Dilettantes and Connoisseurs: The Public Intellectual in the United States
By Robert DaselerSeptember 13, 2020
By the time Irving Howe sat down to write about them, the New York intellectuals were a distinct breed, not to be mistaken for the academic careerists who populated English and philosophy departments in universities and colleges all across the prospering country. The latter wrote books for an audience of professors and graduate students; by contrast, the New York intellectuals wrote pithy articles to provoke debate among other New York intellectuals, and they created, in New York City, a hothouse environment that felt to its participants like something more (or less) than a debating society — for their arguments were not static: most of the participants eventually renounced or slid away from their early enthusiasm for anti-Stalinist communism, and a few of them evolved, in the fullness of time, into political conservatives.
For a brief period — from circa 1955 to circa 1975 — the United States had a cadre of “public intellectuals” who spoke out in the press and on television to advance (or retard) one progressive program or another, fighting among themselves over which programs were worthiest of support. To be sure, the public intellectual in the United States bore only a faint resemblance to his or her counterpart in France, where such figures had deeper roots and a longer tradition. But, during the score of years I have designated, it was possible, occasionally, to turn on your television and watch William F. Buckley Jr. flick his serpent’s tongue between his lips as he mixed it up verbally with one of his liberal guests — Gore Vidal, James Baldwin, Norman Mailer — on his weekly program, Firing Line, and on other broadcasts. Buckley became an almost universally recognized public intellectual without really being an intellectual. The quickness of his wit and the sharpness of his tongue disguised the shallowness of his erudition: in a serious discussion of literary or political theory, for example, he would have been out of his depth if matched against either Norman Podhoretz or Susan Sontag.
In talking about public intellectuals, we must bear in mind that our subject is a moving target, for both “public” and “intellectual” are squishy, amorphous terms. Figures like Ralph Waldo Emerson and William James may have been public intellectuals in the 19th century, for their names were widely recognized by literate Americans and they were in demand as public speakers. They also chose to exert themselves to influence public opinion, which not all intellectuals do. Both Emerson and James joined with other intellectuals and writers in the Boston area to form clubs. The Saturday Club, of which Emerson was a member, was formed in the 1850s in Boston; in addition to providing its members — who included Louis Agassiz, Richard Henry Dana Jr., James Russell Lowell, and William Dean Howells — with the pleasures of stimulating discourse, the Club launched The Atlantic Monthly. James belonged to the Metaphysical Club, established in 1872 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, whose other members included Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Charles Sanders Peirce, and Chauncey Wright. Membership in either of these clubs could probably serve, in lieu of any institutional endorsement, as qualification to be considered an intellectual in 19th-century America, and those members who lectured frequently in public should probably be considered the public intellectuals of their era.
Perhaps the model for the public intellectual in the 20th century was Edmund Wilson, who became famous not through lecturing but as a polemical writer on a variety of public issues. A frequent literary critic for The New Yorker, he wrote books on the history of communism, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the plight of Native Americans in Upstate New York. His circle of literary friends included Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Vladimir Nabokov. In some respects, Wilson was the intellectual’s intellectual, admired and envied by tamer tenured scholars and journalists, for he was both a scholar and a journalist but more wide-ranging in his interests than all but a few of his contemporaries in either line of work.
With the coming of radio, and more particularly with the advent of television and the talk shows that began to attract late-night viewers, the articulate intellectual who could engage with issues of the day began to appear as a guest on shows hosted by Steve Allen, Jack Paar, and Johnny Carson. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Dick Cavett carved out a reputation for himself as a witty talk show host who could hold his own with other sprightly conversationalists and artists. By appearing frequently on talk shows, polemicists like Mailer and Vidal could become familiar presences in households where none of their books would ever be read, and clearly both craved attention from the widest public possible. Sontag did not appear on television as often as Mailer, but after the publication of her 1966 collection of essays Against Interpretation, she quickly became one of the intellectual eminences in New York.
Howe’s 1969 essay “The New York Intellectuals” named numerous figures of the 1950s and ’60s, few of whose names would have been readily recognized by readers in Iowa or Indiana. Whether most of these essayists and polemicists could have been considered public intellectuals is a matter of definition. For my purposes, most of those who wrote for journals like Partisan Review, Commentary, Dissent, and even the National Review qualified, for they tended to spread their opinions broadly over aesthetics, culture, politics, and foreign policy, participating in an ongoing argument about where the United States was going wrong. Of their collective style, Howe wrote: “It celebrated the idea of the intellectual as antispecialist, or as a writer whose specialty was the lack of a specialty: the writer as dilettante-connoisseur, Luftmensch of the mind, roamer among theories.”
These intellectuals, then, were distinctly different from the columnists whose political opinions were syndicated to newspapers and magazines across the nation, and generally confined themselves to a single topic: politics. They were easily distinguished, too, from the drama and movie reviewers, some of whom, like Pauline Kael, could be extremely polemical but whose scope, like that of the syndicated columnists, was limited. The true New York intellectual, as Howe indicated, was an erudite jack-of-all-trades, a dilettante, and the same could be said of the public intellectual. Even Edmund Wilson, as learned as he indisputably was, was essentially a scholarly dilettante, more than a little contemptuous of those university professors who devoted their entire lives to one field of study and published little. As a nonspecialist, he wrote books the specialists could only envy, for not only were they reviewed in all the major magazines and newspapers, they sold respectably well, despite being based on solid scholarship.
