Bright Lights, Big Pity

Is New York City still America’s intellectual hub?

I don’t recall the exact moment that New York City became a part of my cultural consciousness, but for as long as I can remember, it’s existed there as a magical possibility. Growing up in Silicon Valley—where computer chips tend to garner far more excitement than “impractical” things like poetry—the idea of a place in which people gather round the ashtray Saturday nights to discuss Kafka’s lost manuscripts seemed incredible. Sure, that initial perception may have been laughably idealistic. And yet everything I watched, read, or heard about seemed to bolster it: Columbia-based Jewish literary criticism of the ’40s and ’50s, left-wing magazines like “Partisan Review” and “Commentary,” Strand Bookstore’s 18 miles of used and rare books, Beat memoirs of life on the Lower East Side, Woody Allen films like “Annie Hall” and “Manhattan.” Even now, movies like “Synecdoche, New York” tap into the mystique of the creative mind in a way that wouldn’t transfer if they were set elsewhere—Springfield, say, or Baton Rouge.

On deeper examination, that unshakable faith in New York’s cultural supremacy now seems to have had very little to support it. Most of these literary heroes are ghosts of the city’s past; no comparable, coherent intellectual movement or community of thinkers appears to exist in New York today. Publications are under threat, writers working in the city are paid little or nothing for their efforts, and the kind of lavish book-signing bashes that made Fitzgerald an alcoholic haven’t existed for decades. The question ought to be asked: Can New York still claim to be America’s intellectual hub at all?

The late Irving Kristol—intellectual godfather of modern neoconservatism and a pretty sharp cookie—didn’t think so. It’s why, after living in New York all his life, he decided in 1988 to jump ship. While the worlds of visual media, publishing, and finance were still thriving, he said, the “literary” intellectualism of the Trilling-Sontag variety (definition: “a dinner party can become acrimonious over such issues as Freudian analysis”) was extinct, or at least highly endangered. Kristol personally decided to head to Washington, D.C., the nation’s go-to location for public policy. But he argued that, “if you want an animated discussion of ‘large ideas’ about God, human destiny, Western civilization, modern art, the future of democracy, etc., you are better served in Cambridge, Massachusetts, or Chicago’s Hyde Park than in New York.”

Well, we’re here: And perhaps it’s true. The other week, I overheard two suits at 1369 Coffee House in Central frothing over their espressos about linguistics in the Basque region. (“You can’t just dismiss the Ligurian substrate hypothesis out of hand!”) Gentrification aside, the existence of world-class universities draws people unafraid to engage seriously with ideas large and small.

And yet that very university system may be part of the problem. Despite the city’s deep well of potential contributors, over half the pieces in the Nov. 2009 issue of the New York Review of Books are penned by professors, and several of the other writers are “scholars in residence” at colleges scattered across the U.S. The “New York” part of the publication’s title refers, I assume, merely to where it is edited, not to where it probes for material. New York-based careers sustained on writing alone—the path of independent-minded fellows like John Updike, Edmund Wilson, and John O’Hara gutsy enough to demand color pieces from magazine bigwigs and lucky enough to actually get them—have fallen off several levels in probability; many of America’s brightest minds are now holed up in grad programs, grading intro-level Expository Writing papers and picking away at theses on Milton in the hopes that tenure will nab them those same assignments.

Indeed, would-be writers have it particularly tough. One-time Greenwich studios now house upper-middle-class families; bohemian standby Village Voice has been bought out by New Times Media; college interns willing to work unpaid edge out older degree-holding peers insistent on a wage. Many successful journalists break into the business outside the Big Apple—either cub reporting at small-town papers or finding jobs abroad.

So if the “scene” is no longer in New York, where is it? Some argue that other cities like D.C. or Boston provide thriving alternative intellectual loci. (Legend has it that, challenged thusly in a newspaper editorial, one New Yorker fired off the epistolary missile: “May I suggest that the reason Boston is ‘overflowing’ with culture is the shallow vessel in which it is contained?”) Others propose that the very idea of an intellectual nucleus is outdated, with the collective energy of e-mail, blogs, and Twitter heralding a more diffuse power breakdown—in high-school-chemistry-speak, more plum pudding than Bohr model.

Yet NYC still exerts a pull. “I had a dim idea that if I walked the streets of New York by myself all night something of the city’s mystery and magnificence might rub off on to me at last,” wrote Sylvia Plath’s aspiring magazine assistant in “The Bell Jar”; for people passionate about reading and writing, New York is still the place to be. And if the statistics speak the truth, one-fifth of Harvard’s graduating seniors will end up there. They’ll have no trouble finding culture, from jazz bars to independent film screenings to a booming underground hip-hop scene. But the deeper theorizing about what that art means and why it matters is probably being done at places like Harvard—the place where they’ve come from, not the place they are now.

Jessica A. Sequeira ’11, a Crimson associate editorial editor, is a social studies concentrator in Winthrop House.