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The Chronicle of Higher Education

October 4, 2002


The Obsolescence of the American Intellectual


THE adjective "intellectual," obviously of Latin origin, appeared in English, occasionally but infrequently, for many centuries; but An Intellectual, as a noun, designating a recognizable type of man or woman, came into use only around 1884. (It is so dated in the Oxford English Dictionary; I found it more than once in George Gissing's New Grub Street, published in 1891, describing literary life in London of the 1880s.) In other languages, too, the usage of the noun does not seem to have appeared before the 19th century. One -- to me, charming -- exception was the French un curieux, extant as early as the 16th century, meaning almost exactly what An Intellectual would mean three centuries later -- someone who was curious or bookish. (As, for example, in the bibliophile Octave Uzanne's 1888 Les Zigzags d'un curieux.) To the best of my knowledge, that equation of curious = intellectual = bookish has now become obsolete in French, too. In any event, just as the adjective "intellectual" in English is not quite identical with "rational" or "educated," the noun Intellectual was, and is, something else and not identical with educated. By and large, intellectuals have become recognizable not because of their schooling but because of their opinions.

Recognizable they became, in England and the United States, about 120 years ago -- about the same time that another word, "intelligentsia," appeared and became a designated term in the United States. The history of this word tells us fairly much. It was an importation -- not only an adaptation but an exact transliteration of the Russian word "intelligentsyia," a word that, in Russia around that time, very definitely marked certain people who were not like other literate people. The intelligentsyia were composed of Russian curieux (and curieuses), human beings whose opinions were thought to be, by themselves and others, broader-minded and more curious, more cultured, cosmopolitan, and compassionate than those of the government and military bureaucrats of the Russian empire, no matter what the literacy of the latter may have been.

The migration and successful naturalization of the words "Intellectual" and "intelligentsia" to the United States were inseparable from, if not altogether a result of, the considerable migration of Jewish people from the Russias after 1880. (It may be telling that these two terms were not current in Ireland at that time, even though the Irish literary and artistic renaissance occurred between 1880 and 1920. That may be attributable to the fact that Ireland had fewer immigrants than had England or the United States; and -- perhaps -- because the aspiration of most Irish artists was bardic rather than intellectual.) There was a Marxist element, too: "Workers, Peasants, and Intellectuals" was a common Marxist phrase. Yet, whatever the sources of the naturalization of those words, very soon most American intellectuals were neither immigrants nor Jews.

Here I feel compelled to interject something from my personal history. I was born in Hungary in 1924, in a country and a society as different from Russia as from the United States. The Hungarian translation of the Marxist "intellectual" (ertelmisegi) meant someone whose schooling and profession were intellectual: It was mildly approbatory but not more than that; and it did not connote anything like a class of opinion. (There were -- as in a later mutation in the United States, to which I shall return -- rightist as well as leftist intellectuals.) My father, a doctor, was a very learned man, with many artistic and musical interests and an impressive private library. He could, perhaps, have been categorized as a Lateiner, meaning a professional man with a Latin-humanistic education; but not as An Intellectual -- the latter would not have been customary.

I inherited that inclination (or call it disinclination): During most of my now 56 years in the United States, I have often bridled against being called An Intellectual, asserting instead (I now see, with something like false modesty or, worse, a mocking humility) that I was not An Intellectual, but a teacher and a writer. In sum -- God forgive me -- I often looked down on intellectuals, even though I at times enjoyed their company. I confess that, today, I miss intellectuals. Why? Because, as I shall later explain, they are disappearing.

But let me return to a sketch of the history of intellectuals in the United States. At latest by 1910, they were a recognizable class of people: but, I repeat, less a social class than a class of opinion. Most of them took pride in possessing more-advanced, more-intelligent opinions than other people. In this respect there was a difference between the United States and England, where the word "intelligentsia" (marked by the OED as appearing in 1920) emerged at the same time as the recognition of the Bloomsbury Group -- even though most of the Bloomsburyites were not prototypical intellectuals, and many of them would not have preferred to be categorized as such. With some reason: The Bloomsbury people thought that their tastes were superior to those of other educated people and, of course, to those of philistines, literate or not. Their emphasis was on taste and art -- while intellectuals, I repeat, take some (no matter how uneasy) pride and pleasure from the higher character of their opinions.

