U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Lacy On McLemee On Russell Jacoby’s The Last Intellectuals

Over the past twelve months or so I’ve become a big fan of the retrospective review. This past year I wrote one on James Patterson’s Grand Expectations: it was recently accepted for publication at the Columbia Journal of American Studies (online—it’s not there yet). I really, really wanted to write a twenty-year review of Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind. I couldn’t work that project into my schedule, so I tried to draw your eyes to Professor Lazere’s retrospective at Insidehighered.com.

With reviewing old books on my mind, I ran across this jewel by Scott McLemee. McLemee is an intellectual-at-large who writes a regular series for Insidehighered.com called “Intellectual Affairs.” The jewel to which I referred, however, was posted at his own website: it is a twenty-year retrospective review of Russell Jacoby’s The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe. Here is the thesis of McLemee’s review:


The Last Intellectuals did not celebrate the cultural life of the 1950s or deplore the excesses that followed. Jacoby was not arguing that there had been a golden age and a sudden fall. Neither was assigning culpability all that high on the book’s agenda. On the contrary, much of the book was devoted to saying quite the opposite. If the writers and critics working in the ’50s did not serve as models for those who came after, that was because the conditions that fostered them—affordable rent, an abundance of magazines open to certain kinds of reviewing and essay writing, and the tendency of society to produce “surplus intellectuals” unable to find employment in well-established institutions— were already disappearing. Or rather, new and altogether more comfortable circumstances were emerging.


Do check it out. Jacoby’s is simply the best book for understanding the phenomena that are the so-called “public intellectuals.” As McLemee also notes, Jacoby’s work is much better than Richard Posner’s sociological study of public intellectuals.

But, on the review and Jacoby’s book: Are there no unattached intellectuals today? Do they all desire to become, or simply become, folded into the establishment? Is intellectual objectivity impossible due to material circumstances, or is it because of philosophical impossibilities (i.e. the destructive circle of language)?

Are intellectual bloggers, for instance, without “home” institutions a manifestation of the needed critical/intellectual margin? Does the status of aspirants give them a critical edge? Or does it make them conform more tightly in order to gain needed material security? Personally, I think it’s probably the latter. – TL


PS: In searching for a picture of the latest cover of Jacoby’s book, I ran across another retrospective review by Joshua Glenn at Boston.com’s “Brainiac” weblog.