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Fighting Words

The New York Intellectuals’ Battle of the Sexes

Norman Mailer’s generation learned to “write like men.” But their female contemporaries from Mary McCarthy to Diana Trilling pioneered a more enduring style.

Norman Mailer in Brooklyn, September 1984
Michael Brennan/Getty Images
Norman Mailer in Brooklyn, September 1984

Alcove 1 at the City College of New York is surely the most famous lunch table in American intellectual history. No Ivy League dining hall can compete. In the 1930s, a remarkable coterie of students gathered there. (The neighboring alcove, Alcove 2, was a meeting place for students who hewed closer to the party line in Moscow, for the “Stalinists” as they would have been called in Alcove 1.) By now many books and documentaries have been made and written about Alcove 1 and its legacy, which in miniature is the saga of the “New York intellectuals.” They were mostly Jewish, uniformly gifted, and fabulously influential at midcentury. Their history can have the aura of myth. 

In Write Like a Man: Jewish Masculinity and the New York Intellectuals, Ronnie Grinberg, a historian at the University of Oklahoma, has reconfigured the story of the New York intellectuals. As she notes, many of the most prominent New York intellectuals were not just Jewish—they were men. This circumstance has sociological implications. These intellectuals inhabited and created male spaces like Alcove 1 and mostly male institutions like Partisan Review and Commentary, their pivotal magazines. The writings of Irving Howe, Norman Podhoretz, and Norman Mailer, New York intellectuals all, showed an obsession with masculinity, their own and that of others. They developed an “ideology of secular Jewish masculinity,” Grinberg writes, which was expressed in a style of writing that merged “verbal combativeness, polemical aggression, and an unflinching style of argumentation.”

Write Like a Man: Jewish Masculinity and the New York Intellectuals
by Ronnie Grinberg
Princeton University Press, 384 pp., $42.00

While many historians have traced the New York intellectuals’ march from youthful communism and on to anti-communism and neoconservatism, Grinberg uncovers a less obvious narrative. She examines this group’s notions of masculinity and femininity, charting the relationships among men and women that ordered their world. For decades, the men set the tone of the group, writing in the hard-edged, competitive, flashy style they had pioneered in the 1930s. The intellectual women of this world—Mary McCarthy, Elizabeth Hardwick, and Diana Trilling, most notably—mastered the features of that style, bringing new tonalities and concerns to it. The revelation Grinberg traces through each of these lives is that these accomplishments could be both liberating and constraining. They could release a competitive creativity while limiting the expressiveness of men and women alike. 

Write Like a Man is haunted by the Old World. Its prehistory is that of Ashkenazi Eastern Europe. In imperial Russia or in the Habsburg empire, Jewish men were valued in their own communities as religious scholars and often undervalued and discriminated against by the non-Jewish majorities. Those Jewish men who made their way to the United States had to contend with menial or low-paying jobs and with sons who, bookish as they might be, mostly did not aspire to be Jewish scholars. In turn, these sons had to invent a manhood that made sense to them. Coming of age on the New York City streets, they combined a scrappy masculinity with an inherited intellectualism. Having embraced “a new kind of masculinity,” Grinberg writes, they made it their vehicle of assimilation into America.

One thread of Write Like a Man concerns the men. In the 1930s, they passed through the City College of New York—as Irving Howe, Nathan Glazer, Irving Kristol, and Daniel Bell did—or through Columbia University (Lionel Trilling and Norman Podhoretz). Along the way, they developed a way of writing that matched their often brash notions of masculinity. Their preferred style was not academic and it was not conventionally journalistic. It was intellectually audacious, formed from the bravado of weighing in on everything and giddy with the energy of contestation. For these figures, to be an American man was to be a “combative secular intellectual,” Grinberg writes. “You caught your opponent in a fallacy, preferably a logical one, but a historical one would do. You smiled …  ‘Let him get out of that one,” Irving Kristol recalled of Alcove 1 at City College. Versed in written and verbal one-upmanship, Kristol and his cohort came together in their shared New York City milieu, and in this milieu they began to prosper.

