Book Review

“Eggheads of the World Unite! You Have Nothing to Lose But Your Yolks!”

15083 a review by Andrew Seal

Inventing the Egghead: The Battle over Brainpower in American Culture
by Aaron Lecklider
296 pages. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013.

The egghead is not the protagonist of Lecklider’s monograph, despite the book’s title and humorous cover art. And while the book explains the origins of that epithet (in popular beliefs about a correlation of brain size and brain function and the cartoon logic of stereotypically bald professors), Lecklider’s account of the term’s usage does not reprise Richard Hofstadter’s classic 1963 study of American anti-intellectualism—a work published during the insult’s heyday—nor seek to update it. Instead of Hofstadter’s account of exclusively antagonistic attitudes toward traditional intellectuals, Lecklider reveals a multitude of dispositions among ordinary people towards intellectuals and the intellect ranging from sour resentment to effervescent delight. It is Lecklider’s novel contribution to capture this range of contradictory attitudes under the category “brainpower”—the real hero of this monograph.

Lecklider sees brainpower as encompassing “the complicated ways in which intelligence was invoked to empower the wide swath of Americans who did not necessarily have access to the institutions of higher education” (4), and Lecklider takes us through a number of readings of cultural moments or formations to demonstrate what that meant in practice.

In the first, Lecklider shows how the owners and working-class customers of Coney Island collaborated to insist on the social value of a very early form of edutainment—science fairs as a sort of date night—in the face of hostile pressures to push the Coney Island crowds into elite-approved (and elite-controlled) institutions like churches. (One of the major conflicts was over the exemption of parts of Coney Island from Sabbath laws, enabling workers to take “late coffee and oranges in a sunny chair” rather than fire and brimstone in a pew.) Later chapters track popular (though not necessarily working-class) attitudes toward Albert Einstein, FDR’s “Brain Trust,” post-WWII revelations of the Manhattan Project, and McCarthy-era witch-hunts. Other chapters focus on the specific accents of gender and race in contests over brainpower, looking at a few adult education programs for women workers in the 1920s and at a number of Harlem Renaissance texts.

In all of these cases, Lecklider’s concept of “brainpower” names a repertoire of rhetorical techniques for challenging the monopolization of “intelligence” by the still-emerging (and still lily-white and largely male) class of managers, engineers, and social workers prescribing new ways of working and new ways of living. This repertoire comprised both offensive and defensive maneuvers—both jabs at intellectual pretensions among the elite and parries protecting the vernacular wisdom and native curiosity of ordinary people. Lecklider describes this combination at one point as an “oscillat[ion]” and even, at another, as a “vacillat[ion]” (35, 4), but it was really more than that: a coexistence, like the particle-wave duality of light.

Another (apt) example: in his chapter on Albert Einstein’s first trip to the United States in 1921, Lecklider produces evidence—journalism, cartoons, amateur poetry—showing depictions of the great scientist both as an elitist and as an ally of those of average intelligence, as an intimidating and even foreboding foreign presence on the one hand, and as an avuncular, altogether heimish figure in the role of an eagerly Americanizing immigrant (“‘Baseball, baseball,’ Einstein enthused” {64}) on the other. The latter depiction could even devolve straight into vaudeville: Lecklider recovers a wonderful anecdote about Einstein losing his “lid”—his hat—in traffic on Manhattan’s Seventh Avenue, chasing it among the horns and (likely) curses of motorists (66).

Most contemporary commentators seemed to see Einstein’s visit to the US as a kind of test, a moment to gauge how the world’s greatest democracy would receive the world’s greatest intellect. Lecklider shows that a consensus emerged that applauded Americans’ curiosity about a difficult subject and that humanized Einstein by isolating some of his more audience-friendly and “American” characteristics, asserting that even if ordinary people couldn’t understand him as a theoretician, they could know him as bit of a schlemiel—not so different ‘when you get down to it.’

Anti-intellectualism certainly cannot describe this simultaneous elevation and deflation of intellect—but can brainpower?

