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12 June 2024updated 13 Jun 2024 12:23pm

The tough guy crew

Jewish masculinity and the New York Intellectuals.

By Leonard Benardo

For many years my mother taught a course on women in literature in a public high school in the Bronx, New York. In the first half of the semester, she selected texts by men writing about women. The second half, books penned by women about women. Hers was a pedagogical conceit that fostered lively discussion among engaged teenagers as to how men and women write differently about the female experience.

Write Like a Man: Jewish Masculinity and the New York Intellectuals is historian Ronnie Grinberg’s variation on my mother’s theme. Grinberg wants to know how the writing of a legendary band of essayists and critics, dubbed the New York Intellectuals by one of its members, reflects what she calls a “secular Jewish masculinity”. Grinberg is especially focused on how the few women writers of the circle were engulfed by a masculine milieu, a trope that recurs in her book like a Wagnerian leitmotif. Did “secular Jewish masculinity” toughen the prose of (and establish a pose for) the New York Intellectuals? What exactly does it mean to “write like a man”, and is it a useful frame to reassess the criticism of this hallowed group?

The New York Intellectuals are customarily associated with that cohort of striving first-generation Jews who met in New York’s great public university, City College of New York (CCNY), and forged comradeships through the impassioned contestation of ideas. From the 1930s through the 1980s, by means of small journals with outsized influence – Partisan ReviewCommentaryEncounter – this loosely fitted imagined community produced some of the most incisive and bold American writing of the 20th century. Arguing the World, Joseph Dorman’s documentary from 1997, which traced the intellectual life trajectories of four of its members, Daniel Bell, Irving Kristol, Irving Howe and Nathan Glazer, is the consummate statement of their original convictions and different roads taken. Predominantly male, white and Jewish, there were still others in the polymathic cauldron of the New York Intellectuals who were not: Hannah Arendt, James Baldwin, Mary McCarthy, Elizabeth Hardwick and Dwight Macdonald. What held such a complicated group together and over generations? In a word, ideas. Ideas were the currency, and politics and culture the canvas, upon which the American world of letters took a great leap forward.

Voluminous titles about the New York Intellectuals – their fidelity to critique; their alcove antics at CCNY; the turn (by some) to the right – make even the sturdiest bookshelves groan from the collective weight. Grinberg has read through a cross-section of the corpus and conveys a sensitive familiarity with its byways. She clearly admires members of the group, especially Irving Howe, who once wisecracked “that the only place where the fight between Stalin and Trotsky could be conducted freely was in New York City”, but studiously avoids asserting judgement, never tipping her hat in one direction or another. Grinberg wants the members themselves, through apposite quotation, to tell her version of the history. But by being so judicious, she weakens the book’s resolve. The old left labour standard famously sung by Pete Seeger – “Which Side Are You On?” – would have been familiar to all of Grinberg’s subjects. It would have been helpful had she posed the question to herself.

For the aficionado of the New York Intellectuals, much of Grinberg’s narrative will sound familiar. The group’s allegiance to anti-communism, the internecine hostilities expressed within the small journals, the general penchant for polemic – all these themes are present and accounted for in the book. So too does Grinberg make clear that while the New York Intellectuals carried varied political commitments – from every vantage point on the ideological spectrum – they were equally powered by intellectual ambivalence, recognising it as a value, even a virtue.

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Some of the stories merit rehearsing and Grinberg’s retelling of them is unfailingly fluid. One lengthy passage, gripping in its recounting, documents 1971’s legendary New York Town Hall debate on feminism presided over by the notorious writer and carnival barker Norman Mailer, whose inflammatory “Prisoner of Sex” essay had just been published. Grinberg dramatises an event in which the epithetical usage of the word “lady” took centre stage (Mailer studiously avoided saying “woman”). It’s a slice of early 1970s life that seems antiquated at one level, and yet weirdly resonant on another (just shy of the Roe vs Wade Supreme Court decision, one of the participants who had taken over the recently formed National Organization of Women spoke of the need for the women’s movement to be separate from the peace, civil rights and other movements, a heretical assumption today in our age of intersectionality).        

