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Renewing the Left: Politics, Imagination and the New York Intellectuals

Renewing the Left: Politics, Imagination and the New York Intellectuals

by Harvey M. Teres

Never have the New York intellectuals received a full-scale, critical history. Now Harvey M. Teres brings to life this vibrant world from the 1930s to the present, drawing pointed lessons for progressive politics today. From Morris Dickstein to Norman Podhoretz, from Irving Howe to Jack Kerouac (whose protagonist in On the Road, Sal Paradise, flees "the


Never have the New York intellectuals received a full-scale, critical history. Now Harvey M. Teres brings to life this vibrant world from the 1930s to the present, drawing pointed lessons for progressive politics today. From Morris Dickstein to Norman Podhoretz, from Irving Howe to Jack Kerouac (whose protagonist in On the Road, Sal Paradise, flees "the tedious intellectualness" of the city), writers of all varieties have blossomed under or strained against New York's left-wing intellectual culture. Teres is the first to bring scrutiny to this hothouse of intellectual controversy.
In Renewing the Left, Teres illuminates the work and legacy of New York's leading intellectuals, beginning with the founding of the influential Partisan Review before World War II. He first looks at William Phillips and Philip Rahv, the founders and chief editors of the Review, and shows how they laid the groundwork for a revitalized Marxist criticism, one that rejected the dogmatism of the Communist Party, stressing instead the freedom of the intellectual and the importance of literary criticism. In so doing, they transformed radical left-wing criticism into a new approach to literary texts and culture, appropriating much of the early criticism of T.S. Eliot. Teres carries the discussion from the late 1930s through the 1940s, as such critics as Rahv, Lionel Trilling, and F.W. Dupee absorbed modernism to renew the American left on both cultural and political fronts. From poet Wallace Stevens to critic Dwight Macdonald, New York intellectuals led an almost prescient critique of doctrinaire Marxism, stressing the essential role of the imagination. But Renewing the Left is no paean to radical champions of the past: Teres explores the inability of these critics to keep up with changes in popular culture. New York radical circles, moreover, failed to recognize postwar writing by women and African Americans, and they launched defensive attacks on the Beats and the counterculture of the 1960s. The author also offers a revealing look at the strengths and weaknesses of New Yorkers' hostile reception of postmodernism—a term they themselves invented. He winds up with a challenging new assessment of Lionel Trilling, often considered a conservative critic, who strove nonetheless to humanize radical politics.
New York intellectuals have transformed progressive politics and American culture in general—though they have often been depoliticized by their conservative admirers. In this seminal work, Teres returns these writers and critics to their radical context, drawing lessons on the role intellectuals can play in renewing the leftist movement. Renewing the Left is both a scholar's scrutiny of history and a radical's call to action.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Renewing the Left is an astonishing achievement. Teres is adept at writing literary criticism, telling the stories of literary history, negotiating the thickets of literary theory, and—most rare—keeping in mind the actual lives of working men and women. This is one of the few books that everyone who cares about the fate of American culture should read."—James Longenbach, Joseph H. Gilmore Professor of English, University of Rochester

"Renewing the Left tells an important part of a mostly unfamiliar story: the rise of modernist criticism in America. Teres writes of his heroes—Trotsky, Stevens, Trilling, and others—with a disciplined irony, but he has a genuine power of admiration. This is a clarifying work of intellectual history that will command broad interest from students of aesthetics and politics."—David Bromwich, Yale University

"This is a tough-minded, wide-ranging, finely nuanced book, grounded in personal experience, that explodes many received ideas about the New York intellectuals. Where others see them as ex-radicals in transit to neoconservatism, Teres painstakingly explores their neglected legacy to the American left and their surprising relevance to the concerns of contemporary criticism, including issues of power, ideology, race, gender, individual agency, and aesthetic autonomy."—Morris Dickstein, author of Double Agent: The Critic and Society and Gates of Eden

"Written with compelling lucidity, and replete with incisive analysis, Harvey Teres' Renewing the Left admirably elevates the ongoing debate about the legacy of the New York Intellectuals to new heights. Teres deftly rethinks complex moments in sixty years of the radical literary life by reconsidering the legacy of the New York Intellectuals in relation to current concerns such as gender, race, modernism, mass culture and contemporary literary criticism. The result is a powerfully refreshing study of the theory and practice of a haunting and beguiling tradition in culture and politics, a tradition still painfully crucial to the unresolved problem of the 'committed' intellectual in the United States."—Alan Wald, author of The New York Intellectuals, Professor of English and American Culture, The University of Michigan

