Pho­to by Cami­lo Jimenez on Unsplash

In a 1968 arti­cle, the lit­er­ary crit­ic Irv­ing Howe coined the phrase New York intel­lec­tu­als” to describe the group of cel­e­brat­ed writ­ers and crit­ics, of which he was a part, who first coa­lesced in the 1930s around the jour­nal Par­ti­san Review. Howe char­ac­ter­ized the New York intel­lec­tu­als in pugilis­tic and implic­it­ly mas­cu­line terms: the group saw intel­lec­tu­al life as a form of com­bat and at its best, their work result­ed in a knock­out syn­the­sis.” Debates among dif­fer­ent mem­bers con­sti­tut­ed a tour­na­ment, the writer as gym­nast with one eye on oth­er rings, or a skilled infight­er jug­gling knives of dialec­tic.” In sum­ma­riz­ing what bound the group togeth­er, Howe mem­o­rably added that by birth or osmo­sis[,] they are Jews.”

Howe was not alone in jux­ta­pos­ing Jew­ish­ness and mas­culin­i­ty in describ­ing the New York intel­lec­tu­als. In his 1967 mem­oir, Mak­ing It, Nor­man Pod­horetz, one of the youngest mem­bers of this group, also empha­sized their cere­bral com­bat­ive­ness, explain­ing that their prose had verve, vital­i­ty, wit, tex­ture, and above all bril­liance. [… ] The phys­i­cal anal­o­gy would be with an all-round ath­lete.” He also com­pared the group to Tal­mu­dic schol­ars,” men who, haunt­ed by what was per­haps the most fero­cious­ly tyran­ni­cal tra­di­tion of schol­ar­ship the world has ever seen, [ … ] seem to believe that one must have mas­tered every­thing before one is enti­tled to the temer­i­ty of say­ing any­thing on paper.”

The New York intel­lec­tu­als includ­ed men and women, Jews and non-Jews. How­ev­er, they all embraced a unique­ly Amer­i­can vision of Jew­ish mas­culin­i­ty that at its core prized ver­bal com­bat­ive­ness, polem­i­cal aggres­sion, and an unflinch­ing style of argu­men­ta­tion. The hand­ful of women con­sid­ered part of this milieu had to embrace this style in order to be tak­en seri­ous­ly. But they also need­ed to walk a fine line. Women were often seen as more acer­bic than their male coun­ter­parts pre­cise­ly because they had to write like a man.” And when deemed too com­bat­ive and opin­ion­at­ed, they were den­i­grat­ed as bitchy. Han­nah Arendt was an aggres­sive­ly intel­lec­tu­al woman” and any­one who took her on in debate knew he had tak­en on a heavy­weight and usu­al­ly found out he was over­matched,” the edi­tors of Par­ti­san Review recalled in mem­oirs pub­lished in 1983. But after she pub­lished Eich­mann in Jerusalem (196263) she was called Han­nah Arro­gance” behind her back. Diana Trilling arguably gar­nered a rep­u­ta­tion as the most annoy­ing of them all. Her favorite lit­er­ary genre seemed to be the let­ter to the edi­tor,” observed Alfred Kazin. Some­times she wrote in to crit­i­cize an unfa­vor­able review of a book for not being unfa­vor­able enough.” Accord­ing to anoth­er writer, she was an out­ra­geous diva, all tem­pera­ment, no ratio­nal­i­ty what­so­ev­er.” Diana Trilling was undoubt­ed­ly dif­fi­cult. Yet most of the men in this group were dif­fi­cult, too. They were com­bat­ive and abra­sive; cal­lous at times. Nev­er­the­less, their rep­u­ta­tions were nev­er reduced to those qualities.

[Diana Trillings’s] favorite lit­er­ary genre seemed to be the let­ter to the edi­tor,” observed Alfred Kazin. Some­times she wrote in to crit­i­cize an unfa­vor­able review of a book for not being unfa­vor­able enough.” 

To the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, writ­ing was in many ways fem­i­nine.” Those were years that saw the pro­lif­er­a­tion of female nov­el­ists like Jane Austen, the Bron­tës, Har­ri­et Beech­er Stowe, Emi­ly Dick­in­son, and Edith Whar­ton, among oth­ers. Women also took over the teach­ing pro­fes­sion and began to make impor­tant con­tri­bu­tions to the devel­op­ment of mod­ern mass cul­ture and thus what every­body read. Half a cen­tu­ry ago, the lit­er­ary his­to­ri­an Ann Dou­glas famous­ly argued that writ­ers, like min­is­ters, painters, and pro­fes­sion­al actors, were con­sid­ered sissies” in the gold­en age of the nov­el. While the New York intel­lec­tu­als were not the first group of writ­ers to re-mas­culin­ize Amer­i­can lit­er­ary cul­ture — their was also the Lost Gen­er­a­tion of the 1920s, the Hem­ing­ways and Fitzger­alds — their vision of sec­u­lar Jew­ish mas­culin­i­ty was seen as an out­sider posi­tion when it was intro­duced in the 1930s and 40s. Their“ polem­i­cal feroc­i­ty,” as Irv­ing Howe called it, was not ini­tial­ly wel­comed. Ulti­mate­ly, how­ev­er, “[r]udeness became a spear with which to break the skin of com­pla­cen­cy.” Fur­ther­more, Howe not­ed, rude­ness was not only the weapon of the cul­tur­al under­dog, but also a sign that intel­lec­tu­al Jews had become suf­fi­cient­ly self-assured to stop play­ing by gen­tile rules.”

Rude­ness became a spear with which to break the skin of complacency.’

In the post­war years, the New York intel­lec­tu­als brought their style to the Amer­i­can main­stream. It shaped some of the most impor­tant polit­i­cal and cul­tur­al debates in mod­ern Amer­i­ca. But as Jews osten­si­bly became insid­ers in Amer­i­can life, the New York intel­lec­tu­als wres­tled with their new­found influ­en­tial sta­tus. How much could they inte­grate into Amer­i­can intel­lec­tu­al and polit­i­cal life with­out los­ing their dis­tinct­ly Jew­ish, com­bat­ive, and mas­cu­line edge?

Ron­nie A. Grin­berg is assis­tant pro­fes­sor of his­to­ry and a core fac­ul­ty mem­ber of the Schus­ter­man Cen­ter for Juda­ic and Israel Stud­ies at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Oklahoma.