Commentary Magazine

A Writer Between Generations

I came to New York in the fall of 1943 when I was twenty to make my way as a writer. I was met by my college pal, Calder Willingham, who has since gotten rich writing good movies and better novels. In those days, Calder was just poor and eager and wild and daring—as, come to think of it, who was not? We had planned to leave school and meet in New York, thus to repeat the proven career-pattern of James T. Farrell, with whom we were both corresponding (I suspect that Farrell has written millions of words of advice to young writers over the years, including—as with me—which of the forty-odd volumes of Balzac's La Comédie Humaine to read first). I was on that classic thin gold thread from home, after my get-away money ran out; but Calder scrounged and bell-hopped and borrowed. I think I was envious, in a way: the list of odd jobs on the dust jacket of your first novel was, in those days, the equivalent of a graduate degree.

Calder and I had some excitement setting out in life and discovering New York and so on—we lived in a rooming-house on 58th Street near Sixth Avenue, a cultural beginner's neighborhood, and luckily stumbled upon a nest of female dance students—before he left town for jobs like putting out a camp newspaper in Georgia and bell-hopping in Beverly Hills. But mostly what happened to me in New York was that I looked up Isaac Rosenfeld a few days after I arrived. Like me (and Farrell), Isaac was from Chicago. Young men from the provinces; as I recall, there was a Lot of that in Balzac.

In many ways, Isaac was a very exceptional person. Exceptionally talented as a literary stylist and talker and performer (his imitations of friends were hilarious) and scene-maker and general doer. But most exceptional of all, with him you could take your own life seriously, any part of it you wanted, and he would really help—he really wanted to help. That was the great novelist in him that never got squared away—never got down to writing novels. (He died young, after writing a pretty good standard Ph.D. type family background novel and, for No. 2, a wild one called The General, written at the height of the Kafka wave and, in its ebb, not published.) All of Isaac's good friends, including myself, believed that he could and would one day write a great comic novel—maybe like Gogol—about Village intellectual life. That is, about us. With hindsight, 1 see now that we believed this so deeply not simply because of his unquestioned talent, but also because he had done so much, as a novelist merely marking time, to create the serio-comic scene he would one day memorialize. (We were all so devoted to The Word that each of us was willing to take his lumps, personally, in the course of its grand realization—unlike the inhabitants of some other Peyton Places.)


Anyway, Isaac introduced me to people—indeed, through him I met most of the population of my future life in New York, both the famous and the merely significant. He was a center; and his utterly undistinguished apartment on Barrow Street was a meeting-place. Isaac had come to New York, perhaps in 1940, to study philosophy with Sidney Hook (I think); by then, the Chicago Writers' Project of the WPA had folded, spreading unemployed talent, including his, in all directions. By that time, however, there were nearly jobs (that brief hiatus after WPA released, and before OWI saved, an important segment of mankind) and Isaac had occupied one on the trade journal, Ice Cream World. When I got to New York, he had already advanced in his editing-for-eating career to an editorial position with the New Republic. It was still a shame and a disgrace to work for the New Republic—because they had defended the Moscow Trials, and hadn't exactly done everything else right either—but what the hell, a job was a job, even if it was high class.

But more important, Isaac was writing for Partisan Review—and only a year or two away from becoming their golden boy of the newer generation. To characterize as much history as the PR Grouping represented in one or two sentences is at least impossible; so I will take three or four. First of all, the unplaced talent that for awhile found a place there: it would take too long to mention all the important names, but just a few years ago the two current major novels were written by graduates, Mary McCarthy and Saul Bellow (each of whom was firmly identified with the Grouping, from the beginning of his and her career, not merely passing through). Besides people, there was The Issue: to integrate literary modernism and the best in Marxist thought, thus to build yet another immigrant beachhead on the American shore. And The Method: chutzpah—directed againt the established academy, on both Marxist and modernist grounds. And finally, The Ethnic: everybody was Jewish, or acting that way—especially including Mary McCarthy and Dwight Macdonald, our most distinguished goyim. (It was a necessary badge of dishonor.) The PR Grouping served for its time as a great market-place of sensibility; a highly significant ad hoc or street university; and, all in all, one of our better European imports.

Isaac's gang—especially his boyhood pals, Oscar Tarcov and Saul Bellow, as well as some University of Chicago classmates—were known as the Chicago Dostoyevskians. Through them, an important provincial connection with the metropolitan center was established. I guess I was the last of the travelers from Chicago to join in. Anyway, I was always The Kid, the youngest by five years or more. And Isaac Rosenfeld, perhaps the brightest burned-out star of them all, provided me with a whole new life in the literary capital. He had me writing a book review for the New Republic within a few days of my arrival in New York; and not much later sent me around to see Dwight Macdonald who, in a breakaway from the reduced political emphasis of Partisan Review, was then getting ready to publish Politics—which became the only high-level critical voice during the remainder of the war.


To The Kid from Chicago, New York was an astoundingly bright new world, filled with Jews of marvelous variety: like a supermarket kind of candy store, with versions of heritage, row-upon-row, freely to be chosen from.

I was second-generation; they were not. It took me nearly twenty years to come to terms with the fact. I know a great deal about light mulattoes calling themselves “black.”

A couple of years ago I ran into a woman I had known in those early days—an authentic Bronx intellectual who in fact has since become something of a Jewish scholar. We had barely exchanged pleasantries when a special greedy smile appeared (after long study, I now know what this bit of intellectual femininity means: I am going to eat you alive—wait a minute, as soon as I find the horseradish), and she remarked, “For crissake, when did you become so Jewish?” I tried to explain how it happened, but she wasn't having any. “Come on, you had a clear midwestern accent; you didn't know a word of Yiddish; you can't fool me—I remember it.” See? Already I was “fooling” her. So, before she had a chance to explain my anti-Semitism to me, I smiled sheepishly, etc. (which, after equally long study, means: Lady, you'll never find the horseradish).

I am a self-created, phony Jew. I admit it—that is, I am willing and I still try, occasionally, to admit it. No go: the best I get is a forgiving glance. Gentiles think I am trying to “pass” in an unacceptably primitive fashion; Jews with genuine ethnicity in their upbringing are nonplussed, and simply deal with my implausible chatter as best they can. The only ones who understand and sympathize are the two or three second-generation Jews who have done what I did—and the numerous intellectual Gentiles who were tempted to do it.

