In the summer of 1952, Hilton Kramer’s life took a fateful turn. While attending a program known as the “School of Letters” in Indiana—where he had gone to study Dante with Allen Tate and Shakespeare with Francis Fergusson—the young Kramer met Philip Rahv, one of the founding editors of Partisan Review. Partisan Review was then in its heyday as one of America’s leading journals of politics and culture, decidedly left of center and yet consistently anti-Stalinist. A few months after meeting Rahv, Kramer submitted an essay to Partisan Review on the contemporary art scene, and to Kramer’s amazement, Rahv accepted it. As Kramer recalls in one of the essays collected in The Twilight of the Intellectuals, it was his debut as an art critic, “and I quickly discovered that, owing to the intellectual authority which PR then enjoyed, publication in the magazine was in itself a ticket to a career I wasn’t yet certain that I wanted.” But on the basis of this article, offers poured in for him to write for other publications, and Kramer did embrace the life of an intellectual. It is a role that he continues to ply, with verve and distinction, to the present day.
If Kramer experienced any sort of honeymoon in his early days as a cultural critic, however, it didn’t last long. As Kramer progressed through the 1950s and 1960s, he confronted an increasingly painful dichotomy: on the one hand, his brilliance as an art critic propelled him toward the center of the cultural establishment (he eventually became chief art critic of the New York Times); on the other hand, his political and moral concerns estranged him from the growing radicalism of the intellectual class that controlled the establishment. Kramer was repulsed by the increasing number of leftists who had become apologists for the Soviet Union, which he saw as a clear and present danger to the United States and to free societies around the world. At the same time, he was among the first to recognize that a larger “cultural revolution” (headquartered in the academy) was taking shape, replacing the tradition of Western humanism with the reductivist ideologies of race, class, and gender.
And so Kramer joined a group of distinguished defectors from liberal ranks who called themselves neoconservatives. In 1981 he founded the New Criterion, a journal that reflects both his passion for art and aesthetic standards and his skills as a chronicler of the ideological follies so abundant in the academy and other centers of cultural power today.
The essays gathered in The Twilight of the Intellectuals, most of which were first published in the New Criterion, constitute a mordant retrospective on what Julien Benda early in the twentieth century called la trahison des clercs—the treason committed by modern intellectuals (who were mostly middle-class writers, scholars, and artists) against the principles and institutions that had nurtured them. The Twilight of the Intellectuals, Kramer adds, “is also, perforce, about the impact of the 1930s and the 1960s—the two decades in which the political left achieved its greatest intellectual influence in this country.”
The book is divided into five sections, some of which emphasize “politics” while others focus more on “culture.” Among the intellectuals treated are the Bloomsbury Group, George Orwell, Edmund Wilson, Jean-Paul Sartre, Irving Howe, Lincoln Kirstein, and Meyer Schapiro. Several pieces revolve around the Hiss-Chambers case, and the final section reflects on the fate of “liberal anti-communism” as found in the Congress for Cultural Freedom, the New Republic, and Partisan Review.
Since this is territory that has been well covered in recent years—in biographies of the principal players, as well as in numerous volumes of history and political analysis—the question naturally arises: what does Kramer have to say that sheds new light on the subject? A crude answer to that question would be: not much. Despite the comprehensive tone of its subtitle, The Twilight of the Intellectuals comprises a series of set pieces rather than a systematic survey. While some of the essays are based on first-hand knowledge and original research, most are not. And, as is the case with most essay collections, this book has the inevitable redundancies and longueurs.
One nonetheless finds many pleasures and insights in the book. On reading several of these pieces consecutively, it becomes clear that Kramer is not so much a philosopher as a historian and moralist. Rather than probing the theories behind modern ideology, he focuses on the inconsistencies, obfuscations, and outright lies that leftist intellectuals employed in order to promote the chimera of a socialist future. Kramer’s method is not unlike that used by Paul Johnson in his book Intellectuals : he measures the ideas and rhetoric espoused by these self-appointed experts against their own behavior, both public and private.
