U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Some Final Thoughts on Pells’ The Liberal Mind in a Conservative Age

LMCAThis is not a book review. Rather, what follows are somewhat idiosyncratic thoughts on my very close rereading of Pells’ LMCA. I’ve partially covered this book into a few prior posts. My goal here is to finish up Pells and move on fully to John Guillory.

By way of review, Pells’ thesis is as follows (bolds mine)*:

American intellectuals [in the 1940s and 1950s] confronted a series of crises for which their prior experiences furnished few guidelines. …Intellectuals brought to this turbulence a special set of memories and assumptions. Although they did not constitute a single or unified generation…they all shared a disenchantment with the political and cultural radicalism of the 1930s together with the felt need to ask new questions about and explore the new tensions of a ‘postindustrial’ society. Thus their work was suffused with the conviction that the troubles of the postwar years were very different from those of the past. …They insisted on the uniqueness of their concerns if not the originality of their arguments. Because of these suppositions, they neither proposed nor trusted any sweeping solutions to the difficulties of their time. …They hoped the citizen might assert his individuality and protect his freedom within the constraints of the existing social order. …They unexpectedly created the vocabulary and the mental framework with which the next generation of Americans assaulted the nation’s political institutions and social values in the 1960s(pp. viii-ix).

Other important thesis-related passages occur on the following pages: 27 (top), 116 (only full para), 247 (last para)-248 (full), 339-340 (one para), 345 (bottom para). Each of these passages connects the thesis to an important topic or theme in the book: alienation, conformity, cooperation, community, individualism, quests for identity and self-fulfillment, concern for culture/psychology over economics, conservatism, McCarthyism, youth, youth culture, silence/dissent, “common outlook on foreign policy,” “faith in Democratic party,” etc.

In a comment to one of my posts Lora Burnett argued that Pells created heroes and villains in the process narrating this age. Here’s what Pells had to say about that in the book: “In the course of these pages, I am frequently skeptical about their ideas and positions. …But I also admire enormously much of what they said. I consider them neither complacent nor mean-spirited defenders of the status quo. …I think they offered more provocative and imaginative criticisms of their society than one can find in the manifestos of either the 1930s or the 1960s. [I find their works] superior in quality to any comparable collection of works produced in America during other periods of the twentieth century” (pp. ix-x).

If I could carry on this argument a bit further, I’d argue that Pells has, potentially, more heroes than villains. He clearly favors the writings and works of people like Mary McCarthy, Dwight Macdonald, Richard Hofstadter, C. Wright Mills, Hannah Arendt, Daniel Bell, Louis Hartz (who does deserve a better reputation than he has), and Dan Boorstin. But Pells makes the reader aware of the warts of these figures. His admiration is not slavish, but he identifies with their unfinished intellectual projects. As he said: “Those of us who came afterward remain in their debt even as we try to transcend their perspective” (p. x).

When I began LMCA, I grew concerned after the first few chapters that I was going to be continually fed intellectual discourse from the pages of New Republic, Partisan Review, Commentary, Dissent, etc. I didn’t remember this from my prior reading of Pells, and it felt myopic fairly quickly. And the topics covered were foreign affairs, which are not always my favorite. I was pleased that both problems melted away after the first few chapters—products of my close reading and not my poor memory of my prior encounter with the book.

When one does the “grad school skim” or gutting, one picks up the thesis, themes, and major topics. But it is during one’s slow reading that the full experience and meaning of a book is absorbed. I now feel close to Pells. I understand how much his story—whatever his admiration for the historical actors—was a product of the moment he chose to confront and how he framed that moment. During my first read I didn’t absorb how unique Pells’ intellectuals believed their moment. The old answers just wouldn’t suffice. This caused an unmooring, for instance, in terms of the freedom to dissent even as liberal intellectuals advocated for even more legal respect of the individual. Pells’ intellectuals felt slightly out of the frame of American history even as they used history (e.g. Schlesinger, Hartz, Boorstin) to attempt to understand the moment. This is probably why American Studies felt so attractive–being a interdisciplinary hybrid used to bring all knowledge and methods together to understand the foreign and domestic uniqueness of the early Cold War period.

