IN THE SUMMER of 2006, I took a job at an academic press in central Pennsylvania. Among my primary tasks: calling professors to inform them that their books were out of print, sending rejections to scholars who were required to publish in order to teach, and discussing Manchester United with an expert on Samuel Johnson. I also spent a great deal of time fielding emails from friends and relatives. Most sent notes of congratulation (I had recently graduated from college); others wondered how I planned to contribute to the economy. My most vivid memories, however, are of sitting alone in the office reading The New York Review of Books.
For someone who thinks that literature matters as much as politics, The New York Review of Books was a kind of revelation; it showed that there were countless ways to be a literary person. Until then I had assumed that there were basically two choices. One was embodied by Christopher Hitchens, who wrote straightforward polemics in a literary register, the other by Terry Eagleton, who encodes his literary criticism with a political point of view. (Their mutual antagonism appeared to prove the narcissism of minor differences: both had once been Oxford Trotskyites.) But then I read the essays of Edmund Wilson and Dwight Macdonald, whose work I had somehow failed to discover in four years as an undergraduate. Wilson, one of the patron saints of literary journalism, was a roving, vagabond intellectual: he wrote reviews of modernist poets as well as reports on the country’s poor. Macdonald, who covered politics, had a similarly footloose scholarly impulse. (He is best known for attacks on the Revised Standard Version of the Bible and the Great Books series, collected in Against the American Grain.) The point both writers often made, with passion and condescension, is that bad popular culture — kitsch, midcult, whatever you call it — is not the voice of democracy but a consequence of commercial power. Both also proved what defenders of highbrow journalism have always claimed: that good reporting is a useful tool for overcoming social distance. In 2006, this was considered elitist, perhaps even un-American. Still, their essays took for granted something I had always believed: that the freedom to cultivate one’s own mind is the heart of American democracy.
Of course, the idea of a national audit conducted by bookish East Coast elites has always been regarded with deep suspicion. Even The Dial, the 19th-century journal of the Transcendentalist movement — “designed as the organ of views more in accordance with the soul” — came under attack by those who considered it out of touch with science and commerce. And yet The Dial offered a lively venue for working through a range of topics, from slavery to Coleridge to Native American cosmology. A new biography of Margaret Fuller — whom Emerson called “queen of the American Parnassus” — reveals that, despite a few Swedenborgian detours, The Dial was not “pure moonshine" as one of its critics suggested; it was a serious literary journal hoping to define the essence of American thought.
In the summer of 2006, this was exactly what I needed. Shocked by a system that viewed Kierkegaard as a prerequisite for Goldman Sachs, I prepared myself for “obscurity,” having no idea what that might mean. My biggest problem was drawing a line between skepticism and belief. Total skepticism, when not underwritten by an academic career, will alienate you for good; total belief will put you at the mercy of ideologues. What’s interesting is that both extremes are thought to be versions of childishness. For some, to trust in a cultural myth is infantile or worse; for others, to demonize that same myth is evidence of immaturity. I wish that I had enrolled in a course on how to deal with this dilemma.
Last year, The New York Review of Books celebrated its 50th anniversary by rereleasing copies of the inaugural issue, published during a printer’s strike in 1963.
It was a time of profound cultural upheaval — an era we learn about today mainly through hagiography and episodes of Mad Men — which means that to read its archive is to witness the anxious mind of a nation searching for its soul. Early issues grappled with the era’s all-pervasive quandaries: Hitler, Stalin, atomic warfare, and Existentialism. Soon it would be a platform for covering the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, the Nixon presidency, the Iranian Revolution, Reaganomics, multiculturalism, and the schisms and upheavals of the early 21st century.
Some things haven’t changed all that much since 1963. Dwight Macdonald’s disillusionment with the careerism of intellectuals (“I wish my friend Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. [...] had never gotten involved with high politics") recalls our current skepticism toward the “revolving door” of business, politics, and elite universities. Fascination with Soviet and anti-Soviet literature (Philip Rahv reviews One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich) offers a precedent for today’s debates over Chinese literary heroes and villains. A book called Education and the New America suggests that the nation has reached “the termination of that period in which formal education is conducted apart from occupational interests and the beginning of the period in which formal education is closely integrated with occupational pursuits."