It took years of effort to create this absurd situation. When it finally began to bore me a while back, however, I found that it was ineradicable. The me-inside-me I talk to all day long no longer had the youthful daring to learn to speak naked American (and, being a writer, I certainly could not fetter or forgo that essential me-to-me conversation).

What led me into this endeavor, apart from my own ambition and the loud voices of my friends, was my startled reading of Sartre's Qu'est-ce que le juif? when I was too young and too logical to resist it. Such a brilliant goy ! He convinced me that I faced the iron choice of existing as an authentic or an inauthentic Jew. Loaded at the time with chutzpah, I went for the jugular. And that's how I became such a fraud.

I try on occasion to admit that I am a phony Jew; but I refuse to apologize for it. The reason is that I have been living out this special life of mine in America; and here in America the Jew-as-metaphor—born, created, or merely borrowed—is peculiarly appropriate. Jews everywhere have always been Somebody Else: that was the Big Thing that God laid on them. And since (really) so many people in America were almost Somebody Else, anyone trained to the role was clearly starting ahead of the crowd—even if type-cast. There is no question: when the Jew and America came together, something very special happened. The Jews were it—rather than some other ethnic grouping—because something weird in that multi-millennial training stint of theirs set them up superbly for the mad American dash for Success. (My father, who failed, died of bitter embarrassment. In fact and finally, however, he spanned the generations: having flopped in plastic novelties and music boxes, at death's door he had a hit in modern educational materials.)

The Jews were it, but not just the Jews: it has been reported on good authority that Mike Quill's brogue was well rehearsed and retained. Someone, I am certain, will one day write a whole book illustrating the overall point with an Italian accent. Why not? It's an American story. With the Jews, however, there was more new-identity eagerness and capacity: after all, we had Al Jolson, Hollywood, sociology, General Sarnoff, and a substantial hunk of middle-management advertising—and that's leaving out the Sephardim and the fancy Germans from before the Civil War. Who else from steerage can claim that good? It all began with Show-Biz-out-of-Seventh-Ave.; and went from there to the Intellectual sons. And so quick in some instances—and the fathers so preoccupied—that the sons had to concoct traditions the same way sexual knowledge was gained: on the street.

So, to begin with, I became a Jewish intellectual—even if I had to scramble some to get there.


Here is my big point, merely introduced by the foregoing story (and to be elaborated later on): We Americans are a communityless nation. Consumerism—grabbing all those goodies, with the media pistol-whipping us from the home to the shopping center and back again—is our basic national community (or our substitute for it). I have lived in this absurd community, as weakness dictated, with the status of an ungrateful visitor. I never made very much money, so never really got caught up in the buying game; nor was I much interested. My father was like that, too: he never spent on anything except grabbing dinner-checks to which he was not entitled, and my education. (I'm not certain, but for the latter I think he actually stole a little.) For him, money-making was mostly a box-score kept by the natives.

Instead of the usual Consumerism and money-making, my life has been based on a magnificent effort to confuse ideas and community, mind and body, conversation and life. The energy and talent I have devoted to this absurd project! My excuse—no, my explanation (or the beginning of it)—is that this dominating impulse had very deep roots. My life as I know it began with a certain problem of the body, coming to awareness at age three or four or five. I had an accident and lost an arm. This problem stimulated my mind ahead of time, or out of sequence, which led almost immediately, I think, to two different but simultaneous distortions of emphasis: 1) I sought too much outside my own physical being for compensatory jurisdiction (control in fact and by right) of my own body; and 2) I became both internally and externally imperialist as to the jurisdiction of the mind, my own and others. (Please excuse this manner of stating the matter: as one consequence of what I am trying to describe, many people told me I should become a lawyer and, helplessly, I finally did. So now I talk like one.)

These two distortions came together, and set the pattern of my life, when I was seven. This did not happen inevitably, out of some merely self-generated dynamic. Its occurrence had to do with my family circumstance (the obvious hot-house of hot ideas about community). My parents screamed at each other—frequently, devotedly, as if the realest thing of all was then happening. I got the message; but I couldn't accept it. Instead, I mobilized my distortions, or they were mobilized for me (at that age, the difference is not important), to recreate the basic family community by digging into the source of the difficulty with the tin shovel of my own reason and need. (My older sister regularly slammed the door of her private room: what she did inside, no one ever knew.) For the next five or six years, until the advent of puberty, I refereed all quarrels between my mother and father: significantly, these were also the worst years of the Depression, and the family was on the road part of the time. Anyway, I was the youngest and most devoted marriage counselor in the history of our nation. Shortly after I retired, battle-worn and utterly defeated, Mayor Edward J. Kelly himself personally pinned the Eagle Scout medal on my deserving chest—right there in the actual Chamber of Thieves of the City of Chicago.

Veterans of Waterloo and Gettysburg lived out their lives recounting the glories of that defeat. Not less have I. This experience of the inner battleground has served as my basic training in community-building; the compulsive use of intellect in that process (I have not lost an argument or won anything important in my family since the age of seven); and the various techniques of controlling the terror and other emotion consequent upon having to be where one is in a communityless place like America, with whatever one has to make do with.

What was I, what would I have been apart from these distortions, and their particular mobilization? I don't know (and imagining is no fun). I guess I was or would have been gorgeous and perfect, like my father and my son before they, too, became somewhat over-involved in wilful community-mending here in America.


