- Gaping at a ShoeIntellectualism in American Literature
Despite the proliferation of colleges and universities in our country, many Americans regard intellectualism with skepticism and even antagonism. There is something undesirable about intellectualism: the intellectual life is often accused of reifying insular, specialized notions in a way that cuts it off from the flow of everyday experience. Writers, who typically live on the fringes of American life, pushed there in part by society and economics, located there in part by choice, frequently agree with the larger cultural perceptions. In contrast to the numerous intellectual characters found in European Modernism— Stephen Daedalus and Mr. Ramsay, to name two—American novels tend to focus on less cerebral characters. Perhaps the best-known intellectual in American modernism, Quentin Compson, is fumbling, anxious and suicidal. [End Page 160] One can suggest that antagonism toward the life of the mind in American culture contributed to the desire of modernist writers such as Gertrude Stein, T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound to live abroad. Following these modernists, the postmodernists were unapologetically intellectual, hybridizing fiction and poststructuralist theory to produce works that were primarily about the idea of making literary works. This line of intellectualism faded in the late 1970s and early ’80s as the postmodernists were followed by the so-called minimalists, who eschewed overt intellectualism for a more direct, democratic literary style. This tradition has persisted into contemporary writing, with a few notable examples, first among them the recently deceased David Foster Wallace. Our literature has drifted so far from the high-concept writing of the postmodernists that a writer of straightforward realism, Jonathan Franzen, feels himself alienated in his attempts to engage larger intellectual issues in his novels.
Now, after decades of writers evading the intellect, there has been a recent glut of books that directly engage such characters and issues. What accounts for this new trend in American fiction? One useful way of considering this shift is to compare the tension between intellectualism and fiction with the larger divide between literature and the academy (as Charlie Green did in his review “The Droves of Academe,” published in the previous issue of TMR). There are several notable differences between the intellectual and the academic novel, principally that the former attempts to deal directly with the larger cultural and political concerns of the time. This is not to say that academics don’t concern themselves with such things, but in academic novels, attempts to engage the world beyond the ivory tower are satirized as foolhardy, whereas in works about intellectuals, there is greater hope that such a connection might be made.
Perhaps the most significant difference between academic and intellectual novels is the desire of the latter to explore the intersections of complex thought with life in the world and life in the body. Ernest Hemingway is a writer who evidences the tensions that arise in this pursuit. As he developed his precise style through the intellectual traditions of Modernism, with particular help and inspiration from the cerebral Gertrude Stein, he constructed a persona that eschewed intellectualism, preferring to be known for his love of hunting, bullfighting, boxing, womanizing and boozing. Though Hemingway may be currently out of critical favor, the notion of the artist as alive and vital in a way intellectuals are not persists. Raymond Carver, a writer in the Hemingway tradition, wrote, “Writers don’t need . . . to be the smartest fellows on the block. At the risk of appearing foolish, a writer sometimes needs to be able to just [End Page 161] stand and gape at this or that thing—a sunset or an old shoe—in absolute and simple amazement.” If we don’t want to go so far as Carver, we might consider how Anton Chekov, one of Carver’s heroes, put...