Whither the Jewish Man of Letters?


There’s a curious moment in Saul Bellow’s underappreciated second novel, The Victim (1947), during which the book's anti-Semitic antagonist complains about recent developments in American literary scholarship. “[L]ast week,” he brazenly declares, “I saw a book about Thoreau and Emerson by a man named Lipschitz... A name like that?... it seems to me that people of such background simply couldn’t understand.” Here, Bellow presciently evokes the virtual takeover of American letters by a handful of male Jewish intellectuals that had just gotten underway. Their names—most notably Alfred Kazin, Lionel Trilling, Leslie Fiedler, and Irving Howe—may not have been as recognizably Jewish as Lipschitz, but by the 1950s it was clear to anyone paying attention that the barbarians had scaled the gates. Move over Van Dorens! Make room for the Fiedlers!

The golden age of the Jewish man of letters is long over our shoulder now. The major figures have all died. What remains are their books and their classic essays—many of which were originally published in Philip Rahv’s Partisan Review—and the spate of critical biographies on these figures that have appeared over the past 10 or so years, Richard M. Cook’s Alfred Kazin: A Biography representing the most recent contribution. Surveying this group from our now distanced perspective, one marvels at their hunger and nerve, the audacity of their intellectual and social ambition. For the most part, these were sons of working-class immigrants and the recipients of rather lackluster public schooling. They read their way through America pretty much on their own, then staked their claim, shaping the cultural conversation through their wide-ranging and prolific criticism. 

Alfred Kazin’s On Native Grounds (1942) was the first shot across the bow of the heretofore genteel realm of American letters. Unaffiliated with a university at the time, without the bona fides of a PhD, researching and writing in the now famous Reading Room of the New York Public Library, Kazin managed to complete this formidable, unignorable work. In well over 500 throbbing pages, he examined how the cataclysmic social and moral upheavals of industrial capitalism in the late 19th century shaped our modern literature. While attentive to the alienating forces afoot, Kazin’s final chapter, “America! America!,” represents an ecstatic embrace of the artistic and social promise of his native grounds. Kazin’s peers would soon announce themselves in works of equal ambition and scope, as the very titles of their books revealed. In The Liberal Imagination (1950), Trilling trenchantly explored how liberalism permeated the vision of the most central literary and cultural figures in America and England; Howe took on Dostoevsky, Conrad, James, Malraux, and others in Politics and the Novel (1957); and Fiedler seemed to devour the entire history of the novel from Richardson to Nabokov to produce Love and Death in the American Novel (1960). In future essays and books, these critics would tackle a vertiginous selection of literary and extra-literary subjects, including art, politics, religion, myth, popular culture, and, increasingly as they aged, Jewish identity.

I first encountered these Jewish men of letters as an undergraduate English major in the 1980s, cutting my teeth on their shorter, more readily digestible essays. I can still remember my excitement upon stumbling across Fiedler’s “Come Back to the Raft Ag’in, Huck Honey!,” which first appeared in the Partisan Review in 1948. In the essay, Fiedler boldly and ever-so-mischievously explored the pronounced homoeroticism, and its curious racial dimension, at the very heart of our national literature, taboo topics my professors managed mostly to avoid. “There’s no good woman but a dead woman!” Fiedler riffs over Cora’s sad fate in Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans (1826). “Yet Chingachgook and the Deerslayer are permitted to sit night after night over their campfire in the purest domestic bliss. So long as there is no mingling of blood, soul may couple with soul in God’s undefiled forest.”

The wry wit of these sentences! The brio! The moxie! These, indeed, are the foremost qualities that strike one upon reading or rereading a clutch of essays by Fiedler and his cohorts today. To these Jewish public intellectuals—leftists to varying radical degrees—the moral condition of the nation could most incisively be gauged through, and influenced by, its literature. And so books were worth fighting about in uncluttered energetic prose. I never knew that you could write about literature this way, as if you were simply talking (or shouting) across the kitchen table. I wanted to write this way too.

