Popular culture has divorced itself from the life of the mind. Who has time for great books or deep thought when there is Jersey Shore to watch, a txt 2 respond 2, and World of Warcraft to play?
At the same time, those who pursue the life of the mind have insulated themselves from popular culture. Speaking in insider jargon and writing unread books, intellectuals have locked themselves away in a ghetto of their own creation.
It wasn’t always so.
Blue Collar Intellectuals vividly captures a time in the twentieth century when the everyman aspired to high culture and when intellectuals descended from the ivory tower to speak to the everyman. Author Daniel J. Flynn profiles thinkers from working-class backgrounds who played a prominent role in American life by addressing their intellectual work to a mass audience.
Blue Collar Intellectuals shows us how much everyone—intellectual and everyman alike—has suffered from mass culture’s crowding out of higher things and the elite’s failure to engage the masses.
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Blue Collar Intellectuals
When the Enlightened and the Everyman Elevated America
By Daniel J. Flynn
ISI BooksCopyright © 2011 Daniel J. Flynn
All rights reserved.
The Apostate Historians
How an Excommunicated "Cradle Robber" and His Anarchist Child Bride Made History
More than eight decades after they started to write the history of the world, Will and Ariel Durant's project seems more absurd than ever. Two feet of books, uninterested in the times and nation of its readers, hardly make for a rush on Barnes and Noble's checkout lines. But during its four-decade run, The Story of Civilization 's volumes regularly invaded best-seller lists. The Durants, who won both a Pulitzer Prize and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, bridged the chasm that separates scholars and laymen.
The last entry in their eleven-volume series, The Age of Napoleon, hit the New York Times best-seller list in 1975. Six years later, both Will and Ariel Durant passed away. They died within a fortnight of each other, which seemed fitting. They lived, labored, and loved for so long in such close quarters that denying one the other might have struck some as evidence of a sadistic God.
When they were married sixty-eight years earlier, nothing would have seemed more far-fetched than the prosperous union that followed. Before Will and Ariel Durant's names became inseparable on dust jackets, they had been joined in scandal.
Ariel's meeting Will was a case of divine nonintervention.
After teaching at Seton Hall during 1907–8 school year, blue-collar bookworm Durant pleased his Catholic parents and advanced his education by entering the New Jersey school's seminary. He found Baruch Spinoza in the stacks. He lost God. Enticed to remain by a priest confident in his return to the flock, by his pay as a teacher at the college, and by dreams of reconciling Catholicism and socialism, Durant lasted almost two years as an agnostic seminarian. Conscience compelled him to quit.
Floating out of one sect, he floated into another. Coaxed by a five-dollar honorarium to speak at the Francisco Ferrer Association, the struggling substitute teacher lectured true-believing New York City anarchists on the origins of religion. As if a lecture on homosexuality, masturbation, and birth control wasn't offensive enough to the church fathers, Durant, billed as a Seton Hall professor, added his two cents on the role of phallic symbols in religion. The reaction was swift and severe. In January 1912, Monsignor James Mooney, who had mentored Durant in the faith, pronounced on the front page of the Newark Evening News that the lecture represented "an apostasy from the Catholic religion and [should] entail excommunication." His hero Spinoza's excommunication had merely provoked a knife attack. Durant's devastated his mother.
The fireworks surrounding Durant's split from the old faith would eventually be drowned out by a dynamite departure from the new faith. But initially, the nonconformism that made Durant anathema to Catholics made him attractive to anarchists. In the first of life's many transitions, Will Durant traded the discipline of Seton Hall for the latitudinarianism of the Ferrer School, which disposed of grades, detention, compulsory lessons, tardiness, and even the notion of the teacher. Durant's students skipped rope inside the classroom and pelted him with snowballs outside of it. Will served as the principal/teacher/everything of the anarchist school; Ariel was its student most committed to classroom anarchy.
The teacher, too, took advantage of the peculiar rules (or lack thereof). Durant confessed to his bosses in 1913 that though "my feelings for Ariel were those of fatherly or brotherly interest; I say now that I love the girl." At fourteen, that precocious, buxom girl had attended one of Durant's lectures on free love, posed nude for a Ferrer Center art class, and developed the habit of liberally dispensing hugs and kisses. But this doesn't erase the fact that when student and teacher became attached, Ariel was still just fourteen. Durant tendered his resignation, which his overseers did their damnedest to rebuff. It was a school named for an executed Spanish anarchist, after all.
Departing after the 1912–13 school year, teacher married student, appropriately enough, that Halloween. The bride roller-skated from Harlem to City Hall, transportation slung over shoulder for the ceremony. The judge scolded the groom as a "cradle robber" and lectured to delay consummating the marriage until Ariel's sixteenth birthday.
