- The people who come to evening classes are only ostensibly after culture. Their great need, their hunger, is for good sense, clarity, truth—even an atom of it. People are dying—it is no metaphor—for lack of something to carry home when day is done.
- Moses Herzog
Among other things, Saul Bellow’s Herzog (1964) is a portrait of the intellectual as a middle-aged man under great emotional stress. His “mental letters”— some feverishly jotted down, some simply imagined—tell us much about the immigrant ambitions that brought the New York intellectuals to national prominence, but perhaps even more about the limitations of intellectualism itself. For as Bellow makes clear in his introduction to Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, he wrote Herzog to show, among other things,
how little strength “higher education” had to offer a troubled man. In the end he is aware that he has had no education in the conduct of life (at the university who was there to teach him how to deal with his erotic needs, with women, with family matters?) and he returns, in the language of games, to square one—or as I put it to myself while writing the book, to some primal point of balance.
Nonetheless, not all of Herzog’s efforts end in narcissistic confusion, and with the quotation I have chosen as this essay’s epigraph I mean to focus on the role that intellectuals can—indeed, must— play in a public world “dying” for even an atom of anything that smacks of good sense, clarity, and truth. Night school classes are, believe me, only one very small instance among thousands of others where even a glimmer of real understanding might make a difference. And nowhere is this truer than in the highly charged, intellectually perplexing topic of race.
Slightly more than 150 years ago, a man in his midthirties addressed initiates to Harvard’s Phi Beta Kappa with words that were meant to open drowsy eyes, stir souls, and define the essential character of the American intellectual. Man, he argued—using the term generically, I might add—has become a fragmented creature, one defined by what he “does” rather than by what he is. Thus, “the planter, who is Man sent into the field to gather food, is seldom cheered by any idea of the truth of his ministry. He sees his bushel and his cart, and nothing beyond, and sinks into the farmer, instead of Man on the farm.” Similar conditions apply to others circumscribed by their respective vocations: “The priest becomes a form; the attorney a statute-book; the mechanic a machine; the sailor a rope of the ship”; and most significant of all, the scholar, instead of Man Thinking, becomes “a mere thinker, or still worse, the parrot of other men’s thinking.”
By now most readers will recognize that the words I’ve been quoting belong to Ralph Waldo Emerson, and that they were taken from his justly famous essay “The American Scholar.” But merely to catch the allusion is hardly sufficient, for what Emerson meant to sound that morning in Cambridge, Massachusetts, so many years ago was nothing less than America’s cultural Declaration of Independence and, I would argue, the best definition of the intellectual’s place in national affairs we have yet constructed.
Granted, we no longer share Emerson’s buoyant, altogether confident optimism. He believed with every fiber of his being that a heroic American age beckoned just around his 19th-century corner—that is, once his fellow citizens rightly understood that the answer was nature. For Emerson, the term had wide transcendental orbits, but, taken together, what it implied was nothing less than the gravitational field that defined the American experience itself. Small wonder, then, that he kept repeating the word, insisting on its power in much the same way that his mantra of soul, soul, and yet more soul was meant to be a solution for normative religion’s malaise. No doubt Emerson meant to pack worlds (possibly too many worlds) into his insistence on the centrality of American nature, but at least part of his program was to make it substitute for what passed in Europe as a cultural heritage. Given his observation that “we have listened too long to the muses of Europe”—or, in the current parlance, that we have overprivileged the Eurocentric—his emphases on self-reliance and originality are hardly surprising.”The sun shines today also,” he declares in the first paragraph of Nature, a book that doubled as personal manifesto and cultural blueprint: “There is more wool and flax in the fields. There are new lands, new men, new thoughts. Let us demand our own works and laws and worship.” Indeed, what he simultaneously demanded and prophetically called into existence was nothing more nor less than a distinctly American mode of thought.
Emerson, of course, had no monopoly on arguments premised on promises of the “new and improved.” As a people, Americans have a long history of being suspicious of History. We swoon to the language of national specialness, to visions of America as a charmed place where the capacity to dream and the power to actualize is virtually identical. Emerson could tap into this abiding spirit at the same time he turned it inward, for what transcendentalism meant to unleash was the possibility of a society populated by imperial selves. Emerson’s Concord neighbors were skeptical, and given the eccentricities of Thoreau or Margaret Fuller one can understand why. We need not, however, construct a complicated argument by way of “bottoms-up” history to appreciate just how difficult the delicate balancing of the competing claims by Self and Society could be for those lacking Emersonian conviction.
