When I was in college, I wrote a letter to Daniel Bell. I was working on a senior thesis about Dwight Macdonald’s little magazine politics, to which Bell had contributed when he was in his early 20s and living in New York. I’d come across Bell’s correspondence in Macdonald’s papers in Sterling Memorial Library at Yale and hoped he could tell me more.
Within a couple of days I had a somewhat terrifying several-page letter waiting in my college mailbox, typed in the same punctilious style, with handwritten corrections added after proofreading. Bell responded in the most flattering way possible by taking me completely seriously. As I recall, he bracingly disputed what he took to be my thesis that twists and turns in Macdonald’s leftist views mattered, told me what he thought he could contribute to my inquiry, and invited me for a “nosh.” Something about the letter, which I must have reread a dozen times, left me with the impression that he would welcome some younger company.
Not long after, I called at Bell’s house on Frances Avenue in Cambridge, Mass. I doubt I’ve since heard conversation of that quality—ranging across political literature, the sociology of intellectuals, and the history of various left-wing splits, all spiced with Yiddishkeit wisecracking. Bell was at once a stunningly original mind, an ironic observer of the scene around him, and a genial gossip. To call his memory prodigious would do him an injustice. Interviewing the other survivors of the New York intellectual crowd who had known Macdonald—Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin, Clement Greenberg, William Phillips, and Irving Kristol—was a delightful undertaking. But the problem with oral history is that most people remember everything wrong. When matched against the archives, most memories about people diverge in every way. Only Bell precisely and accurately recalled his part in dramas from 40 years before.
If I were to revisit the subject of the New York intellectuals today, I’d make the case that Bell, who died this week at the age of 91, was not only the greatest mind in the group but one of the genuinely important American thinkers of the 20th century. At least three of Bell’s books are truly durable. The End of Ideology(1960), which is actually a collection of essays, described the post-Cold War political landscape 30 years before the Cold War ended. Bell’s thesis that Western societies emerged from the clash of 20th century ideologies with a consensus in favor of democratic process and welfare-state liberalism remains fundamentally persuasive. The Coming of Post-Industrial Society(1973)ismore abstruse, in part because Bell was describing the impact of technologies yet to be invented. Subtitled A Venture in Social Forecasting, that book predicted the emergence of an “information economy,” a system of social stratification driven by expertise, and, quite amazingly, something like the Internet. The CulturalContradictions of Capitalism (1976) highlights a crucial flaw in modern conservatism: that by fueling appetites, the free market undermines the very communities, traditions, and values that conservatives hold dear. No one, with the possible exception of his near-contemporary Richard Hofstadter, was better on the sociology and psychology of the modern right.
Bell seemed to write about everything under the sun and managed to be deep about all of it. But that is not what most distinguishes him from his peers, who were nothing if not polymaths. Unlike so many of the writers on the left who grew up in the 1930s, and whose basic political commitments now look fundamentally misguided, Bell was consistently on the right track. He was never a Stalinist or a Trotskyist in the 1930s; didn’t flirt with anarchism, pacifism, or the New Left in the 1960s; and had no patience for neoconservatism in the 1980s. Bell memorably described himself as “a socialist in economics, a liberal in politics, and a conservative in culture.” Though his thinking certainly evolved over the years—in truth, he was more a socialist in his sociological analysis than in his economic prescriptions—he stayed true throughout his life to a fundamentally reasonable set of social democratic ideals.
I also suspect that Bell was the best human being among the New York intellectuals. When I went to meet their surviving remnant in the late 1980s, these people were still capable of breathtaking backbiting and nastiness when it came to each other. Bell, on the other hand, was a generous and humane character. After founding the Public Interest with Kristol in 1965, Bell left in the mid-1970s rather than breaking up a close friendship over politics. Without him, the magazine’s skeptical take on Great Society liberalism calcified into a rigid ideological stance, and it became far less interesting.
That talk we had over lox and bagels shaped not only what I wrote in my college paper about Dwight Macdonald but the understanding I’ve carried since of what a true intellectual is and does. “I specialize in generalizations,” Bell once said. He showed, as well as anyone ever has, the pleasure in thinking big, the necessity of thinking for oneself, and the merits of being interested in absolutely everything. I was meaning for a long time to write him another letter about how much his example meant to me. Now I’m sorry I never did.