“Thinking the Twentieth Century” Part II: Intellectuals, NYRB, and Prospects for Twenty-Somethings

After a whirlwind weekend presenting papers at two events and doing some dissertation-writing in the morning (writing a draft of a paper for a conference at the University of Amsterdam this March), I’m glad to be sitting down on a cold but clear Oxford mid-February day to return to blogging about a lovely book that I read over the break and have already commented on once before, Tony Judt’s Thinking The Twentieth Century, a series of conversations between Judt and Timothy Snyder, a professor of History at Yale University. In my first post on the book, I wrote a bit about Judt’s status as insider / outsider – a constant theme in his life as an English Jew who spent much of his professional career in France and the United States – but specifically in the context of his work as a historian. Judt sat at an odd position within the historical profession: he had established himself as a professor at a major institution (NYU) following the majority of his career at a similarly mainline place, Oxford, but he often spoke about his autodidact training, and was arguably more readily identifiable as a public intellectual or simply author than a historian per se. His trajectory and prominent position raises interesting questions about role models for younger people interested in writing history: how to get a good historical education (almost by default today, this means doctoral programs in one form or another) without succumbing to a pedantic obsession with established and/or fashionable bibliographies, methodologies, or idolatry of elder scholars?

Tony Judt (1948-2010)

One dynamic that these discussions touch on, of course, is what it means to be an intellectual – a prominent theme in Thinking The Twentieth Century. Some of the basic questions that persist in discussions about public intellectuals (at least in a Western context) are well known: what are appropriate metiers or professions for intellectuals to be affiliated with, or coming from, and how does this change over time? What are the grounds for an intellectual having credibility to issue comment on, say, Israel and Palestine or the Iraq War if they’re “only” a novelist or have “only” written on Spanish imperial history? What are the proper media for someone to try to contribute to a broader public conversation – the truncated forms of op-eds in major papers or magazine articles for something like The New York Times Magazine, or books, radio, television, blogging, or micro-blogging (say, Twitter or Tumblr)? Is it possible to speak of a “global intellectual” in the sense of someone who truly contributes to a global conversation, beyond the national level, or are intellectuals fundamentally creatures of the nation, who operate most effectively in a middle register of action?

Judt and Snyder discuss these questions most extensively in the second-to-last chapter of Thinking The Twentieth Century, which covers Judt’s time becoming, you might say, a public intellectual, in New York. One of the themes that emerges in that discussion is just the importance of place, and mentorship. Judt arrived in New York City (as a professor at NYU) and quickly began to work more closely with Robert Silvers, the well-respected editor-in-chief of The New York Review of BooksSilvers, Judt writes, “taught me in spite of myself that I really could do this sort of writing; that I could think and comment upon subjects far removed from my formal scholarly concerns. Silvers offered the occasion to write about things I would have thought beyond me.”

The New York Review of Books

It’s hard, maybe, to think of Judt as anything less than vociferous, but the Judt-Silvers relationship makes me think of a moment I had at Oxford over the Michaelmas Term this year. The BBC was running a scheme via which young researchers (aka graduate students, post-docs, and youngish fellows) would have the opportunity to present their research on BBC4. I came along to an information session for the application, where the organizers had requested us to bring a proposal for our project as well as a review of a recent piece of media we had seen – a play we had attended, a book we had read, whatever. As we broke down into smaller groups, I was surprised and impressed by some of the projects, as well as how well some of the other graduate students could write book reviews in concise capsule formats.

But when we returned to the mothership, the presenters asked us how many people had any experience in presenting our work in any public form, or who maintained blogs or even professional pages (say, a website describing John Smith as a PhD student in Literature). Almost none did. When asked why not, the problem was rarely technical proficiency. Rather, many people either felt too busy with their work schedules to even find the time to contribute to a broader conversation. Other times, even people who seemed dynamic as both presenters and eloquent as writers simply responded that they didn’t feel compelled to do that – they had a severely cultivated identity as a scholar of Joyce, or Mexican-American relations, and that meant (more or less in their telling of the story) that they didn’t have a responsibility to do much other than excel in that defined field. They thought of their relationships and life in primarily vertical terms: they would move from an undergraduate education to a graduate education to … well, hopefully a long career as a scholar of Ulyssses or the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. They might occasionally indulge in theater or the arts (consuming it not making it) but they were simply too busy to think of what else they would be up to.