In one sense—the strongest sense, brainpower is simply an expansion of the struggle for control of the labor process beyond the shopfloor, and beyond white male workers—a sort of workers’ control by other means. Lecklider’s story of brainpower in fact begins there—with workers’ responses to the introduction of scientific management into factories and the separation of planning and doing, of mental from manual labor—but he spends only a handful of pages here before moving on to the rather assorted case studies he selected. Overall, he minimizes his engagement with labor history proper, tucking important and extremely relevant studies by Lizabeth Cohen, Gary Gerstle, Harry Braverman, Kathy Peiss, Roy Rosenzweig, Michael Denning, and David Montgomery into perfunctory footnotes or passing references (while in contrast there is a two-page footnote about intelligence testing). For a monograph with a lot to say about working people and working class cultural politics, the lack of a strong imprint of these previous studies on this one seems to me to be a significant missed opportunity.

More consequential than historiography, however, is the book’s lack of engagement with any of the theoretical apparatus that many of the working-class actors in the book would have used frequently and relatively naturally, that is, Marxism. “Brainpower” is a term imposed by the author, not a term emerging from his sources.* And that distance—or even alienation—saps the term from becoming fully available as a historical concept, leaving it nomothetic, inert. Nomothetic concepts are, of course, extremely valuable—most of the Marxist panoply began there, after all—but I think it is worthwhile to attempt to place “brainpower” more firmly within the historical struggle over the labor process, not merely overlaying that struggle, existing within the unresolved tensions of a set of cultural texts emerging from it. Here is an attempt to open up brainpower as a term not just for a reading of US culture or cultural politics, but as a tool for thinking about the historical development of capitalism in the first half of the twentieth century.

One of the things that struck me about the case studies Lecklider chose is not just their disparateness but their discreteness from one another. Themes recur, but people, institutions, texts do not, at least not substantively. The free-standing quality of each chapter reminded me of a relatively famous passage from early in Marx’s first volume of Capital:

If we then disregard the use-value of commodities, only one property remains, that of being products of labor.  But even the product of labor has already been transformed in our hands.  If we make the abstraction from its use-value, we abstract also from the material constituents and forms which make it a use-value.  It is no longer a table, a house, a piece of yarn or any other useful thing.  All its sensuous characteristics are extinguished…  There is nothing left of them in each case but the same phantom-like objectivity; they are merely congealed quantities of homogenous human labor, i.e., of human labour-power expended without regard to the form of its expenditure. All these things now tell us is that human labour-power has been expended to produce them, human labour is accumulated in them. As crystals of this social substance, which is common to them all, they are values—commodity values… (Marx, Capital, Vol. 1, trans. Ben Fowkes. New York: Penguin, 1990: 128).

Is it possible to see some connection between brainpower and labor-power in their basic abstraction, their indifference to the forms of their expenditure? For Lecklider’s people, brainpower isn’t based in any specific field of knowledge or experience nor does it apply to any specific category of intellectual discourse: workers could expend brainpower in talking about the general theory of relativity or the best use of state resources to address unemployment or the aesthetic value of a proletarian novel or baseball or auto repair—it is not what they know but that they know, just as labor-power is not what one does, but that one does. Labor and brainpower are the general capacity to rather than the specific product of labor or intelligence, respectively.

Although he doesn’t draw out its Marxian possibilities, Lecklider rightly intuits that brainpower captures something of the entrenchedness and dichotomous quality of class conflict that even the Bourdieusian “cultural capital,” with its attentions to class fractions and intra-class conflict, can mystify. Brainpower, like labor-power, is not a universal property; it is the property of those without any other property but themselves—and is therefore something specific to the working classes, and not just intelligence with a proletarian accent.

Brainpower and labor-power are in some way homologous, but are they related? Marx in his definition of labor-power already includes something we might call brainpower: “We mean by labour-power, or labour-capacity, the aggregate of those mental and physical capabilities existing in the physical form, the living personality, capabilities which he sets in motion whenever he produces a use-value of any kind” (Marx 1990, 270). Mental and physical. But Lecklider certainly does not mean—and should not mean—by brainpower simply the mental component of doing one’s job. Rather, I think we might look at brainpower, at least during much of the time Lecklider is covering, as the site of a struggle by those who sell their labor-power to reserve some part of that labor-power from the market, to assert, in the face of scientific management and the separation of mental from manual labor, that they are more than a pair of hands or a set of muscles.

Lecklider acknowledges this much—that workers resisted being reduced to their physical properties—but I want to push that a little further: I would like to see brainpower as an effort at this time to place limits on the process of commodification itself. Brainpower, then, was not only about the effort to uphold working-class intelligence and deflate elite pretensions, but to create a sort of commons in the self, upon which commodification could not encroach. It was a garment-worker arguing about politics in a pub when she should have been sleeping for the next day of work, it was a machinist inventing a lullaby for his ailing child, or drawing a cartoon to make his father laugh.