Unfortunately, by the time I attended graduate school in the 90's these Jewish critics had fallen out of favor. My intellectual heroes were viewed as hopelessly under-theorized or, worse, excoriated as curmudgeonly defenders of a morally bankrupt canon. Mostly they were ignored. Our seminar rooms were abuzz, instead, with excitement over Lacan, Foucault, Kristeva, and Cixous, theorists whose work I found utterly inscrutable. Within the new academy, it seemed, you couldn’t write like the Jewish men of letters, after all. The professorate had beaten its retreat from their brand of lucid, pugnacious prose and from the pages of newspapers, magazines, and intellectual quarterlies altogether, seeking refuge instead in ever more specialized journals. Although the era of High Theory is over now, Departments of English, I'm afraid, continue to churn out a plethora of overspecialized PhDs, whose writing seems timid and shrunken beside the polymathic reach and daring of the Jewish men of letters. Only a paucity of English PhDs these days dare aspire toward writing to a broader audience.

What gives?

The continual shrinking of the broader audience beyond academe certainly has something to do with this discouraging state of affairs. Indeed, it’s tough to imagine a dissolute anti-Semite in 2008 bemoaning the state of Thoreau and Emerson scholarship (if this was even credible in Bellow’s 1947). When scarcely 50 percent of Americans read a single book during the span of a year, according to a survey by the National Endowment for the Arts, can it be any wonder that the public intellectual biz has dried up? Michael Kazin, Alfred Kazin’s son and a prominent historian, laments the diminished public stature of the intellectual in a recent article published in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Whereas Kazin’s father enjoyed a long lunch with President John F. Kennedy in the White House, the closest Michael Kazin could get to a sitting president, he wryly notes, was a quick sandwich with Karl Rove. To further Kazin’s point, even Cornel West, perhaps our most prominent public intellectual today, is better known for his bombastic appearances on HBO’s Real Time With Bill Maher and for his cameo in one of the sequels to The Matrix than for his fine scholarship on American Pragmatism, religion, or even race matters.

But here I must check myself. For to lament the waning of the Jewish public intellectuals’ heyday is to court a somewhat distorting and debilitating nostalgia. The stature and notoriety of the intellectual surely has declined over the years, as Michael Kazin observes, but the Jewish men of letters were never quite as “public” as we imagined these public intellectuals to be. The circulation of the Partisan Review, for example, never exceeded 15,000. On a more positive note, the critical spirit of their work lives on in the lively, socially engaged essays and reviews written by a broader, less concentrated group of critics, not all of whom are Jewish, or male, or white, or even city-dwellers—writers such as Walter Kirn, James Wood, Michael Berube, Francine Prose, Louis Menand, Cynthia Ozick (one of Trilling’s former students), Anne Fadiman, Christopher Clausen, Laura Miller, Richard Rodriguez, Stanley Crouch, Joseph Epstein, Jay Michaelson, Lee Siegel, Sanford Pinsker, Sven Birkerts, Ilan Stavans, and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. A generous outcropping of print and on-line outlets, like the one you’re reading now, have emerged to publish such essays written by these and other writers. I see no reason to lament this democratization. The good stuff is still out there. You just have to look a bit harder as the writers and venues have proliferated. 

Within the academy, I try to do my part to keep the legacy of the Jewish men of letters alive. Not for nostalgic reasons, but to make the university a hospitable place, and training ground, for literary writers. I teach a class in my graduate program devoted primarily to the literary essay, another course on the novelist as intellectual, and continue to point graduate and undergraduate students (and colleagues) toward the essays that so inspired me—Fiedler’s “Come Back to the Raft Ag’in, Huck Honey!,” but also Rahv’s “Paleface and Redskin,” audaciously shearing the whole of American literature into two warring halves, Kazin’s “The Earthly City of the Jews” and “The Secret of the South,” with its characteristically piquant opening line, “Faulkner slipped out of life with his usual indifference to what people thought,” Howe’s eminently usable “Anarchy and Authority in American Literature,” and the provocative exchange he shared with Ralph Ellison on African-American literature, initiated by his tough-minded “Black Boys and Native Sons.” It's not that I expect, or even want, my students to agree with these writers. I assign more current scholarly articles, as well, but most of these articles elicit a tepid, if appreciative, response. By contrast, the essays by the Jewish intellectuals engage my students in a near visceral way. They do the same thing today that they did 20 years ago for me, and a half-century ago when most of them originally appeared. They invite, even goad, the reader to enter the fray. It’s what any critical essay worth its salt, I tell my students, ought to do.