There is a general sense of unease over the moralizing and grandstanding of Nikita Khrushchev. And there are familiar global flashpoints: Frances FitzGerald on Syria, David Halberstam on the Korean peninsula. Instead of Jared Diamond, it was Lévi-Strauss’s theories of primitive societies that set the intelligentsia going.
But this was also the height of the Civil Rights movement. Howard Zinn’s book on the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, SNCC: The New Abolitionists, was first advertised in the pages of The Review in 1964. Hunter S. Thompson, before his success at Rolling Stone and Esquire, filed a story for The Reporter magazine from Louisville, Kentucky. “Why,” he asks, “can’t a Negro take out a mortgage to buy a home in a mostly white neighborhood?” He answers the question himself: “the white power structure has given way in the public sector, only to entrench itself more firmly in the private." The hunger for a new kind of civic engagement also helped usher in the “gonzo” style that would leave The Review on the more staid side of a cultural divide. In 1965, Elizabeth Hardwick covered the demonstrations in Selma, and admits as much: “The intellectual life in New York and the radical life of the Thirties are the worst possible preparation for Alabama at this stage of the Civil Rights movement." Complicating the picture further is Walker Percy, a Southern Catholic, who addresses the bookish East Coast elites in July of that year: “Yankees, don’t go home. If a dislocated and depersonalized suburbia can assist a society which is losing its soul through depravity and brutality, it is for us in the South to be grateful. Perhaps some day the favor can be returned."
The first time I binge-read The New York Review of Books, I came to the conclusion that Tom Wolfe is the great distraction of American letters. Wolfe, who famously called The Review an “organ of radical chic,” epitomized the attitude that journalism should aspire toward the condition of spectacle. For me, the real father of “New Journalism” was James Agee. He was over-the-top in his own way, and I would take Agee’s loquaciousness over Wolfe’s showboating any day, because he seemed to believe that writing well was a moral obligation, not a means to attract attention. Where Wolfe entertains his readers, Agee implicates them. Instead of merely “raising awareness” — the gold standard of the information age — he appeals to the moral imagination, which allows us to identify meaningfully with the lives he wants us to see. He also understood the paradox of the American media apparatus: the tension between its lofty ideals and its endless pursuit of profit.
In 2006, with blogs and social media now competing for my attention, I felt more drained than usual. I was less interested in “literature” or “politics” than in a particular kind of encounter — one that transcended the constant malaise (what Anne Sexton once referred to as the world of “erections and congresses and products”) and offered a new perspective. These encounters took many forms: novels, poems, gospels, memoirs, documentaries on NPR, a photo-essay on the childhood bedrooms of soldiers killed in Iraq, and interviews with factory workers in China. Reading Agee’s Cotton Tenants, the original draft of what became Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, I am reminded of what motivated me. On the subject of human life, he writes:
It deserves attention, and a seriousness of attention, commensurate with its importance. And since every possibility human life holds, or may be deprived of, of value, of wholeness, of richness, of joy, of dignity, depends all but entirely upon circumstances, the circumstances are proportionally worthy of the serious attention of anyone who dares to think of himself as a civilized human being.
When Tom Wolfe visited our campus to promote his novel I Am Charlotte Simmons, my English professor invited me to have coffee with the two of them. It was all pretty disappointing. Wolfe was friendly and gracious. By way of encouragement, he told me a story about his early days as an obit writer — this was “just before things started to happen.” But I did not want the things that happened to Tom Wolfe to happen to me. I may not have had a vision of what it meant to be a writer, but I sensed there might be a better alternative than donning a dove-white three-piece suit. The novel disappointed me, too, just as Updike’s Terrorist would. I gave these guys the benefit of the doubt when it came to portraying the sixties, but this was a different era.