One of those simultaneously attracted and repelled by large transcendental promises was Nathaniel Hawthorne. In an age when American intellectuals strutted their stuff, he injected a quiet, cautionary note, usually by qualifying nature with the adjectival phrase, “man’s sinful.” Something about the very ease with which Emerson collected heroic souls (everyone from Napolean and Goethe to the mystically vaporous Swedenborg) led Hawthorne to self-doubt rather than giddy liberation. As Miles Coverdale, his thinly disguised surrogate in The Blithedale Romance, puts it: “The greatest obstacle to being heroic, is the doubt whether one may not be going to prove one’s self a fool; the truest heroism is, to resist the doubt—and the profoundest wisdom, is to know when it ought to be resisted, and when to be obeyed.” Given our current Kulturkamf, where words such as “Euro-centric” and “Afrocentric,” “multiculturalism” and “diversity,” are bandied about so loosely and often so irresponsibly that they carry more meaning as fighting words than as terms in a serious debate, Hawthorne’s “test” for intellectual courage remains a good one. For in a world where Professor Leonard Jeffries spouts racist nonsense about the mystical properties of melanin or glibly divides the world into sun people and ice persons, where students increasingly demand that university curricula credential their respective identities and thus make them “feel good about themselves,” it is hardly surprising that many academics find themselves wondering if discretion (read: silence) might not be the better part of valor. By contrast, intellectuals seek out the wisdom that distinguishes the martyr from the fool, the person who ought to stand tall from the one well advised to sit this one out. Because the widening racial divide is—one could argue, always was— our central national problem, I would argue that intellectuals have little choice, but I would also hasten to add that black intellectuals have both a special responsibility and a special burden—for their words cannot avoid raising suspicions just as they cannot avoid provoking consequences.
Thus was it ever as the American “experiment” set about to reconcile the idea with the reality, the noble words of our Founding Fathers with the deep divisions among its citizenry. More than a hundred years ago, Henry James, reflecting on the cultural conditions that severely delimited even so great an imaginative writer as Nathaniel Hawthorne, argued that the Civil War would sound an end to the nation’s simplistic, uncritical faith that “there were no difficulties in the programme, no looming implications, no rocks ahead.” At stake was nothing less than the loss of a collective innocence, and its replacement by what James felt would be a decidedly new American type:
During the Reagan-Bush years one could rightly have doubts, for Americans—then and now—much prefer to hear about the “shining cittie on a hille” that was our first, and perhaps deepest, American Dream, and not about the worms of intolerance already squirming into John Winthrop’s words as he uttered them aboard the Arabella. All of which is simply to point out that America cheers its boosters and gives its knockers the fish eye. Terms such as “criticism” or “critical detachment” lack the bracing power, the sheer grip, that certain ideas—manifest destiny, for example—still exert.
[The Civil War] introduced into the national consciousness a certain sense of proportion and relation, of the world being a more complicated place than it had hitherto seemed, the future more treacherous, success more difficult. . . . The good American, in days to come, will be a more critical person than his complacent and confident grandfather.
Nonetheless, James’s “more critical person” is in most important respects akin to the energetic band of intellectuals who came to dominate the middle decades of this century, but whose continuing health and lively presence are now matters of some debate. We can see hints of the phenomenon in the special case of Henry Adams, a man who dabbled— sometimes impressively—in a wide range of disciplines (history, biography, anthropology, the natural sciences, medieval scholarship, painting, sculpture), but always as a self-professed, and usually self-deprecatory—”amateur.”
Adams’s artistocratic lineage may have included two U. S. presidents, but he himself lived in a post-Jacksonian age, forever excluded—or so he imagined—from the centers of public power. Nonetheless, power remained his abiding concern. His curiously modern, curiously anfi-autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams, is, among other things, a continuing meditation about the impossibility of acquiring an adequate education at Harvard or, indeed, anywhere else. No doubt Adams would have taken a lively interest in our current squabbles about the canon, at least as they pit competing definitions of “education” against those that add up to a miseducation; but I suspect he would also have noted that there is plenty of miseducation on both sides of the cultural divide. I say this because Adams’ lot was to live in, and among, uncertainties. He may have taken his characteristic pose from an Enlightenment’s conception of the man of letters, the philosophe in the mold of Voltaire and Diderot, yet everything about this oddly disappointed man points toward modernism.
