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American Literary History 12.4 (2000) 794-801
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Intellectuals and Democracy:
Academics in Paradise/Emerson's Vocation
If the ongoing crisis of the American intellectual (asymptotically connected to the supposedly evermore angels-on-the-pinhead-obsessed humanities professor) has become a staple of our fin de siècle diet, it is moderately useful to know that writers, scholars, professors, and pundits have been masticating the same tough chew (with the dish's name occasionally changed to reflect the prevailing lexicon) for nearly as long as Old Glory has waved. Not surprisingly, a long, relatively inclusive American conversation on the subject indicates that democratic publics and purveyors of elite knowledge are not and, virtually by definition, should not be easily mated. 1 However, how knowledge elites sympathetic to the masses and democratic publics suspicious of elites have flirted and courted across contingent boundaries is a subject little explored by contemporary scholars, who have in recent times been adverse to considering cross-class relations, often in the name of proving subaltern agency by denying elite influence.
Given the (always useful) self-flagellation by professors self-imprisoned since the halcyon days of the 1960s in the iron cage of academic professionalism, one would never know that we are living in a golden age of intellectual discourse, scholarly activism, and public interest in academics' perspectives. Our major problem is not the death of the public intellectual and the engaged academic. Our problems are of a more internal, professional sort. We do not much openly debate which academic interests and intellectual formulations could/should have any interest to "The Public" or, more likely, some specific public segment. Nor do we much consider how such interests and formulations can be made attractive and accessible enough for the targeted citizenry to make use of them while at the same time achieve sufficient [End Page 794] merit points inside the academic beltway for the publicly engaged, academic intellectual. And finally, an academic generation well into middle age, whose members were raised always to modify intellectual with left-wing, might need to reconsider the politics of naming in the age of the global marketplace.
A slew of new and relatively new scholarly books in a humanities vein have taken up this challenge--either as players or as commentators--in part as a response to the late 1980s outpouring of death notices in tracts like Russell Jacoby's The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe (1987) and Bernard Henri Levy's Eloge des Intellectuels (1987). In the more current scholarly cycle, authors have taken on an academic, rather than a polemical, tone. Smaller university presses, rather than trade publishers, have begun to list books that speak to the location and meaning of intellectual and scholarly productions in a democracy. A contemporary anxiety has become a historiographical node and a critical gateway to scholarly disputation. Scholars will find this interrogation a useful form of elevated self-scrutiny, a means for openly debating academics' forms and intellectuals' functions.
Not surprisingly, humanities professors in search of models, mentors, and missteps have moved well back from the more totemic figures of recent debate: the so-called public intellectuals of the post-World War II golden era. Ralph Waldo Emerson, perhaps the first celebrity American intellectual, has (re)gained ground as a troubling but useful touchstone in a discussion that too often bypassed historical reconstruction in service to misty memory. Blessed with the ability and driven by the desire to proffer banalities in ministerial garb and profundities in lay dress, Emerson delivers messages of hope mixed with disquieting riddles about the social space the American scholar may inhabit. Emerson spoke out often on the odd relation between...