Though the teacher-student romance was, in Will's words, "the scandal of a season," the season did not last long. A year after Durant's resignation, three anarchists transformed a Harlem tenement into an arsenal just blocks from the Ferrer School, where they had attended evening lectures and plotted terrorism. Pupils of the school Durant had overseen actually stood guard outside of the clandestine meetings. Like three Weathermen across town fifty-six years later, the anarchist trio dismembered themselves instead of the intended targets of their bomb—John D. Rockefeller Jr. and the partygoers at his 1914 Fourth of July picnic. In Transition, his novelized autobiography, Durant falls asleep at ground zero—artistic license that Time magazine later confused for fact. Though the real Durant was in New Jersey at the time, it's worth noting that he was among those who facilitated the escape of a fourth conspirator who had been sleeping in the tenement when the explosion occurred.
Like the Durants' intergenerational romance, the bombers hardly scandalized Ferrer School radicals. Planned Parenthood matriarch Margaret Sanger, her son a former Durant student, used the Woman Rebel to lionize Rockefeller's would-be assassins, proclaiming dynamite's "great value" and imploring radicals to "exult in every act of revolt against oppression." She published "A Defense of Assassination," which called for Rockefeller's murder. The Woman Rebel, suppressed; its editor, indicted—Sanger fled America. Future Communist Party literary commissar Mike Gold penned a youthful ode lamenting that the bombers just "loved too much." Plot puppeteer Alexander Berkman, failed assassin of Andrew Carnegie's lieutenant Henry Clay Frick, failed again in orchestrating an industrialist's demise but succeeded this time in evading justice—even as he organized a demonstration that celebrated his puppets as martyrs.
As Durant had lost the faith of his fathers, he now lost the faith of his comrades. "I came now to feel toward anarchism very much as I felt toward Catholicism: I could give it respect and sympathy even though I withheld belief," Will wrote in Transition. "But I bore from that moment a new sadness in my heart as I realized that I was fated, bit by bit and day by day, to lose my Utopian aspirations as I had lost, in younger days, my hope of immortality and heaven." Those utopian illusions eroded further when he went on a European junket paid for by Alden Freeman, the sugar daddy of the Ferrer School. Just as Freeman's Standard Oil fortune had ironically helped bankroll a plot to kill a Rockefeller, his patronage of Durant's trip provided an ironic comeuppance, too. Seeing the basket-case states of postwar Europe made Durant pine for home rather than rail against it. "We had compared our country not with other nations of this earth," he wrote, "but with some perfect state which we had pictured in our dreams." What do they know of America who only America know?
Although Durant reckoned himself a nonbelieving Christian after the loss of his faith, he embraced the socialist label for the duration despite airing views heretical to his political creed. Like the Seton Hall priests who had offered the seminarian employment after he confessed his disbelief, Freeman remained Durant's patron, sending him to graduate school at Columbia University to study philosophy. People liked Will Durant even when he gave them reasons not to.
Columbia, radical breeding ground for Whitaker Chambers, Elizabeth Bentley, Corliss Lamont, and Mark Rudd, strangely had the opposite effect on the seminarian-turned-socialist. Durant's Freeman-funded study of philosophy sparked a realization that many of his political milieu's supposedly novel ideas had been tried and had failed too many times to count.
A New Religion
He remained in that milieu but not of it. At Manhattan's Labor Temple, where twice weekly he imparted the wisdom of the ages to workingmen, passersby, and Greenwich Village denizens who could afford the twenty-five-cent tuition, Durant was dubbed a "one-man university." Destined for Sunday sermonizing, the seminarian-turned-excommunicant delivered homilies at the Fourteenth Street and Second Avenue temple ironically announced in the New York Times 's church services listings. Knowledge was his new religion, and he would spread the good news with a convert's fervor. Foreshadowing his boldness in writing the history of the world, and laying the groundwork for such a ridiculously ambitious project, the polymath lectured on "Montaigne," "Sophocles: Antigone," "The Nervous System," "Richard Wagner: Artist," "Recent Physics: Man and the Atom," and so on.
If the quarter price was right for Durant's experiment in continuing education, then the nickels spent on Emanuel Haldeman-Julius's blue pamphlets bought a bargain. When the Kansas-based publisher wandered into the Labor Temple in 1922 to catch Durant's lecture on Plato, more than destiny seemed at work. Each one must have seen the other as a kindred spirit. Both men had flouted marital norms: Durant by taking a child bride, Haldeman-Julius by taking his wife's surname. More importantly, both men had been engaged in providing the masses an elite education. Whereas Durant lectured mass audiences on the history of philosophy, Haldeman-Julius published for the common man the "Little Blue Books," an ingenious series of staple-bound pocket primers on every subject imaginable. The pair stood at the ground floor of the democratization of education that characterized twentieth-century America.
