Lives of the New York intellectuals
by Robert Fulford

(Globe and Mail, May 29, 1999)

James Trilling, the art-historian son of the great literary critic Lionel Trilling, has staked out a unique place for himself among writers of perverse and pathetic Oedipal memoirs. In the current issue of the American Scholar, he does all he can to destroy his father's reputation, and simultaneously delivers an astounding if highly dubious piece of news -- Lionel Trilling (who died in 1975) suffered all his life from attention deficit disorder (ADD).

This is the latest bulletin on life among the New York intellectuals of the 1940s to the 1970s, the group that included Mary McCarthy, Clement Greenberg and Irving Kristol. In The Washington Monthly, Nicholas Lemann once called them the "American Bloomsbury" because they were "a tight-knit, complicatedly connected hothouse group of writers and intellectuals whose ideas changed the culture," like the Bloomsbury circle around Virginia Woolf and John Maynard Keynes in London half a century earlier.

The comparison makes sense if you draw parallels between individuals. Mary McCarthy, a critic everyone talked about and a novelist everyone had to read, played a role like Woolf's. Dwight Macdonald resembled Lytton Strachey, who helped create the journalism of his period. Clement Greenberg resembled Roger Fry, an important art critic. Irving Kristol, like Keynes, decided that ideas rule the world and painstakingly spread his influence across the country. Bertrand Russell, a close relative of Bloomsbury, had an American parallel in Sidney Hook, also a philosopher with political interests, a close relative of the New York intellectuals. The two groups aren't always in proportion (Woolf's reputation stands far higher than McCarthy's, Greenberg's far higher than Fry's), but they have much in common.

As with Bloomsbury, the world of the New York intellectuals is being recast in retrospect. Books have been written about Greenberg, McCarthy and Macdonald, as well as Trilling. We have the memoirs of William Phillips and William Barrett, both editors at the Partisan Review; also those of Irving Howe and Diana Trilling. Norman Podhoretz has written three books of memoirs, of which the third, Ex-Friends, appeared recently. Many more books are to come: When Bloomsbury died, their survivors and descendants began publishing the letters, the journals, and still more memoirs. And, as with Bloomsbury, there will no doubt be many surprises.

To this slowly evolving chronicle, James Trilling has now contributed an unexpected dimension. By applying a diagnostic term to his father's character, he has clearly implied that one of the great careers in American letters resulted from an undiagnosed medical problem. As a child and an adolescent, James was wretchedly incompetent at whatever he tried, and he didn't understand till his 30s that his trouble was ADD; he greatly improved when finally he went on Ritalin. After much thought, he has decided that ADD (which he says runs in families, through the male line) must also have afflicted his father.

That will strike Lionel Trilling's admirers as preposterous. ADD sufferers lack the ability to focus productively on their daily activities. But the profession of teaching and writing, which Trilling followed successfully for 40 years or so, requires close attention to the work at hand. Trilling wrote a PhD dissertation on Matthew Arnold that became his first book, he wrote a fine novel of ideas, Middle of the Journey, and, over the years, his essays became famous for their thoughtful braiding of literary, social and political ideas.

So what made him an ADD case? Well, his son says, Lionel was a wretched tennis player and swimmer, and an incompetent driver. He couldn't handle money, he got quite angry sometimes, he could be absent-minded, he frequently drank too much, and for periods he suffered from writer's block. All these, James says, were caused by ADD.

Furthermore, Lionel had a nasty habit of seeing several sides of a question -- and that, too, was ADD-related, because ADD people (James says) are slow, indecisive thinkers. Lionel built his career, argues James, on the mistrust of certainties: "He was most comfortable exploring implications, ambiguities, cultural states of mind . . ." I believe Trilling's greatness lay in the subtle way he could walk around an issue, leaving both the subject and the reader richer than when he started. James isn't impressed. He thinks his father should have come down on one side or another. In his view, it was just a lucky thing for Lionel that the times welcomed ambiguity. What the article in the American Scholar demonstrates is that Lionel Trilling, one of the most complex people of his generation, produced a remarkably simple-minded son.

A much more engaging and illuminating view of the New York intellectuals emerges from Joseph Dorman's documentary, Arguing the World, an account of the lives of four writers who started out in the 1930s as poor boys at the City College of New York (then sometimes called "the Jewish Harvard") and ended up as leading critics of American life. Arguing the World is a 107-minute movie about people who do nothing but write and talk, yet its four subjects come to life as distinct characters: Daniel Bell, the inventor of the term "post-industrial society," who first explained that the main activity in the future would be thinking rather than manufacturing; Nathan Glazer, who has written better than anyone else on the meaning of ethnicity in the United States; Irving Kristol, who more or less created the neoconservative movement; and Irving Howe, literary critic and left-wing journalist.

The film makes plain that the four of them, whatever their differences, lived a special form of intellectual life. Their existence was defined by argument: It was the way they discovered who they were. And like many intellectuals, they seem to have known from the beginning that educating each other was one of the main tasks of their lives.

The New York intellectuals were often compared to a family -- because they fought all the time (that's in the film), because they wanted to impress each other more than the rest of the world, and because they were most themselves in each other's presence. They came together most vividly in print, in the periodicals they used as their family homes -- the Partisan Review, Commentary, Dissent, the New York Review, and The Public Interest.

In Arguing the World (which is now on video, available through CHV Communications Inc. of Toronto), Kristol is wonderfully articulate but rather more defensive than I would have expected. Bell, always the smartest of this lot, says nothing that is not interesting. Glazer, as in his writing, is more observer than participant in whatever goes on. Howe, the socialist (who has died since the filming), comes across as self-righteous but nevertheless likable.

Lionel Abel, a relatively marginal figure who appears briefly, sums up the ethos of the New York intellectuals. He says that, in the 1930s in Greenwich Village, many of them (including the film's four stars) were Trotskyists. They didn't actually know whether Leon Trotsky was right, but they knew he was interesting: "And in the Village then, to be interesting was to be right. Certainly to be uninteresting was to be wrong. And I'm not sure I don't still hold to that." There are worse rules of life.

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