NEW YORK INTELLECT A History of Intellectual Life In New York, from 1750 to The Beginnings of Our Own Time By Thomas Bender Knopf. 422 pp. $25
MAYBE IT IS true, as Thomas Bender suggests, that there is a bit of New York in all of us, though some will nod their assent sadly. The city goes with the 20th century in a way that few other places do. The influence, for good or ill, of its media concentrations, its art and architecture, its music and theater, its scholarship, its bristling museums and busy galleries, but most importantly its quarrelling literary coteries -- all have combined to make it the unofficial capital of American culture and headquarters of revolutions aplenty.
For believers, New York is not merely urban -- it is metropolitan, the mold maker, the special home of a temperament at once sophisticated, democratic and liberal in the old fashioned, generous sense. Thomas Bender, chairman of the Department of History at New York University, is a believer, though not an uncritical one. Reasoning that "we cannot understand ourselves as intellectuals, as Americans, until we grasp the special character of New York -- its limitations and possibilities -- as a place of intellect," he sets out to recover the traditions of the life of the mind that have taken root in the city and to organize our perceptions of them. The result is an important book, not simply as a history of Manhattan worthies and their combats, but as a new kind of urban history, more edifying than the usual accounts of business and politics, money and migrations, that would search out the local mainsprings of cultural life.
New York is a big place, and two centuries is a long time to survey. How to sort out what matters from what merely seems to matter? The trick is in organizing the search and knowing what to look for, and Bender handles the problem by identifying three "distinct cultures of intellectual life," all co-existing and interacting with one another, yet organized differently, dominant at different periods and attracting different sorts of people. These he dubs the "civic," the "literary" and the "academic." Noting that the essay has long been the preferred genre for the New York intellectual, Bender's book is made up of three essays, each exploring one structure of intellectual life in the history of the city.
Though traces of it remain to this day, the civic culture was the earliest, flowering mainly in the period between 1750 and 1830. It was an imitative style of life, carried to the provinces by young lawyers, doctors and merchants, and modeled on developments in the Edinburgh of David Hume, Adam Smith and their colleagues, whose burst of creativity powered the Scottish Enlightenment. New York's civic culture was the creation of a handful of eminent do-gooders who gathered together for self-improvement and in doing so formed a maze of learned societies, clubs and gentlemen's associations, some of which were forerunners of today's great libraries, museums and universities.
The city's academic culture is mainly a 20th-century development, and its distinguishing feature as a "structure" of intellectual life is the number and stature of academic intellectuals it has attracted. Although the types are often confused in the public mind, scholars and scientists are not necessarily intellectuals. Most in the professoriate, Bender agrees, are mere specialists, with interests no broader or deeper than those of the average carpet salesman. But for much of the century something in the circumstances of life in New York has worked against the lure of academic provincialism, and called out the best of the professors -- men like Charles Beard, Lionel Trilling, Richard Hofstadter, C. Wright Mills and Reinhold Niebuhr -- to mix it up on questions of contemporary politics and culture with members of the literary establishment who presided over the great reviews and magazines.
The superstar in New York's academic culture, of course, was John Dewey, the nation's most influential philosopher. Though Dewey was already a thinker of international reputation when he moved to New York from Chicago in 1904, Bender suggests that something in the ambiance and folkways of his newly chosen hometown called out the best in Dewey as a theorist for the emerging, pluralist, democratic way of life. Certainly many of his most important works, Experience and Nature, for example, or The Public and Its Problems, were published during that 25-year period in which Dewey held sway over academe from his post at Columbia University. While most of his academic colleagues in these years turned inwards and succumbed to the attractions of a new scholasticism, Dewey took his philosophy to the streets and insisted that the discipline would recover its intellectual vitality only when "it ceases to be a device for dealing with the problem of philosophers, and becomes a method . . . for dealing with the problems of men."
But it is, above all, Bender's third category -- literary culture -- which became a vehicle for New York's ambitious metropolitan sensibility. Its story is a complex one that runs in many transformations from the lighthearted literary duels of Knickerbocker wits to the many-fronted struggles over modernism and Marxism that hold center stage in the present century. Along the way new cultural values are developed, new vocational styles are invented (the modern "journalism of ideas," for example, which Bender traces from its 19th-century roots in the works of William Cullen Bryant, E.L. Godkin and William Dean Howells through the founding of Herbert Croly's New Republic), and new ethnic coalitions of an intellectual sort are put together.
The city's modern literary culture flowered in Greenwich Village. In its heyday during the early decades of this century the Village was an especially attractive place for a certain kind of mind and temperament. Flanked by skyscrapers and surrounded by communities of immigrants, it became a sanctuary for those who believed that the inherited way of life was too buttoned up, too tame, too superficial and insincere to support the sort of moral intensity they prized. It was, as one resident put it, "a moral health resort" for the counterculture, a place where the young could attack conventional pieties and fashion new ones, challenge traditional notions of family and sex roles and talk up socialism and Russian literature. Emblematic of this youthful intellectual culture, in Bender's view, was Randolph Bourne, whose brief but brilliant career he treats at some length.
What finally drove New York's cosmopolitan culture and gave it its tone, Bender believes, was it public spirit, its openness in principle to a plurality of voices and values. Each of the city's "cultures of intellectual life" has been challenged and troubled by it, and none has a spotless record of performance. But "at its best, at its most democratic." Bender suggests, "intellect in New York relished the notion of a polyglot culture."
Some readers will view cultural modernism less amiably than Bender does, and some, suspecting rightly that cosmopolitan pluralism is less a body of useful thought than an admirable attitude, not the unalloyed blessing it often appears to be here, will feel the need for a fuller discussion of the ideal and its bearing upon political and religious beliefs. There may be very good reasons why the cosmopolitan outlook, for all its achievements, has failed to accommodate sympathetically the inner lives of so many of the groups that live within the metropolis. But these are minor complaints, and Bender would no doubt point out that to discuss them openly would be to participate in the conversation he has been setting out for us. New York Intellect ought to be read even by those who dislike the city and do not expect to see it take the lead in the next phase of the nation's cultural life. It is a major achievement in the writing of intellectual history, and a fine specimen of committed scholarship.
Michael J. Lacey is an historian and director of the Woodrow Wilson Center's Program on American Society and Politics at the Smithsonian Institution.