The qualities that go into defining a public intellectual change as the culture changes and as new media assert themselves. The internet accommodates itself to gossip, deliberate lies, and all kinds of misinformation and vituperation — along with, here and there, thoughtful commentary by scholars, polemicists, journalists, and freelance thinkers — and it has produced a stratum of intellectuals who have cultivated new forms of expression, such as the podcast. Sam Harris’s podcast, Making Sense, explores contemporary issues in some depth, following an interview format: Harris questions one guest at a time, each exchange lasting about an hour, drilling into topics such as artificial intelligence, Islam, Christianity, new science, free will, and politics. Harris rarely shies away from controversy, as when he drove the asphyxiatingly righteous Ben Affleck into a hysterical rant about radical Islam on Bill Maher’s weekly television show, Real Time. Harris has also has crossed swords with Ezra Klein, the co-founder of the news and opinion website Vox, over issues of political correctness.
Harris and Klein have achieved public prominence primarily through the internet (though Harris was a best-selling author years before he launched his podcast). Neither is as cerebral as Jean-Paul Sartre, the quintessential French intellectual of the 20th century, but they have most of the attributes of public intellectuals: they address themselves to a range of issues, are not averse to probing deeply into a subject (often polemically), are not presently anchored at universities or colleges, and have thousands of followers. Other candidates for the designation of contemporary American public intellectual include Ta-Nehisi Coates, Ross Douthat, Caitlin Flanagan, David Frum, Masha Gessen, Malcolm Gladwell, Andrew Sullivan, and Bari Weiss. Gessen, a Russian American author and translator, has been a contributor to The New York Times, The New York Review of Books, The Washington Post, The New Yorker, and other publications. Before moving to the United States, they were known as a leading spokesperson for LGBT rights in Russia. Weiss, until recently one of the opinion editors at The New York Times, has appeared on Maher’s program and on Harris’s podcast and has published a book on antisemitism.
The number of public intellectuals suing for the attention of a nation’s thoughtful citizens is necessarily small, because paying attention to what intellectuals think is not an essential element in most people’s lives. They are voices on the fringes, and if we disagree with their politics, or if we consider them too tendentious, they irritate more than they please. Ezra Klein, for example, is too brittle and too consistently politically correct for me, too fixed upon burnishing his woke credentials, and Ross Douthat is too conservative, though I concede that he has an unnerving talent for getting to the heart of an issue with the fewest possible words.
The academic scholar could be a public intellectual, and many have been. While refusing tenure-track positions, Hannah Arendt taught at Princeton University, University of Chicago, and the University of California, Berkeley. Lionel Trilling taught at Columbia University and later at Harvard University, and also contributed to Partisan Review. Harold Bloom published books on literature, culture, and religion while teaching at Yale University and New York University. Steven Pinker teaches psychology at Harvard, publishing books on cognitive science and evolutionary psychology while at the same time engaging in public debates on a wide range of issues. Public intellectuals in academia bring into relief one of the key attributes of their species: versatility; but this conspicuously separates them from most of their faculty colleagues, who chip away at one vein of ore their entire careers. The public intellectual does not publish one book salvaged from the debris of a doctoral dissertation and then, having been granted tenure, settle into a contented life in the college community. The public intellectual has too many projects pressing on his or her consciousness to rest comfortably within the cocoon of academia.
For the public intellectual, freedom from compromising entanglements is one of the essential conditions for maintaining autonomy and, with it, authority. Edmund Wilson accepted a fellowship at the Center for Advanced Studies (now the Center for the Humanities) at Wesleyan University for the 1964–’65 academic year, but he spent as little time on campus as he could, and he studiously avoided the university faculty. Academia offered the wide-ranging intellectual a regular salary, but in exchange for that, the visiting scholar or lecturer was obliged to endure the tedious politics and dreariness of university life. Steering clear of colleges and universities also allowed the public intellectual to keep the envy of faculty — many of whom saw themselves as no less deserving of public recognition than the famous interloper — at arm’s length. In the middle of the 20th century, a prolific writer, even one who had never published a best-selling book, could scratch together a living by writing for periodicals and accepting grants and awards of various kinds.
It is a mistake to think that academia nurtures daring or heretical thinking. The pressures on a young scholar hoping to be found worthy of tenure all push in the direction of conformity and sociability, and any pretense of originality that an assistant professor manifests may not go down well with older, tenured faculty, who just want the newcomer, as Sam Rayburn used to instruct new members of Congress, to “get along by going along.” An unusually energetic or conspicuously brilliant newcomer on campus might expose the older members of the department as indolent and mediocre.
That said, Steven Pinker and John McWhorter, to cite only two university faculty, have successfully adapted themselves to academic life while engaging publicly with controversial issues, surviving as public intellectuals despite occasional attacks from the left. Pinker teaches at Harvard and McWhorter at Columbia, universities large enough and sufficiently diverse to accommodate their fame without inflaming the jealousies of their lesser-known departmental colleagues.
If you want to be a public intellectual in the United States today, but you aren’t inclined toward an academic profession, it helps to have a large inheritance from your family or, like Sam Harris, a large fan base willing to subscribe to your podcast. Free speech in the United States is less and less free.
Robert Daseler is a Californian poet and playwright.
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