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In breaking with their socialism of the 1930s and moving toward the political center, Partisan Review founding editors Philip Rahv and William Phillips critiqued the American left for its axiomatic thinking, mechanical materialism and authoritarian tendencies-precisely the problems that beset the left today, suggests Teres. His combative, absorbing, scholarly essays throw off sparks in many directions. One piece gauges the relevance of the cultural battles of the 1940s-clashes between "high" versus "low" culture, between modernism and realism-skirmishes involving Van Wyck Brooks, Clement Greenberg, Dwight Macdonald. In another essay, Teres, associate professor of English at Syracuse, gives low marks to Norman Podhoretz, Leslie Fiedler, Irving Howe and Lionel Trilling for their inadequate response to the beats, the '60s counterculture and postmodernism. He also blames New York intellectuals for failing to embrace the full range of African American writing. Teres praises four women-Mary McCarthy, Elizabeth Hardwick, Susan Sontag, Tess Slesinger-whose fiction and criticism exposed the left as profoundly patriarchal. (Mar.)
Teres (English, Syracuse U.) brings to life the world of New York intellectuals from the 1930s to the present, drawing lessons for progressive politics today and arguing for a reassessment of the legacy of the New York intellectuals. He examines issues such as race and gender relations, literary quality, and politics as a means to fulfill personal, spiritual, and ethical needs, and profiles various figures of New York's left-wing intellectual culture. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
Aaron Cohen
If the Left is to regain vitality in American culture, contemporary acolytes need to learn more about the history of radicalism earlier in this century. Addressing that need, Teres contributes an important study of intellectual discourse among New York liberals and radicals from the postWorld War I years to the seeming disintegration of meaningful dialogue in the late 1960s. Much of his account is a thorough examination of the influential "Partisan Review" that includes an interesting interpretation of the editors' correspondence with Leon Trotsky. Not one to whitewash the failings of these New Yorkers, Teres describes their inability to reach out to the working class and their misunderstanding of many substantial women and African American writers, of which a famous exchange between Irving Howe and Ralph Ellison and a less known debate that included sociologist Nathan Glazer and James Baldwin are two heated examples. For Teres, critic Lionel Trilling deserves praise as the ideal role model, since he "wished to make thoroughgoing self-criticism the prevailing mode within the liberal-radical culture."
Kirkus Reviews
An illuminating study of New York radical culture from the 1930s to the 1960s.

The enduring accomplishment of that culture's leading organ, the Partisan Review, was to have reestablished "a productive relationship between politics and intellectual life," or as Lionel Trilling put it, "a new union between our political ideas and our imagination." So argues literary historian Teres (English/Syracuse Univ.), who goes on to examine some of those ideas and their development. One, heretical among radicals of the day, was that literature and criticism could be both catholic and autonomous, rather than serve the propagandistic aims of the workers' revolution; another was that the literary "sensibility" that conservative critic T.S. Eliot was then canonizing could have a place in progressive letters; still another was that modernist literature could renew the culture and politics of the American left, even though some of its exponents were rightists like Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis. While Partisan Review was never wholly successful in accomplishing these lofty goals, Teres notes, its contributors were able to formulate a powerful critique of the "marginalization of mind that the materialism of American capitalism had produced." One of the writers he studies is the poet Wallace Stevens, who here receives his due as a subtly subversive foe of the 1930s status quo. Although some of the Partisan Review's founders would drift rightward during the Cold War, Teres notes that the New York intellectuals were prescient in realizing that it was possible to criticize Marxism without betraying the working class or the leftist tradition of dissent, a point often lost on both the right and doctrinaire Marxists.

For Teres, a 1970s radical who embraced doctrinaire Marxism in all its "dismal failure," the New York intellectuals represent something of a golden age. His enthusiasm for their work is evident everywhere throughout this lively book.

Product Details

Oxford University Press
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.50(w) x 9.58(h) x 1.17(d)

Meet the Author

About the Author:
Harvey M. Teres is Associate Professor of English at Syracuse University.

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