U.S. Intellectual History Blog

"The Ladder To Nowhere": The New Inquiry, Recent Cultural History, And A Little Bit More

Alex Williams recounted some recent cultural history in yesterday’s online New York Times* with an article on the founding of The New Inquiry. You might remember that Casey Nelson Blake and the rest of the panelists from the 2010 USIH Conference plenary finale, titled “Intellectual History for What?”, published each of their pieces in The New Inquiry (via Scribd). This honored both the spirit that drove both their panel (i.e. the place of intellectuals, and historian-intellectuals, in the academy) and the founding of The New Inquiry.**

Returning to Williams’ write-up on the founding of TNI, I think many USIH contributors and followers will relate to the sense of alienation many “unestablished” youthful thinkers have in relation to the academy and the current intellectual establishment.

The article begins with brief bios of a few TNI founders—Rebecca Chapman, Helena Fitzgerald, and Willie Osterweil. There are several other editors, and their names populate the bottom of this page. But here’s a slice from the opening (bolds mine):

Willie Osterweil, 25, an aspiring novelist who graduated magna cum laude from Cornell in 2009, found himself sweeping Brooklyn movie theaters for $7.25 an hour. And the closest that Helena Fitzgerald, a recent Columbia graduate, got was an interview at a top magazine, during which the editor dismissed her literary career dreams, telling her, “C’mon, that’s not realistic.”

Sounds all too familiar, I’m sure, to those highly-qualified-but-young historians making ends meet by being “subway” or commuter “scholars”–traipsing about the landscape of higher education, teaching surveys at institutions known more for training than cultivating the life of the mind.

Williams’ narrative continues:

[This] explains, in a way, how they all ended up on a crisp November night, huddled together at an invitation-only party at a cramped, bookshelved apartment on the Upper East Side. It was the weekly meeting of The New Inquiry, a scrappy online journal and roving clubhouse that functions as an Intellectuals Anonymous of sorts for desperate members of the city’s literary underclass barred from the publishing establishment. Fueled by B.Y.O.B. bourbon, impressive degrees and the angst that comes with being young and unmoored, members spend their hours filling the air with talk of Edmund Wilson and poststructuralism.

Desperate? Perhaps. Scrappy? Absolutely. …And what’s wrong with BYOB gatherings? 🙂 …Continuing:

Lately, they have been catching the eye of the literary elite, earning praise that sounds as extravagantly brainy as the thesis-like articles that The New Inquiry uploads every few days.

Nice. I’m sure it’s the only goal of all the editors to leave behind this juvenile format for the luxury and safety of more established modes of intellectual being.

And here’s the passage that inspired this post’s title:

There was no thought of turning a profit. But who cared? No one was making any money on the traditional path, anyway. “There’s something incredibly liberating,” Ms. Rosenfelt said, “when you realize that climbing that ladder is a ladder to nowhere.” Ms. Chapman added: “My whole life, I had been doing everything everybody told me. I went to the right school. I got really good grades. I got all the internships. Then, I couldn’t do anything.”

That phrase—“a ladder to nowhere”—will no doubt echo through my mind, as well as the minds of many others, as we await word in relation to our own job searches, whether in academia or beyond. Though I have almost fifteen years on Rosenfelt, I share her sense of alienation. I can confirm her disaffection with “the process”, which is a bramble of entanglements continually adding just one thing more to the requirements needed to “arrive.” Even now popular literature dissects “emerging adults” while America’s corporate and intellectual structures steadily delay that very cohort’s integration into adult structures.


Despite its slacker-revolutionary spirit, The New Inquiry is starting to tiptoe toward the publishing mainstream. …Even though staff members routinely serve up gloomy eulogies over the “death of print,” the publication plans to roll out a quarterly print edition next year, along with an iPad magazine for $2 a month. Its breakout stars are even starting to climb publishing’s “ladder to nowhere.”