By about 1910, intellectuals were found in many American places. What were their main characteristics? They were men and women who were less provincial, more bookish, generally more liberal, and more progressive than were most of their neighbors. Yet such generalizations are insufficient. "Their neighbors": Well, the emergence and the rise of an American intellectual class was inseparable from the rise of American cities, from the gradual transformation of a largely rural people to a largely urban one (also occurring in the early 20th century). The years 1900 to 1950 were the American bourgeois interlude, the half-century when American civilization was marked by the existence of a largely urban and urbane bourgeoisie. (For a long time "bourgeois" was an adjective contemptuously used by most American intellectuals, though they should have known better.)

Intellectual activities and places, the pleasing relief and recognition of meeting and finding people whose interests and inclinations and opinions were similar to one's own -- the opportunity and the frequency of that depended not only on the atmosphere but also on the very existence of cities. Soon after 1910, recognizable neighborhoods such as Greenwich Village in New York City began to coalesce in other American cities, too, as in Chicago or San Francisco, whereto many kinds of people, including intellectuals, were fleeing, away from a, to them, deadening provinciality.

"Bookish": Well, yes, but with two qualifications. Intellectuals were closer to (and, indeed, sometimes more like) bohemians than they were to academics. That was recognizably apparent not only in places like Greenwich Village, but also in other locations, such as Provincetown on Cape Cod. Also, American intellectuals did not necessarily read the same books; but they read the same magazines, this being the time when opinion magazines began to multiply and flourish, their heyday lasting for about four decades. In these magazines and reviews, opinions were the principal matters; whatever valuable information the publications offered was, by and large, dependent on the expression of opinions.

"Liberal and progressive": Yes, for the most part; but among American intellectuals there were Republicans as well as Democrats, immigrants and the offspring of immigrants as well as native Americans and Anglo-Saxons, highbrows as well as middlebrows (terms invented by Van Wyck Brooks in 1915) -- at least for a while.

In a democratic society -- contrary to Marx -- the decisive factor is not the accumulation of capital but an accumulation of opinions. That determines not only politics or the selection of presidents but also ways of life, including the very material conditions of an entire country. And the accepted sentiments and opinions of large masses of people are not only decisive, at least in the short run, but may be stifling, surely so in the long run: the tyranny of the majority about which Alexis de Tocqueville wrote. What intellectuals resented was the shallow sentimentality of the opinions and beliefs of the majority. It was thus that they identified themselves as constituting a minority. That self-identification ranged from intellectual snobbery, from the social ambition to be recognized as belonging to a certain class of people, to small personal tragedies of loneliness. A classic case of the last was that of Carol Kennicott in Sinclair Lewis's 1920 Main Street. There had been a few earlier American novels describing intellectuals; but by 1920 a personality of someone like Carol Kennicott, lonely in the intellectual desert of Gopher Prairie, had become generally, if not universally, recognizable. She had better tastes, judgments, opinions than had her neighbors. She was what the German language still describes as a Kulturträgerin, a bearer of culture (of culture, rather than civilization: yes, there is a problem there... ); she was more -- something else -- than an "educated citizen."

But a problem there was -- and would remain -- with the American intelligentsia in the 1920s. Perhaps never again would they be so envied and, even, admired than in the otherwise dull decade of Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover. In the 1920s, for the first time in the history of this nation, many a young son or daughter of the rich wished, at least for a time, to be associated with what was deemed "intellectual" or "highbrow" or "avant garde." But these intellectuals were too confident in the superior quality of their beliefs. They were open enemies of hypocrisy. Many of them believed (and many of them even practiced) a New Morality (always a dubious idea, to say the least). In such a class of opinion, morality is usually subordinated to intellect: One cannot have enough intellect, while people can have too much morality. Around 1925, Harold Nicolson, the British author, wrote of Dr. Johnson that his virtues were "not merely moral but intellectual." The emphasis was telling.

By the 1930s, American intellectuals, with very few exceptions, were on the left of the American political and ideological spectrum. There were few Republicans among them; most intellectuals were Democrats or Socialists or even Communists. In 1932 a large number of well-known American intellectuals and artists and writers supported the Communist ticket in a manifesto published by The New Masses. But the Communist Party received only a quarter of 1 percent of all votes cast in November 1932. The separation of American intellectuals from the mass of American people seemed to have become ever greater.

