This takedown of the intellectual elite still has relevance nearly thirty years after publication. Jacoby argues that the baby boomer generation of intellect fled to the hills, nestled into university teaching posts, began writing only for each other and ignoring the common reader. “If the intellectuals from the 1950s tower over the cultural landscape in the 1980s, this is not because the towers are so high but because the landscape is so flat.” Journalism provided a haven for some of the minds/writers, but even in 1987 the future of newspapers was uncertain.
Once these brains became part of the bureaucracy of a university, the fresh thinking, anti-conformist thoughts and writings withered up and died. The loss of living space that nurtured the bohemians also contributed to the decline, as Greenwich Village and North Beach were converted into boutiques and townhouses. “Even the isolated bookstore or coffeehouse has closed, to reopen as a fitness center or a fern and wine bar.” (Ouch. Jacoby is probably not pleased with the way things progressed for the next thirty years.)
Gentrification eliminated the cheap rents, squeezing out marginal intellectuals and artists. Areas that might have served as bohemian centers succumbed to real estate developers almost as soon as they emerged… cities boasted small, sometimes tiny and ephemeral, bohemian sections that served as way stations for young intellectuals. These can be easily denigrated. Nevertheless, the aerial view of society should not forget that in the lives of intellectuals – the lives of all individuals – it just takes several friends to make the difference; and these friends can meet in a coffeehouse in St. Louis or a bookstore in Seattle. Bohemia can be this small, this vital.
I love the suggestion that we can individually create our bohemias. It’s the only puff of hope in this whole piece. Of course, gentrification is the new urban blight, of which the pace has only quickened in the interval since publication. But if we can find one another, and have the space to talk freely and encourage thought… I swoon at the possibility. Fellow thinkers, get off the internet!
The crux of his argument:
Nor was the possibility of intellectual life outside the university enticing for post-1940 intellectuals. Writing as a freelancer made as much sense as homesteading: the open space did not exist. The shrinking cultural space – acknowledged or unacknowledged – herded younger intellectuals into the university. If academic salaries and security were the carrot, the decline of traditional intellectual life was the stick.
To live from selling book reviews and articles ceased to be difficult; it became impossible. The number of serious magazines and newspapers steadily declined (and the pay scale of those remaining hardly increased), leaving few avenues; the signs all pointed toward the colleges. If the western frontier closed in the 1890s, the cultural frontier closed in the 1950s. After this decade intellectuals joined established institutions or retrained.
The last half of the book explores the impact of the New Left infiltrating universities, radical professors finding a safe haven that then erodes their commitment to proclamation. The final chapter relentlessly fillets the work of a few intellectuals characteristic of this lost generation, Richard Sennett and Marshall Berman, “drab, pretentious, sloppy,” “diffuse, vague, uncritical… few pages attain clarity, few seem crafted.” Jacoby proceeds to eviscerate them further, dissecting their flaccid writing in a style very loudlatinlaughing-esque.