As the book seller told me when he took my dollar, "Twenty-five big names at four cents apiece is a good buy." There are better reasons for purchasing America and the Intellectuals, however. Though highly compressed, the contributions to the symposium are eloquent and often stimulating rambles through American culture.
The essays first appeared under the elastic title, Our Country and Our Culture, in three issues of the Partisan Review last year. More apt, the new title recognizes the two foci of the symposium: the state of American society, facing the threats of mass culture and a pressure for conformity; and the dilemma of the American intellectual, seeking a place for himself in a cultural context he can no longer flee.
In an editorial statement, the Review prescribes the lines of the symposium. The editors cite the tradition of the intellectual's rejection of America the expatriates who felt with Henry James that "the soil of American perception is a poor, little, barren, artificial deposit" and those who remained at home to rail against the "booboisic" and capitalist reaction. All this has changed, however, the editors declare. "The American artist and intellectual no longer feels 'disinherited' . . . most writers . . . want to be very much a part of American life." Essential to this change, the Review decides, is the recognition of America as the defender of Western civilization.
The Review seems to imply, however, that simply because of the new power balance, American culture is far more satisfying to the intellectual. This does not necessarily follow.
From the contributors to the symposium, whether Reinhold Niebuhr or Norman Mailer, the reader receives an impression of profound dissatisfaction with the American cultural context. The impression is seldom one of complete disillusionment, though bitter essays by Mailer and Irving Howe come close, but in general a picture of hopes very far from fulfillment.
While the totalitarian threat emphasizes the worth of American political values, the contributors fear the demand for uncritical affirmation of American society and culture. Essential to creative activity is freedom to criticize without fear, the right to love one aspect of America and to loath another. Such criticism represents a more productive commitment to a society than unquestioning acceptance. For creative achievement, the lingering sense of intellectual alienation is a necessity.
The symposium, however, is not simply a wail from intellectuals who feel the constrictions of American culture. Approaching the problem less subjectively, social scientists like Margaret Mead and David Riesman present a more balanced view of American society, and several contributors, notably Kronenberger and Sidney Hook turn their fire on the posturings of the intellectuals rather than on the inadequacies of American culture. Kronenberger asks whether "our literary intellectuals are not more aloof than alienated . . . we might wish for a few children who should cry out from time to time: 'But the Emperor has no clothes on!'"
When Hook declares that our cultural life "suffers more from mediocrity than from frustration," he points up the real problem--to find a well spring of creative vitality. In the tensions of a nation not yet matured but propelled to leadership, the symposium suggests that such a source may be found.