This is not to say that the generational angst fueling The New Inquiry is likely to vanish soon. At the most recent salon two weeks ago, Will Canine, the operations director, showed up with 5 o’clock shadow after spending 35 hours in jail following his arrest at the Occupy Wall Street protests. Tim Barker, a junior at Columbia, said he was drawn to the salons for the chance to “discuss ideas at an extremely high level, without worrying about status or material support of traditional institutions: publishing houses or universities.” He added, though, that while he aspires to be a history professor, he was “extremely conscious of the contraction of job opportunities” in publishing and academia.

It’s great to see a historian in the mix here. And it goes to my point above about how the spirit behind TNI cuts across the life of the mind.

Read the whole article here.

As a postscript, I hope I wasn’t the only one who found the title of the article—“The Literary Cubs”—condescending. It denigrates the youthfulness of the founders, and belittles their intellectual sensibilities. It makes their work seem “cute.” By implication, the title also (accidentally?) turns Internet publishing into yet one more right of passage needed before one arrives at professional adulthood.

I’m sure that TNI editors, upon seeing the title, felt the same impulse of exasperation—to put it nicely—as I did. We all know that EXPERIENCE is the only route to wisdom, yes? And wisdom is not to found in the alienation of youth and disaffection with the establishment; only experience will keep us from repeating the mistakes of the past. Right. – TL

* The article was published in today’s print edition under the title “Literary Cubs.”

**Apart from Blake, who teaches at Columbia University, the rest of the plenary consisted of George Cotkin (Cal Poly), Rochelle Gurstein (Independent Scholar), Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn (Syracuse University), Wilfred McClay (University of Tennessee), and David Steigerwald (The Ohio State University). Each of the panelists released those essays for re-publication in a collection, loosely based on last year’s conference, that is currently being considered for publication by Palgrave Macmillan. The editors of that volume include the aforementioned Lasch-Quinn and McClay, as well as Hunter Heyck, Julian Nemeth, and myself.

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. While I usually don’t see anything on TNI that I find particularly fascinating, I’m always impressed by its originality and ambition. (Plus, the design is quite easy on the eyes.) Sometimes it is much more interesting than what The New Republic or The Nation offers. I’m proud that my generation can list it among our accomplishments.

    Too bad these talented editors have had a hard time on the job market. But sometimes you have to go it alone.

  2. Condescending? Maybe. But I have a hard time feeling it’s undeserved. This is an “only in (the) New York (Times)” story: overeducated, underemployed Ivy Leaguers having a hard time breaking into the New York publishing industry. So they commiserate by publishing their own stuff online and meeting every so often to drink wine and talk about books 99/100s of Earth’s population has never heard of. Are we sure they graduated from college yet?

    This is what the story boils down to: ZOMG, bastions of white privilege aren’t quite what they used to be! Run a story in the Grey Lady! It’s officially a national crisis! Sorry, the rest of America doesn’t care. This is almost as ridiculous as that moronic Kate Bolick essay about single women that the Atlantic disgraced itself by publishing last month (for this month’s issue). That too committed the logical fallacy of assuming Manhattan is the whole of creation.

    Lots of other twenty-five-year olds who don’t have literary aspirations (or pedigrees) that appeal to the cultural pretensions of Times readers also are having a devil of a time finding gainful employment. But they don’t talk about Virginia Woolf, Ezra Pound, or have a fancy online journal.

    Bully for them, I suppose, but framing this as a story about how these scrappy Ivy Leaguers had to start their own journal because of how hard it is to find work in the New York pubishing business is absolutely about the most tone deaf one you could pick. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but it’s enough to make me feel some sympathy for the Occupy crowd.

  3. Varad: My focus was on intellectual work, ideas, alienation, and employment, not strictly the age nor credentials of those in question. If anything, I was impressed that they were trying to take matters into their own hands while also working at below-minimum wage jobs. They hadn’t sold out on their beliefs to head back for an MBA, law school, or a computer science training. – TL

  4. Tim,

    All of those would have been great ways to frame this story. None of them, though, are NYT arts section ways to frame it. Alas.

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