The Book Club

Whither the Intelligentsia?

Dear Nat,

The problem with the educated elite is that nobody stays put. In the past 48 hours The Atlantic has been purchased and the wonderful Michael Kelly has been installed as editor in chief (another blow to the old Protestant Establishment and another victory for the ethnics), and Chuck Lane has been deposed as editor of the New Republic and Peter Beinart has been put in. I was with Beinart all yesterday at a conference in Maine. He was pulled out for an urgent call at one point, but he didn’t say a word about how his life had been changed. So much discretion in one so young. Amazing.

I will be gossiping about these maneuverings and the current ridiculous smears against Gary Bauer all day, but I suppose here we should rise to a higher sphere and talk literature. I wanted to take advantage of your presence here and ask you about the form of this book, rather than the content. Lemann has written his analysis of the meritocracy as a narrative. Meanwhile, both of us are frustrated because the analytical or polemical conclusion to his book is so short. It seems to me this is characteristic of book writing these days. We are in a great age of nonfiction narrative writing. There have been many great biographies written over the past couple of decades (Edmund Morris gets credit for writing one of them–his T.R. book), and there have been several great narrative non-fiction books. Richard Ben Cramer’s What It Takes comes to mind. Lemann himself is an accomplished author of narratives.

But when I look back at my favorite period of American nonfiction–the period between 1950 and 1965–the books that leap out were not narratives. Many great and influential books were written during that time: The Rise and Fall of Great American Cities, The Organization Man, The Protestant Establishment, Silent Spring, The Feminist Mystique, The Lonely Crowd (which you worked on, I believe), The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, The Machine in the Garden, The Image–I could go on and on …

My impression is that in the ‘60s and ‘70s there weren’t as many influential, popular but intellectual books of that sort. There were a few–The Rise of the Counterculture and The Culture of Narcissism come to mind, but not as many. (To avoid looking like a flatterer I’m leaving your stuff like Beyond the Melting Pot out of this). Then in the ‘80s, a new wave of nonfiction successes hit the best-seller lists. These were polemical conservative books, Losing Ground, The Closing of the American Mind, Wealth and Poverty, and so on. There was a time for a decade or so when every week’s bestseller list had at least one right-wing polemic on it.

But that phase, too, is over. Now the most notable nonfiction books are celebrity books or narratives. I think some of this has to do with the declining prestige of the intellectual. In the ‘50s and early ‘60s, it seems to me, intellectuals were confident of their social roles. There were figures like Hannah Arendt, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Edmund Wilson doing their thing. Journalists like Jane Jacobs and for a time Daniel Bell still followed an intellectual model when writing their books.

But somehow the intelligentsia, in the Russian sense, lost its confidence and broad vision over the next decades. Academics started doing more professionalized stuff that people like me never read. And journalists started doing narratives and biographies, like Lemann or Sam Tanenhaus or J. Anthony Lukas.

The narratives make for better reads, but I do miss those big upper-middle-brow books like Daniel Bell and Jane Jacobs used to write. Or more properly, I wish that the books that follow in that tradition were getting more attention and more sales these days. Maybe people have less faith in the social sciences as well and so just want to hear about stories and personalities.

Anyway, I’m just conjecturing about all this, but you have been active during this whole period. Is my description of the trends in nonfiction accurate? Do you have an explanation?

All the best,