New York Intellectuals

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NEW YORK INTELLECTUALS. The "New York Intellectuals" —an interacting cluster of scholars, editors, and essayists—formed an influential force in American intellectual life from the 1930s to at least the 1970s. Nevertheless, they promoted no cohesive body of ideas or singular purpose. They did not name themselves butw ere labeled by others, sometimes with a mixture of admiration and resentment. And no event or common project defined either a beginning or an end to their collective experience. Yet as an evolving circle, the New York Intellectuals brought to American discourse a seriousness about the import of ideas, a readiness for polemic, an engagement with (though not necessarily an adoption of) radical and modernist thought, an interest in theory and in European perspectives, and an attentiveness to one another that was distinctive.

Attracted at first to communism in the 1930s, members of the circle often came together around their anti-Stalinism, particularly through the rebirth of Partisan Review in 1937 and the defense of Leon Trotsky from charges made during the Moscow Trials. The politics of the Left, whether they stood in sympathy or opposition, remained a preoccupying concern. The majority of the New York Intellectuals were Jewish and the children of immigrants. Comfortable neither with ethnic particularism nor assimilation, they joined with non-Jews to develop a more cosmopolitan intellectual culture and found a creative edge in the tensions between individual and national identity. In addition to the literary commitments that carried particular force in the 1930s, the New York Intellectuals staked their claims in philosophy, analysis of the visual arts, and, especially after World War II, the social sciences.

The New York Intellectuals favored the essay, sprinkled with wide-ranging references, lifting individual reactions toward broader significance, and seeking definite leverage on questions of cultural and political import. Magazines and journals provided primary outlets for published work: Partisan Review, while edited by Philip Rahv and William Phillips; politics, Dwight Macdonald's 1940s antiwar magazine; Commentary, replacing the Contemporary Jewish Record; Dissent, founded by Irving Howe; and even the New York Review of Books, whose first issue (1963) was dominated by members of the New York Intellectual circle. Influential books, including Lionel Trilling's The Liberal Imagination (1950) and Daniel Bell's The End of Ideology (1961), were often collections of essays.

The circle divided over McCarthyism and the Cold War, proved skeptical of student radicalism in the 1960s, and lost its identity in the 1970s through the death of older members and the identification of some younger members with neoconservatism.


Bloom, Alexander. Prodigal Sons: The New York Intellectuals and Their World. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

Cooney, Terry A. The Rise of the New York Intellectuals: Partisan Review and Its Circle. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1986.

Jumonville, Neil. Critical Crossings: The New York Intellectuals in Postwar America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991.

Terry A.Cooney

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New York Intellectuals

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New York Intellectuals