I think this impulse often came as the result of a sort of misperception—the ivory tower image of intellectual discourse actually walled off from “the propensity to barter, truck, and exchange”—but it was no less powerful for that. It was a blind faith in the irreducibility of one’s inner capacities that I have never seen better illustrated than in this detail from the José Clemente Orozco murals in the Reserve Room of Dartmouth College, painted 1932-1934:


A workman is stealing time from a job or from himself—from the deeper rest or relaxation he needs to be physically ready for his job—to read, and not only does he commit this luminous act of petty theft, but he feels compelled to wear gloves to handle the book. Friends who have seen this image with me read these gloves as a gesture of reverence, a sort of cultic abasement before knowledge, and as a sign of the incommensurability of the grime of the workaday world and the ethereal pleasures of the mind. I choose to see it differently. This man probably wears gloves on his job—maybe not all the time, but I would guess gloves are a part of what Philip Levine calls “the costume of my trade.”** These are pure, new gloves, but they are simply gloves for a different task, a moment not out of labor, but out of commodified labor. They are part of a struggle not to keep brainpower clean of toil’s sweat, but clear of the market’s grease.

But if we were to re-define brainpower in this way, how does that change the symbol of brainpower gone rotten—the egghead? The figure of the egghead really only plays a part in Lecklider’s last chapter, although he has set the table for it throughout. In the figure of the egghead coalesced a number of anxieties and tensions about radicalism (both a susceptibility to Marxism and a susceptibility to racial liberalism), about sexuality (a predisposition to homosexuality and/or effeminacy), and about futility or fragility (a predilection for abstraction and aversion to action). None of these ideas were new in the late Forties/early Fifties when the idea of the egghead took shape, but the pressures of the moment—the Red and Lavender Scares, monumental domestic labor struggles, the Democratic Party’s near meltdown over civil rights and the broader Left’s hesitation in 1948 about the Wallace campaign—make it easy to see why they condensed in such a potent form. The man most associated with the egghead image—two-time Presidential loser Adlai Stevenson—merely clinched the term’s utility for deriding ineffectually cerebral liberals.

But this was also the moment when it became obvious that one could speak of the “culture industries,” the moment when it was becoming clear that the warfare state was here to stay, a time when a large group of prominent scientists tried and failed to act as an independent body to derail the oncoming arms race. It was a time of massive expansion in higher education, but also a time when the seeds of the multiversity were being quite visibly sown. It was, in short, a period of massive setbacks for the idea of brainpower as I have defined it—as a sort of bulwark against commodification, a part of the self not given over to labor-power. Equally denounced as conformists at the time, weren’t eggheads  brothers of the men in the gray flannel suits, visible symbols of the inability of intelligence or talent to escape the solidifying postwar order?***

Of course, the Soviet Union was a major part of that order, and I don’t think it’s contradictory to see fears of the Soviets gobbling up American atomic scientists and State Department officials as part of the same complex anxiety as the fear of American scientists and bureaucrats being sucked up into the military-industrial complex. (There is in fact a terrific anecdote in the book about a scientist at Oak Ridge teaching his dog to play dead when asked if he’d rather die or work for Du Pont.) Such fears were even presaged during the 1920s and 1930s—the Nye Committee hearings about munitions manufacturers leading the US by a string into World War I and the nervous laughter behind the title “the Brain Trust” as a real (and justified) fear of the capture of federal bureaucracies by capital. These were the regnant and resonant fears of the postwar moment—the enclosure of brainpower across society.

The egghead, then, was not just a synonym for the absent-minded professor, a figure who seldom drew scorn. “Egghead” carried, and I think still carries, a deeply political connotation—when used, it indicates not just a buffoonish intellectual, but an intellectual who is owned, and probably doesn’t know she’s owned. The absent-minded professor was always absorbed in a book; the egghead was absorbed in a political party, a corporation, or a multiversity.****

The best known articulations of these fears of intellectual enclosure are from knowledge workers themselves—Mark McGurl and Robert Vanderlan have written two excellent recent studies on this topic. But perhaps Lecklider’s book can help us look again at popular or mass culture for other evidence of the radiant anxieties of this moment regarding the commodification of brainpower. What did brainpower mean for a working-class man or woman as they watched the intellects of those knowledge workers become commodified in a way that increasingly resembled the commodification of their hands and backs? What did men and women working in the military-industrial complex think about the use of science for new, more deadly weapons?  What were the jokes told by construction workers as they built the research labs of rapidly expanding state universities?