This gets to, I think, one of the lessons of Judt’s life: not just that working hard (i.e. getting rid of the “too busy” excuse) is important to build a profile as a public intellectual, but also the importance of escaping the routines of the vertical-driven life. Writing about his schedule and daily life after working more with Silvers and the New York Review, Judt writes: “I was operating in two different registers; and I was overworking. While writing for The New York Review and other journals on a regular and even frequent basis, I was also writing Postwar and other books, in addition to starting a family and pursuing a busy teaching and administrative schedule. It took considerable intellectual effort, planning and time, to keep all these apart. But at least I avoided the mundane routines characteristic of the established historian: conferences, professional associations, professional publications. Here, at least, I benefited from being – as old Richard Cobb had always insisted – not quite a historian; and thus not in the least disposed to waste time building a career path among historians alone.”

Without claiming to do any great work with this blog, or other non-academic projects, I find Judt’s advice useful and instructive as I think about what I’m doing as somebody who claims to be a historian. As I did the previous weekend, sometimes it’s fine to attend conferences, meet people within your discipline, and develop a deeper understanding (thanks to other scholars) of topics as specific as drug dealing in the Issyk-Kul region of Kyrgyzstan, Soviet development thought, or the architecture of mosque-madrasa complexes in Samarqand. But one of the big intellectual challenges I think anyone who works on a specific, tiny subject area faces is how to relate that specific concern to broader issues, or learning how to translate your specific knowledge of something to the bigger picture. Judt lucked out in having a figure like Silvers reach out to him, and giving him a broader forum in which to translate his knowledge and analysis of European history and Israel into something bigger.

Robert Silvers and Barbara Epstein (now deceased), the editors of the NYRB

Part of the challenge that a younger generation of scholars, myself included, faces, then, is how to find those opportunities for expansion, blossoming into something more than just a scholar of ___. Opportunities like the BBC one (which I still haven’t heard back from) are one example of how younger people – provided they can find the self-discipline and maybe even the imagination to think of themselves as something more than just the next in a long, supposedly unending line of Milton scholars – can find a way to jump into a broader conversation. Many of the old outlets that we spent our college days reading – The New Yorker, The New York Review, The New Republic, The Nation, The New Criterion, etc. – still exist, and they still provide a healthy portion of my own reading material. But from many, many conversations with friends who have tried to break into those magazines, or work at interns at those outlets (which will likely go on existing for the next couple of decades but whose long-term prospects are uncertain), suggest that the opportunities for mentorship and real learning often aren’t in that particular sector. Too often, the person getting the sweet internship at the fancy literary magazine turns out to be the daughter of a famous Hollywood director, or the son of a famous author who writes frequently for the magazine – not the hungry, to some extent self-made meritocrat that Judt represented.

The attitude that a lot of twenty-somethings who are shut out of those more mainstream opportunities, at least for now, will have to be: tough for the Establishment. Some friends have found interesting opportunities blogging and working as assistants for prominent mainstream commentators. Others whom  I have great respect for have found ways to combine graduate education with documentary film-making, interview projects, podcasts, and so on. I don’t think that anyone knows what the future will quite look like – but I also don’t think that the kind of romanticism that Judt and Snyder show for the essay and the world of New York magazines that they now comfortably occupy is entirely appropriate, either. I have immense respect for the space for intellectual maturation, playfulness, and the metamorphosis of historians into intellectuals that Silvers offered figures from an older generation like Judt and Snyder – but the rules of game have changed substantially since 2008, and now a younger generation of people looking to make a splash have to find different media outlets, different mentors, and different ways to avoid falling into the über-professionalism that Judt highlighted.

I’ll close on this point for now. Look for a post in a few more days about a Martin Wolf talk I’m going to tomorrow at Corpus Christi College. There’s that, and another public talk coming up this Friday, and the possibility of a podcast on Judt and Snyder soon, too. Until then …


One thought on ““Thinking the Twentieth Century” Part II: Intellectuals, NYRB, and Prospects for Twenty-Somethings

  1. Luke

    One thing that people are going to have to be willing to do if they want good journalism like the NYRB or the New Yorker is to pay for it. Journalism was a low-paying profession even before the internet, but with the ability to access so much material for free online, it is unclear how there will be much profit motive to be provide good investigative journalism and public discourse in the future. Strong journalism didn’t spring up out of nothing, and it will be drowned out by the 21st century yellow journalism of the Daily Mail and Fox News if people are not willing to pay for what they read.

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