Perhaps the best instance of Adams’ predilection toward ironic ambivalence can be found in the single chapter of The Education of Henry Adams that stands as an emblem of his thought in roughly the same way that Jonathan Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” has come to exemplify the shape-and-form of the Puritan sermon. That chapter, as those schooled in the Norton anthology already know, is “The Virgin and the Dynamo,” an argument set in the great hall of the 1900 Paris Exposition as Adams desperately tries to come to grips with the new forms of energy, of power, of history itself, that the 20th century promises to unleash. Adams chooses to call his rumination of these competing forces “The Virgin and the Dynamo” because he means to contrast the energy that created the great cathedral at Chartres with the electrical current produced by 40-foot dynamos. Puritan America, Adams insists, could never understand the Virgin’s power because Americans, then and now, think of sex as sinful rather than as fecund. By contrast, the dynamo, the machine, is an acceptable replacement both as symbol and as icon—for industrial power thrills us with promises of the ever-Bigger, the ever-Faster, and, as our century discovered, the ever more Deadlier.
That much said, let me hasten to add that Adams is a subtle thinker and those would pluck the heart out of his arguments do so at their peril; but one thing is clear: Adams may well be the first in a long string of testy, alienated intellectuals who have made it their business to comment on the “commonweal” of the commonwealth. Granted, nothing about Adams himself—not his pedigrees, his wealth and social snobbery, or his social connections and Harvard crimson—would have endeared him to the radically independent group that formed around the Partisan Review and came to be known as the New York intellectuals. They were, by contrast, a feisty plebian bunch, out to impose (or perhaps superimpose) a European model of culture onto America’s native grounds. On one essential matter, however, they would have made common cause with Adams, and that is the definition of an intellectual as one who specializes in being a nonspecialist. In many cases—one thinks of an Edmund Wilson or a Mary McCarthy—their writings covered not only a wide range of cultural subjects, but also a considerable gamut of creative genres. But what distinguished these writers and made us regard them as literati in the best sense of the term were their contributions of belle-lettres, and especially to the literary essay as a mode of engagement with a culture’s sense of itself.
William Phillips’s playful quip that an intellectual was somebody who wrote for, or at least regularly read, the Partisan Review may be an exaggeration, but as one of the magazine’s founding editors (along with Philip Rahv), he was in a position to gauge just how his pages differed from those of stuffier, more scholarly journals dedicated to German philology and what can now only be called the Very Old Criticism. What the New York intellectuals stood for was, at one and the same time, an adversary position, a critical stance, and perhaps most of all, a distinctive style, one Irving Howe described as “a flair for polemic, a taste for the grand generalization, an impatience with what they regarded (often parochially) as parochial scholarship, an internationalist perspective, and a tacit belief in the unity—even if a unity beyond immediate reach—of intellectual work.”
In short, the New York intellectuals flourished in an age when the literary essay, written in plain, often blunt, English, mattered, and when there was a giddy sense that important struggles were being waged on behalf of a politics of the Left and the art of the avant-garde. Merely to recite the names of those who could be encountered regularly in the pages of Partisan Review, Politics, Kenyan, VQR, and Sewanee during the 1940’s and 1950’s—writers such as Dwight Macdonald, Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin, John Crow Ransom, Alan Tate, Robert Penn Warren, Harold Rosenberg, Daniel Bell, Lionel Trilling—is to realize how difficult it would be to come up with a similarly impressive list for the present.
But that said, let me hasten to add an important caveat— namely, that nostalgia can assume many insidious forms, and that one of the most persistent is the assumption of a Golden Age from which our culture has now fallen. As this scenario argues, often in jeremiads echoing the Biblical “There were giants in those days,” intellectual life had an independence, a vibrancy, a sense of mission, that no longer prevails. Rather than the maverick intellectual, we have the academic games-person, the intellectual-as-tenured-professor. Such people, Russell Jacoby argues in The Last Intellectuals, “ no longer need or want a larger public” because for the new kids on the intellectual block, “campuses are their homes; colleagues their audience; monographs and specialized journals their media.”
