Lionel Trilling and the Fate of Cultural Criticism
Mark Krupnick
Northwestern University Press, $21.95 (cloth); $10.95 (paper)

Prodigal Sons: The New York Intellectuals and Their World
Alexander Bloom
Oxford University Press, $24.95 (cloth)

A continuing lament of the New York intellectuals—those cultural and social critics who coalesced around Partisan Review just before World War II—has been that America has lacked enough of an intellectual community and marketplace to allow a group such as theirs to support itself in one place and one profession. As they see it, they have been forced from the joys of freelance criticism into the tasks of university teaching, and in the process, they complain, they have lost their important function and collective identity. Forged in the boroughs of New York, the group dispersed after the war into other regions. Some ended up at Stanford, the University of Chicago, and Buffalo. And a disproportionate number went to New England.

A New England tie existed from the beginning, for three of the six editors who revived Partisan Review in 1937 were Yale graduates. Philip Rahv, Irving Howe, Lewis Coser, and Bernard Rosenberg all spent time at Brandeis. Daniel Bell and Nathan Glazer currently teach at Harvard, and Delmore Schwartz once did. And Boston University is now the home of Partisan Review. (So many of the crowd summered at Wellfleet during their lives that Partisan Review might have opened an office there; Meyer Schapiro and Sidney Hook owned summer cottages in Vermont, which Hook once called the poor man’s Wellfleet.) Appropriately enough, the two most recent biographers of these “New York” intellectuals also have New England connections. Alexander Bloom did his graduate work at Boston College, and now teaches at Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts. Mark Krupnick graduated from Harvard and Brandeis, and then taught at Boston University in the early 1970s before moving to the University of Wisconsin. Bloom, an historian, has written the first full-length narrative of the group. Krupnick, a literary critic who was at one time an editor of Philip Rahv’s Modern Occasions, has given us a focused study of its  leading figure.


PRODIGAL Sons tells the story of a group of critics who began on the socialist or communist left in the 1930s, and then gradually came home to a sense of their Jewishness, to a reconciliation with mainstream American culture, and to positions of leadership in the ranks of postwar liberalism. While Bloom has done an admirable job of compiling the details of this epic, his book too often has the feel of a tour guide. A few pages on academic freedom, a few on Reinhold Niebuhr and the tragic sense of life, a few on the end of ideology—the terrain is seen from a speeding bus with the author breathlessly reeling off the sights as we careen past. What we miss is analysis and interpretation.

In part, this is a consequence of Bloom’s academic training. Historians are taught to cherish neutrality, but an entirely neutral, nonpolitical, and non-ideological history is impossible; the historian who aims for it invariably produces something else. Yet even if neutrality were possible, it would be inadequate to a group of writers who have been America’s most polemical critics. They demand active analytical and perhaps ideological engagement, but unfortunately that does not sit comfortably with Bloom. After a few flirtatious winks, he waltzes away from ideas and judgments, as if afraid of creating a scandal. The passions of his subjects remain untouched. Far better to have taken the advice he quotes from Sidney Hook: “Ultimately the scholar must come down from the ivory tower, ‘must be prepared to take up the struggle.'”


BLOOM’S interviews with the principals supply little that cannot be found in their own autobiographical writings—Norman Podhoretz’s Making It, William Barrett’s The Truants, Alfred Kazin’s A Walker in the City, etc. He serves, in effect, as official biographer to the group, faithfully taking their reflections upon themselves and pasting them into a grand mosaic. Their self-describing epigraphs litter the volume, framing sections fore and aft. Bloom has thrown a party and allowed the guests of honor to grab the microphone and be their own masters of ceremony. They deserve better.

Reproducing their interpretation of themselves, he describes the New York group as joining with the Americans for Democratic Action to destroy the communists—in order to end the “dirty game” of anticommunism being waged by the McCarthyites. But the New York intellectuals had been stridently anticommunist since the late 1930s, and they needed no encouragement from either ADA liberals or from the populist right. Bloom’s criticism of the American Committee for Cultural Freedom for its CIA funding barely interrupts his applause. His attachment to the group’s view has similarly led him to ignore the evidence that his subjects’ early assault on mass culture showed an elitist cultural conservatism. Cultural high-browism was consistent with their original elitist socialism, with its fear of unrestrained democracy, but Bloom is content to portray this neoconservative outlook as surfacing only in the early 1950s.