Grinberg’s book also unearths some deep cuts less well-known to the devotee. An early critique of feminism by Midge Decter, an executive editor at Harper’s Magazine later to become the “first lady” of neoconservatism, is a choice example. Grinberg points out how in 1970, Decter published her own cri de coeur that challenged the developing consensus around women’s liberation. (There is also the richly described Midge Decter/Gloria Steinem slugfest at the end of 1970, months before Town Hall, in which Decter harrumphed to the jam-packed crowd: “The feminist’s problem is her refusal to grow up.”) Grinberg devotes a full chapter to Decter, skilfully spotlighting her unsung contributions to the reaction contra feminism.

Here Grinberg effectively revises the historical record. It is commonly understood that after getting “mugged by reality”, neocons in the 1970s fulminated at the excesses of the counter-culture they held responsible for the mess America was in. Grinberg points out that Midge Decter’s traditional positions around family values (“gender anxieties” Decter called them) were a critique of feminism avant la lettre and predate the counter-cultural moment.

Decter’s critique, in other words, is more seminal than previously understood. Grinberg’s resuscitation of her as a New York Intellectual godmother of anti-feminism adds an additional layer to her argument by helping to situate Decter’s contribution vis-à-vis more recognised right-wing torch-carriers such as Phyllis Schlafly.

There are other New York intellectual chestnuts that Grinberg deftly re-narrates, episodes that speak volumes about the postwar intellectual debates, and some that tell us about ourselves today. Most sympathetically, Grinberg provides a layered reading of Irving Howe, arguably the greatest prose stylist of the New York Intellectuals, and someone who retained a commitment to social democracy until his death in 1993. Often remembered as the peremptory and combative foe of the New Left of the 1960s, sneeringly passing judgement on the movement’s over-reach, Grinberg weaves through the text a humbler Howe who rather than scoring points reflects on his misfires, notably around women’s issues and his own overweening condescension. Few figures from the New York Intellectual crowd were as discerning as Howe, and Grinberg effectively mines his insightful, plaintive 1980s memoir.

Grinberg’s central argument, that “secular Jewish masculinity” dominated the worldview of the New York Intellectuals, is where the book fails to persuade. To begin, Grinberg inappropriately calls her master concept an ideology. The ideology of secular Jewish masculinity she repeats like an incantation as if to jackhammer in a conceptual innovation. But secular Jewish masculinity – whatever that may suggest in reality – is hardly an ideology. Maybe it’s a style, perhaps a description of a sort. Ideologies, however, are simplifying systems that reduce complexity to a limited set of assumptions and beliefs, often to reproduce a dominant social power. Secular Jewish masculinity, a confection divined by Grinberg herself, is retrospectively imputed to the New York Intellectuals. But ideologies don’t emerge through imputation. The book’s elemental flaw is in assuming secular Jewish masculinity to be a coherent perspective.

If anything, the New York Intellectuals’ weltanschauung, or view of life, was an adherence to ardent writing and the fructifying convergences in politics and culture. Sure, many of the members were Jewish but Jewishness was hardly primary; often it was ancillary. That one’s tough-minded Jewishness could be causally linked to Talmudic disputation is unconvincing – as culturalist readings often are. Several of the New York Intellectuals laboured to transcend the (“emasculated” Grinberg writes) shtetl mores of their parents and perhaps this inspired a more “masculine” pose. Who knows, really.

A different explanation, unconsidered by Grinberg, is that there never was any groping by the New York Intellectuals for full-on assimilation into American life. There were no attempts to pass as non-Jewish or squelch one’s identity (literary critic Lionel Trilling might be a partial exception). In his 1951 classic A Walker in the City, Alfred Kazin put it like this: “There was something grand and austere in it that confirmed everything I had felt in my bones about being a Jew: the fierce awareness of life to the depths, every day and in every hour: the commitment: the hunger.” But the idea that secular Judaism defined the New York Intellectuals’ group identity is a misreading. Central to the New York Intellectuals was a politics awash with the hurly burly of leftism, anti-fascism, anti-communism, and later neoconservatism, and an artistic and literary culture that trumpeted the avant-garde. Being Jewish was little more than an ascriptive cultural reality.