Granted, Jacoby is hardly alone in figuring that civilization as he has come to know it will end when Alfred Kazin’s review-essays no longer appear in the New York Review of Books. Others gaze at the mind-numbing prose being churned out at our most prestigious universities and despair. Indeed, in the years since Jacoby sounded his 1987 alarm, one could argue things “intellectual” have steadily gotten worse. And while I would readily admit that examples of errant foolishness gussied up as intellectual thought are easy to collect (in truth, they always were), I would also argue that we need to resist the dubious attractions of a then-good/bad-now syndrome. For the truth is that the same squabbles about canonicity and multiculturalism that produce sound bites on “Nightline” and “The MacNeil-Lehrer Hour” or that have turned debates about political correctness into a cash cow for print journalism have also prompted important redefinitions of intellectual work.
In this regard, the New York intellectuals have proven themselves a livelier, more resilient bunch than the prophets of doom predicted, for if anti-Stalinism no longer occupies the central position it once did, there are no shortage of cultural threats serious enough to cause what remains of the old crowd, and some newer members, to rally once again around their typewriters. The results are regular installments from the likes of Cynthia Ozick and Leon Wieseltier, Robert Alter and Leonard Kriegel, about what it means to be a public intellectual at a time when the culture itself is going through a bad, often infuriating patch. Indeed, the sheer volume of nonsense written by those with a head for social constructions of reality has been a boon for public intellectuals of the old school, for while the former have pinned their academic hopes on a dizzying array of “theories” (everything from deconstruction to the New Historicism), the latter have kept faith with words like “individual” and paragraphs unafraid to use an “I.”
One could argue, of course, that there is precious little new here, that public intellectuals have always imagined themselves as bucking whatever tide seems currently fashionable. The trick has always been to be “critical” in opposing the social mainstream and yet “cultural” in speaking for that mainstream. Often this meant balancing blessings with curses, large promises with ignoble realities, and perhaps most of all, an impulse to boost against an obligation to knock. Thus, as a consensus began to emerge—say, around politically loaded terms such as “diversity” or “inclusion”—many of the latter-day New York intellectuals raised hard questions, and when the occasion warranted, vigorous dissent.
Skepticism, in short, continues to come with their territory, along with generous doses of irony (including its self-lacerating versions) and not a little of the sarcasm for which they were once justly famous. Granted, some New York intellectuals specialized in irony, others in withering sarcasm, but what they “shared” was an isolation, a loneliness, that may well be the intellectuals’ common fate. That my last sentence surrounds shared with inverted commas is deliberate, at once a way of describing a group that made much, perhaps too much, of their alienation and at the same time, suggesting that they “shared” this conviction in roughly the same manner as everything else—namely, with skepticism, irony, and sarcasm. Here, a story told about the late Irving Howe is instructive. When an ambitious young scholar asked him if he would agree that mutual support, in a word, “back-scratching,” had a good deal to do with the phenomenal success of certain New York intellectuals, Howe offered this not-so-friendly amendment: “If you changed “back” to “eye” you might have something.”
Not since Emerson (a figure most New York intellectuals regarded with deep suspicion) has there been a greater concentration of people whose sense of self seemed so directly proportional to their capacity for being misunderstood—by kindred thinkers, the general public, and, of course, their fellow Jews. Literary histories of that time, that place, differ about emphasis and interpretation (e. g. , Was Trilling an old-line liberal, a crypto-neoconservative, or none of the above?), but on one matter there is general agreement—namely, that the New York intellectuals were a testy, combative bunch.
That their polemical inclinations made for brilliant essays and memorable quips is true enough, but it is also worth pointing out that these came at a certain human cost. Again, Howe may have said it best when, in the late 1960’s, he found himself accused of success—defined, of course, as “selling out”—by those on the New Left:
Put a slightly different way, poverty will always seem romantic to people who imagine it from the perspective of lives formed by suburban affluence. Thus, one identified with “the people” by donning the hairshirt of the times—tie-dye for some, blue chambray for others—and insisting that “purity” be at once a litmus test and badge of honor. Not surprisingly, the result was an ugly standoff, with radical activists manning the barricades on one side and older-fashioned intellectuals shaking their heads on the other.
