Anyone who attended the plenary this weekend on Russell Jacoby’s The Last Intellectuals, which was just one part of a vigorous and immensely pleasurable conference, knows that Leo Ribuffo in particular, but Claire Potter and Jonathan Holloway as well, were unsparing in their critiques of that book’s narrow vision of who an intellectual can be. Drawing from their own life experiences, Potter and Holloway demonstrated the intellectual vitality of communities for which Jacoby’s argument simply had no time and no apparent inclination to see in 1987. Ribuffo’s critique was in some ways more direct: Jacoby’s definition of “intellectual” was merely “honorific” (I imagine, since Ribuffo brought him up, that he meant that in the Veblenian sense: the word dots The Theory of the Leisure Class as a sort of leitmotiv of disdain and irony).
Yet Potter and Holloway and even Ribuffo’s frontal attack leave, in an odd way, the central contention (as I understand it) of The Last Intellectuals untouched. What each critique does is encourage us to look away from the center of the world Jacoby described and to acknowledge how much lies around that center, to find in the margins what Jacoby stipulates became impossible at the core. But what their critiques do not do, I feel, is challenge Jacoby’s argument that, within the same demographic category (white, urban, well-educated men), there was a distinctly visible decline in deliberate engagement with a broad readership. Considering The Last Intellectuals not as a social diagnosis but as an account of a failure of cohort replacement, I imagine that many intellectuals (in the non-honorific but rather sociological sense) today would still basically assent to Jacoby’s narrative. The university may have been the starting point for a “long march through the institutions of power” for women, sexual minorities, and persons of color, but it was, the consensus might reluctantly admit, the long, plump sofa on which the men who were to succeed the New York Intellectuals schluffed and schlumped. The message that so many have taken away from Jacoby’s work is that, well, not everyone can be Edmund Wilson or Irving Howe, but someone in the 1980s (or 1990s or 2000s or 2010s) should have been.
Of course, there have been other critiques which point out how dependent even Jacoby’s icons were on university paychecks. Jacoby certainly understated the degree to which, even if they were not securing tenure-track appointments, the generation he lionized often picked up short-term university teaching to cover their bills. (The new biography of Saul Bellow provides abundant evidence of the prevalence of this pattern.) Yet the sociology behind The Last Intellectuals has never been the point for most people, although as Potter argued, it is probably at its best in its arguments about space. Instead, the book has been and continues to be read, I think, as literary criticism, as a diagnosis of a generational change in prose style; all other considerations–in what venues that prose appeared, whom it addressed, who or what paid for it, where it was written–are secondary. That is, my innermost materialist tells me, pretty silly.
There remains too often an unexamined assumption that style and accessibility go hand in hand. Anyone who has ever looked over a socialist pamphlet or the Catholic catechism will recognize this as a fallacy: the presence of “jargon” does not preclude wide readership, though one might object to these cases as ones where compulsion buffers the the more abstruse points of Christology or Marxism. Even still, there are many reasons why even “average, intelligent readers” (the hypothetical subject of the middlebrow) do tackle difficult texts; we can merely look to the current state of television for evidence that complexity is not in and of itself a deterrent.
Instead, what I imagine may have convinced Russell Jacoby’s readers in 1987 and still today that his diagnosis was correct is in reality a very simple fact, a very pedestrian observation. Great works of the mind once appeared in editions clearly meant to be widely read and continued to appear in those formats long enough to indicate that people actually were reading them widely. Now, they do not.
I have on my desk at this moment a mass-market paperback edition of H. Stuart Hughes’s Consciousness and Society: The Reorientation of European Social Thought, 1890-1930. From my desk I can see a row of mass-market paperbacks of a similar sort: Christopher Lasch’s The New Radicalism in America (1965); Eric Goldman’s Rendezvous with Destiny (1952); Digby Baltzell’s The Protestant Establishment (1964); Will Herberg’s Protestant Catholic Jew (1955); David Montgomery’s Beyond Equality (1967); Stanley Edgar Hyman’s The Armed Vision (1955); Erik Erikson’s Young Man Luther (1962); C. Wright Mill’s The Marxists (1962); John Kenneth Galbraith’s The Affluent Society (1958); a clutch of Richard Hofstadter’s work; and, well, you get the point. It is difficult to imagine works published not even that much later as mass-market paperbacks–the kind on the left in this image, rather than the trade paperback on the right. If anyone knows of a mass-market paperback version of Jackson Lears’s No Place of Grace, for instance, or Alan Brinkley’s Voices of Protest (1981 and 1983, respectively), please let me know. But we must all be familiar with this massive shift, albeit subliminally: there are probably few of us who do not own a mass-market copy of some mid-century scholarly study.
If there was, as I suspect, a sort of collapse in publishing books like Rendezvous with Destiny in mass-market form, a lot more needs to be explained than has been explained, and I don’t find the hypothesis that Eric Goldman wrote significantly differently than Alan Brinkley, or that Stuart Hughes’s prose is easier to read than Jackson Lears’s very convincing. Besides, in the back of my copy of Consciousness and Society is a list of other books offered by Vintage Books, the paperback division of Random House. Presumably, the following books would also have been available as mass-market paperbacks:
- Robert Lekachman, The Age of Keynes
- Rodger Hurley, Poverty and Mental Retardation: A Causal Relationship
- Alfred Lindesmith, The Addict and the Law
- Robert Presthus, The Organizational Society
- Lionel Tiger (awesome name), Men in Groups
- F. S. Perls, Ego, Hunger and Aggression: Beginning of Gestalt Therapy
There are other, better-known titles as well in the list, but I singled these out because I have never heard of any of them and I’m guessing that few of you are familiar with any of these works either; they are not, it is safe to say, the work of “public intellectuals.” More impressive still is the full list, for even if I have heard of many of the other titles, it is very difficult to imagine any of them selling enough copies to merit reprinting as paperbacks. Otto Rank’s The Myth of the Birth of the Hero? How many copies did that sell? Even if a few sold decently, was it enough to make up the cost of those which did not?
The same question goes for those paperbacks on my shelf: did they actually sell well enough to justify the additional effort of reprinting? Of course, that is question we can answer empirically, and I have no evidence either way. And it is entirely possible that we don’t see any academic histories reprinted in mass-market editions because trade paperbacks are far cheaper to produce (and can still be sold for more than mass-market paperbacks). Note, for instance, that Erik Larson’s books, popular as they are, appear only in hardcover and trade paperback.
But the larger point is that we are not asking questions like these, and that without answers to them our attempts to attribute some monumental shift in the intellectual culture to style and ambition (or their lack) are essentially idle, a moralizing pastime rather than a serious effort to understand. Before we can have a real conversation about what kinds of history we must write to reach a broad audience, to generate public engagement, perhaps it would be better to be sure that those academic historians or other intellectuals whom we take to be models of public engagement really did reach the audience we imagine, and that they did so on their own merit, on the force of their writing, their moral urgency, and their eagerness to be read.
Instead we must take much more seriously the likelihood that other factors (the economic vagaries of publishing, the presence of philanthropic subventions which subsidized the cost of reprinting academic books, or some other influence) also had something to do with why we can still read battered old copies of C. Wright Mills and Will Herberg in hand-sized editions, as well as the works of scholars whom no one would call a public intellectual. It is in the explanation of the existence of those paperbacks published by non-public intellectuals that we may find our answers for why there was never a second Richard Hofstadter, why from a certain vantage point, Jacoby could see that generation as the last intellectuals.