Write like a Man: Jew­ish Mas­culin­i­ty and the New York Intellectuals

  • Review
By – March 25, 2024

Ron­nie Grinberg’s eru­dite first book, Write Like a Man, has two inter­re­lat­ed focus­es. First, Grin­berg pro­vides a detailed his­to­ry of a group of writ­ers and crit­ics known as the New York Intel­lec­tu­als,” a col­lec­tion of rough­ly fifty writ­ers that emerged to promi­nence dur­ing the post­war peri­od. The lead­ing fig­ures of the group includ­ed Philip Rahv, Nor­man Pod­horetz, Lionel Trilling, Nor­man Mail­er, and Irv­ing Howe. Although many of the New York Intel­lec­tu­als were men, women such as Midge Decter, Han­nah Arendt, Diana Trilling, and Mary McCarthy were count­ed among their ranks.

Sec­ond­ly, this book is a study of these writ­ers’ unspo­ken assump­tions about gen­der. Grin­berg argues that the New York Intel­lec­tu­als con­struct­ed an ide­ol­o­gy” of sec­u­lar Jew­ish mas­culin­i­ty” that was a rebel­lion against both tra­di­tion­al Jew­ish norms and cul­tur­al per­cep­tions of Jew­ish men as weak. The machis­mo” of this sec­u­lar Jew­ish mas­culin­i­ty gave rise to much argu­men­ta­tion in per­son and in print. Such argu­ing allowed these men an oppor­tu­ni­ty to demon­strate their manliness. 

Grin­berg char­ac­ter­izes sec­u­lar Jew­ish mas­culin­i­ty as an ide­ol­o­gy” because it relied on unstat­ed, even uncon­scious assump­tions, habits, and max­ims that informed” how peo­ple under­stood and expe­ri­enced the world. Sec­u­lar Jew­ish mas­culin­i­ty was also shaped by polit­i­cal ide­olo­gies such as Marx­ism, anti-Stal­in­ism, and neo­con­ser­vatism, as well as Freudi­an­ism and sec­ond-wave fem­i­nism. New York Intel­lec­tu­als embraced and con­test­ed these move­ments to vary­ing degrees.

The group’s orig­i­nal mem­bers met while attend­ing the City Col­lege of New York in the 1930s. After grad­u­a­tion, the New York Intel­lec­tu­als waged bat­tles in the are­na of the lit­er­ary peri­od­i­cals they found­ed and filled, includ­ing the Par­ti­san Review, Com­men­tary, and Dis­sent. Dis­sent, cre­at­ed by Irv­ing Howe, was designed to serve as a plat­form for left­ist pol­i­tics, although it was crit­i­cized by the New Left” coun­ter­cul­tur­al move­ment of the 1960s and 1970s. Com­men­tary became a lead­ing neo­con­ser­v­a­tive peri­od­i­cal, espe­cial­ly after Nor­man Pod­horetz became edi­tor. In these lit­er­ary forums, writ­ers dis­played their mas­cu­line prowess through scathing book reviews and lit­er­ary essays. These gen­dered trends came to a head with Pod­horetz and Midge Decter, two writ­ers who mar­ried each oth­er. Decter, who worked for Com­men­tary and Harper’s, cas­ti­gat­ed fem­i­nism and homo­sex­u­al­i­ty, embrac­ing a Freudi­an ver­sion of vagi­nal, pro­cre­ative sex­u­al­i­ty as bio­log­i­cal­ly nat­ur­al. Pod­horetz embraced phys­i­cal strength as the mature” mas­culin­i­ty, a val­ue that, start­ing in the 1970s, dom­i­nat­ed con­ser­v­a­tive, mil­i­taris­tic politics.

As Grin­berg details, the sec­u­lar Jew­ish mas­culin­i­ty” of the New York Jews was insep­a­ra­ble from their misog­y­ny. Although some women writ­ers were respect­ed, they were judged by the extent to which they wrote like men.” The staunch crit­i­cism of women’s lib­er­a­tion — as well as Mary McCarthy’s 1963 nov­el, The Group, which was dis­missed by many as a lady’s nov­el” — exem­pli­fies this per­va­sive mas­cu­line ide­ol­o­gy. What’s worse is that even when women made mean­ing­ful intel­lec­tu­al con­tri­bu­tions, they were rarely acknowledged. 

Write Like a Man can be read as a case study for how gen­der inter­acts with intel­lec­tu­al projects. In order to not per­pet­u­ate a sec­ond injus­tice against the women whose intel­lec­tu­al efforts were silenced, or who were sex­u­al­ly harassed out of lit­er­ary cul­ture and acad­e­mia, we ought to reflect on how our cur­rent intel­lec­tu­al and cul­tur­al prac­tices are gendered.

Bri­an Hill­man is an assis­tant pro­fes­sor in the Depart­ment of Phi­los­o­phy and Reli­gious Stud­ies at Tow­son University.

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