Yet, during the New Deal, the government began to include more and more intellectuals in its administrative ranks. While, in the 1920s, many intellectuals had taken pride in holding elite opinions about art and culture, in the 1930s the ambitions of at least some of them became political or bureaucratic. Some of the intellectuals in the government were clandestine Marxists. (The minority within that minority who performed clandestine and often amateur services for the Soviet Union were relatively few, and the harm they did was relatively limited.) In any event, the overwhelming majority of American intellectuals, virtually all of the influential ones among them, were well to the left of the mainstream of American politics, and modernists to a man (or to a woman). That modernism and liberalism were not compatible with Stalinism dawned on many of them sooner or later; but the rejection of both Marxism and modernism, not to speak of liberalism, was too much for most of them, until the 1950s at least. Liberals and Marxists (though no longer pro-Soviet Marxists) dominated American intellectual commerce, indeed monopolized it until about 1950.

Then came a reaction, during the Second Red Scare, partly (but only partly) because of revelations of certain pro-Soviet and pro-Communist activities by certain bureaucrats and academics and intellectuals. Around 1952 the word "egghead" became a national designation of ridicule. A decade later Richard Hofstadter, a major American historian, described the roots and the essence of that, to him recurrent, phenomenon in his 1963 Anti-intellectualism in American Life.

Yet I thought then, and I still think now, that Hofstadter's thesis was mistaken. For underneath almost all manifestations of American anti-intellectualism there was, and remains, a detectable, and often exaggerated, respect and envy for brains (rather than for minds -- but that, too, is another matter). Consider but the American respect for Albert Einstein, a level unequaled in any other country in the world: the image of a rumpled genius, fumbling for his pipe, his head crowned by astral hair and the aura of knowing something wondrous and profound. As early as 1921 a president like Harding found it politic and useful to receive Einstein in the White House; during the ensuing decades streets, buildings, hospitals, schools were named after him, and an American postage stamp carried his picture.

Or consider another symptom, a verbal one, right under Hofstadter's nose, which he overlooked: the fact that Joseph McCarthy, the populist crusader against eggheads, chose to attack liberal and former Marxist exemplars of the latter as "pseudo-intellectuals," meaning that those were not real intellectuals worthy of respect, not properly equipped with brains.

On one occasion Ronald Reagan, too, referred to "high-IQ dimwits." Yet during the last 50 years anti-intellectualism has, by and large, disappeared. But then, so have intellectuals, too -- well, almost.

There have been many important elements of this devolution during the last 50 years. One of the most significant: the way that, after about 1955, the until then prevailing liberal monopoly of American intellectuality gradually (and, at times, swiftly) ceased to exist. In 1950 not only no American intellectual but also no American politician (including right-wing Republicans like Robert A. Taft), indeed, hardly any American, would call himself or herself "conservative." But 10 years later even the ever-cautious and calculating Dwight Eisenhower said (at least on one occasion) that he was "conservative." By the 1980s more Americans designated themselves as conservatives than as liberals. That was an enormous change, with many consequences in the accumulation of opinions. One evident example was that of William F. Buckley's National Review, a magazine begun on a shoestring in 1955; several decades later its circulation was larger than that of either The Nation or The New Republic.

There has been at least one positive effect of this mutation: the increasing presence and increasing achievements of conservative scholars in American academe, together with the existence of conservative (and not merely antior post-liberal) intellectuals across the country, leading to some variety of accepted opinions, ideas, and perspectives. Meanwhile there has been the dependence of all kinds of presidents, including anti-egghead ones, on intellectuals, perhaps especially in the field of foreign policy; on men and women who could twirl the globe in their offices, pointing out and explaining places. So it was that a Richard Nixon needed a Henry Kissinger, that a Jimmy Carter picked a Zbigniew Brzezinski, that the present president depends on a Condoleezza Rice: men and women of provenances very different from those of a George Kennan or an Averell Harriman or even a Walter Lippmann, none of whom were academics.

