The New Intellectuals

One night this spring, the New York Institute for the Humanities hosted a gathering to discuss, as the title of the event put it, "new public intellectuals." At the front of a crowded room, seated at a rectangular table, were three paragons of this ascendant breed — Nikil Saval, co-editor of n+1; Sarah Leonard, a senior editor at The Nation; and Jon Baskin, co-editor of The Point. All are under 40, not pursuing careers in academe, and integral to what the event’s organizers hailed as a "renaissance in cultural journalism."

It is a notably upbeat claim, especially when compared with the hand-wringing that typically accompanies talk of public intellectuals in America, who seem always to be in the act of vanishing. The few who remain pale in comparison to the near-mythic minds that roamed the streets of New York in the 1930s and 1940s, when rents were cheap, polemics were harsh, and politics were radical. Or so goes the conventional wisdom. What happened? Intellectuals who couldn’t survive as freelance writers — and as New York gentrified, who could? — became professors. By the 1960s, few nonacademic intellectuals remained. Careerism and specialization gradually opened up a gulf between intellectuals and the public. The sturdy prose of Edmund Wilson and Irving Howe gave way, by the mid-90s, to the knotted gender theorizing of Judith Butler and the cult-studies musings of Andrew Ross.