But really, when you come to think of it, what did this “success” of the intellectuals amount to? A decent or a good job, a chance to earn extra money by working hard, and in the case of a few, like Trilling and Kazin, some fame beyond New York—rewards most European intellectuals would take for granted, so paltry would they seem. . . . What the “leftist” prigs of the sixties failed to understand—or perhaps understood only too well—was that the “success” with which they kept scaring themselves was simply one of the possibilities of adult life, a possibility, like failure, heavy with moral risks and disappointment. The whole business: debts, overwork, vericose veins, alimony, drinking, quarrels, hemorrhoids, depletion, the recognition that one might not prove to be another T.S.Eliot, but also some good things, some lessons learned, some “rags of time” salvaged and precious.
What I’ve been describing, of course, played itself out against the backdrop of a war that raised hard questions about intellectual life in America, and that ultimately divided those who cheered when The New York Review of Books displayed a Molotov cocktail and those who stared at it with pinched faces. In this regard, the title of Norman Podhoretz’s 1979 book—Breaking Ranks— may have said all that is necessary about why some New York intellectuals took an abrupt turn to the Right, and why even those who did not officially join the exodus could not, in good conscience, support much that they saw on the cultural horizon.
Enter the new generation of black intellectuals—everyone from Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Stephen Carter, and Cornel West to Shelby Steele, Orlando Patterson and Stanley Crouch. Taken together, they represent a direction that began 40 years ago with the Brown vs. Board of Education decision and continued through the civil rights movement. In short, the black intellectual voices now speaking out from our most prestigious universities are, as the title of Stephen Carter’s 1991 book would have it, “affirmative action babies.” From token representation in the 1950’s and 60’s-—when, say, Harvard typically admitted ten blacks per class—enrollments have fairly soared as Afro-American studies programs took root (often in response to student protest) and universities slowly but surely embraced a new educational paradigm based on race, class, and gender.
In the process, culture became, well, one of those words. It was once spelt with a capital letter, defined by Matthew Arnold as “the best that has been thought and said,” and generally agreed to be a good thing. Now, many in the academy were not so sure, partly because selecting the “best” invariably means leaving out the “least,” and partly because culture itself often seems to be a suspect operation. Rather than “sweetness and light” (the title of the Arnold essay in which his famous definition appeared), “culture”— yet another term destined to be surrounded by inverted commas—stands for everything that first bullies and then silences minority voices.
No one would seriously argue with the proposition that black intellectuals have played a major role in the culture wars that define our time. Indeed, some would insist that they are what the New York intellectuals once were— namely, activist scholars who bring fresh blood and new perspectives to our understanding of American culture. At the same time, however, there are important differences. Regardless of how much the New York intellectuals were divided by temperament and later, by politics, they shared a fund of common experience that, for want of a better term, might be called “immigrant gratitude.” America, and perhaps more to the point, American culture, offered an escape from the hardships and parochial limitations that had narrowly defined the lives of their immigrant parents. Granted, the giddy possibility of self-transformation did not come without cost, and it would take a long arc indeed before many would rediscover the Jewishness from which they had fled. Not surprisingly, the conflict was the very stuff of which intellectuals, rather than scholars, are made, for as Daniel Bell once shrewdly observed, the scholar finds his place within an established tradition and adds his tiny piece to the mosaic. By contrast, the intellectual begins with “HIS experience, HIS individual perceptions of the world, HIS privileges and deprivations, and judges the world by these sensibilities.”
Bell had the New York intellectuals in mind as he fashioned his distinction, but the terms apply with equal force to black public intellectuals, including those with Ivy League pedigrees and solidly academic books. Indeed, with the notable exception of Stanley Crouch, a fiercely independent, no-nonsense type, the most promising black intellectuals are the creations of and by academia. But that said, let me hasten to add that, with minor adjustments, much the same thing could be said of the W.E.B.Dubois who was a product of Harvard and Heidelberg every bit as much as he was formed by the “color line” he regarded as the central problem of our century.
