History spans three generations of New York intellectuals

Prodigal Sons: The New York Intellectuals and Their World, by Alexander Bloom. New York: Oxford University Press. 448 pp. $25. Although many of the ``New York intellectuals'' grew up in New York, in seeking to understand them and their mixture of idealism and ambition, worldliness and cliquishness, it is important to remember, as Alexander Bloom repeatedly reminds us, that they started off as ``young men from the provinces.''

Most were the American-born children of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. They grew up in largely Jewish neighborhoods on the periphery of Manhattan, and, for them, crossing the bridge from Brooklyn (or the Bronx, or Newark) into the city's center was as momentous a step as it was for many a small-town Southerner, Midwesterner, or Westerner coming to seek his fortune in New York.

Spanning three ``generations'' (depending on whom you count and how you count them), they came to recognize themselves as a ``family'' only in retrospect, after their center had been dispersed and they had gone their separate ways. Alfred Kazin, Irving Howe, Lionel and Diana Trilling, Philip Rahv, William Phillips, Meyer Schapiro, Harold Rosenberg, William Barrett, Dwight Macdonald, Mary McCarthy, Daniel Bell, Irving Kristol, Nathan Glazer, and Norman Podhoretz are but some of the names that grew familiar to readers of such publications as Partisan Review, Commentary, Dissent, The Public Interest, The New York Times, and the New York Review of Books.

Although a few, like literary critic Lionel Trilling and political philosopher Sidney Hook, pursued academic careers, most of the first generation made their names primarily outside the academy as writers and editors.

The early sections of Bloom's uneven, but always engrossing, group history take us back to the 1920s and '30s. Quotas were being imposed to limit the number of Jewish students at private colleges. Jews were also deemed unsuitable to teach English literature (only in 1939, after a protracted struggle, did Lionel Trilling become the first Jewish member of Columbia University's English department). The Depression made it hard for anyone to find any kind of work anyway. Radicalism flourished, and many of the group later known as the New York intellectuals were Marxists of some variety.

What would prove to be the formative experience for many -- the turning point that set the tone, shaping their outlook for the rest of their careers -- was their reaction to Stalinism. Having been closely acquainted with the ideology, methods, personalities, and basic ``style'' of the Communist Party, most of these independent-minded people sooner or later turned against it, feeling betrayed by it. Familiarity made them passionate and knowledgeable foes, impatient with others who still pursued the road not taken by them. As Bloom shows by quoting the irrefutable testimony of their own writings, many New York intellectuals failed to perceive those problems that did not fit their pre-formed paradigm. Their attention was keen when it came to issues like Stalinism, '60s radicalism, and controversies on the left, but they were surprisingly blind to dangers on the right. Only as late as 1942 did some of them abandon their opposition to US participation in the ``imperialist'' war against Hitler. Many were quicker to support the Cold War than they had been to support World War II.

One of Bloom's chief goals is to show how the famous rightward turn taken by many of the group, from the neo-conservatism of Podhoretz, Kristol, and Hook to the centrism of Phillips and the Trillings, was not really a reaction to the excesses of '60s radicalsm, but a logical development of the anti-communist liberalism they had been formulating in the 1950s. As Bloom arranges the evidence, the case is powerful.

The careful reader will note that much of the anti-communist rhetoric is drawn from the work of only three or four persons. And one must also admit that these arguments, although deaf to the appeal of civil libertarians, did yield some valuable insights. Yet it seems clear that their obsession with Stalinism tended to blind them to the seriousness of the Axis threat. The New York intellectuals thrived on controversy. It sharpened their wits, but narrowed their range of responses.

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.