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  • The Opening of the American Mind
  • William Chaloupka (bio)
Review of Dave Eggers. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (Simon & Schuster)

Neoconservative public intellectuals date their movement s emergence from “the Reagan years.” But I have long preferred a more precise origin date. It was 1987, almost at the end of the Reagan administration, when Allan Bloom published The Closing of the American Mind/How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students. Reagan was already gone by then, in effect, ravaged by Iran-Contra and obvious mental weariness, at least. The Democrats had already retaken the Senate, in 1986. The first good Reagan book, by Garry Wills, had already been published.

Bloom’s book launched neoconservatism in the sense that he showed that the stodgy, ideological complaint could move units at the bookstore. Nobody could have anticipated the sales racked up by Bloom’s cranky rant. (Everyone has a favorite Bloom line. Mine: “The latest enemy of the vitality of the classic texts is feminism.”[1]) Before Closing, Bloom was not much known outside academe. The book’s sales confirmed that there was a market for an attack on the universities. The conservative movement, by then a well-funded and institutionalized behemoth, immediately got the message. A series of commercial books, often bulk purchased to ensure “best seller list” publicity, followed. The descent to Dinesh D’Souza, et al, was then pretty much guaranteed.

In truth, given the grim realities of commercial book publishing, one doesn’t need to move all that many units to move mountains, especially if one adds to the bright light of sales numbers an infrastructure that can promote and extend a book’s — and an idea’s — shelf life. The commercial bookstore simply provided one more arena in which the right could launch an attack they had long wanted. There was a point of emergence for the conservative assault on American universities, and Closing was it.

Since the beginning of the Clinton administration, I’ve been wondering where the corresponding book would come from. True, the differences between Clinton and Reagan are enormous. Left intellectuals mostly denounce Clinton and none of them will ever cite him as beginning any kind of intellectual movement. And there is no parallel on the left to the new right’s extraordinary institutional infrastructure, from the Wall Street Journal to Heritage and Enterprise. If there were a left Bloom, who’d buy the books? But, nonetheless, an eight-year presidency is a dramatic unit of historical time, and even if Clinton did not presume to lead an intellectual movement, there were many authors who wanted to respond to the near-hegemonic control that public conservative intellectuals seemed to hold.

Of course, there has been a fine tradition of influential books by left-oriented public intellectuals in this country. To cite just one, Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble,[2] published just three years after Closing, has had extraordinary influence on a generation of students and scholars, positively addressing political puzzles that had plagued American feminism, while also raising the level of intellectual debate and scholarship, something Bloom could never claim for his rant. Still, even though there is no way that it is as difficult a read as has been alleged, Gender Trouble was not written as a public intellectual event in the way Closing obviously was.

Neither, it must be said early on, was Dave Eggers’ recent book, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, which became a breakthrough best seller earlier this year. The book, abbreviated as A.H.W.O.S.G. at the top of the manuscript’s pages, is a memoir of what happens after Eggers’ parents both die of cancer, within weeks of each other, in suburban Chicago. Eggers (then 21, now 29) became guardian for his brother Toph, then eight. They move to Berkeley, forming a “tag team” family with sister Beth, a law student, and brother Bill.

The book has stirred big dust. There’s the Washington Post, reporting that there has been “so much buzz about his book, including a spread in Time, an excerpt in the New Yorker and a glowing review from the New York...

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