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(Original interview at GeorgeScialabba.net...)

"Puya Gerami: I'm hoping we might begin our discussion by briefly talking about the literary and political tradition, particularly that of the New York Intellectuals, that has influenced your work. Your first collection of essays and reviews, What Are Intellectuals Good For?, seems, in part, a salute to the vibrant literary culture that thrived during the mid-twentieth century. Can you describe the major features of style and content that characterize the writings of the New York Intellectuals? Although the corpus of these thinkers is anything but a homogenous collection, it does seem to provide a coherent model of progressive social criticism, rooted in political engagement and cultural authority.

George Scialabba: Irving Howe has limned the lineaments of this intellectual culture in a marvelous essay called "The New York Intellectuals". [L1] He emphasizes above all that they were amateurs, non-specialists, non-professionals, generalists - "luftmenschen of the mind," as he puts it. It was perhaps the last time in modern cultural history that one could aspire to be a generalist--well, of course one can always aspire to be a generalist, and sometimes one can achieve a great deal in that line--but still, they managed to be authoritative about virtually everything. Admittedly, part of their success may have been their extraordinary gift for sounding authoritative, whether or not they actually knew what they were talking about; but in truth they had an enormous range and versatility. I'm sure it had something to do with New York being the throbbing heart of a great world power, and also something to do with their being newly emancipated Jews, and therefore bringing the passion and resources of that long-suppressed and hedged-in culture and ethnicity to bear freely on their environment for the first time, being able to speak to and about their society as full members, as they rarely had in any previous society. So I'm sure there were things about them that made their extraordinary range and universality possible. But it was also the fact that it was still possible to marshal the resources of the canonical Western literary and philosophical tradition and bring it to bear on politics and society more or less directly.

But that capacity couldn't last forever..."


A long, interesting, and wide-ranging interview on intellectual cultural and political sovereignty in the English-speaking world.

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