A Nation of Uncommitted, Distracted Dilettantes

I suspect that Ms. Jacoby’s affection for James—and disdain for the modern “social science” that has replaced “the older American tradition of broad education in the humanities and natural sciences”—is a matter most personal. Not an academic historian or a sociologist herself, Ms. Jacoby is instead a journalist-turned-“independent researcher.” Ultimately a patriot, her allegiance seems less to the deistic hyper-rationalism of the nation’s founders than precisely the pragmatism of James and Dewey, broadly conceived. And it’s this expansive, catholic pragmatism—this consideration of a world outside the internecine squabbles of one’s university department—that she consistently finds lacking in the intellectuals complicit in their own marginalization.

If Scopes and Spencer and Bryan were the morning of the culture wars, Ms. Jacoby’s noontime showdown was the anti-communist 1950’s, which cemented the “pointy-head” academic “as an alien organism within the American body politic.” Her argument is again quietly iconoclastic; McCarthy’s inquisitions were barbaric, but they also pumped up the self-esteem of a tiny clique of Old Left New Yorkers who’d spent the 30’s debating Stalin and Trotsky in obscure journals. “[A] crucial factor,” Ms. Jacoby writes, “in the postwar conflation of anti-communism and anti-intellectualism was the retrospective exaggeration by intellectuals themselv
es of their own importance and the importance of their twenty-year-old political and personal feuds.” At some point, it seems, the American intellectual fell in love with the idea of himself as the alien organism among bourgeois rubes.

This leads to the brilliant and problematic centerpiece of The Age of American Unreason, a chapter chronicling the death of the middlebrow as an edifying “alternative to mass popular culture.” Drawing from her own experience as a child of 1950’s Middle America, Ms. Jacoby eulogizes “the culture of effort” in which the Book-of-the-Month Club and the “Great Books of Western Civilization” collection were staples of aspirational suburbia. “The New Yorker,” she reminisces, “was revered in our home as a weekly emissary from the capital of sophistication and excitement.” Middle- and working-class parents, it seems, could still reasonably expect their offspring to gain entry to the world of the intellect by reading broadly.

Of course, the highbrow were already closing ranks: The institutionalization of literary modernism rendered the popular midcentury James Micheners and Irving Stones (Ms. Jacoby’s girlhood favorites) hopelessly gauche, and such nonfiction best sellers as Will Durant’s The Story of Civilization were (with some justice) ridiculed as facile totems by academic historians.

Ms. Jacoby is quite right to reject the easy conclusion, reached by David Brooks and other smarmy conservatives, that the snobbery of highbrow leftist intellectuals ruined mainstream print culture for the rest of us. But there’s a related interpretation tied directly to the “division of intellectual labor”: By the latter half of the 20th century, the march of specialization had enveloped even the formerly amorphous “humanities.” Serious literary scholarship now implies, like the hard sciences, elaborate critical methodologies and fraught theoretical allegiances. Today’s well-read undergraduate experiences the radical disjuncture between intellectual and mainstream life as soon as her books become “texts.” The noble generalist has become the uncommitted dilettante.

Unfortunately, Ms. Jacoby never addresses such issues explicitly; her treatment of the midcentury middlebrow is soon overwhelmed by a deus ex machina (or is it a machina ex deo?): the television. She spends much of her last 100 pages asserting that it was television, and later the personal computer, that forever replaced middlebrow self-improvement with a “culture of distraction.”

This is tiresome technological determinism, of course. (Isn’t Oprah responsible for getting millions of housewives to read Tolstoy?)

Don’t let Ms. Jacoby’s scorn for electronic media distract you from the very serious implications bubbling under the surface of her deceptively radical book. At its most nuanced, The Age of American Unreason asks whether the increasing sophistication of intellectual endeavor comes at too high a price: growing isolation from everyday life and a metastasis of popular unreason—including, somewhat paradoxically, an unthinking faith in credentialed “experts.”

There’s no easy answer here, just a social disintegration still accelerating.


Jonathan Liu is a writer living in Queens. He can be reached at books@observer.com.

A Nation of Uncommitted, Distracted Dilettantes