When I gave up on marriage counseling—following one last grand confrontation, which my sister sabotaged—the consequences, or at least the rapidly succeeding events, were extreme and fateful and seem to me to presage all the warring elements of my life-long personality. The major happenings were these:

  1. The choo-choo train that was to carry me from home was on the tracks and rolling. Many times I looked back; but never for a true return. Any salvation of mine could thereafter be initiated only by further escape. All this was accomplished more by instinct than reflection (although I was already an intellectual, lacking only the confirming experience of reading my first book as one).
  2. As if from nowhere, I suddenly discovered a comic talent. I became an appreciated performer, a leader in schoolroom hijinks, and shortly abandoned actual (not imagined) fist-fighting forever. Previously, my greatest social success had been in fighting; thereafter, it was all to be in word-performance, mostly comic—and the verbal fist-fighting kind.
  3. I made an initial effort at praying, waited the better part of a week for results, and have never again spoken seriously to any but an imagined God.
  4. After long reflection, I made the toughest judgment of my life. I closed out the counseling file by deciding that my ferocious father—who, in the absence of calculated self-interest, could speak reasonably to no one but me—had to bear the major responsibility for the interminable screaming and unlivable emotionality of the home; that I didn't love my mother as much after the counseling years as I had when they began, and that her mind and soul were unforgivably less available than my father's; and finally that, however much it shamed me, I preferred my father as a person and a presence, for his charm, quickness, ferocity, tobacco smell, and even (much later) his intelligence—all in all, for his magnificence as a life-performer, even though he never took the immediate family seriously as an audience, and would come home only to sulk and glower. In short, whatever its provocations, I despised my mother's martyrdom.
  5. Also, to speak quickly, I embarked on a course of ritual self-containment by collecting, trading, and stealing stamps; got a dumb answer from a teacher, and never trusted one again; joined the Boy Scouts as if it were the Foreign Legion, and ended my career several years later as a decorated cashiered colonel; agreed with The Powers to become a lawyer on the single condition that I be allowed to survive the public school system without adopting the hideous notion that I in any way belonged there; and, of course, suffered the eternal earthquake of puberty—with its marvel of masturbation, and the overwhelming dream of redemption through love of a female stranger.

But mainly I stumbled into the public library. Or, more exactly, I finished the last of their Tom Swift books and, for the first time, stayed on to look at the other shelves. I haven't any genuine recollection why I chose two yellow books both with the title Boston. The reason could have been the redundancy, or a desire to travel; it couldn't, then, have been emerging snobbery. I do recollect, however, that the reading was very much different from what I expected, whatever that was. The two volumes were first a fictional and then a factual recounting of the Sacco-Vanzetti story by Upton Sinclair. So, at an appropriate moment, I had stumbled upon a perfect metaphor of injustice. (I must have been somewhere between eleven and thirteen at the time.)

Then I read other political books—Stuart Chase and George Soule's The Coming American Revolution; and I even took out a subscription to the New Republic. Until I finally escaped to the University of Illinois at seventeen, I argued New Deal economics with my father and his friends. What a wonderful way of bitching him: You're in business, you believe in justice, well then, etc., etc. After my initial effort in counseling, my second intellectual career was as a political street-fighter in the home. It served to fill time; but in the end was strangely as frustrating as my first effort. My father, however, did end up switching party allegiance and voting for Roosevelt, because of the Nazis; my New Deal arguments mostly helped him to justify that changeover. My mother always responded by affirming that she had always been a Southern Democrat. So, to fill my time with her, and for my own convenience, I taught her to listen to radio reports of baseball games. I succeeded marvelously (“I don't care what happened, they're my Cubbies!”) and she has ever since been addicted to radio baseball—even after television arrived.


People have called me “brilliant,” in order to dismiss me, since I was a boy. My mother created the pattern. Mostly, she wanted me to be somebody else; so did a lot of other people important in my life. It has taken me a lifetime of intellectuality to get the best of all of them by becoming truly me. But did I? They made me an intellectual, and I don't really like it.

What they did was to con me into taking on the toughest jobs at the lowest pay. In basic American terms, they threw me out of Boston and told me to go make another settlement in Ohio, because I was so brilliant and unwelcome. But, it must be admitted, all basic American effort is frontier effort of this kind. And, increasingly during my lifetime certainly, the American frontier is a mental and spiritual one.

The reason I don't much care for the life and work that was thus “chosen” for me—being an intellectual—is simply that it is too strenuously lonely on this frontier. The United States is a very lonely place in any event. Given our “thin” communal beginnings, and the generational transfer of these inadequate “traditions” occurring at a nearly unbearable pace, we are all excessively self-created: so many Americans live their lives as if they were mostly writing a novel about it. So it seems an untoward exaggeration of this dangerous national condition that one's own circumstance be endlessly elaborated in image and idea, as a matter of daily work. In America perhaps no one should engage in thinking as a full-time occupation. Thinking in general terms, I mean: the usual conniving and brokerage and other immediately instrumental thought ought, if anything, to be multiplied. It constitutes the essential twine and glue that hold our flimsy social forms together, and is much to be preferred to the numerous revivalist ideologies and enthusiasms and other bursts of fashion that typically compete with our despicable practicality in this national adhesive function.

Thick communal beginnings and a tight generational passage are the required conditions of happy intellectuality. Along with most Americans, I can only imagine these. Even a rich world of symbol-reference, in the absence of such conditions, is inadequate: no language or other art-form can make up for the absence. But the burden to do so nevertheless has fallen traditionally upon the communicator; and the modern attempt of the artist to make his language account for the absent conditions is killing. It is only the devilish temptation to satisfy oneself with an artificially trained elite audience that has kept us in business at all during the endless decades since the 18th century introduced our modern complexity—and traduced the ultimate problem of human communication.

Hence the modern power of critics, who create audiences for favored communicators. What Mencken alone did for Dreiser in establishing the latter's reputation, teams of scholars were later recruited to accomplish for Eliot, Joyce, Pound, etc. Out of my own historical moment, I remember a writer who had been so completely prepared for by highbrow critics that the reading was quite superfluous: she wrote and wrote and rewrote a silly butch novel that, if it had not derived from Flaubert and had not been sentimentally ugly throughout, would have been studied by scholars only. In the 1940's, we were properly prepared as an audience, so we read it avidly. This is not a period of great expression: it is a period of exceptionally shrewd workmanship—and occasional genius-thrusts (e.g., Norman Mailer) in the transcendent business of discovering or creating audiences.

Without tradition or common experience, there is no language. That is the awful truth too long ignored. There is no final magic in words. The occasional zoom is in meaning unexpectedly come alive—and that has reference to commonality of experience, condition, fantasy, identification: reference, newly recognized. Words are just words: they are the instruments of meaning, not the thing itself. Also with other symbols—and paint, and sound, and so on. There is a forgotten reality of the relation between artist and audience that has now been fudged-over with high-class conversation for nearly two centuries. Enough. Unless we get back in touch with the reality of communicator/audience, the entire intellectual endeavor is in basic jeopardy. We could end up talking nonsense to each other, in highly fashionable terms.


