U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Vanderlan Responds to Haberski

I want to thank Ray Haberski for his thoughtful and positive review of Intellectuals Incorporated. Haberski judges the book important, he captures the general thrust of the argument, and he effectively chooses some of the more significant figures – MacLeish, Macdonald, and Agee – to illustrate his points. Most gratifying to me, Haberski finds the portrayals of the individual writers to be compellingly complicated. I hoped to offer a book that advanced a provocative argument about the place of intellectuals in mid-century America while still retaining a sense of the messy peculiarities of each writer’s life. It is encouraging to see Haberski respond to both aspirations.

Haberski rightfully describes my book as a “portrait of the abdication of intellectuals to the ethos of the market.” Ironically, I would add, the abdication took place not so much on the part of the writers who struggled to work for Luce and his magazines – writers such as MacLeish, Agee, Whyte and others – but instead by those who insisted that intellectuals must not work for mass culture magazines. Writers such as Irving Howe, C. Wright Mills, and Dwight Macdonald spent the post war years insisting that mass culture was hostile to intellectual life. As Howe put it in 1952, when intellectuals “became absorbed into” organizations such as Time Inc. “they not only lose their traditional rebelliousness but to one extent or another they cease to function as intellectuals.” This is a familiar argument, and Haberski is right to suggest that combatting that notion lies at the heart of my motivation in writing the book. Too often, as I try to demonstrate, such criticism left intellectuals cut off from the main currents of society.

Haberski understands this. At other times, however, Haberski comes close to echoing the assumptions I try to call into question. Noting the many works produced by Time Inc. intellectuals for other publications, Haberski concludes “it was their moonlighting that gave them integrity.” I disagree, in two ways. First, I seek to show that is was possible – difficult, but possible – to write with integrity for Time and Fortune. My book is an argument against the idea that it is necessary to discard your values in order to work for an organization. Second, while it is true that the best work by these intellectuals usually appeared in other places, I repeatedly show how that work was crucially and necessarily tied to their journalism in the Luce magazines. The examples Haberski cites, Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Hersey’s Hiroshima, Whyte’s Organization Man, all owe their existence to each author’s journalism for Time and Fortune. Writing as journalists for Luce was crucial to each writer, selecting their topic, informing their technique, and frequently providing a practice of conventional journalism to argue against.

At the risk of sounding churlish, one note in Harberski’s review caught me off guard. He complains that Luce “plays a minor” role in the book, noting that he does not even appear in the index. Haberski is right. Luce does not appear in the index, but the reason is quite the opposite of what Haberski suggests. The publisher’s index guidelines suggest not constructing index entries for the main subjects of a book, and given that Luce’s name appears on 207 pages of the book (ah, the fun of searchable pdf.’s), we decided to leave him out. The decision seemed reasonable at the time; now, given Haberski’s reading, not so much.

More seriously, though, Haberski is half right to note that Luce’s actual role in the book is somewhat minor, especially (and unsurprisingly) compared with Alan Brinkley’s recent biography. Luce figures quite heavily in the early portion of Intellectuals Incorporated (much of the second chapter, on the creation of Time and Fortune, is devoted to him). But he does retreat to a less central role once his magazines are established, and this is purposeful. It is my contention that Luce was less important to the content of his magazine’s than previous accounts suggest.

Careful readers of Brinkley’s biography might have noted a paradox. Like most previous scholars, Brinkley treats Time, Fortune, and Life magazines as reflecting Luce’s view of the world. The magazines, he asserts, were an accurate representation of Luce’s beliefs. At the same time, Brinkley acknowledges the many, many times Luce complained that his editors and writers ignored his wishes, publishing views they knew he opposed. Brinkley never reconciles the paradox, but it disappears if we take seriously the efforts of the editors and writers whom were actually publishing the magazines on a weekly and monthly basis. Much of the time Luce was absent from the daily fights over the contents of his magazines, and even when he was present he was only one voice, and not always the most important voice, in the discussion. Recognizing this is important, I believe, in better understanding the possibilities for individual intervention, even within the heart of the so-called culture industries.

At the heart of the neo-liberalism discussion, and at times, seemingly, at the heart of our entire contemporary culture, lies the frustration that the logic of free market economics seems so all encompassing, so unassailable. And at the same time, corporate power seems so pervasive, often cloaked by comforting images of individual entrepreneurs and efficient profit maximizers. Haberski sees something “brilliant and tragic” in my story “because one can see the last vestiges of a community willing to reflect on itself in light of imperatives and values larger than its own self-interest.” I agree, though I am unconvinced it must be that way, unconvinced that the sorts of arguments contesting self-interest offered by the intellectuals I write about – arguments based on notions of service, of responsibility, of factual and moral inquiry, of representation – cannot still find purchase in our world.

Haberski leads his review with Archibald MacLeish. Writing in “The Irresponsibles,” MacLeish criticizes those writers who seek to wall themselves off from the larger world, either through devotion to the private claims of art or the parochial demands of scholarship. He offers an unfashionable bold assertion of the role of the poet and the power of ideas: “poetry alone imagines, and imagining creates, the world than men wish to live in and make true.” We don’t have to subscribe to MacLeish’s idealism to recognize the power in that conviction. Or to seek to recover its power.