Grinberg does not dwell on the Communist enthusiasms of the 1930s. It was through their anti-communism, which coalesced in the late 1930s, that the New York intellectuals could prove “their American and masculine credentials in the early years of the Cold War.” Grinberg points out that in the 1950s, there was a common association between Jews, communism, and homosexuality. The New York intellectuals could overturn this association, Grinberg contends, by being stridently anti-Communist, self-consciously manly, and at the same time unapologetically Jewish. The poet Delmore Schwartz admired the ferocious style of Sydney Hook, a philosopher active in debates about the Cold War, and nicknamed him “Sydney Chop.” Hook contrasted his fellow (Jewish) anti-Communists with Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, icons, in Hook’s eyes, of all that was wrong with a philo-Communist American Jewry. 

Not all of the New York intellectuals moved rightward after World War II. Some stayed on the political left. Irving Howe founded Dissent magazine in 1955 to demonstrate that criticism of the Soviet Union did not require acquiescence in American-style capitalism and international power projection. Some younger figures, like Michael Walzer, entered into the domain of the New York intellectuals from the left side of the political spectrum. 

But politics is not the center of Grinberg’s book, which provides a bracing psychological portrait of the male New York intellectuals. Even if they did not speak Yiddish, even if they cared little about Judaism, even if they had to make their way in America, and not in Europe, they carried with them the baggage of a European past. The scope of their ambition and their need to prove themselves again and again and again are clues to their writing, not just to their desire to write like men but to their desire to write at all. The peculiar relationship between their masculinity and their writing transformed serious writing in the United States, yielding an intellectual fervor that washed away any trace of nineteenth-century provincialism and gentility.

Yet in the 1960s, the New York intellectuals disintegrated as a group. They splintered along ideological lines—some defending and some reviling the Vietnam War—and along generational lines. On the conservative side of the barricades was Norman Podhoretz, who is the archetypal personality in Write Like a Man. His apprenticeship to Philip Rahv and William Phillips, the editors of Partisan Review, and to Lionel Trilling brought Podhoretz professional prominence, which he eventually used to defend “family values,” to excoriate homosexuality, and to celebrate the national-security state, conjoining the cause of American power to the cause of Israeli power. The neoconservatism Podhoretz helped to invent would last beyond the Cold War. The foreign policy pillars of the George W. Bush administration, Grinberg writes, “were linked to neoconservatives,” and the neoconservatives were but a branch of the New York intellectual family tree. 

Another thread of Write Like a Man concerns the women. They did not attend City College of New York, though Elizabeth Hardwick studied at Columbia and Mary McCarthy at Vassar, and McCarthy and Hardwick were not Jewish. They were joined in the 1940s by Hannah Arendt, a political philosopher who emigrated to the United States from Germany because she was Jewish, and by Diana Trilling, a Jewish graduate of Radcliffe College and the wife of Lionel Trilling. If these women were treated as equals by the men, which they sometimes were, it was because they wrote like men, Grinberg argues. Imitating the men, they went into intellectual combat. They could be ruthless in their use of parody and invective, and they became a part of the club. After World War II, Susan Sontag would join their ranks. 

Women paid a price for becoming New York intellectuals. The sexual politics of the period gave spouses (such as Diana Trilling and Midge Decter) an entrée, although more as wives than as writers, and pegged those who were not married as romantic or sexual objects. And there was the outright sexism, the assumption held by the men that women did not measure up. Norman Mailer felt no compunction about dismissing Mary McCarthy’s 1963 novel, The Group, as “a trivial lady’s novel,” a turn of phrase intended to be doubly insulting. Grinberg characterizes the writing of the New York intellectual women in the 1950s and 1960s as a performance: Mary McCarthy “performed secular Jewish masculinity through her polemical writings and her fiction,” Grinberg writes. These women were playing a part, Grinberg implies, in a script that men had written. 

Grinberg focuses in on two women in particular, Midge Decter and Diana Trilling. Decter, who was married to Norman Podhoretz, would travel to the right. Starting in the 1950s, she wrote extensively about gender, advancing the claim that men and women should pursue maturity, by which she meant marry and have children. She continued in this vein in the 1960s and 1970s, becoming, Grinberg writes, “arguably the most formidable anti-feminist in the country.” At the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C., she synthesized the defense of “family values” with hawkish prescriptions for American foreign policy. With Decter (and Podhoretz) in mind, Grinberg notes that gender “links the domestic and foreign politics of neoconservatism over the longue durée.” The valorization of manliness guided their private lives and their views on America’s role in the world.