A pause is indicated here, to connect up some of the strands that have been and will be—and can only be—adumbrated in this brief essay about my experience of having been an intellectual in this eccentric country during the recent very busy and noisy quarter-century. I choose the theme of “community” as primary because, despite its difficulty, it is. Primary for understanding this country, modern life, and the potentials of intellectuals in relation thereto. Please note the similarity of root—“community” and “communication.” Community is assumed for purposes of language. This assumption is no longer justified—not for all language, not for any particular meaning to be conveyed by language. Please note, also, the current incredible use of the word “meaningful”—revoltingly recurrent in the usage of our people, all the way from President to recently reformed drop-outs. One says “meaningful” when one does not know or does not dare to say what one means—as in, “meaningful program for the cities,” etc. So this non-word has now become one of the more meaningful ones in our current language: because of the lack of tradition and other commonality of experience.


Perhaps the biggest burden in being an intellectual is that you are called upon to direct and delimit your own thoughts—to keep them from running away with you—without enough help from the outside. Some measure of thought-control of this kind is of course essential to existence: the utterly examined life is un-livable. But the presumption of high-flown intellectuality is that we all think fully and freely about everything and anything; our thought is also supposed to be intensely individualistic—hardly even borrowed at all. The fancy working-out of these presumptions provides the key to how it was and is to be an intellectual in this country, where there is no given community to save us from the infinitude of our own potential absurdity.

If I said that all reasonably successful intellectuals detest the American circumstance, neglecting few opportunities to revile it, while all reasonably successful businessmen adore and constantly celebrate it, I would certainly be overstating the matter. But by how much? Think of confirming examples in your acquaintance: each, you will note, is lying. The business of celebration is strained and unbelievable; and the intellectual's catalogue of detestation not only is monotonous, but also omits mention of considerable gratification (much of it even machine-fed).

Why these heady distortions?

I think we are simply confronted with two different forms of American thought-control—and no American life without one or another. Style is of the essence. That of the businessman derives from boosterism (a special form of “nationalism” invented for the non-nation)—the religious belief in rising land-values, along with other imperatives of salesmanship; and the proper care and feeding of profit-and-loss statements. I have always been fascinated by the fact that business borrowed the language of psychology in naming economic conditions—most notably in calling an economic downturn a “depression,” and terming the insistence on immediate payment in gold a “panic” (not to mention a windfall as “a killing”). But the decisive psychological word in business has always been “confidence”—a thought-control category clear and simple. A businessman/salesman has confidence when he cons himself into the rosy view, that is, strictly limits his thought to the perspective of clearing inventory at the named price.

So also the intellectual, except that his inventory is ideational, of course; and he never really gets around to naming his price. He ought to, but he just doesn't. The reason, I think, is that the intellectual is our current frontiersman—the new frontier of American endeavor being spiritual Nightmare and no longer materialistic Dream. And frontier pricing—of either variety—partakes more greedily of far-horizon perspective (being, by definition, the measure of exchange in a not-yet-organized market). The world of ideas is underdeveloped, much less well-organized than that of the distribution of goods; and its importance only recently recognized.

To be an intellectual nowadays is not at all what it used to be: today, it involves one in a form of class struggle. Intellectuality is now an economic fact, in addition to (instead of?) whatever else it used to be. College degrees are important pieces of paper—some even as valuable as 1,000 shares of IBM, maybe (with the advantage over the latter that they are inalienable; you can't lose them as you can lose other “property,” through bad judgment or lousy luck or excessive daring). But the newly affluent intellectual in America, trading upon his academic qualification and organizational position, has only now reached a stage of development comparable to the loud grabbiness of businessmen in the post-Civil War period; next, I fear, comes the pious rapacity of the 20's.


In my quarter-century view, the intellectual is now the purest expression and profoundest victim of “Americanism”—if the term is properly conceived as the ideology of the “thin” society abjectly dependent, for lack of anything more substantial, on moralistic symbols. So, just as those earlier foreigners, rushing blindly off the boat to embrace their own frontier infinity, readily became the most fully realized victims of capitalist metaphysics, our intellectuals are “doing their own thing” in just about the same American way as their forebears.

The quintessential Americanism of the New Class intellectual is identified by his tropistic negativism—an inverted boosterism derived from Good Guy/Bad Guy moralism. This folk material taken from frontier Protestantism has now, moreover, been made widely available on network television. Just as the rosy view can be a terrible tyranny, so also this Hey-another-boil! outlook. But it is a drag to have to detest everything irrespective of race, creed, or color. Especially as one becomes aware that the underlying point of this greedy general disparagement is that the New Class is not yet in control of the country: they are knocking the other guy's real estate, and will boost it better than he did—be assured—once it is theirs. (So many New Class intellectuals, after all, earn their livings in advertising and related booster-industries.)

To be short about it, certified conformity as to opinion and language is regularly chosen by intellectuals as the favored means of community-building. The factual America, now, is a mess of job-oriented consumers—who hardly know what they are doing, much less remember where they came from—enjoying merely spatial contiguity. So little of substance outside the media (and other similarity of life based on product-use), and the job (and other shared formative experiences like college, the army, the gang) is given to us—that all of it can be classed as debris more or less useful in community-creation. The only American community we really believe in and accept is that of The Successful. But this belief works only for those who persist in seeing themselves as failures. For the annointed ones, this Believed Community is a grisly parody of the real, friendly thing.

The runaway trend at the moment—especially among intellectuals, but not only them—is community according to principle, especially by virtue of political principle. This kind of sloganeering effort at community is so utterly American—deriving so obviously from the slogan-culture of media advertising—that the blatant anti-Americanism of those leading the parade seems weirdly similar to Jewish or other ethnic self-hatred. It is almost as if we had decided that the only way to stick together was to enforce small-town or ethnic conformism on a national scale—naturally using the only natural materials available, namely, simple moralistic ideas. E.g.: The best educated people in the United States were not able to disavow the Vietnam war policy without attacking historical blood-letting in general. A technological advance over lignite called “napalm” (lignite was widely used in World War II, and was much more destructive even than the atom bomb as used in that war), providing for limited rather than uncontrolled burning, became the ferociously moral symbol for the resistance to the war itself, the policy leading to it, and the refusal to discuss any other discussable issue conceivably related thereto. This wilful insistence on the horror of one means of horror out of scores of possible ones, was exquisitely American in forcing a single aspect of technology to represent infinite spirit.