That fall, I worked for a local newspaper. Instead of spending my Friday nights at the student bar, as before, I spent them at the townie bar with a group of young reporters, where I learned that nobody was all that impressed with the trust-fund delinquents from up the hill who disguised themselves as scholars. In that bar, I interviewed an Iraq War veteran who had appeared in a documentary being screened at the campus theater. Divorced, strung out, trembling with anger, he recalled his daily routine when he was living out of his car in Brooklyn. I had been thinking about moving to Brooklyn. Some friends were there, and so were the writers whose names I knew from literary magazines. But that night, listening to the veteran’s story, I decided it was a stupid plan. Poetry was useless. Fiction was a hoax. Freelance writers were wasting their time. Graduate programs, reading groups, schools of “creative nonfiction”— each was a different hopeless quest for some kind of organic community, a stable truth to fill the void left by dead religion and corrupt politics. Walking home, I remembered that line from Yeats’s “The Second Coming”: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.” I decided to stay in town a while longer.
One Saturday morning, I had breakfast with the Samuel Johnson expert at his home in State College. Afterward we sat on his couch and watched Manchester United play Fulham. At halftime, he turned to look at me. “So,” he said, a little dramatically, “What is it that you plan to do?” I thought he meant later that day: I had planned to finish the essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson, which seemed more urgent now than they had when I was still a student. I was particularly interested in what he had to say about the Transcendentalists, who “prolong their privilege of childhood” by staging a temporary retreat from the world.
This criticism was a familiar one. I had read more than once that PhD students were nothing but protracted adolescents; meanwhile, friends who decamped to Brooklyn found it hard to be taken seriously. In January 2006, The New Criterion published a takedown of n+1, a literary magazine in its second year of existence. The author, Stefan Beck, mocked the editors’ “glorified term papers” and called the enterprise unnecessary. I happened to disagree, but I had to admire the Cold War rhetoric: “A civilization declining within and attacked from without can’t afford to ponder its fate in the same glib, nugatory way that it ponders ‘trends in network comedy.’”
How, then, should one go about pondering the fate of civilization? Obscurity seems like the only solution. But then, of course, you become insufferable, as Emerson found the “separators” who considered all human exchange an exercise in corruption. I had come across a handful of people who fit this description; they armed themselves with perfect ideals and reveled in their bitterness. What I admired about Emerson was that he saw through this affected pose to the emotional storm it’s meant to conceal:
Meantime, this retirement does not proceed from any whim on the part of these separators; but if anyone will take pains to talk with them, he will find that this part is chosen both from temperament and from principle; with some unwillingness, too, and as a choice of the less of two evils; for these persons are not by nature melancholy, sour and unsocial, — they are not stockish or brute — but joyous, susceptible, affectionate; they have even more than others a great wish to be loved. […] Nay, if they tell you their whole thought, they will own that love seems to them the last and highest gift of nature; that there are persons whom in their hearts they daily thank for existing, — persons whose faces are unknown to them, but whose fame and spirit have penetrated their solitude, — and for whose sake they wish to exist.
For Emerson, self-reliance did not mean self-exile. Caring about literature or culture did not exempt one from other human affairs. The lesson I drew was fairly simple: criticize society on behalf of society; criticize life on behalf of life.
It’s an odd thing, to learn the history of your subject after you study it, but that’s how it was for me with literature. “English” was introduced as an academic subject in London in 1836, when King’s College merged with University College. It soon became part of the imperial mission: moral education for a select few, tea and opium for everyone else. The first scholars of English, incidentally, were scholars of William Wordsworth, whose poems expressed an extreme discomfort with cities, migration, and global commerce. Eagleton calls it the “Romantic ideology” — the belief that poetry can transcend the world of politics and money. But there’s more to it than that. In The Prelude, Wordsworth tries to survey an empire from the vantage point of a single mind. He isn’t exactly successful (“Oh, blank confusion!”), but it’s still an exciting project, because it treats the imagination as the proper realm of moral philosophy. This is what literary journalism does — or at least some of it. Timothy Garton Ash calls it “Applied Enlightenment,” and I think I understand what he means. It goes beyond “transparency,” beyond “awareness,” beyond “setting the record straight.” If we can see the conditions in which we live, and in which the people around us live, then we might have a better chance of honoring the principles we profess. In that first edition of the NYRB, there’s a lengthy essay by Susan Sontag on the life of Simone Weil. “Perhaps there are certain ages,” she writes, “which do not need truth as much as they need a deepening of the sense of reality, a widening of the imagination." Aren’t we living in that same age?