How eight mid-century American writers tried to shape the cultureby Jonathan Derbyshire / May 29, 2015 / Leave a comment
In 1975, Saul Bellow published an essay entitled “Starting Out in Chicago”. His subject was the distance between the “din of politics,” the sheer amount of “noise” generated by the culture, and the “quiet zone” of contemplation that, he believed, was the condition of genuine thought. “The enemy,” Bellow wrote, “is noise. By noise I mean not simply the noise of technology, the noise of money or advertising and promotion, the noise of the media, the noise of miseducation, but the terrible excitement and distraction generated by the crises of modern life… The sounds of the public sphere, the din of politics, the turbulence and agitation that set in about 1914 and have now reached an intolerable volume.”
In his new book “Moral Agents”, the critic Edward Mendelson argues that the Olympian confidence of these pronouncements on the “crises of modern life” is entirely characteristic of the public utterances of a group of eight writers, Bellow included, active in the United States in the middle of the last century. Mendelson examines the careers of “novelists, poets, and critics, who, in addition to practising their craft, seized for themselves the power and authority to shape literary culture.” According to Mendelson, Bellow, Lionel Trilling, Dwight Macdonald, Alfred Kazin, William Maxwell, Norman Mailer, WH Auden and Frank O’Hara all felt that they were in possession of gifts that made them “morally superior,” qualified, indeed “obliged,” to “lead others.”
Last week, I spoke to Mendelson on the phone from New York, where he occupies a chair in the Humanities at Columbia University named after one of his subjects, Lionel Trilling. I began by asking him if he thought the term “public intellectual,” so common today, quite captures the breadth and depth, the sheer seriousness, of these writers’ engagement in public life.
EM: I want to start by being a bit difficult and to say that definitions always falsify. My whole intellectual life depends on putting a label on things until I understand them well enough to take the labels off. I’m not sure I want to put a name or a general label on these people. They were writers who had public influence. And “public intellectual,” as you say, is a contemporary term. It got named as soon as it started disappearing.
JD: The habit of…