Indeed, I would argue that it is important to resist both the impulse to romanticize, and thus overpraise, the effort of autodidacts such as James Baldwin or Ralph Ellison as well as the equally naïve inclination to undervalue the impressive accomplishments of Henry Louis Gates, Jr.or Cornel West. After all, what made Baldwin and Ellison important writers then is precisely what makes Gates and West noteworthy cultural figures now—namely, the accretion of ideas and influences, a “sorting out” that leads to an individual voice, and finally, most importantly, the use to which these disparate elements are put. To ask that young black intellectuals rekindle the spirit that led to the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920’s or, for that matter, to the heyday of the New York intellectuals in the 1940’s and 1950’s is to ignore the handwriting on the university wall. Rather than reading “Abandon hope all ye of dark skin who enter here”—as the unwritten signs once did—the message blaring out of our colleges and universities today is Welcome, welcome. What one should rightly ask, then, is where, and for what, do they stand as public intellectuals?
At this point, the answer will not only depend upon which figures pop up on your mental screen—Henry Louis Gates, Jr.or Houston Baker? Cornel West or Leonard Jeffries? Shelby Steele or Molefi K.Asante?—but also on what you imagine as the proper role for intellectuals, black and white, at a time when race threatens to once again divide our nation into warring camps. Thus far I have stressed elements of the black intellectuals’ common fate without directly addressing the devil that always lurks in the details. So, let me now say it more bluntly: the very qualities that define an intellectual are precisely those that effective leaders learn to suppress, for if the former are defined by their capacity to maintain a certain critical distance; to value complexity, not for its own sake, but because a genuine consideration of the issues demands it; and perhaps above all, to never flinch in the face of controversy, all too often the latter are studies in savvy calculation, accomplished deception, and perfect opacity. Leaders, in a word, know what works, and they make certain that their “messages” are simultaneously simple and aimed at a single purpose. Small wonder, then, that W.E.B. DuBois’s conflict with Booker T.Washington was an accident waiting to happen, or that the first, and possibly greatest, black intellectual later found himself at odds with the NAACP, the very organization he had helped bring into being.
To be sure, many intellectuals find ways to combine cultural criticism with activist politics. One thinks, for example, of Philip Rahv, of Irving Howe, of Du Bois himself. But the present moment has raised the ante and altered the ground rules, especially for those black intellectuals unwilling to toe the separatist line that dismisses integration as a dream gone sour. Nor is there much solace in remembering that Baldwin felt much the same sense of isolation, caught as he was between his large ambitions to be an American writer and the narrow confines of his skin, for the pain that follows each success of a Henry Louis Gates, Jr.or a Cornel West is of a radically different sort. For example, when Gates wrote what may be the central truth about our collective experience as black and white Americans—namely, that each is a product of the other’s imagination—or when he warned against efforts to construct a monolithic version of what is, or is not, “black,” the grumblings began in Harvard Yard and quickly rippled out to even angrier black constituencies who get their information from the Amsterdam News. Its response, by the way, was that Harvard had ruined more black folk than whiskey ever did. And when Gates used the pages of The New York Times to expose The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews, a work that wraps its virulent anti-Semitism in the folds of footnotes and pseudo-scholarship, he received death threats.
But one need not point to sensational instances because the sad truth is we have become so accustomed to people cynically playing the race card that even black intellectuals must wonder if anything they write could have the galvanizing power, much less generate the same ink, as a single speech by the likes of a Leonard Jeffries. In this sense, black anti-Semitism is more symptom than cause, a way of directing rage against a group that stands, as it were, for a collective whiteness. Meanwhile, black life in America has become a pitched battle between the haves and have-nots, between those who refuse to write America down in a single word— racist— despite regular, galling reminders that skin color still matters mightily, and those who think that voluntary segregation is a notable improvement over the old, bad versions imposed by an old, bad South. No doubt when black intellectuals watch the evening news they must experience something of the same feeling Edmund Wilson had when he claimed that he did not recognize the America reflected in Life magazine. This is surely not what they had in mind when they embarked on their careers and found themselves surprised by the prestige and influence they earned. Indeed, they might respond by asking “What influence?” as if anything they write or speak could change the dailiness of daily life on the nation’s meaner streets. As Cornel West puts it:
Defined this way, marginality is an intellectual’s common fate, no different for Cornel West than it was for me. When my grandfather heard that I was headed for a graduate degree in English, he was shocked because so far as he was concerned I spoke “a gooteh Henglish” already. No doubt West’s parents sounded their notes of bemusement is a different key, but the essential music remained the same. I suspect it always was.
