- Radical Legacies: Twentieth-Century Public Intellectuals in the United States by Arthur Redding
Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2016; 161 pages. $80.00 (hardcover), ISBN 978–1-4985–1266–4.
Arthur Redding begins Radical Legacies by noting the increasing distrust and alienation faced by public intellectuals. Redding argues that today’s intellectuals are too often pressed into advancing the popular will of the era. Redding advocates that intellectuals embrace uselessness, meaning to generate thought unmotivated by profit or reward. The book situates key U.S. intellectuals and their perspectives on various cultural debates by noting how these perspectives transcend single moments in history. A U.S.-trained English professor, Redding regularly writes about twentieth-century U.S. public intellectuals, Cold War culture and politics, and anarchism. Immigrating to Canada has given Redding a standpoint from which to critique how U.S. neoliberal thought has been used to rationalize, defend, or advance practices that are antithetical to the liberal ethos.
The book’s six chapters are framed by an introduction and conclusion and feature 12 intellectuals whose careers span the end of the nineteenth century to end of the Cold War. Redding’s introduction effectively identifies [End Page 161] the challenges facing contemporary intellectuals by uncovering the roots of critical thought produced by engaged leftist thinkers of the previous century as a basis of comparison for post-millennial intellectualism. Redding urges readers to partake in the book in a spirit of fun, in keeping with his ethos of not evaluating intellectuals in terms of their use-value, and he keeps to his tenet by revisiting classic debates on issues ranging from domestic life to foreign policy without imposing facile resolutions or reaching for overly practical applications. Redding’s conclusion chapter considers the imperative for intellectualism during a time of both war and technology and, while it avoids prescriptive solutions, the issues raised in its conclusion warrant greater consideration of the implications of living in a time of technological, discursive, and capitalistic convergence.
Redding’s chapters introduce different classic strains of leftist thought and the key public intellectuals in those debates in early twentieth-century America. Chapter 1 features realist writer Henry James juxtaposed with Henry Adams to explore the interrelationships between pedagogy and geography. For both men, changing one’s view through travel or new social standpoints is a jarring process that prompts intellectual growth, even as it also alternately clouds and complicates one’s perspective. Chapter 2 shows how World War I forged the modern security state as read through the lives and texts of author and immigration activist Mary Antin, non-interventionist writer Randolph Bourne, and anarchist activist Emma Goldman. Antin, Bourne, and Goldman alternately champion assimilation, transnationalism, and anarchy while concurring in their alarm at the increasing constraints applied to immigrants, radical intellectuals, and the global citizenry post–World War I. Redding identifies Bourne’s transnationalist thought as a recurring theme in the discourses surrounding President Obama (that is, negotiations of the transnational versus racial self). This discussion thread warrants its own standalone chapter to allow additional consideration of how today’s thinkers have articulated the transnationalism–racial identity dialectic.
In chapters 3 and 4, Redding explores the contributions of activist writer Mary McCarthy and Afro-Trinidadian journalist and writer C. L. R. James, respectively. Redding first highlights the value of McCarthy’s writing, as in her novel The Group, as laying the groundwork for Betty Freidan’s The Feminine Mystique. I see McCarthy’s influence on Margaret Atwood’s novel The Edible Woman (regarding paternalistic consumerism consuming the [End Page 162] individual), though I recognize that McCarthy was critical of Atwood’s writing. In chapter 4, Redding examines James’s analysis of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. James’s perspective is unique, as a Marxist who criticized both socialism and the United States while also recognizing revolutionary potential in U.S. popular culture. Interestingly, James uses his reading of Moby Dick to argue against the “non-aligned critical intellectual, Ishmael” (88) in contrast to the brotherhood of crewmembers striving for universal worker’s rights. The existential intellectual is dangerous as a...