That increased presence has been involved with a wider development, which is the meritocratic evolution of American intellectual commerce. During the last 40 years, academe has swallowed up much of American intellectuality. During the first half of the 20th century, most American intellectuals were not academics: By the beginning of the next century, there are hardly any intellectuals who are not academically affiliated. (Allow me to mention a personal example, from a dinner party last year, with two or three academic couples present. My wife -- not a college graduate -- said something about Mary Stuart, whereupon two people turned to me: "Where does your wife teach?") At the same time, there are many academics who are not intellectuals -- meaning that the scope and the intent of their interests have just about nothing in common with that of American intellectuals of, say, the 1920s or even later. (Whereas most intellectuals, in the past, bought and read books, many academics, for many decades now, do not buy books: What they mostly read are articles and reviews.)

A definite factor in this devolution has been suburbanization. I wrote earlier that the emergence of American intellectuals was inseparable from the citified, urban and urbane period of American civilization, which is now past. Because of the increasingly unpleasant and even dangerous conditions of life in our once-great cities, it seemed for a while that a retreat from the anonymous loneliness in a city would revive small towns as civilized centers of life. But that did not happen. Suburbanization did.

That life in the suburbs actually separates dwellers from each other needs no illustration. There may be people of similar opinions and judgments and even tastes near us in the suburbs: But we are aware of their existence only by accident; they form nothing like a group, and intellectual commerce among them is just about nonexistent, except perhaps on the edges of a few American university towns. This is regrettable for many reasons, and for more people than for erstwhile and nostalgic intellectuals. I, for one, wish I knew more intellectuals whom I could ring up to meet for a drink, or with whom my wife and I could get together for an instant supper, whether in our house or in theirs or in a nearby restaurant. I do not think that I am alone in recognizing what others, too, may be missing.

I also think that the recent lamentations about the disappearance of "public intellectuals" miss the point. It is true that we are poorer because of the absence of an H.L. Mencken, a Walter Lippmann, a Clifton Fadiman, or a Dwight Macdonald (and very different men they were, at that). It is also true that none of those public intellectuals were academics. But the term "public intellectual" distinguishes them from private intellectuals, and it is the gradual disappearance of the latter that vexes me more than that of the former. For some time now, intellectuals have been -- and still are -- people of similar opinions. But a private intellectual, by definition, must be a person with a mind of his or her own.

In earlier days, it was pleasant and entertaining and occasionally even inspiring to read something in (indeed, to "get something from") an article by Mencken or Macdonald that reminded one of something that one had already felt and known, although not quite as clearly as those writers expressed it. (All kinds of people, very much including intellectuals, take pleasure in seeing their inclinations confirmed.) Private intellectuals depended on their public arbiters, but -- conversely -- the latter depended on their audience. More precisely: their readership -- and not merely for financial or publicity reasons. So public or non-public intellectuals: The story of their rise and decline during the 20th century is, by and large, the same.

As to "readership" -- ah, I think sometimes that may be the key to many things, including what is in the process of happening. There exists now a scatteration of readers, of all kinds of readers, across this vast country, often in the oddest of places. It is also observable that many Americans turn to reading books well after their formal education is concluded, something that was not so in the past. Yes, the production, the technology, and the very use of computers and VCR's and DVD's and movies is much more complicated than the handling and the reading of books -- yet young people are soon adept at the former and not at the latter. Now the reading and the enjoyment of books seem to come later in life, with something like a growth and maturity. (College students, too, seem to graduate from television to movies, rather than to books.)

Yet there are signs that serious readers, albeit distant and scattered, provide the potential elements of a congregation of sensitivities that almost 100 years ago the first American intellectuals were seeking. Three-quarters of a century ago the editors of The New Yorker somewhat arrogantly declared that their magazine was not meant for old ladies in Dubuque; yet less than a half-century later some of the best readers of The New Yorker were old ladies in places like Dubuque. I think that it is at least possible that in the future The Reader may become a recognizable American type, a potential component of a class, even though belonging to a minority -- at a time when The Intellectual, as a recognizable type, may have become obs., as the dictionary abbreviation puts it, meaning obsolete.

John Lukacs is a professor emeritus of history. His books include Five Days in London, May 1940 (Yale University Press, 1999) and At the End of an Age (Yale University Press, 2002).


Copyright 2002 by The Chronicle of Higher Education


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