‘That brief window in the 1950s’
The humanities have been looking a little haggard lately. The UK recently saw government-mandated cuts to university programs; American universities have experienced more of a war of attrition, a steady drainage of students and dollars. The humanities’ abiding self-defense—that art and literature defend values that the free market fails to support—may persuade in and of itself, but the academy has been little inclined to communicate those values in language and teaching that would secure their transfer to a new generation of students. As William Deresiewicz concluded in a review for The Nation on the current barrage of books on higher education, “The liberal arts, as we know, are dying. All the political and parental pressure is pushing in the other direction, toward the ‘practical,’ narrowly conceived: the instrumental, the utilitarian, the immediately negotiable.” The humanities can no longer be counted on to operate as a check against the reductive machinery of a corporatized American culture.
Against the backdrop of these recent manifestos and policy debates a quiet counterweight has appeared. Stephen Schryer’s Fantasies of the New Class is a slender study of how the American novel has dealt with the professionalization of the intellectual class. Unobtrusive in its politics, it is in essence a cultural history of intellectual self-image. Taking as his starting point the 1952 Partisan Review symposium “Our Country and Our Culture,” Schryer looks back to a time when intellectuals saw themselves as the steering committee of national culture. In Schryer’s account, the defining feature of the postwar period is an idealistic re-imagining of the high intellectual mission. Whereas intellectuals in the prewar period saw themselves as of a piece with the New Deal technocracy, their postwar counterparts sought to embody, rather than simply advocate, the elevated ideals of American democracy (and American Leftism in particular): they “moved intellectuals and other cultural professionals to the center of US society and attributed a crucial yet also mysterious agency to them. Intellectuals do not formulate ideas about a better society; they bring this society into being through their very existence.”
For Schryer, the New York Intellectuals represent a golden age worth reclaiming: that brief window in the 1950s when the cultural elite, unburdened by a latter-day irony, had no qualms anointing themselves the shepherds of a new order. This “saving remnant”—a term Schryer borrows from Matthew Arnold—took it upon themselves to “disrupt the stock notions of the middle-class.” The theological overtones must be deliberate.