An interview with the New Republic's legendary literary editorby Malcolm Thorndike Nicholson / June 12, 2013 / Leave a comment
A brief survey of today’s public intellectuals reveals their dispiritingly narrow range. They tend to stay safely within the boundaries of their discipline. Leon Wieseltier is not this sort of intellectual. Born in Brooklyn and educated at Columbia, Oxford and Harvard, Wieseltier garnered fame in the 1980s for being a sort of liberal wunderkind; a protégé of Isaiah Berlin savvy in contemporary politics. He has been the literary editor at the New Republic for over three decades, seeing figures like Andrew Sullivan, James Wood and Dale Peck come and go, and he is a vocal proponent of the magazine’s brand of pragmatic, hawkish liberalism.
Wieseltier’s domain, the second half of the New Republic contains reviews and essays. It has been described by New York magazine’s Carl Swanson as “a sort of archipelago of learnedness… haunted by its own testy thoroughgoing-ness, dense with type and argument, and deliberately off-putting.” Wieseltier writes the “Washington Diary” column at the back of each issue, and is the author of Kaddish, a memoir and study of the Jewish mourning prayer.
You were recently honoured with the Dan David Prize for being a “foremost writer and thinker who confronts and engages with the central issues of our times, setting the standard for serious cultural discussion in the United States.”
That’s what they say.
You also received a large amount of money. Do you intend to do anything with it?
One thing I certainly won’t do is use it to escape from public life or being a public intellectual. But other than that I don’t really know. Live more comfortably? I have a son who is going to be going to college eventually.
Will you use some of it to work on another book?
I’ve been working on a book about Messianism for some time now.
So what do you think are some of these “central issues of our times”?
I think I’d back up for a moment and say that a kind of preliminary issue is the question of the role of ideas in our public debates and in our society. We have become a technologically addled society that is obsessed less with the question of whether something is…