The Square Circuit

Academia, parenthood, living in a bankrupt city, and what I read in the process.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

1950s intellectuals

Richard Pells' 1985 THE LIBERAL MIND IN A CONSERVATIVE AGE has become a classic of intellectual history, but I found it less than engaging. It is, as the jacket copy calls it, a "synthesis" or an overview of the stances of most of the arguments of the leading intellectuals of the 1950s in the US. Divided into predictable chapters on McCarthyism, economic thought, social conformity, and peace and totalitarianism, the book does provide a very valuable survey of what the most important thinkers were saying about the most important issues of that time. All of the usual suspects are here--Hannah Arendt, Paul Goodman, Irving Kristol, James Burnham, Daniel Bell, David Riesman, C. Wright Mills--and the format is convenient, but I missed what I think could have been Pells' opportunity to make a larger argument about the "liberal mind" in the 1950s. Certainly, some of the set pieces here--such as the one on Arendt's ORIGINS OF TOTALITARIANISM or Riesman's LONELY CROWD--do a great job of summarizing complicated arguments, and I wouldn't hesitate to point graduate students to Pells as a model of how to respectfully and comprehensively summarize arguments. But as a unified argument about what the liberal intellectuals of the 1950s really meant, I thought that there was a central thread lacking, for all of Pells' amazingly comprehensive overview.

Appearing frequently in Pells' book, of course, is the great intellectual Dwight Macdonald, and after finishing Pells I picked up AGAINST THE AMERICAN GRAIN, which is just great. Its leadoff essay on "Masscult & Midcult" is a classic, and although he didn't come up with the term "middlebrow" he defines it better here than almost anyone ever did. His "reviews" of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible and of Webster's Third New International Dictionary are also well-known; basically, the take on each is that they dumb down the original and enshrine as acceptable what authorities would once have condemned as incorrect. (Should linguists be prescriptive or descriptive? Macdonald is very much on the side of the former.) Praising Macdonald's style for being erudite, funny, and combative all at the same time is pretty commonplace, but when you compare his to the style of someone today who gets praised for exactly the same combination (I'm thinking of you, Christopher Hitchens), almost makes it necessary to agree with Macdonald that the language is in a bad way, and getting worse.



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