Kramer has a gift for writing about the history of ideas. Nearly every essay in this collection is a model of narrative clarity, economy, and brio. He has an unerring sense of when to punctuate his narratives with epigrams that deftly encapsulate his arguments. He describes Dwight Macdonald’s political writings as “a kind of free fall where the gravity of history was suspended in favor of sheer weightlessness.” Of Mary McCarthy’s opportunistic reversals of opinion, he writes that she “had become . . . a political pen for all seasons.” Susan Sontag “was admired not only for what she said but for the pain, shock, and disarray she caused in saying it.” And again: “It was not that Sontag was ever prepared to abandon her stand on aestheticism. It was only that she did not want it to cost her anything.” Contrasting the styles of two former New Republic editors, Kramer writes: “While [Hendrik] Hertzberg’s liberalism wore a frown of scornful disapproval, [Michael] Kinsley’s displayed the self-satisfied smile of the perennial undergraduate scoring points against his elders.”
Tart as some of these epigrams may be, they rarely come across as cheap shots. All the same, many of these essays have the air of someone taking a sledgehammer to a swarm of gnats. So many of the figures Kramer writes about seem, in the space of just a generation or two, to be lightweights. Do Lillian Hellman, Nora Sayre, Dwight Macdonald, Cyril Connolly, or Kenneth Tynan still merit impassioned critiques? Granted, it is easy to say this in hindsight, outside the heat of battle. But Kramer himself wrote nearly all of these essays in hindsight—the earliest essay in the collection dates from 1980, but most were written in the 1990s. Perhaps, in a century dominated by lies and myths, there is a strong moral imperative to set the record straight, but in many of these essays there remains a somewhat unsettling disparity be tween authorial passion and subject matter that is not far removed from “weightlessness.”
When Kramer treats writers whose work is likely to endure, the match seems to be played by antagonists who are closer to the same weight class—and the results are more edifying. Whether he is championing the flawed but courageous Whittaker Chambers, extricating the true George Orwell from the misreadings of his leftist interpreters, or estimating the achievements of Edmund Wilson, Sidney Hook, and Clement Greenberg, Kramer manifests the judiciousness and enthusiasm that lie at the heart of all good criticism.
But it is when he turns to matters of art and aesthetics that Kramer’s strengths as a thinker come most fully into play. Though a host of his ideological enemies have branded him a “reactionary elitist” for his belief in objective aesthetic standards, Kramer is no Philistine. After half a century, he retains a qualified but genuine love for the achievements of modernism in art. For all of its contradictions and dead ends, modernism was a movement that cared about beauty, meaning, and the prophetic calling of the artist.
Kramer brings these commitments to bear on Susan Sontag in one of the best essays in the collection. In an unsparing dissection of Sontag’s famous 1964 essay “On Camp,” Kramer sees this “pasionaria of style” to be the herald of our postmodern malaise. Sontag’s celebration of camp, with its fundamentally amoral vision (“the victory of ‘style’ over ‘content,’ ‘aesthetics’ over ‘morality,’ ‘irony’ over ‘tragedy’”), has gone hand-in-hand with the triumph of pop culture, the decay of standards, and the sort of blithe nihilism that dominates much of academia today.
Unfortunately, politics tends to dominate culture in The Twilight of the Intellectuals. Kramer himself provides a clue as to why this might be in his consideration of the career of Edmund Wilson. Kramer rejects the label of “public intellectual” that has been pinned on Wilson, because it subordinates “literature to the interests of politics and the adumbration of social policy.” Instead, he argues that Wilson should be remembered as “a man of letters.” “The world in which [Wilson] prospered has passed into history, and what has supplanted it is a degraded, highly politicized literary culture guaranteed to misconstrue his accomplishment and misrepresent its virtues.”
There is a certain poignancy to this comment, because it can be argued that Kramer’s lifelong battle against politicized intellectuals has shaped—and therefore limited—his own career. Kramer’s courage, integrity, and honesty are beyond reproach; he has fought the good fight. But it is hard not to wonder what might have happened if he had stuck with Tate and Fergusson, and chosen to be more the man of letters and less the public intellectual. To say this is not to denigrate Kramer’s accomplishments, but to suggest that he—and many of his generation—have been caught up in something akin to a tragic conflict. Culture wars, no less than shooting wars, have their casualties. Perhaps one type of casualty is that the longer you fight an enemy, the more you come to resemble him.
But unlike the ideologues he continues to battle—those who have become, oxymoronically speaking, perpetual revolutionaries—it seems clear that Kramer still hopes for a time when men and women of letters can flourish once more. If Hilton Kramer’s labors as a conservative intellectual have contributed toward that end, we can all be grateful for his witness.
Gregory Wolfe is the publisher and editor of Image: A Journal of the Arts and Religion and the director of the Center for Religious Humanism.