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73 3 The Scholar and the World Academic Humanists and General Readers in Postwar America Joan Shelley Rubin Two scenarios currently dominate historical accounts of American literary and cultural criticism in the decades immediately following the Second World War. Taking off from the position Irving Howe articulated in his 1954 essay “This Age of Conformity,” the first depicts intellectuals abandoning the adversarial politics and aesthetic experimentation of the prewar period for the shelter and safety of the nation’s expanding universities. In their comfortable circumstances, literary scholars increasingly become devoted practitioners of text-bound New Criticism, a method of analysis that suits their desire to back away from social issues and enables them to serve more easily the large numbers of students flocking to their classrooms. The second story line (running somewhat counter to the first) casts the intellectual as battler against the pernicious influences of mass and middlebrow culture. That familiar tale places in starring roles figures situated both outside and within the academy: for instance , in the former category, Dwight Macdonald and Howe himself; in the latter, the sociologists Paul Lazarsfeld and Ernest Van den Haag.What the two scenarios share is the distance they each postulate between the scholar or critic and the “average intelligent reader.”Academics, relinquishing their concern, to use Howe’s phrase, for “the problem of the quality of our culture,” restrict their discourse to other specialists in their “subject,” while disaffected observers of popular taste follow Howe’s directive to assume a stance of “alienation” from the mainstream.1 Both narratives have been powerful for the scholarly generations that, since the 1960s, have sought to define themselves against their predecessors by affirming their commitment to social change and by embracing artifacts such as movies and romance novels as texts. And both portrayals are right. At the same time the picture of the critic in retreat from the public (one way or another) does not consider the various ways in which certain proponents of the humanities in the United States between 1945 and 1960 actively sought a Joan Shelley Rubin 74 wide constituency for their expertise. In particular, it ignores the challenge some figures within the university mounted to the assumption that conveying general knowledge to popular audiences was incompatible with the role of the academic professional. Before exploring that challenge, it is important to recall the individuals who, in the postwar years, continued to station themselves outside academia as interpreters of the humanities. Such individuals included Lewis Mumford, still an exemplar of the unaffiliated “man of letters,” who commanded a hearing from fellow intellectuals, academics, and sophisticated readers drawn to his trenchant social criticism and his columns in the New Yorker. Despite his aloofness from the university, Mumford engaged in a certain amount of “crossover” activity that signaled his endorsement of academic ventures. From 1955 to 1958, for instance, he was on the editorial board of American Quarterly, the journal of the American Studies Association. His willingness to serve the needs of a scholarly publication intersected with currents in the other direction: a group within the early ASA that wanted to extend the association ’s reach by shedding academic professionalism. Other nonacademic proponents of the humanities sustained their prewar reputations by ministering to a wider swath of the reading public, the middlebrow audience of “average intelligent readers” (overlapping but not coextensive with the middle class) that looked for guidance to institutions that had burgeoned in the two decades before the war. A prime example was Clifton Fadiman. Born in New York City in 1902, Fadiman entered Columbia University in 1920, the year the faculty implemented its General Honors version of the great books curriculum English professor John Erskine had devised before World War I. Under the tutelage of Erskine’s students Mortimer Adler and Mark Van Doren, Fadiman soaked up the “classics” of Western civilization that the General Honors course comprised. Apparently thwarted in his ambition to become a teacher and scholar because Lionel Trilling had secured the one position the Columbia English Department had allocated to a Jew, Fadiman turned to publishing, journalism, and radio instead. In 1944 he joined the Book-of-the-Month Club board, a post he held into the 1990s. Fadiman’s ventures in the immediate postwar era continued to enhance his stature as a guide to the humanities for an audience comprising, in Carolyn Heilbrun’s words, “the intelligent, the curious, the serious, the unponderous.” One of the most visible of these activities was his involvement in...


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