‘These magazines keep alive the ideal of the independent intellectual’

For many years now I have been addicted to the “little magazines” of the US. The severest of recession-era stringencies won’t stop me from renewing my subscriptions to many of them – more than I can read. And on every visit to St Mark’s Bookshop in New York I am still drawn moth-like to the shelves where the literary and intellectual quarterlies – Raritan, Agni, VQR, the American Scholar, Tin House, Salmagundi, and the more infrequent but always stimulating n+1 – stand splendidly arrayed.

It seems a miracle that their small circulations and low budgets have survived our noisy digital millennium – many of them are still not online. But anxieties about their precarious state should not be exaggerated. For little magazines in America have always drawn their energy from their marginal position within a commercial society: at the height of their influence, they offered a sense of kinship to a minority recoiling from mass politics and culture. They gained, too, their critical edge by using the more insidiously complacent forms of middlebrow culture as a foil.

In the process, they managed to inaugurate some of America’s most important traditions of aesthetic and political radicalism. American modernism could not have come into being without such enabling forums as Others, the Dial, and the Little Review. The voice of the “public intellectual” of the 30s and 40s would have gone unheard had it not been amplified by magazines such as the Greenwich Village socialist monthly the Masses, the Partisan Review, or Dwight Macdonald’s Politics, whose 5,000 subscribers regularly read some of the most passionate writings of Orwell, Camus, Victor Serge, Simone Weil and Mary McCarthy.

The heyday of the anti-specialist, wide-ranging writer seems long gone. The onslaught of new and complex information, the academic and thinktank cults of expertise, not to mention the impossibility of bohemia in the age of high rents, have conspired to assassinate the public intellectual. The prestige of this admirable figure has been usurped by the narrowly empirical literary and political critic, the blogger, the policy wonk, the partisan hack and much worse: Foreign Policy’s recent list of 100 top global thinkers includes Dick Cheney. Even some of the more respectable large-circulation periodicals have been absorbed into the usually conservative institutional life of the US, while succumbing to the broader tendencies – indifference to political principle and philistine reverence for success and celebrity – of a literary culture driven by creative-writing schools, chain bookstores and novelty-seeking publishers.

All, however, is not lost. Reading Oranges & Peanuts for Sale by Eliot Weinberger and The Men in My Life by Vivian Gornick, two recent collections of non-fiction, made me think that, while the public intellectual may be a dodo, little magazines have kept alive the ideal of the independent intellectual – someone relatively immune to social pressures and literary fashions, who can still uphold the venturesome spirit of American literature. Weinberger, whose What I Heard About Iraq may be the most eloquent artistic witness to America’s catastrophic recent blundering, has long been one of America’s most virtuosic essayists, writing as grippingly about Chinese poetry and the psalms as well as Borges (whose non-fiction he has translated).

Two recent essays on Susan Sontag and EB White show him at his iconoclastic best. Weinberger admires Sontag’s achievement as a synthesiser of European ideas; but he also objects to her many ridiculous assertions (for instance: “One hardly finds any more, at least among the young, the distinctive cinephilic love of movies”). Reading White’s celebrated essay Here Is New York, Weinberger discovers that the New Englander, revisiting a war-affected global metropolis in 1948, remained an incorrigible nostalgist, who described the very constricted Manhattan of his youth in the 1920s, where Yiddish and Irish accents are hardly heard, and where Harlem is reduced to two words (“voodoo charms”).

Writing about two other revered figures, Saul Bellow and Philip Roth, Gornick boldly dwells on an egregious yet little-remarked aspect of their autobiographical fiction: the all-consuming “self-regard” that rules out “sympathy, much less compassion, for any character on the page other than the narrator himself”. In particular, their women characters are usually “agents of mortal threat, incomprehensible punishment, deliberate degradation”.

Gornick’s is no commonplace feminist complaint. She writes sensitively about the Jewish immigrant experience that gave the early writings of Bellow and Roth their special tenderness and joy. Status and success, she concludes, in the gentile world eventually exhausted this material, leaving a lot of pent-up rage. “Beginning with Herzog and Portnoy,” Gornick writes, “theirs was a literature that screamed: ‘Don’t tell me I don’t run things around here!’ – only it was screaming it at the women its authors slept with.”

Comparing James Baldwin to VS Naipaul (an inspired pairing), Gornick describes how both writers were “released into a genius for writing by the force and influence” of a “bottomless rage over having been born outsiders in a world dominated by whites”. She concludes her praise of Naipaul by wondering why his ceaselessly bleak analyses provoke the “dilemma of an attraction that does not generate love” – love and gratitude of the kind that she feels towards Baldwin. Could it be that while Naipaul relentlessly accuses “humanity of being the sum of its disabilities”, Baldwin turns inward to observe “how he himself had been formed and deformed by those very same disabilities”? Certainly, Baldwin’s work has a visionary cast, making it likely to “deepen the self-understanding of the responsive reader anywhere, any time”.

This is the kind of desanctified criticism little magazines have always excelled at: reconsiderations of often canonical figures that dispense with plot summaries and prose connoisseurship, and move quickly beyond their declared subjects toward a larger moral, social or psychological insight. The light it sheds on literature is brighter than that of the post-publication review, theory-addled academic appraisal or bookchat on blogs, Facebook and Twitter. Notwithstanding the new virtual communities, little magazines continue to be the main sponsor of the vital US tradition of intellectual dissent, which one suspects may be needed more than ever in our busy new century.

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