Diana Trilling never went over to the right. Once she and her husband arrived at a liberal anti-communism in the 1940s, they stayed put, but Grinberg’s interest in Diana Trilling revolves less around her politics than her manner of writing. In the 1970s, Trilling keenly watched as second-wave feminism “fundamentally challenged the New York intellectuals’ ideology of secular Jewish masculinity.” She kept some distance from feminism per se. Then, after her husband’s death in 1975, less and less beholden to the old combative ethos, she explored new modes and modalities of writing. In Grinberg’s lexicon, Trilling ceased writing like a man; she wrote as herself. In 1981 she at last published “a book of my own,” Mrs. Harris: The Death of the Scarsdale Diet Doctor, a finely written venture into new journalism.

In the 1990s, “the distinction between writing like a woman or a man no longer existed” in the general culture, Grinberg concludes. By this she means two things: that the male-female binary had become less powerful, less all-consuming than it had been in the early twentieth century and that women writing for women (especially in magazines) was no longer dismissed as unserious, placing less pressure on women to “write like men.” “That owes much to the efforts of second-wave feminism,” Grinberg writes. “But also, to the legacy of the women New York intellectuals.”

Grinberg has a persuasive explanation for the demise of the New York intellectuals. It was not that intellectual life ceased in the United States in 1975, when Lionel Trilling died. It was not that the political anger caused by the Vietnam War or by Watergate left them permanently broken. The level of political anger from the 1930s to the 1970s was continuous: These intellectuals were always fighting with each other. It is not that assimilation into an anti-intellectual America eroded their intensity. In Grinberg’s view, the New York intellectuals faded away because of their inflexible maleness. The world changed around them; ideas changed, politics changed, publishing changed.

Grinberg’s argument is less convincing, however, when one considers the range and variety that the New York intellectuals showed. Grinberg’s accent on aggression and on the putatively masculine gives us only part of the picture. They certainly did thrive on polemics, as they did on political jousting. But the New York intellectuals were also besotted with literature, and when they wrote about literature they usually did so with grace, with wit, with sensitivity, and with any number of traits that are not associated with stereotypical masculinity. The greatest New York intellectual of them all, Lionel Trilling, never fit the “write like a man” mold. “Trilling embodied a less combinative masculine persona than most New York intellectuals,” Grinberg acknowledges. Likewise, Irving Howe could be brutal to his political opponents, but he was never brutal in his considerations of Sherwood Anderson, William Faulkner, or Anton Chekhov. He was capable of exquisite literary criticism.

The greatest legacy of the New York intellectuals did not reside any particular style, but in their contributions to the tradition of the American essay. They did not tend to excel at writing books. (Irving Howe’s study of Jewish-American history, World of Our Fathers, was an exception.) They did not excel at writing fiction or poetry. They excelled at writing essays, in which they dramatized ideas or investigated the workings of art and culture. They brought novel vernacular and audibly Jewish tonalities into the American essay, whether it was Lionel Trilling writing about Wordsworth and the rabbis or Susan Sontag in her slyly wisecracking notes on camp. Some of this prose was chest-thumpingly assertive; much of it was not. The larger argument of Writing Like a Man and some of the book’s individual chapters can give the false impression that the “combative” paradigm was all there was.

The deepest, most enduring irony of Grinberg’s fascinating history is the irony of assimilation. The New York intellectuals were the children of outsiders and the children of a persecuted minority. All of them worked hard to succeed in America, and America could not resist them. They succeeded with a vengeance, growing into lives that had to have been unrecognizable, even unimaginable, to their parents and grandparents. Their assimilation turned them into Americans, while allowing them to instill Jewish traits in American culture. Grinberg writes that their struggles “illuminate modern American intellectual life more broadly.” If their contribution to modern American intellectual life appears to have faded, it may simply be because they did so much to shape it.