bomb, the Holocaust, the prosperity of postwar America—these were completely unanticipated turns that demanded explanation by intellectuals. Someone like Rahv or Hannah Arendt, sitting in a study somewhere, could pick up a pen, draw upon years of personal struggle and deep reflection, and produce an essay. that would truly change perceptions.

But this ethic had its underside, as is now obvious. It wasn’t just that research, especially reportorial interviewing, was unnecessary for intellectuals; it was also that it was taxing, inconvenient, and a little demeaning. Can you imagine the lordly Arendt badgering government officials’ secretaries for a little time with the boss? Also, Manhattan, the intellectuals’ adopted home, is economically and culturally wedded to the constant production of new opinion—Seventh Avenue and Wall Street and television row and Broadway and Soho all profit from something being hot this year that wasn’t last year. And it wasn’t entirely different on West End Avenue.

There was profit in playing the role of arbiter of taste and ideas. In these less-than-cataclysmic times, the New York intellectuals sometimes seem engaged in nothing much more than pure attitudinizing. The perfect example is Susan Sontag’s speech at Town Hall in 1982 in which she turned against communism, which was taken with the utmost seriousness in her circle but seemed wacky outside of it.

There is one New York intellectual publication that was specifically designed to be about what’s actually going on in public affairs: The Public Interest, founded by Bell and Irving Kristol. Bloom writes: “One of the motivations Kristol said, came from Dan’s experience on the Commission for the Study of Automation, when he discovered that most of what was being written was absolute nonsense. I discovered… that we had very little solid, good information available to us about social and economic problems.” Though it certainly has a neoconservative bent, The Public Interest continues to think hard about what works and what doesn’t, especially in the realm of social programs. Devotion to “solid, good information” has led it to some positions, like endorsing the Head Start program and opposing the Gramm-Rudman law, that it would be hard to picture, say, The Wall Street Journal editorial page taking. But The Public Interest does not occupy the red-hot center of the neoconservative magazine world. Kristol’s reputation in recent years has been made more by the writing he does in an entirely different spirit, in which he baldly asserts, just to shake ’em up, that universities are left-dominated, or that a war would be morally good for America.

In a few cases one or another New York intellectual would produce, in effect, a super op-ed piece that is still being read—Rahv’s “Paleface and Redskin” in the thirties, which divided American literature into wild and civilized camps in a way that still seems fresh, or Bell’s “The End of Ideology” in the fifties, which stated the consensus spirit of the times so well it helped produce the reaction that destroyed it. On the whole, though, Bloom’s book makes it clear that the work whose appeal was purely that it was the new intellectual twist of the moment fades (try rereading Growing Up Absurd). What lasts is work in which the author has assembled some body of fresh material, thought hard about it, and recreated it on the page through a sustained effort—Beyond the Melting Pot, Herzog, or The Age of Reform. The work whose aim is not to attempt this kind of true invention but instead to answer that classic New York question, “What’s your take on such-and-such?,” at best has a very short half-life, and at worst is just prejudice gussied up as intellection. In miniature, the difference can be dearly seen in Podhoretz’s new book of essays, The Bloody Crossroads, where the literary essays based on a careful rereading of the text are truly stimulating and not always doctrinaire (he says that Solzenhitsyn, that great neoconservative hero, is a not-great novelist), but a political essay on the “new class” is familiar, unsubtle, and not likely to convince anyone who doesn’t already agree. The New York intellectuals may be unrevivable as an ethnic group, but as writers who want to excite and challenge readers, their best hope is to marry their brainpower to some greater degree of direct knowledge of the world.

Overcoming barriers

If the intellectuals’ loss of something important in their writing can be used to prove that there is a bad side to assimilation, on the whole their story shows that assimilation is both possible and desirable. Any shred of fondness that the New York intellectuals harbor for the old ghetto days, or even for the journey out, is purely retrospective. It was a journey whose destination was by far its most pleasant point.