But this kind of coercive equality, among individuals ostensibly striving for uniqueness and excellence, is disastrous: indeed, an absolute contradiction in terms. Intellectuals absolutely require community not only allowing for, but based on, difference and variety; yet they are impelled to sustain their fragile community by ideational conformity—coerced similarity of opinion.

From the outside, intellectuals seem to be freer than other groups—exacty because they are pointedly disengaged from those very groups observing them. But from the inside, exactly the same freedoms can be tyrannous. For example, at Village parties in the past there was always one intellectual girl escorted by a businessman she might have to marry to support her artistic endeavors. The poor bastard never had anybody to talk to, except me. Others would come over only to favor him with a few moments of benign contempt. I, of course, suffered demerits for low taste in thus revealing my interest in money-making and job-holding (which for me have always been exotic objects of study).

To base community on conformity of consciousness is a very dangerous ploy, as the history of any orthodoxy will attest. If indulged (it will be: it is irresistible to intellectuals whose existence is devoted to the content of minds), its extreme daring should be acknowledged, and the whole endeavor subjected to continuous criticism of a sharply self-conscious kind. Since we are nearly communityless, it may be that we must be daring in just this way. But in this dangerous effort to create community even with slogans and ideological prescriptions and other mood-medicine, we should retain perspective. Mine is this: Community is the home the body finds. The mind does not, deeply, need a home (except to justify its own limitations, which should instead be acknowledged without justification). That is, the mind does not need a home if the body has one. If it does not, then inevitably the mind is conscripted to provide a make-believe one. My point is that this inevitable conscription must be submitted to with cunning, candor, and contempt—toward self and others. (One way or another, the body's home will certainly give the mind much to think about.)

I make no brief here for the non-intellectual who, to ensure his own community, is able and willing to dispense with mind altogether. He merely finds, too late, that it is indispensable; and that his body, certainly as it ages, is equally un-homed with all the other bodies—and with no adequate mind left as guide through that special purgatory.


An intellectual is someone who emphasizes and exaggerates intellect and ideas—for whatever reason, and with whatever result, and wherever in his life.

Any such emphasis and exaggeration will consequentially create difficulties in any of the many non-intellectual areas of the intellectual's existence. This is the lock of the problem of intellectuality: the key is a fancy piece of metal called body/mind dualism. Or, more simply (I do not intend a technical philosophical argument), the great contradiction between idea and emotion.

In my generation, we believed in some kind of higher sexuality to preserve the “natural” animal against aging existence. The youth today, with no memories uncorrupted by television, believe only in immediate physical movement—whether or not sexual, even as the idiot Pepsi Generation—or the farthest fantasies of such physicalism, when the actual thing is impossible: i.e., violence. The violence of affluent radicals (the spearhead of what we are talking about) is not traditional violence, however: it is immediate physical action merely accompanied by fantasies of violence—done by or to be done upon them—and this is the source of the new politics of escalated disruption (which derives imitatively as well from more ominous theories of the modern psychology of escalation).

It is this existential difference in body knowledge and direction that creates and constitutes the now-notorious Generation Gap. This is what it means, specifically, to say that they are younger: they believe in their immediate possibilities of action, rather than our ideas of possible action now-and-later. We need their action, they need our ideas. But the lines of communication are down. So, age-old issues in the life of awareness now center on this particular body difference. Apposite categories like romanticism/classicism, radical/conservative, content/form, new/old were always, at bottom, various ways of stating one's personal perspective on the Grand Problem of conflicted emotion and intellect. Now these, too, are conscripted to war upon or make peace with this great generational thing.

We can see farther than we can feel. Also, with age, the emphasis naturally and inevitably shifts from feeling to seeing. All men die; good ideas, never. The body, and whatever relies upon the body, must lose. But not ahead of time; and no loss to dying ideas is justified. That is the ideal. D. H. Lawrence, our last great romantic Christian, could not accept this fact. He aged badly; luckily, he died young. And he hated Jews for their prior sense of age. He knew, and was willing to learn, nothing about age. I say that is as foolish as never having been young. All men are both—except those who are more symbol than man, like a Kennedy brother or a G. B. Shaw. (The farthest importance of the Kennedys is that they represent the early demise of eternal youth, like Keats.)

Now that I feel old, I believe in the rights of age. And I speak for them. And I fight for space of my own on this basis, just as I did when I was different kinds of kid. So to the youth: If you are an age autocrat, I am your enemy. You want to make a deal? Good enough. But I have bad news for you: You are not in my class when it comes to deal-making knowledge. Sorry, I'm on top of that: I've been around longer.

We live by seeing and feeling: by being both young and old. But the need for animal/human connection, for modes of feeling, is deeper—deep enough to drown our best-aged ideas: nearly lemming-like. This conflict is not to be resolved (nor are any great ones). It is to be endured and expressed, at higher and higher levels; and—eventually and hopefully—with growing mutual appreciation of either generation's good work well-done. The battle between youth and age is a misdirected war against death, which neither can win. The war against death can be “won” only by living-together.1


I was in my own youth a Lawrencian—sex was everything to me, to whom everything was intellectual. Physical embrace was the sacrament of my existence, which was (with ultimate will) intellectual. It was a very strenuous and dangerous form of life. Please understand me: I was not playing a chaser's game—I needed those girls. And not as an end, but as a means.

I can state this clearly: I always wanted conversation with women, primarily with women; and then to bed. Since women always take conversation as a form of weakness on the man's part—and, this weakness coining from a “him,” therefore status on their part—I was early in life called upon, painfully, to interrupt my own most desired conversation with women in a brutal manner, in order to get laid at all. (It was so easy for me to talk myself out of initial good luck.) This was then held against me as exhibiting excessive carnal appetite and untoward lack of interest in Them-As-People. Apparently there are a few women who like both activities equally, and need misuse neither; and I just never met them. That is my idea of really lousy luck.

