The New York Intellectuals

A particularly prolific, influential group of American-Jewish writers and editors.

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Reprinted with permission from A History of Jews in America, published by Vintage Books.

For those of vested social ideologies, a popular audience was less important than editorial control. Beginning in 1940, Norman Cousins, another Jewish immigrants’ son, edited the liberally oriented Satur­day Review of Literature. Philip Rahv continued to direct the affairs of the feisty little Partisan Review, the journal for leftist academic literary criticism, with Midge Decter as associate editor. Irving Kris­tol, Daniel Bell, Nathan Glazer, and Seymour Martin Lipset edited The Public Interest, favoring a discreet political centrism.

Dissent, the most unequivocally political of these intellectual journals, strove to keep alive the anti-Stalinist socialism of its founding editor, Irving Howe. Elliott Cohen launched Commentary for the American Jewish Committee, and Norman Podhoretz (the husband of Midge Decter) later became Cohen’s successor there.

The New York Review of Books, founded and edited in 1963 by Robert Silvers and Barbara Epstein as the American equivalent of Britain’s Times Literary Supplement, may have been the most influential of these popular “intellectual” publications. It was assuredly the most eclectic, with articles ranging from literature, art, and music to science, economics, philosophy, theology, and history. By the mid-1980s, the Review’s circulation of 100,000 was far wider than that of its peers. Undisguisedly leftist in its editorial bias, the publication included as its nucleus of contributors the same comminuted group of New York Jews that had sustained the early Partisan Review, among them Philip Rahv, Irving Howe, Irving Kristol, and Midge Decter.

Origins

By and large, these were people who shared a second-genera­tion background. They had grown up together, attended the same New York schools (the “College of Irvings,” a wag suggested), fought the same youthful left-of-center battles. Most of them had nurtured literary or artistic ambitions, which in the Depression years went unrequited. The turning point in their careers was the late 1940sand early 1950s. Postwar prosperity, diminishing anti-Semitism, the rapid expansion of higher education, and audience interest in intellectual ideas all played a role. Their talent found well-paying new out­lets, too, in Commentary, The New Yorker, The New York Times, even Fortune. They were winning Guggenheim and Fulbright grants, and appointments to universities. Academically based at last, figures like Alfred Kazin, Irving Kristol, Irving Howe, Daniel Bell, and Leslie Fiedler now enjoyed a certain leisure for their creativity. In ensuing years, few critics could match them in either prodigality or originality.

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Howard Sachar

Howard M. Sachar is the author of numerous books, including A History of Israel, A History of the Jews in America, Farewell Espana, Israel and Europe, and A History of Jews in the Modern World. He is also the editor of the 39-volume The Rise of Israel: A Documentary History. He serves as Professor of Modern History at George Washington University.