U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Delightfully interesting

I love archives. I am forever finding amazing things I never would have thought of in them. Sometimes it’s a slog, but never without rewards. I thought I would share one of the rewards with you–my favorite definition of an intellectual ever.

Maxwell Bodenheim in the Dallas Texas News, July 20, 1924, in a symposium edited by Walter Holbrook on “Who are the Young Intellectuals?”

Editors note: We have been writing a number of authors, liberal and conservative to ask what they mean by the term “Young Intellectuals” and whom they consider representative of the school. This week we print Maxwell Bodenheim’s reply, which he himself characterizes as ‘at least……….a straightforward, ironical and vicious departure from the cut-and-dried statements of limited prejudice and elated misconceptions which you have been publishing in your symposium (the fault is not yours, of course)” Mr. Bodenheim is a poet and novelist of highly modern tendencies.

[…]

Intellect is a half-logical, half-imaginative struggle against false exteriors, surface semblances, decrepit plausibilities, emotional uproars, and outworn idols accepted and worshiped by large groups of people. It is thought and poetry refusing to be hoodwinked by the realistic pretenses and clamors of life, and forever setting up newer and more daring explanations of the motives, meanings, and essences concealed by life. It is the exquisite, skillful, and at times almost venomous attack on the mental inertia, and emotional complacency which appeals to a majority of human beings, whether they are Socialists or Monarchists. It has little respect for inflexible solutions and ecstatic prohibitions, and it ignores them in favor of an endlessly searching forward motion. It has therefore been disliked in all ages and by hosts of critics, from the early Greek rhapsodists down to H.L. Mencken.

A few different reasons I like this document so much. First of all, this symposium was taking place in a Texas newspaper. It’s hard to imagine a similar dialogue today. Perhaps this is a tiny moment when “intellectual” was not a bad word in the States? More importantly, I like Bodenheim’s definition because it does not automatically make “intellect” and “emotions” utter enemies. It also explains why intellectuals tend toward that impulse labeled disparagingly as “elitist.” Thoughts?

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. You’ve dug up a fascinating bit with this Dallas symposium, Lauren. How did you find it? I presume it was in someone’s papers.

    I did not know much about Bodenheim, who seems to have had a sad denouement (I am relying on the handy Wikipedia entry). It reflects a few things about 1920s predilections, I think: First, the love of popular symposia around hot questions of the day — whether books of essays on a common theme, or newspaper or magazine question-and-response type articles (or running series) as seems to be the case here. Also, Bodenheim reflects the iconoclastic mentality of proto-modernist critics and artists — ready to go to battle with the Philistine masses of Babbit’s America. His willingness to include Mencken in his take-down indicates his true modernist commitments — a literary mode for which Mencken had little love.

    I do think “intellectuals” may, indeed, have been a bad word for many (in Texas and elsewhere) as well as “high-brow” and “intelligenstia” and other related terms. The inquiry about the “Young Intellectuals” may well have reflected a controversy over a new band of critics of mainstream American culture — best exemplified by the very dour “Civilization in the United States” edited by Harold Stearns. To many, such high-minded critics were pretentious and suspiciously un-American, just as today.

  2. Thanks for all your reflections on the piece!

    I found it in J.E. Spingarn’s papers at the NYPL. He kept a scrapbook of all the newspaper clippings he appeared in (Later in the piece Bodenheim names Spingarn as one of the Young Intellectuals, along with Ezra Pound, T.S. Elliot and several others). Before Spingarn became president of the NAACP, he was a professor of comparative literature at Columbia and introduced Benedetto Croce to the US.

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