For most of the period recounted in Prodigal Sons, the New York intellectuals, while anything but denatured Jews, were ashamed of being Jewish. They lived in families of hectoring mothers and worn, defeated fathers, to whom they were embarrassed to introduce their non-Jewish friends. Several changed their names to something that sounded less foreign, which really meant less Jewish. At a time when American society was almost unimaginably more openly anti-Semitic than it is today, their background was something to deny. Lionel Trilling, who began his literary career as a writer for Menorah Journal (Podhoretz, just a generation younger, was writing for The New Yorker at a similar stage in his life), wrote, “I cannot discover anything in my professional intellectual life which I can significantly trace back to my Jewish birth and rearing. I do not think of myself as a ‘Jewish writer.'” It would have seemed, even into the fifties, that this kind of denial was the only avenue for a Jew really to succeed in the non-Jewish world, since being both proudly, openly Jewish and fully accepted appeared impossible.

In denial of ethnicity, though, there is a strong element of denial of self, which is why we’ve grown accustomed to using the term “self-hatred” to describe it. It seems to be a practically unavoidable step on the road out of the ghetto. Its manifestations include trying to rid oneself of the distinguishing characteristics of one’s group (skin-lightening cream is a big seller in the ghettos today) while adopting the worst qualities of the majority: joining in others’ prejudices against one’s own people, refusing to participate in ethnic do-good causes, and who knows what private agonies. To feel that one doesn’t belong and never will is extremely painful. For the New York intellectuals the period of self-hatred was unusually gruesome because it coincided with the Holocaust, which many of them were reluctant to speak too loudly about.

Today, the New York intellectual family seems entirely comfortable with both its Jewishness and its central position in American society; and non-Jews have reacted to the increasing power and visibility of Jews by becoming less anti-Semitic. The deep conviction of the most successful Jews of a generation ago (Walter Lippmann, Robert Moses) that the WASP establishment’s condemnation of “most Jews” was justified is mind-boggling today, in part because it’s so obviously an internalization of racism. That this is so plain to see now shows how open the prejudice was then.

The relevance of this today is to blacks, who are in the painful mid-assimilation period that Jews (and Poles, and Italians, and Irish) have passed through. Times have changed; in public, at least, there is very little of the old ethic of the more successful members of the group condemning the rest. Instead there’s a more complicated phenomenon. Black America is deeply split right now between an employed, two-parent family class that is closing the gap with whites, and a welfare-dependent, one-parent family class still mired in the ghettos—hopelessly, it would seem. For the black middle class, as it did for most other middle class ethnic groups, assimilation pulls like a tide: it will happen. But that doesn’t mean that it’s a painless process, or that the clammy call of self-hatred isn’t felt. It is, thankfully, unthinkable today that the black middle class would respond to this call in the old Walter Lippmann-Robert Moses manner, by publicly attacking the underclasses (though in private it’s often a different story). Instead, the black middle class takes almost exactly the opposite tack, saying that assimilation, which it is going through with some unhappiness and which the underclass is not going through at all, is impossible and undesirable anyway.

In policy terms, this means that middle class blacks, while leaving the ghettos in droves, often say that the solution for the underclass is “community development” in the ghettos—that is, non-assimilation. Community development has a mom-and-apple-pie appeal. It sounds great just as a phrase. It appeals to the white left as a beau ideal for all under-developed societies, and to ghetto leaders who don’t like hearing that they are presiding over a “tangle of pathology.” Community development seems to be a way of completely bypassing the pain of self-hatred by never having to deal with white people at all; it is also, significantly, tremendously appealing to the white right, which doesn’t want an integrated society.

But when has the community development model, in which a desperately poor ghetto suddenly bloomed, ever worked in this country? What has healed the ghettos, over and over, is outmigration into the fluid American mainstream. The black middle class will, though uncomfortably, finish this journey over time; meanwhile, it ought to get over the feeling that assimilation inevitably means selling out one’s best self and one’s own people. Many examples from all ethnic groups show that it doesn’t have to be that way at all. Only when that psychological barrier is overcome will the black middle class realize how disastrous is the possibility that the underclass won’t assimilate at all. Taking non-assimilation as the model in the ghettos would be a disaster. We should remind ourselves that, as impossible as getting out of the ghettos looks today and as painful as the process of leaving can be, it was always that way, and the barriers were always overcome.

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.