A few thoughts on why the New York intellectuals under-responded (it’s complicated)

A dear old friend asked me this morning for my opinion on why the so-called “New York intellectuals” under-responded to World War II and to the fate of the Jews in Europe. Here, in part, is how I responded:

Some of them (Trilling, obviously) became literary Anglophiles as a means of avoiding anti-Semitic assumptions and of academic (and theoretical) assimilating. Thus an “over-response” to the “Jewish question” might, they worried, thrown them back into the ethnic mix. The other huge factor for most of these people is Stalinism. The founding of the Partisan Review was of course the turn away from Soviet communism and its attitude toward the arts and its influence on intellectuals in the U.S. – a turn away from that, first toward some other forms of leftism (e.g. Trotskyism for a while, of course — and several other ultra-left or splinter-left groups) and then, eventually, toward anti-communist pro-capitalist New Deal-ish centrism and, for some, later, political but especially cultural conservatism. The turn from communism in the late 30s meant that they were alienated (I mean, within the U.S. — well, New York, really, and Chicago a little) from most actual or practical forms of anti-fascism. And anti-fascist intellectual activity in the U.S. was for a while the only real way to cry out against the situation of the Jews in Europe, especially before 1941 but (unbelievably, to us now) even after that. David Wyman’s The Abandonment of the Jews will give you a really good sense of all this – not of the intellectuals but of Jews in the U.S. generally – all the many, many reasons why most Jews said little, did little or nothing, felt ashamed even about their “bias” toward Jews, felt embarrassment about how activity against fascist persecution of Jews in Europe would make them pigeonholed as fundamentally immigrants and not “American” (especially during the time when FDR’s policy—their hero—was isolationism).

Added a day later, after several more founds of email with my friend:

Well, Wyman’s book will depress and infuriate you. He identifies major areas of inaction and even resistance: 1) Brahmin anti-semitism at all levels of the State Department, which led to murderous bureaucratic delays; 2) individual cowardice and careerism of people who might otherwise have been influential as anti-fascists [that’s what you’re feeling about the NY Intellectuals); 3) Republican isolationism and the electoral “worries” that went along with that powerful force; 4) among New Dealers, a “concern” that the war effort will distract the country from programs set up to aid the recovery (ironic since the war machine was what finally got us out of the Depression!); 5) Roosevelt’s personal ambivalence; 6) the awful infighting among Jewish groups in the U.S. (who of course wanted to be the ones to lead the way); 7) lots of early mistakes in military strategizing & alliance-making.

As for assessing individuals’ inaction and/or ignorance, I tend to judge harshly (as I think is your tendency too). Where the hell were you? Why didn’t you put pressure on politicians or on the State Department or Congress to increase immigration quotas? But such judgments of individuals (as you well know!) require careful study first. Even if there are very detailed biographies available, there are sometimes activities, involvements, desperately sad personal letters, etc., that, if found or discussed, will indicate some serious concern (and in many cases real sympathy for the GIs—often family members and colleagues and neighbors). My dad fought in the war but there’s probably nothing else (other than his Navy ID card) in the way of documentation of his significant fears about the fate of his extended family in Warsaw and his efforts to find out what was happening to them, or of the trauma he experienced toward the end of the war when he finally realized what he and others were fighting for (he was young and enlisted without knowing a lot about the world situation).


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