It seems an irresistible conclusion that, for intellectual men, the practical “resolution” of body/ mind dualism—an essential for continued fruitful existence as an intellectual—is in the utterly historical keeping of willing women (that's a double entendre). To have to have something like a real conversation before you can safely get an erection is a spiritual tyranny beyond description, and vice versa. If you are serious about both. It is set up here, in the United States, that to want either is to lack seriousness about the other. Hetero-sexuality will not survive this challenge. (Sometimes I worry about conversation itself.) There will be homosexuals and talkers here like England only had nightmares about. Unless some shrewd women decide to put an end to the awful drift by encouraging an easy flow, back and forth, between carnal and verbal conversation.


Let's discuss intellectual method. Whether or not, when, and the way in which you get laid, if you are an intellectual, is frightfully important: but how you think—painful as it is to say this—is even more so.

To be succinct, any way at all that one can manage to bring off the mutual interpenetration of ideas and experience is good intellectual method. We should be willing to pay high prices for this, even including distortions of experience and inadequate scholarship. Personally, I have always preferred to talk about abstract ideas with businessmen and about money with highbrow intellectuals. But I am extreme. (I am told that in France they have a category for me—primitif. I wish to hell they had it here: I think we need it more.) I didn't start out in life intending any such daring perverseness, I can assure you. I read footnotes so long and so devotedly that to this day I have to put my hand over my eyes to interrupt operation of the tropism. But it's not so much of a problem because I don't read so much any more. (Twenty-five years ago, however, I dropped out of the University of Chicago because attendance there was interfering with my studies.) I have ended up with this rather unlivable method for simple but compelling reasons: I can't stop thinking speculatively and in general, or else I would have submerged myself in American experience by becoming a businessman long ago; and I cannot abide the standard graduate student game of accumulating books-read, and using ideas and other culture mostly for adornment of self and disparagement of others. I believe in using big critical notions to analyze one's own nest and neighborhood.

There was a very nice professor of sociology at the University of Virginia, where I happened to be stopping in 1941. He offered to take care of me if and while I became a sociologist (which I rather wanted, then). To this day, I do not know why I went to Jefferson's university in the first place or, in the second, did not accept the professor's kind offer. He said I wouldn't have to bother with classes, or pay any more money for the privilege of not going to them. That was one of the best offers I ever had from anyone. Naturally, I am compelled to speculate why I was merely complimented, but not really interested. I couldn't, then, merely have been prescient about the future of sociology: my instinct must have run more deeply. I think I knew that I needed the opportunity of non-definition. That was a big thing in my day: not having a career or much of a job, as the Depression ended, was a marvelous way of getting down to growing up.

I am now forty-five, still non-defined—that is, defined by nothing more exact than the concatenation of my particular events. And I have had so many opportunities to come out otherwise! Not that I haven't tried. Once I tried very hard, and became a fancy lawyer. At the height of my conformist endeavor, I worked on Madison Avenue for an elite firm. I used to have the strongest sensation—walking firmly from the subway to the office—that the past was all gone and the future was all there, and I qualified in that hurrying crowd. It was one of the richest experiences of my life, the only time I really felt I belonged to anything. (I was submerged in American experience, not then merely an intellectual.) It was damn good fun while it lasted. But I couldn't figure out what to do with the money I was making; inadvertently I allowed it to accumulate in the bank; in 1958 the federal government generously added thirteen weeks to the state's twenty-six weeks of unemployment compensation; and my seal of acceptance was doomed. A year without working—financed on my own!


My extended vacation started out deliciously. I would get up in the morning, look out the window at everyone going to work, and get back in bed. Then I filed everything in sight. Then I had a fight with my girlfriend. Then I began to revise and retype my poetry (a deadly sign, I have since discovered); why not write a book review or two; some notes on a few essays I might get around to after I retired on social security and other winnings; and I was off again, all unknowingly, on my one and only Everything-and-Nothing career. Today, ten years later, I sit alone in a lower-middle-class dump, as it ever was, still trying to get myself organized by the strenuous use of language. My father's son.2

If I had possessed the good sense to accept the kind professor's offer at the University of Virginia, I would have become a scholar, reading endlessly in libraries. When history finally caught up with me after sputnik, I would have experienced money, status, and the same delicious sensations I tasted briefly on Madison Avenue. Scholars live good now: you don't have to go out into the brothels of lawyering anymore. But—and I say this in all seriousness—so what? Traditional academic scholarship is no longer an adequate way of conducting man's primary intellectual business.

For one thing, the scholarly mode is accumulative, and in no hurry to get back into the flux of life. For another, it assumes that the truly useful books have already been written and need only to be discovered, read, and understood. And it confuses data and quotation collection with important ideas. It is possible to repeat every idea Freud had without having one of your own. Summarizing Freud and making his thought more readily available than he did, may well be significant work. But it must not be misunderstood as the most central intellectual work (that it has often been in the past). Take the characteristic yes-I-read-it-carefully function away from scholarship, and you will have some difficulty defining (and glorifying) what remains.

There are now so many books, and so much data, and so many educated people—too many, for the present level of organization. It is impossible to grasp it all. It is so horribly misorganized; that is, not genuinely available for use in true work or real living.


But I don't want to persist in belaboring the greatly reduced significance of traditional scholarship. The tragic truth is that there are no adequate intellectual traditions for our time—no clearly effective and comprehensive modes of finding and using ideas, and the presentation of ideas, and relating this basic intellectual work to feasible action: what John Dewey called “solving problems.” The closest approach to such a modality would be that of the White House staff, if the President is interested; or all the training-and-staff of a wealthy man like a Kennedy or a Rockefeller, especially if that man is interested in being President. After these, we have some pretty good institute and faculty-department and high-power magazine arrangements. Division of labor has arrived on the intellectual scene3—displacing the grandiose one-man scholarship of the past—and very few practicing intellectuals are ready to acknowledge, much less deal imaginatively with, the fact. In short, we were trained in handicraft and are now called upon to manage the Chevrolet Division of General Motors.

In the meantime, fashion and mere style have replaced weightier traditions and modes of procedure: it is a revolting period for the old-timers. One only hopes that a new tradition is being born, in that messy way most births occur.