The choice of becoming a black intellectual is an act of self-imposed marginality; it assures a peripheral status in and to the black community. The quest for literacy indeed is a fundamental theme in Afro-American history and a basic impulse in the black community. But for blacks, as with most Americans, the uses for literacy are usually perceived to be for some substantive pecuniary benefits rather than those of the writer, artist, teacher, or professor.
Where the condition of black intellectuals differs, however, and where their problems strike me as “uncommon,” is in the sense, both culturally created and self-induced, that race is the only subject worth writing about because it alone will generate readers. Who, after all, would be interested in what Henry Louis Gates, Jr.has to say about Herman Melville’s white whale or Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Puritan guilt, much less about the “manners” that energize the worlds of Jane Austen or George Eliot? Granted, Cornel West has a book about American pragmatism that grinds its way through Dewey, Mills, Pierce, Quine, and Rorty, but the book that sold, and sold BIG, was Race Matters. I say this not to suggest that black intellectuals should shy away from being what Gates calls “race men,” committed to a literature of great beauty and power, but, rather, to raise a question that speaks to white readers as well as black writers.
To alter a memorable line from “The Godfather,” with intellectuals it’s never “business,” but always personal. By that I mean, they bring large measures of themselves to whatever happens to spark their interest. Thus, when Irving Howe wrote about Hardy or about Faulkner, his thumbprint was plainly evident on every page. Indeed, how could it be otherwise, given that how he read was filtered through a sensibility formed in the crucible of immigrant Jewish life? Black intellectuals have similar opportunities, but, thus far, they seem exceptions rather than the rule. Consider, for example, the instructive differences between the Massey lectures Irving Howe delivered at Harvard, and that became The American Newness, a consideration of the Emersonian tradition in American letters that he had dismissed (perhaps too quickly) as a young man and later came to value, with the Massey lectures Toni Morrison’s recently delivered as Playing in the Dark. One could argue that both efforts were efforts at “expansion,” but where Howe imagines America, Morrison works to reify our definition. The differences are important, and they tell us much about how solidly the color line remains in place, both as a defining, and I would argue, limiting condition.
In Baldwin’s “Notes of a Native Son,” he confesses that “I have not written about being a Negro at such length because I expected that to be my only subject, but only because it was the gate I had to unlock before I could hope to write about anything else.” Forty years later, “Negro” has been replaced by black, and in some circles, by African-American, but for too many black intellectuals, the gate remains as unlocked as ever.
And this, as much as anything, is the uncommon problem that they must squarely face. One can, of course, point to the Ralph Ellison whose magisterial novel, The Invisible Man, is still the finest blending of black experience and Matthew Arnold’s “best that has been thought and said” or to Gate’s impressive disquisition on First Amendment squabbles in the pages of a recent New Republic, but I think that Stephen Carter’s The Culture of Disbelief, a consideration of the ways religion has been elbowed out of our national discourse and the consequences of that dubious victory, is a more promising example. For the strength of Carter’s arguments lies in the arguments themselves, rather than in the fact that he is black. Indeed, his blackness simply ceases to matter, in roughly the same way that what a person says should count for more than the skin or gender or whatever of the respective mouth.
Unfortunately, we have become so hyperconscious, so paralyzed, by race that I do not look forward to fundamental changes in attitude any time soon. Perhaps it is enough to applaud those black intellectuals willing to stand tall against the loopier versions of the new bigotry and to insist that Black Studies programs be something more than exercises in “feeling good.” Those stands, modest and commonsensical as they might seem, have not been uttered without cost or without courage. For to gain the approval of whites is to risk the approbation of many in the black community. And that too remains yet another instance of the “uncommon problems” that black intellectuals currently face. No doubt there are more, and I suspect we’ll hear about them as black intellectuals discover that there is strength in numbers, albeit of a strained and complicated sort. And if this sounds remarkably like the condition of the New York intellectuals during their days of highest energy and maximum tension, so be it. For the “clarity, good sense, truth—even an atom” those intellectuals once provided has been sorely missed by exactly the sort of people who once crowded into Moses Herzog’s evening classes. They are still out there, just as confused as ever about by the bromides of editorials and the sound bites of ideologues. All of which is to suggest that the opportunities for black intellectuals have never been greater, nor has the need.