Independent Intellectuals in the United States, 1910-1945

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A new intellectual community came together in the United States in the 1910s and 1920s, a community outside the universities, the professions and, in general, the established centers of intellectual life. A generation of young intellectuals was increasingly challenging both the genteel tradition and the growing division of intellectual labor. Adversarial and anti-professional, they exhibited a hostility to boundaries and specialization that compelled them toward an ambitious and self-conscious generalism and made them a force in the American political, literary, and artistic landscape.

This book is a cultural history of this community of free-lance critics and an exploration of their collective effort to construct a viable public intellectual life in America. Steven Biel illustrates the diversity of the body of writings produced by these critics, whose subjects ranged from literature and fine arts to politics, economics, history, urban planning, and national character. Conceding that significant differences and conflicts did exist in the works of individual thinkers, Biel nonetheless maintains that a broader picture of this vibrant culture has been obscured by attempts to classify intellectuals according to political or ideological persuasions.

His book brings to life the ways in which this community sought out alternative ways of making a living, devised strategies for reaching and engaging the public, debated the involvement of women in the intellectual community and incorporated Marxism into its evolving search for a decisive intellectual presence in American life. Examined in this lively study are the role and contributions of such figures as Randolph Bourne, Max Eastman, Crystal Eastman, Walter Lippmann, Margaret Sanger, Van Wyck Brooks, Floyd Dell, Edmund Wilson, Mable Dodge, Paul Rosenfeld, H. L. Mencken, Lewis Mumford, Malcolm Cowley, Matthew Josephson, John Reed, Waldo Frank, Gilbert Seldes, and Harold Stearns.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"We may be too close to September 11 to appreciate a study of the meanings of disaster; still, the attacks could spur interest in how Americans responded to past disasters. Biel, the director of studies in history and literature at Harvard, has assembled a provocative and illuminating collection."

-Publishers Weekly

"Biel (history and literature, Harvard; Down with the Old Canoe: A Cultural History of the Titanic Disaster) here considers 13 human-made and natural disasters, both famous and forgotten, that have occurred in American history, including the 1789 famine on the northern border, the San Francisco Earthquake, the Great Chicago Fire, and the Challenger disaster. Each disaster gets its own chapter, which is not simply a straightforward account of "what happened next"; contributors put each episode into context and question the popular "lessons" that were often propagated immediately after. Similar recent volumes include Ted Steinberg's Acts of God (LJ 9/1/00) and Dreadful Visitations, edited by Alessa Johns (Routledge, 2001). The important difference is that those books cover strictly natural disasters and as such only complement rather than substitute for this work. It is uncertain whether the publisher will use the terrorist attacks of September 11 as a touchstone for advertising this book, but the uncanny timing of its publication is hard to miss. Recommended for all libraries."

-Library Journal

"Brings to life, in a brisk and accessible format, a brilliant group of men and women who preferred to do good rather than well and left a rich legacy of creative thought."

-American Historical Review

"A textured history, one in which Biel's intellectuals emerge as serious, passionate, and very human workers grappling with the twin dragons of American materialism and self-identity."

-American Literature

"Biel's reappraisal contributes something new to our understanding of the significance of the intellectuals of the 1910s: their important role as antecedents for a succeeding generation of socially committed public intellectuals."

-The Journal of American History

A cultural history of freelance critics and an exploration of their collective effort to construct a viable public intellectual life in the US. Independence and social engagement were the terms of self- definition and the aspirations that bound together a broad range of critics, including Randolph Bourne, Max Eastman, Walter Lippmann, Margaret Sanger, Van Wyck Brooks, Edmund Wilson, H.L. Mencken, Lewis Mumford, Malcolm Cowley, and Waldo Frank. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780814712320
  • Publisher: New York University Press
  • Publication date: 2/1/1995
  • Series: American Social Experience Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 310
  • Product dimensions: 5.80 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Steven Biel is Director of Studies in History and Literature at Harvard University, and the author of Down With the Old Canoe: A Cultural History of the Titanic Disaster.

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Table of Contents

Introduction 1
1 The Repudiation of the University 11
2 Making a Living 31
3 From Expression to Influence 54
A Note on H.L. Mencken 81
4 The Geography of the Intellectual Life 85
5 Women and the Critical Community 109
6 Education and the New Basis for Community 126
7 An Alternative Morality 143
8 Uses of the Past 164
9 Versions of Marx 192
Epilogue: Defending the Intellectual Life 222
Notes 235
Bibliography 269
Index 285
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