Perhaps the single most certain source of the modern intellectual “method” (if there is any) is literary criticism—the analysis of language-idea-image, all in close combination, all as standing for some kind of current essence of life itself. So many people started out as literary critics. For one thing, book reviews are the Catskills of literary journalism. For another, we still hankered after the great catharsis of One Big Novel, even after that impulse to tell one perfect story of the times had been transformed into the shrewd revivalism of psychoanalysis—everyone telling his own imperfect story. Like so many others, I started out writing book reviews and autobiographical fiction. But with my lawyer/accountant's mind, I soon became bogged down in self-accusatory detail—from which I have never recovered. So I began to write about other people and other things, somewhat novelistically. There is just too much fiction in life for us to write novels—or try to see life without novelistic understanding.

As to method, intellectuality has become groupish, institutionally activist, devoted to the present although slanted toward the future, and all-in-all quite different from the scholarly mode of long ago when a few people learned Greek and Latin in order to read, during a leisured lifetime, all of the really important books.


The literary intellectual I am describing and became is only the most extreme (and extremely self-conscious) example of the metropolitan professional: the biting edge of the New Class. He is by no means the king-pin of New Class position. More like a historian to an audience actively interested in everything but history. Slowly, however, the New Class (despite its greedy devotion to the future) is discovering that what-is-to-come is equally as much a creation of history as the let's-forget-it past—and not so easily overcome by the usual arbitrary effort of will.

This New Class—any new class—is abjectly dependent upon history for its models and for all the other stray materials out of which the newness of the future is constructed. The literary intellectual has a special part to play in the New Class drama of institutionalizing intellect—not in the old manner of putting it away in an institution, but in the new mode of giving it institutional power with which to intervene in historical process. Some intellectuals must provide disinterested analysis in the service of class interest.

The question of New Class style is critical. Here it may be worthwhile to compare the intellectual's pursuit of purity when I was young, and today. At twenty-one, I possessed the sappiest super-ego ever. I was so pure that I took a job in a factory just to be near the Working Class (one week) and refused to see a very kind and helpful friend because he supported the war (several months). Mostly we pursued doctrinal purity—Marxist, Freudian, or whatever—while emotionally we encouraged each other to anguish out loud. We suffered competitively in identifying with the victims and heroes of Spain, the Soviet purges, the Nazi camps, the Warsaw fighters, the French Resistance, and all the mounds of corpses and the millions of DP's.

The New Youth seem more simpleminded to me—more convinced in their anti-intellectualism even than the middlebrow Stalinoids of my day—and absurdly devoted to primitive moral categories (which facilitate activism). Most of all, I don't see them yearning. We were soreheads, too; but filled with ambition and yearning. How are the new kids going to make it without that?

Their main purpose, apparently, is to rock the boat. Within limits, I welcome this (but I cannot find it appealing—maybe for reasons of taste, perhaps because my own impulse to do so is much depleted). If this activity startles some captain somewhere to get with it—which would certainly include foreclosing any further rocking of the boat—well and good. But Luddite rebellion, even if useful, is an act of helplessness. These kids, however, horrify me mostly for two factors (and many others in my generation fairly well disposed toward them): 1) Their mindless, wilful moralism; and 2) their foolish misunderstanding of the reasons for the absence of severe coercion in the society generally and (as yet) against them specifically, which makes their disruptionist tactics feasible. So often—from the sit-ins on—they have used as-if power just as if it were real power. They should be honored for their daring and inventiveness, and then treated as the political infants they are by serious men who take politics as something more than testing the limits of authority. (Mayor Daley is not the only vicious father in our midst.)


Whatever finally comes of the recent inter-generational shock of misrecognition—and whatever much or little is achieved in starting up the conversation with our sons once more on some more feasible and better basis—two things are very clear to me: 1) However we did it, we created them; and 2) apologetic pandering on our part will only compound the original (and still unknown) felony. Fatherhood is tragic, particularly ours. Especially in America.

For here, it is not merely our inadequate creation of the new technological order—and our even more inept, nearly filiocidal directions to our sons for living in it—but also because fatherhood never got a very firm footing on these shores. And now, confronted with an established matriarchy affecting everything except big-organization hierarchy, it is more badly situated than ever before.

The current generational passage is not the first seriously difficult one in this country's history; it is only the most surprising one. (We thought that with affluence everything would be hunky-dory.) The passage from immigrant father to first-generation son—decade after decade for the better part of a hundred years—has always been portrayed as one of tragic fulfillment, at best (the son's growth upended the father spiritually as well as biologically). I can personally speak for the immense frustration of a second-generation intellectual son succeeding a first-generation businessman father. And then there is the legendary drama of the farm boy who survives the merciless exploitation of dirt-farm life to the physical maturity of late adolescence, bestows a farewell beating on his father, and is never heard from again; or the more ordinary rural-urban transition getting tangled up in the generational succession. No, this is not the first time; by no means.

Still, the Atlantic voyage-or the train ride from an Iowa cornfield to Chicago—was never so far as that from the Depression to the postwar world (no matter where you started, so long as you ended up in a suburb). The transformation has been astounding. Go back home sometime and take a look—a real look. Most of the buildings are gone, almost all of the homes have been gutted—and then refurbished with the contemporary paraphernalia of Consumerism. Most striking of all, this is a national fact. North, South, East, and West, inside the home and on the street—all the same. The fact of the matter is that several hundred national corporations have remade this nation physically since the war, and on standard patterns. With their advertising culture, especially as purveyed through street signs and television, they have gone far to remake us spiritually as well. Imagine a human being who never knew anything but this perfected order of life; imagine your son.


Technology does not change society; it destroys it. We didn't know this; we were determined to ignore it so as to enjoy our affluence; and we had our memories to help us distort unwelcome perception. None of this suffices for the youth as it did for us. Indeed, they take our “show” of a way-of-life as a big put-on. Leslie Farber suggests that they have seen the inner despair we were trying to hide even from ourselves—certainly from our sons. So the con game is over: we played hard, but we lost for lack of confidence. (If only the youth were real winners, and possessed the amount of confidence that, finally, we lacked!) We built a magnificent technological order—and strained ourselves ultimately to make believe it was also a society. The youth inherited the unbearable strain along with the new wealth.

We should have challenged them more with the work ahead of them, that of reconstituting a destroyed social order. Probably the Spock-fed women wouldn't let us; perhaps we didn't dare. Now they are going about just this job—but without most of what we could have given them in preparation. And from the reservoir of fatherly despair, they draw much reason for destructiveness. Moreover, they presume to imagine that we destroyed a full, rich society actually worth preserving.

