Sunday, June 14, 2009

"What Are Intellectuals Good For?" by George Scialabba

I have as little business reading George Scialabba's "What Are Intellectuals Good For?" as I did reading the two books by Edmund Wilson and Bertrand Russell that my father gave me for my high school graduation in 1957. This new book, pushed through the mail slot onto the downstairs hall floor, came by way of my subscription to Pressed Wafer, a small, independent press here in Boston that is master-minded by Bill Corbett.

Though I don't have the background to follow much of Scialabba's reasoning, his writing is the style that my father had hoped I would absorb from the books he chose -- lucid and laced with a bit of wry humor. (My father would have added spare as a requirement and I think that, given his subject matter, Scialabba manages that pretty well.)

'The Lady and the Luftmensch,' a chapter about Diana Trilling's autobiography, "The Beginning of the Journey.." and the biography of Dwight Macdonald by Michael Wrezsin, starts with --

"Why do we still care about the New York intellectuals? Partly, perhaps, because they embodied, conceivably for the last time in American history, a venerable modern ideal, practiced also by the 'philosophies' and praised by Goethe and Marx: vielseitigkeit or many-sidedness. Their versatility was astonishing; their apparent mastery in pronouncing on both culture and politics, and in relating one set of judgments to the other, now seems as attractive as it does unattainable. In this Age of Information, mastery even of a single field is an implausible aspiration, and casual authority over a whole range of them an anachronistic one."

I will most probably order Diana Trilling's book and a book he preferred as an introduction to Macdonald from the Pleasant Street Library since Scialabba made such a good case for Trilling's writing and Macdonald's thinking, and then pass along my copy of "What Are Intellectuals Good For?" to someone more deserving of it than I am.


  1. The cover looks intriguing, for sure--but not sure I would have read as much as you did.
    Those Trillings! I picture being in their gracious upper-West side salon, listening to their high-toned conversation, and being secretly pleased whenever Norman Mailer shows up and proceeds to be boorish and drunk...

  2. "What Are Intellectuals Good For": to ask the questions is defensive. What's made intellectuals defensive? Maybe all the criticism from the right directed at the "eastern establishment elite." Those New York intellectuals were not perfect masters of every subject. I believe "casual authority over a whole range of" subjects is still possible--with enough brilliance.

  3. Susan, I think you'd like George who is very soft-spoken, surprisingly charming in a modest way. I met him briefly at a book coming-out-party that Bill Corbett organized at Brookline Booksmith. George is truly an 'independent intellectual,' who works at a university in a non-academic capacity. I admire anyone who has kept himself free of the ordinary compromise that so many positions, including faculty, often demand.

    Mim, I think that if you read a bit of his book, you'd understand why he assumes that the sheer volume of knowledge that's available now (partly because of scientific and technical advances) makes it virtually impossible not to specialize in given area. That's why it's so interesting to read about the 40s and 50s, the New York writers.