Back in Girard, Kansas, where out of the ashes of the monster socialist weekly Appeal to Reason rose the Little Blue Books, Haldeman-Julius petitioned Durant to pen a fifteen-thousand-word monograph on Plato. Busy, Durant demurred. Persistent, Haldeman-Julius sent a check for $150. Like the Ferrer Association's $5 fee, it was an offer the young Ph.D. couldn't refuse. Another volume on Aristotle followed another check. Eleven Durant-authored Little Blue Books made their way into print between 1922 and 1925. By 1926, sales of Durant's primers—ultimately nearing two million copies—prompted the entrepreneurial socialist Haldeman-Julius to think of properly binding the collection between two hard covers. He commended Durant to twenty-something upstart bookmen Dick Simon and Max Schuster.
While taking a freshman philosophy course at Columbia, Schuster had become fascinated with the lives of the philosophers. The future publisher suggested to his instructor, Walter Pitkin, that he write a book based on his biography-driven philosophy class. Pitkin never seized the moment, but another Columbia philosopher, Will Durant, did so without Schuster's provocation. Schuster had not only devoured Durant's Little Blue Books but had read his Columbia dissertation as well. The publishers believed in the product. More importantly, they believed in promotion.
The innovative pair poured exponentially more money into advertising than other firms, employed direct mail, offered special incentives to booksellers, and relied on gimmicks such as money-back guarantees to make Durant's book, The Story of Philosophy, a blockbuster. A November 26, 1926, New York Times ad named sixty-six cities in which the firm's prized book ruled the best-seller list. The advert essentially invited readers to come read what everybody else was reading. Two months later, another full-page S&S advertisement proclaimed that the massive success of a philosophy book revealed "a deep intellectual curiosity and an underlying seriousness that should certainly make us revise our opinion of ourselves as a nation composed largely of Main Street morons."
The Story of Philosophy remained on the annual top-ten nonfiction best-seller list for four of the five years between 1926 and 1930, and was the single best-selling hardcover nonfiction book of 1927. Durant established Simon and Schuster, heretofore known primarily for selling crossword-puzzle books, as publishing giants. And he provided himself the cash-register cachet to chart his own course.
Partners in Marriage, Partners in Scholarship
The commercial success of a book on Aristotle, Nietzsche, Spinoza, and other philosophers says as much about Durant's crowd-pleasing style as it does about the crowd. Long before Guitar Hero, Perez Hilton, and MANswers, the arms of the masses occasionally reached for something higher instead of dragging ever lower. Evidence suggests that Durant served as a gateway to rather than a mere summarizer of the classics. Joan Shelley Rubin points out in The Making of Middlebrow Culture that "the increase in sales of the Modern Library's philosophy titles in 1926 argues that Durant motivated some readers to delve into his sources." So, too, does a letter to Durant from the New York Public Library noting a massive increase in patrons borrowing philosophical books in the wake of The Story of Philosophy. Strangely, critics viewed Durant's project as part of the dumbing down of culture, as if it somehow sullied the greatest philosophers to encourage mechanics with dirty hands to read their books. As Durant put it, The Story of Philosophy was "disgracefully and unforgivably popular." Snobs, not for the last time, looked down on an attempt at cultural uplift.
Durant defended the broad, accessible "outline" style of the day, best exemplified by H. G. Wells's comically ambitious and wildly popular two-volume Outline of History. The philosopher lamented that after the revolution of knowledge,
All that remained was the scientific specialist, who knew "more and more about less and less," and thephilosophical speculator, who knew less and less about more and more. The specialist put on blinders to shut from his vision all the world but one little spot, to which he glued his nose. Perspective was lost. "Facts" replaced understanding; and knowledge, split into a thousand isolated fragments, no longer generated wisdom. Every science, and every branch of philosophy, developed a technical terminology intelligible only to its exclusive devotees; as men learned more about the world, they found themselves ever less capable of expressing to their educated fellow-men what it was that they had learned. The gap between life and knowledge grew wider and wider; those who governed could not understand those who thought, and those who wanted to know could not understand those who knew. In the midst of unprecedented learning popular ignorance flourished.
The Durants filled the void. Their project sought to bring the education of the few to the many. Their lives exemplified the fruits of such an effort.
Born Chaya Kaufman in a Ukrainian Jewish ghetto, Ariel—whom Will nicknamed for the spirit in Shakespeare's Tempest—was briefly struck blind during passage from Old World to New. Temporary quarantine in Liverpool to deal with the mysterious malady resulted in her family's permanent quarantine from their possessions. With her family's luggage traveling to America without them, Ariel's hard-luck immigrant experience reads as a caricature.