They are groupish, that's the main thing. There is not one old-fashioned headstrong individualist in the whole lot. In order to create some kind of community for themselves, the hippies are willing to get stoned and stay stoned. Just so they can cohabit, even as somnambules. What an incredible price to pay! (And what a lesson for us that they pay it.) This hunger for community—the basic human/animal connection—that we neglected to build into our shiny new world of rationalized home-and-office life, this need is now unleashed upon our barren productivity. We must make room for it; it is here to stay. The building of community—that connection for the sake of connection—is a fundamental item on the order of the day, for all of us. No livability, no health, no relief from wilful productivity—nor from the malaise of affluence which is its real result—without new beginnings in community-making. That is the lesson the New Youth are teaching us.

I cannot abide their groupishness—I am an old-fashioned headstrong individualist, I am sorry to say—but I have no doubt whatsoever that, as for basic social agenda, they are right in that and I am wrong. So I will Moses it along, only offering, in my cantankerous way, special observations on the putative nature of their Promised Land—and which step first, which step second, if we really do expect ever to get out of this goddamn desert.

I am even willing to admit that the reason I cannot abide their groupishness is that I am a sorehead. I am still sore, thirty years later, about what happened and what didn't happen to me when I went to Senn High School in Chicago.

Let me explain myself to the youth: There used to be a thing, long ago, called “the rumble seat.” In red leather, with long blonde hair flying out of one side of it, zipping along at thirty-five or even forty miles an hour, it was one of the most gorgeous bits of social landscape ever invented. Actually to be seen in one was the apex of the social order of high school. Much desired, seldom achieved: I was a social flop. An entire evening could be turned wistful if I happened to see a rumble seat sweep by . . . and on into the fading perspective of a twilight street. (Goddamn them!)


Experiencing the social system of high school turned out to be an eternal shock to my spirit. Nothing I had known was any preparation for this marvelous mystery of the wider world: it was community beyond family and gang. That's the size of the shock it was. The rumble-seat society seemed all so gorgeous and distant: a superordinate fact of life. The truth, now I know, is that it was the most intimate fantasy, more in me (much more) than out there. If only that had made it less important! But no, this was—unmistakably and once-and-for-all—the transcendent order of existence. Everything led into the wider world: each thought, and every hunger, only another rung on the ladder to intimacy with that infinity—just a half a block away. I have not solved this problem; nor have I ever betrayed it. (I may never find out which side my bread is buttered on; but I know what buttered bread is.) Although subject to the widest interpretation, this problem would never change; and it has not. The inner life of the wider world is where Americans must live. One becomes an American simply by discovering this; for me it is a dashing rumble seat, with long blonde hair flying out of one side of it.

This high-school thing was particularly shocking because I thought I had already discovered the truth about Social Life. At the end of grade school, with puberty immediate and graduation imminent, all of a sudden there were kissing parties one after another, week after week. This posed some problems, but nothing so difficult as touch football; and by the time graduation occurred, I felt expert enough to get by forever. During the long summer before entering high school, I went to Boy Scout camp for a couple of weeks, was elected to the Order of the Arrow, got a Bird Study merit badge and tied the Carrick bend (thus assuring I would become an Eagle Scout), and even saw my way to making Senior Patrol Leader. Everything was going well.

What a delusion! There were 4,000 students in that high school, hardly one of whom would admit that he had been a Boy Scout. It was scramble, scramble, scramble—not just to win the game but, even more, to discover the rules. You had to learn to dance, get an athletic letter, walk up to pretty girls and ask them for a date, pass but not excel in classwork, and join a clique. Join a clique! I couldn't even find one. And for four years, month after month, getting more and more hard-up.

I became a socialist because the bourgeoisie invented American adolescence in order to make us all miserable enough to work for them. It was all quite clear. Still, being a socialist—while it felt good on occasion—didn't really solve anything. The real problem was how to get into a rumble seat and stop being so hard-up.


Mostly, I made do with gangs and pals. Gangs are the best—the richest American mode of community—especially gangs with a purpose, like some literary or political or university ones I have known: that is, even after the first street gang of adolescence, devoted to sex and prowess. But I always felt like a hanger-on, and could never with certainty discover the center of the gang. This was especially the fact when the gang turned out to be, or threatened to become, a clique genuinely connected with the wider world—the kind I could never discover in high school.

My early experience of Social Life just before high school, when I thought I had found the handle, was—I now see—nothing but an extension of the street gang to include some girls. Not yet, truly, the wider world. But still I know that the gang, when it retains the animal virtues of the first street gang while rising to the social connection of the later clique, is the one most creative form of community in America (and, I imagine, places like it, if there are any). But this realest gang of my dreams must account for income, sex, and purpose—all necessary support and direction. This is the Apostolic Gang, which can both change the world and fulfil the individual. Here is where I sign on with the New Youth—to the extent that this is their interest—even though I can never belong. And the failure of the apostolic gangs of my youth . . . well, that might have been my fault. Or we might have been ahead of our times, which were still devoted to lower-middle-class ambition.

Here, we mostly discover or create gangs, or exchange one for another: there is, as yet, no wider world. Not out there in America. But in my generation, no one knew this—deeply enough, or in time. We kept trying all the closed-up avenues. The new kids know better: they are devoted, in their seriousness, solely to experimenting with Apostolic Gangs—even the Squares, who concentrate their search throughout the length of bureaucratic corridors.


1 Unfortunately, this is also true of the still unresolved war between the sexes.

2 Whenever one of his millionairing projects flopped, he would go nervous all over, and stay that way until his one-shot-item gun was reloaded. His phrase for this state of non-being was perfect; he would later say that he had had “a breakdown standing up.” Me, too. I wouldn't know what to do with a normal life if it walked up to me on the street and begged me to go home with it. No more than him. (My mother did not with him and will not with me find such reflections in the slightest amusing.)

3 Quite different from merely dividing the labor of tending the Flame of Truth, long practiced by academic departments, in which the product remains as divided as the labor that produced it: inadequate assembly, where any one fact/ truth is equal to any other. There is literally no department in a university devoted to using or integrating the selected best of what the other departments produce: science dismissed theology—a previous integrative department—and philosophy, another one, decided to become technical.

About the Author

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.