Prodigal Sons, finally, is winners’ history. When the group first began to form, its members were all “dissenters” from mainstream American culture. By 1940, however, the group had started to split. A collection of perpetually dissenting critics, including Dwight Macdonald, Harold Rosenberg, Paul Goodman, Lewis Coser, Irving Howe, and Bernard Rosenberg, asserted themselves first at Partisan Review, then at Politics in the 1940s, and at Dissent since the mid-1950s. This tradition is ignored by Bloom. Instead he focuses almost exclusively on that majority of “affirmers” of American culture—including Sidney Hook, Irving Kristol, Diana and Lionel Trilling, Nathan Glazer, William Phillips, Daniel Bell—who first established control of Partisan Review and then went on to lodge themselves at Commentary.

This is not a minor issue. Bloom, perhaps unintentionally, has helped the neoconservatives in the group sustain the idea that theirs was the only logical position to adopt in the postwar period. Although the dissenters stuck more closely to the group’s original critical orientation, Bloom accords them only ten of his four hundred pages. After World War II, the entire New York group attempted to redefine the role of the intellectual in America, a role that had been at least partially unsettled by its own move from cultural periphery to mainstream, from ideology to what it perceived as “non-ideological.” It was a tentative search for a postwar, postcommunist, postideological function—an assertion of rationality over absolutist and visionary systems. Bloom touches on this theme briefly at points, tacks his history to it occasionally like a tailor pinning a cuff, but then rushes off; in the end, this central question is swamped and lost.


LIONEL Trilling had a curious relationship to the other New York intellectuals. A constant influence from the 1940s until his death in 1975, he was resented as well as admired by them. Among the oldest, among the first to succeed in establishing a reputation outside the group, he was always slightly more urbane, less polemical, and less obviously of recent Jewish immigrant background. About his patrician style, Harold Rosenberg once cracked, “When I first encountered the gravity of Lionel Trilling I did not get the joke; it took some time to realize that there wasn’t any.” Krupnick, avoiding Bloom’s mistakes, has written a powerful interpretive work that not only examines but pronounces upon Trilling’s cultural and political ideas. And light though he is on biographical detail, he succeeds in rendering the man.

Trilling was a reconciler of intellectual contradictions, a critic who valued complexity over simplicity, and in his life he had to reconcile the political and cultural radicalism of the Greenwich Village literary journalist with the belletristic conservatism of the Columbia University English professor. Although he maintained both identities for a decade or so, Trilling finally chose Columbia. The same could be said for nearly all the New York intellectuals: each, as he matured, chose his or her personal Columbia.

Krupnick also succeeds in reviving the kind of cultural criticism the New York intellectuals did during their heyday. He laments that “American literary criticism is going through its awkward age,” that it is currently “committed to its own self-marginalization.” He admires Trilling’s attempt at “intellectual totalization,” or what we might call cultural synthesis. “Nowadays,” he complains, “critics are urged not even to try. We are instructed to value fragmentation.” In America, the effect “has been mainly to confirm us in our present cultural confusion.” Like a latter day Van Wyck Brooks, Krupnick wants to find a place for criticism between the academy and middlebrow journalism, “where literature and social thought might meet.” He does not want cultural criticism left to either the sociologists or the literary deconstructionists in the university. It is a commentary on the New York group’s own academic fate.

It is painful for an historian to admit that the strongest studies of the New York intellectuals are being written by literary critics rather than historians. Perhaps that should not surprise us, since some of our best intellectual history has been written by English professors like Vernon Parrington and Perry Miller. Literary critics have no shackles preventing interaction with their material; they are allowed to  participate, to judge, and to be more subjective and ideological than historians. Krupnick has shown us the sort of engagement with ideas that draws readers into a book, rather than the spurious neutrality that drives them away.