Will's upbringing in a supersized family of ten conformed to Catholic stereotypes. His French-Canadian immigrant parents spoke French in the home. His factory-worker father never learned to read. When Will and Ariel married, the religious differences rather than the age gap scandalized family members. What brought them together, and raised them from meager upbringings, was education. For Will, the Jesuits imparted knowledge and wisdom; for Ariel, Will did.
From where they came and to whom they directed their writings made the Durants the consummate blue-collar intellectuals. But by the late 1920s, Ariel's work as the proprietor of the Gypsy Tavern made her more blue collar than intellectual—even in a bohemian haunt barely escaping the Washington Square Arch's shadow. With Will buried in his books and Ariel behind her bar, the Durants reached a marital crossroads. "If we could only find a way in which each of us would enter more fully into the life of the other," Will wrote. He offered to go out semiweekly with his wife if she joined him in an intellectual partnership for the week's remaining days. Ariel gradually turned over her bar to relatives and joined Will in the project that would dominate their remaining half century. "Our love was renewed," Ariel recalled, "and our lives became one."
Excerpted from Blue Collar Intellectuals by Daniel J. Flynn. Copyright © 2011 Daniel J. Flynn. Excerpted by permission of ISI Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsIntroduction: Blue Collar Intellectuals,
1. The Apostate Historians How an Excommunicated "Cradle Robber" and His Anarchist Child Bride Made History,
2. The People's Professor How a High School Dropout Launched the Great Books Movement,
3. Free-Market Evangelist How a New Dealer–Turned–Libertarian Taught the Everyman Economics,
4. The Longshoreman Philosopher How an Unschooled Hobo Became a Favorite of Presidents and Prime Time,
5. Poet of the Pulps How a Down-and-Out Outcast Wrote His Way into the In-Crowd,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I have neither the patience nor the political wonkism to view C-SPAN on a regular basis, but I am a frequent viewer of their cultural programming called BOOKTV on CSPAN2 weekends. It was there that I saw Daniel J. Flynn lecture on the topic of his enlightening book, Blue Collar Intellectuals. Inspired, I acquired the book and was not disappointed with his stories of five intellectuals, outsiders with uncommon backgrounds, who reached out to "blue collar" people everywhere.I first encountered one of the five intellectuals included in Flynn's book during my teen years reading science fiction. One of my favorite authors was Ray Bradbury and his tales, especially those of Humans and Martians collected in The Martian Chronicles. Flynn tells of Bradbury's impoverished family background as he grew up in the 1920s and his early reading of Edgar Allan Poe (also a favorite of mine since my pre-teen years) and others like Edgar Rice Burroughs. Even after he became famous for his own fantastic stories Bradbury was considered an outsider in traditional publishing circles, but maintained popularity with everyday folk. Time magazine labelled Bradbury "poet of the pulps" that seemed to sum up the cognoscenti's opinion of him. My next encounter with the intellectuals that Daniel Flynn depicts did not begin until I was on my way to college at the University of Wisconsin in the summer of 1967. Required reading for all incoming freshmen was a short book by Eric Hoffer, The True Believer. This was my introduction to one of Flynn's "Blue Collar Intellectuals" and to a book that is as relevant today as it was forty-five years ago. While distant from Hoffer in his political philosophy, Milton Friedman shared similar blue collar background and an ability to explain complex ideas of economics to the readership of Newsweek magazine and also to the viewers of PBS through his multi-part series "Free to Choose". In that same year of 1967 as a freshman student in "Honors Economics" I read Friedman's most famous book, Capitalism and Freedom, and in it found some of the principles that I hold dear to this day. These two experiences with blue-collar intellectuals belie somewhat Flynn's claim that these writers were all completely excluded from the realms of the cognoscenti, but they do not deflate his claim that they all had a special ability to communicate with the common man. Also included in the book are sections on Will Durant, who went from anarchist speaker to become a popularizer of history both of philosophy and civilization, and while I have not read the eleven volumes of Will & Ariel Durants' History of Civilization from cover to cover, I have dipped in to sections of the books from time to time. Finally, he tells the story of Mortimer Adler who founded the "Great Books" movement and wrote many books explaining the ideas in those books. I, too, was inspired by the lure of great books and have spent more than twenty years of my adult life reading them in the Basic Program of Liberal Education at the University of Chicago. These form the foundation for my reading and my participation in the search (see The Moviegoer by Walker Percy).In his book Daniel Flynn is able to clearly and succinctly elucidate the inspirational achievements of these blue collar intellectuals and how they shaped an era in which popular culture included a significant place for serious ideas. One of the most important lessons imparted by the lives of these intellectuals is how they inspired readers like myself to continue to read and learn and love the search for ideas in books.