Speaking of the period’s uniqueness and its class of elite intellectuals, I wished that Pells had spent some time trying to understand the role of meritocracy in this period. Given the fact that society would be opening up a bit for white males (via GI Bill) and white women (given their out-of-home work during the war), and that the 1940s and 1950s set the stage for a larger opening in the 1960s, the transition to and inculcation of “merit” would’ve been a worthy exploration. Pells broached the topic when, recounting the thought of Daniel Bell, Bell noted (in Pells’ words) that the “transformation of American capitalism [from industrialism to late, state-sponsored capitalism] meant that one’s access to the boardroom depended not on lineage but on education, ambition, and efficient performance—qualifications potentially available to anyone” (p. 142). What did merit mean to Macdonald, Mills, McCarthy, Hofstadter, Riesman, Hartz, Whyte, etc.? Was it an illusion? That was most certainly Mills’ argument. If Pells’ actors simply didn’t discuss it, that by itself would have been noteworthy.**

There were several topics that this book covered even better than I had remembered: consensus and the consensus historians (pp. 144-149), Hofstadter Louis Hartz (pp. 150-161), Macdonald (all over the place), Riesman and The Lonely Crowd (pp. 238-247), Alger Hiss (pp. 270-276), the Rosenbergs (pp. 277-280), Sidney Hook (all over), and C. Wright Mills (pp. 249-261—covered in a prior post). And Pells’ coverage of HUAC was as thorough as I had remembered.

I’m sure this has been covered in other reviews, but Pells’ coverage of race the Civil Rights Movement is flat disappointing. Both arise late in the narrative (pp. 387-390), making both topics feel like an afterthought. And perhaps both were to his set of 1950s intellectuals. But a better analysis of those topics would have most assuredly tempered Pells’ initial enthusiasm as expressed in the book’s Preface. A better integration of both would have likely prevented Pells from judging, rather simply, that the Civil Rights Movement “floundered” (p. 390) in the late 1960s because it did not adequately address “more complicated issues of jobs, housing, and education.” The judgment skips over the energy, pain, and sacrifice required to accomplish the needed political ends. One wishes for more analysis of Fifties intellectuals in relation to the actions and writings of men like A. Philip Randolph, Ralph Ellison (i.e. Invisible Man, 1953)***, and others involved in jazz (esp. Bebop) during the decade. But most of this analysis has occurred since in too many other works to list here. And, though I don’t know where, I’m sure that Pells has explained elsewhere his relative neglect of these topics in LMCA.

In any case, I’m most happy to have closely reread The Liberal Mind in a Conservative Age. There’s a reason why it seems that every writer and reader of this blog is familiar with the book (as Dan Wickberg noted in his recent three-book review, “Modernisms Endless”).**** I’m especially happy to have done it on the heels of having read George Nash’s The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945 (covered here in several March-April 2013 posts). I feel fully reintroduced to most every important white male intellectual from the 1940s, 1950s, and early 1960s. That sounds more snarky than I meant it. Their ideas mattered and matter still, so I thank Richard Pells for his work. – TL

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*I’ll be citing herein from the 1985 hardback first edition published by Harper & Row.

** Is there another intellectual historian who has covered the idea of meritocracy, in America, during this period? Or do I have to go to Chris Hayes for this? FYI: Did you know that Aaron Swartz reviewed Hayes’ book at Crooked Timber?

*** Here is Saul Bellow’s review of Invisible Man in Commentary.

****Daniel Wickberg, “Modernisms Endless: Ironies of the American Mid-century,” Modern Intellectual History 10, no. 1 (April 2013): 207-219. I loved this review. I am in substantial agreement with Dan that “the mid-century decades are, in the most profound sense, the first years of our own time, with all the characteristic epistemic, moral, and critical problems that have characterized thought and culture in the world in which contemporary Americans live” (p. 208). We have not yet “got ‘beyond modernism'” because there are multiple modernisms—many/all of which are still in play. All the themes of postmodernism come directly out of the modern period. So understanding recent thought means, in essence, ignoring the “modernist/postmodernist divide” (p. 212). But this probably deserves another post.

6 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Tim, this is a good overview / response to Pells.

    The greatest value of the book for me was that it provided a batting order (or, as I suggested earlier, a batting order for two different teams) for some of the key public intellectuals / debates of the era. Part batting order, part scouting report, all fairly useful.

    However, the set of sources he consults is — as you might guess — a tad on the conventional side for my tastes/temperament. More on that later, perhaps.

    Of course, a conversation between historians about how best to frame / interpret the 1940s-1960s is a royal waste of time anyhow, and we should just all get out of the way.

    Because the only thing standing in the way of Millennial Bliss is the study of history.

    I’m not going anywhere. You?

    • So you had the same thoughts about Pells, race, and the CRM? …But yes, otherwise, all this is just a waste of time. Action! Now! There’s nothing to see here.

  2. Thanks so much for this series, Tim. Pells was my first foray into twentieth-century public intellectuals and cultural politics during my first year in grad school. I’m always in his debt for his charting of the Old Left reverse course. When it came time to write my diss. about the old Protestant left, though, I found Howard Brick’s intellectual biography of Daniel Bell and his concept of “deradicalization” more helpful.

    • Mark: It was a short series for me (only 3 posts)! I need to read more Howard Brick. I’ve only really read *Age of Contradiction*, and even then not straight through. – TL

    • Dan: I meant it when I said I liked the review. You put into words a thought that had been developing in my mind over the past few years (i.e. we’re not beyond modernism). – TL

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