Photo captions of Edmund Wilson and Dwight Macdonald are transposed on Page 3 of today's Book World, which was printed in advance. Macdonald is on the far right. (Published 10/11/87)
THE LAST INTELLECTUALS American Culture In the Age of Academe By Russell Jacoby Basic. 290 pp. $18.95
THE CENTRAL thesis of this provocative if somewhat self-satisfied book is that the age of the "public" intellectual is over, that the generation of Edmund Wilson and John Kenneth Galbraith, Daniel Bell and Dwight Macdonald, appears to be the last of its kind. Though there is still a readership for "serious books, magazines and newspapers," there is no generation of younger intellectuals willing and able to write for it because the intellectuals have retreated into the cloistered confines of the university. In Russell Jacoby's words:
"To put it sharply: the habitat, manners and idiom of intellectuals have been transformed within the past fifty years. Younger intellectuals no longer need or want a larger public; they are almost exclusively professors . . . . Academics write for professional journals that, unlike the little magazines, create insular societies. The point is not the respective circulation -- professional periodicals automatically sent to members may list circulation far higher than small literary reviews -- but the different relationship to the lay public. The professors share an idiom and a discipline. Gathering in annual conferences to compare notes, they constitute their own universe. A 'famous' sociologist or art historian means famous to other sociologists or art historians, not to anyone else. As intellectuals became academics, they had no need to write in a public prose; they did not, and finally they could not."
Jacoby's is not a view from outside the academy. To the contrary he has held several teaching posts, most recently at the University of California, San Diego, and thus has personal experience of the intellectual life as it is now lived within the universities. What he found is what has become increasingly evident to critics on the outside: that academic life in the United States has not merely become insular and self-preoccupied, but that too many of those who live it have quite deliberately turned their backs on the larger society. This has had many consequences, few of which are salubrious and many of which have already received ample attention; but the effect of the university on the so-called public intellectual has passed generally unnoticed, so Jacoby's study is both pertinent and welcome.
His model of the public intellectual is defined by the men and women who came into prominence in the 1950s, not merely those mentioned above but also Jane Jacobs, William H. Whyte, C. Wright Mills, Mary McCarthy, Paul Goodman, William F. Buckley Jr., Rachel Carson, Lionel Trilling and Irving Kristol, to name several of the most prominent. Though their particular interests and fields were diverse -- sociology, literary criticism, architecture, business and economics -- what they had in common was that they "were publicists: they wrote to and for the educated public." They addressed themselves not merely to special concerns but to broad issues of general interest, and they wrote about those issues in language fully accessible to the informed general reader.
Unlike the intellectuals of today, whose commitment is to "a professional or private domain," the '50s intellectuals believed in "a public world -- and a public language, the vernacular." For the most part they wrote the language with grace and clarity -- though little can be said for the prose style of Mills or Goodman -- and they believed that the general readership could be addressed, in effect, as equals. They thought that there was a public capable of wrestling with serious ideas, and the wide currency achieved by many of their books proved them right: The Organization Man, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, The Lonely Crowd (which goes oddly unmentioned by Jacoby), The Power Elite, God and Man at Yale, The Affluent Society, The Sea Around Us -- say what you will about the specific arguments advanced in these and other books, but their fundamental seriousness and accessibility cannot be denied.
AS JACOBY says of the '50s intellectuals: "They write to be read. Many continue to play active roles in literature and politics. They have presided over the intellectual scene for decades." We become so accustomed to their presence that we take them for granted, yet Jacoby makes a most persuasive case that they have no heirs, and that as a result intellectual life has disappeared behind academia's closed doors. Though the current success of The Closing of the American Mind and Cultural Literacy may seem to refute his argument, if anything the contrary is true: these books seem to be isolated phenomena, written by academics who deliberately adopted the vernacular (or an academic variation thereof) and read by people whose sheer numbers demonstrate the truth of Jacoby's insistence that a serious general readership still exists.
But that readership is unlikely to be well-served in the future. For this, Jacoby argues, we must blame not merely the institutionalization of intellectual life within the university but also the disappearance of bohemia and the inexpensive urban centers in which it flourished. Greenwich Village is now too expensive for all but the most prosperous intellectuals -- tenured professors at New York University, presumably -- and such life of the mind as now is lived there is far different from what flowered in the '20s and '30s and began to decline in the '50s; what New York smugly calls the New Bohemia of the '80s is preoccupied with commerce and glitter, and indifferent to art or culture.
Jacoby makes passing mention of "the accelerating merchandising of culture," but he does not give the subject the attention it deserves. The commercialization of the cultural and intellectual marketplace has surely had effects on the discussion and distribution of ideas that are every bit as deleterious as those of the imperial university; so too has the incalculably influential presence of television, the trivializing effects of which are all-pervasive. In concentrating his attack on academia, Jacoby fails to give sufficient attention to other phenomena that, if anything, bolster his overall argument.
Nor is he especially informative about how, if at all, we will replace the public intellectuals; his discussion of journalism is perfunctory and not especially well-informed, and in any case the genuinely intellectual journalist is approximately as rare as Walter Lippmann. But finding solutions is one business and describing problems is another; this latter Jacoby has done convincingly and vigorously, with as much righteous indignation as the subject warrants. For all the reasons described above, it warrants plenty. ::