Grinberg goes on to assert that the Jewishness of the New York Intellectuals was transmuted into a “secular masculine ideal”. “Cerebral masculinity,” she claims, was commonplace among the group, men or women. Masculinity, for Grinberg, seems to connote swagger and unsentimental writing, and few will question the pugnacious behaviour of Norman Podhoretz or the pugilistic bravado of Mailer, their muscular prose and self-regard an extension of their personality. But in what ways is Kazin’s literary criticism or Mary McCarthy’s novels or essays masculine in any reasonable sense of the term? Why is it not just strong, trenchant writing?

Saddled with a shaky definition of what masculine means and asserting that brilliant women writers sought to enact a “masculine” sensibility amid “hypermasculinised intellectual warfare,” we are left with an unsatisfying theory of the case. Instead of conceptual clarity we get analysis by anecdote. Grinberg seeks to locate the New York Intellectuals’ voracious hunger for argument and critique as a sign of a new-world masculinity that would transcend the people-of-the-book stereotype and assign a newly conceived machismo to the art of disputation. She further suggests, bafflingly, that New York Intellectual writers such as Susan Sontag and Elizabeth Hardwick weren’t card-carrying feminists because, well, they wrote like men and their oeuvre wasn’t peppered with writings on the subject of women. The only way for a woman within the New York Intellectual crowd to pass muster with her peers was, per her own title, to write like a man. Can this really be so? Can one meaningfully place a gendered valence on the craft of writing?

A simplistic deployment of Freud mottles the text further. Unsurprisingly, Grinberg’s antipodes – emasculation/masculinisation – play a large role in explaining the transition from schlemiel, or fool, to cerebral sex symbol. In one stretched reading, Franklin D Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration (WPA), to which several New York Intellectuals participated (Harold Rosenberg most notably), was an attempt to “remasculinise” the emasculated Depression-era unemployed. Grinberg points out further how some saw trade unions not only as sites of solidarity but also places for “masculinisation”. Other scholars such as Albert Fried, in their corrective of Irving Howe’s sentimental World of Our Fathers (1976), showed Jews as sharks, part of the criminal underworld, light-years away from the conventional bootstrapped immigrant story. Grinberg might have waded more into this revisionist history than Freudian over-reach.

Grinberg’s final chapter, which focuses on Podhoretz and the rightward drift of some like him begins to limn these concerns. She helpfully explains how Commentary magazine changed dramatically to being a bellicose cheerleader for Israeli nationalism (and soon thereafter occupation) after the 1967 Six Day War. Yet she entitles that last chapter “‘Sissy’, The Most Dreaded Epithet of an American Boyhood” to fitfully argue that this schoolyard taunt, the most painful slur she claims of American boyhood, stood somehow at the root of it all. (Two examples: “He [Podhoretz] enrolled at Columbia… [where] he set to work on his masculinity.” And: “Scholars have generally been deaf to Podhoretz’s gender anxieties.”)

Many years ago, the historian Paul Breines wrote Tough Jews, those who sought to invert the stereotype of the weak Jew to express a brash and newfound confidence in the postwar period, especially after the 1967 war. The rise of a muscular Jewish identity went hand in hand, he argued, with the ascendance of Zionism and the turn towards the insular. The Polish-Jewish historian Isaac Deutscher’s conception of the “non-Jewish Jew” was a response to these currents, asserting the imperative for a Jewish cosmopolitanism that he believed more intellectually resonant for Jews than any garden-variety parochial nationalism.

After World of Our Fathers was published in the mid-1970s, Howe’s masterpiece of Jewish immigrant life, Howe was at a speaking event in, of all places, the City University of New York when a waggish student queried why he didn’t name his book World of Our Fathers and Our Mothers. Always with lapidary wit, Howe countered: “World of Our Fathers is a title. World of Our Fathers and Our Mothers is a speech!” Howe’s bon mot is suggestive of my problems with Grinberg’s well-researched book. There is no denying the fierce competitive bravado that was an obvious accoutrement of so many of the New York Intellectuals. But linking their skill at the writing craft to a product of being secular Jews with a masculine sensibility suffers from its own kind of speechifying. It reduces the profound history of this exceptional multi-generational group to a somewhat trivial notion and fails to explain the brilliance of their contributions or the fire that drove their criticism.

Write Like a Man: Jewish Masculinity and the New York Intellectuals
Ronnie Grinberg
Princeton University Press, 384pp, £30

[See also: Salman Rushdie: “The world has abandoned realism”]

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