Lecklider is entirely right that the roughly contemporary responses of such historians as Hofstadter are inadequate: anti-intellectualism, as popular as it remains as a sociological/historical explanation for “the way things are,” has no more to add to any conversation—or at least nothing worthwhile. Whether brainpower can help us move beyond that sterile category I am not sure, but I think it’s worth breaking a few eggs to see what kind of omelet we might get.

* That is not to say that “brainpower” or “brain power” or “brain-power” was not extant—in fact, the OED gives its first use as 1832—but that the materials from which Lecklider draws do not use it as a keyword. Lecklider also does not touch upon the term’s origins (as evidenced by that 1832 definition) in phrenology or (as I discovered with quick Google Books and New York Times scans of uses of the term from the turn of the century) in the nutritionist circles of the Kelloggs and C. W. Post. Grape Nuts was especially promoted for its boost in brain power.

** In the poem “Fear and Fame” in the volume What Work Is (1991). My thanks to Gabe Winant for pointing me to this poem, and for his exceedingly helpful comments on this review.

*** Because of his war traumas and his depleted finances, Tom Rath is likewise ineffectual for almost the entire novel at preventing the corporation he works for from asking more and more of him. He finally asserts his ability to reserve some part of his time, energy, and intellect for himself and his family at the end of the novel/film, by turning down a promotion.

**** There is, in fact, a 1961 film with the title “The Absent-Minded Professor” starring Fred MacMurray (just a year after his turn as the sleazy executive in “The Apartment”), which involves a brilliant invention known as “flubber.” The movie shows capitalists and the military competing to gain control of the substance, while MacMurray himself uses it to help the college basketball team win and to help him win the heart of his sweetheart.

Andrew Seal is a Ph.D. candidate in American Studies at Yale University. His dissertation is on “babbitt producerism,” or middle-class ideas of work, property, and success in the early twentieth-century Midwest.

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. This was a wonderful review. I’ve been reading the book myself, and like you I’m intrigued by how the author attempts to get beyond the anti-intellectualism trope and delve deeper.

    The critiques you make, especially in terms of a lack of Marxist analysis, are cogent and fit with the time periods the book addresses. I wonder how the book’s framework would work when talking about intellectuals from the late 1960s on, especially in light of the rise of think tanks and their impact on public discourse.

  2. Really thoughtful and substantive review–one that engages with many elements of Aaron’s book (and full disclosure, he’s a friend and long-time colleague in the New England ASA) and advances your own ideas and analyses. Good stuff!

    I agree that it would be really interesting to put these ideas in fuller conversation with labor history and other histories of work and class, and you’ve already done that quite a bit here. I would resist somewhat the idea that Marx or Marxism need be too overtly or centrally a part of that, though–or at least would say that Aaron’s very rich, interdisciplinary historicizing of the topic is definitely paralleled by your own here, as in your reading of the mural.

    I know that Marx/Marxism could be–and of course were in the 30s especially–part of that historicizing. I guess I’m simply saying that, to my mind, an emphasis on Marxism in our analyses is at least as longstanding as Hofstadter’s ideas–and that the more primary source, interdisciplinary, historicist approach seems both fresher and more illuminating.


  3. Thanks, Robert! The rise of think tanks is a really fascinating context to think about the issues that Lecklider raises, though I hadn’t thought to go there. I suppose Lecklider’s chapter on the “Brain Trust” during the New Deal might have some applicability, especially w/r/t think tanks’ impact on discussions of political economy. A book that I’ve been meaning to read which also might shed some light on this period is Michael Szalay’s Hip Figures: A Literary History of the Democratic Party ( It looks fantastic–just haven’t been able to get to it yet! (Szalay’s other book, New Deal Modernism, covers some similar ground as Lecklider’s chapter on the Great Depression.)

    And thanks, Ben! I definitely agree that Lecklider’s readings are really rich and cover literature (of many genres), art, journalism, and even music with equal adroitness, but my point in bringing Marx and labor history wasn’t just to add something to an already potent mix. I think Lecklider’s arguments *ask* for more exploration along these lines. More attention to the historical and theoretical dimensions of the labor process seem, to me, to be where both he and his actors are pointing.

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